With a string of powder-white beaches and more sunny days than anywhere else on Mauritius, the north is the most touristed area on the island. It’s divided into two districts, Pamplemousses in the west and Rivière du Rempart in the east. The main action is along the northwest coast, centred around the lively resort of Grand Baie, a brandy-glass shaped, sheltered bay with an emerald lagoon and the island’s best nightlife. Around fifty restaurants now line the 2km coastal road north to Pereybère, once a simple fishing village, while the villages of Trou aux Biches and Mont Choisy to the south have also seen their fair share of development. Tourism swiftly comes to a halt around Cap Malheureux, where the swimming beaches run out. The northeast coast is less developed, with bustling towns such as Goodlands and tranquil rocky shores from where you can admire the pristine northern islands. Inland, a sparsely populated area is sprinkled with one-street towns such as Pamplemousses, home to a world-class botanical garden and an interactive museum, L’Aventure du Sucre.
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At the island’s most northerly tip, the peaceful fishing village of CAP MALHEUREUX, the Cape of Misfortune, is so-called because its history of shipwrecks before the British navy landed here in 1810. It’s a world away from Grand Baie, with attractions including the red-roofed church of Notre Dame Auxiliatrice, from where there are lovely views over the northern islands, and the monument to the shipwreck of Le Saint Géran near the village of Poudre d’Or, which inspired the legend of Paul and Virginie.
Six uninhabited islands lie off the northern coast of Mauritius, four of which can be visited. Two or three are typically visited on a day-long catamaran cruise, stopping for snorkelling and a BBQ or picnic lunch, or alternatively by speedboat or pirogue.
The nearest and most distinctive island is the wedge-shaped Coin de Mire (Gunners Quoin), just 4km offshore. Named after the “quoin” or wedge used under a cannon, it’s a nature reserve home to the graceful white-tailed pailles-en-queue. Catamaran excursions typically cruise past for the view, but a pirogue or speed boat can take you to the north shore for a 1hr 30min return walk along a spectacular path through rugged bushland. A 1hr 30min sail north of Cap Malheureux, Îlot Gabriel (Gabriel Island) is the most popular northern island playground. A tiny, flat, sand cay with vegetation, its crystal-clear water and pristine coral garden are ideal for snorkelling while unspoiled white-sand beaches and the rich birdlife can be appreciated from a well-marked 45min trail around the island. Neighbouring Île Plate (Flat Island) is the largest of the northern islands with spectacular beaches. Its nineteenth-century working lighthouse can be reached on a 1hr 30min return walk or you can blow the budget at Governor’s House restaurant, run by 20°Sud hotel.
To the northeast, the mangrove-fringed Île d’Ambre (Amber Island) can be reached on exclusive kayak or trekking excursions. Named after the ambergris once found there, it is where Le Saint Géran was shipwrecked in 1744, giving birth to the legend of Paul and Virginie.
The pretty Roman Catholic church of Notre Dame Auxiliatrice is one of Mauritius’s most photographed sites. It’s set in an idyllic spot beside the sea and offers spectacular views over Coin de Mire and the northern islands, with pirogues bobbing in the water in-between.
Reached on the M2 highway straight from the airport, GRAND BAIE is the island’s tourism capital with the greatest concentration of beaches and excursions – from parasailing and kayaking and cycling to caving – along with plentiful accommodation, boutiques, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Once a simple fishing village on a sheltered emerald bay, this bustling resort is now nicknamed “Le Trop” for its profusion of luxury yachts, shopping complexes and après-sol entertainment.
On the left arm of the bay, you can explore the sleepy peninsula of Pointe aux Canonniers, or Gunner’s Point, nicknamed De Vuyle Hoek (Filthy Corner) by the Dutch after so many ships sank on its treacherous reefs. To the north, Grand Baie threatens to spill over into the quieter, smaller village of Pereybère, which has the most popular public beach in the area; numerous restaurants line the short stretch of coastal road connecting the two.
Arguably the prettiest fishing village in the north, GRAND GAUBE has a decent public beach, good collection of restaurants and lovely surrounds. The typical Indian village of Goodlands, bustling with bargain boutiques and markets, and one of the best places to see the traditional Tamil festival of Cavadee, lies just inland.
The north coast has the greatest concentration of beaches in the country, ranging from powder-white sandy swimming beaches to wild, rocky shores. Public beaches can get crowded and busy with boat traffic at the weekend, but during the week you can easily find a lovely stretch to spread out your picnic blanket.
Hotels may line Trou aux Biches but it is open to everyone, and one of the best swimming beaches on the island, with good snorkelling. Tucked away at its northern end is the white sand of Mont Choisy, which at nearly 2km is the longest and most beautiful public beach in the north; the sandy bottom makes it an excellent swimming beach and it’s a top spot for waterskiing and wakeboarding. Grand Baie Beach itself is famed for its emerald waters, but as it’s crowded with boats, it’s better for views than swimming. A couple of kilometres north, the white-sand cove of Pereybère is one of the most popular beaches with both visitors and locals – the protected swimming area means it’s safe for families and there’s a small beachside restaurant and a few snack stalls at weekends, as well as sunloungers for rent. Small but sweet, nearby La Cuvette is the north’s prettiest swimming cove. To get away from the crowds, head for Anse la Raie, a narrow strip of white sand on a protected bay which, although a bit shallow for swimming, overlooks filao islands in the bay; or take the steps down to the sea at the wild Bain Boeuf, one of the best places to take in the views in peace.
The small, sleepy one-street town of PAMPLEMOUSSES got its name from the grapefruit-like trees introduced by the Dutch, and houses one of the most visited sites in Mauritius, the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Gardens. The excellent L’Aventure du Sucre museum is also interesting, covering Mauritius’s multiculturalism via a journey through the three-hundred-year history of sugar, while the beautifully restored Château Labourdonnais and its extensive orchards is also worth seeking out.
Known as Pamplemousses Gardens to the locals, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Gardens are the third-oldest botanical gardens in the world, begun in 1729, as governor Mahé de Labourdonnais’ private vegetable garden. They were then taken over by administrator and naturalist Pierre Poivre in 1770 who was employed to seize the spice trade from the Dutch. He planted the gardens with spice trees such as camphor and clove, and ornamental trees shipped from the colonies. Today, the 60 acres are now home to five hundred different indigenous and exotic species, including over eighty species of palm, such as the unusual Talipot palm from Sri Lanka which blooms once every thirty to one hundred years and then dies; pick up a useful guide from the entrance to find your way around the shady tree-lined avenues.
Romantics might also like to track down the “grave” of Paul and Virginie, while deer and giant Aldabra tortoises in an enclosure will keep children happy. The garden’s stunning centrepiece is a pond with floating giant Amazon lilies opposite a bust of Mahé de Labourdonnais; his reconstructed colonial mansion, Château Mon Plaisir, oversees the gardens and aches to be renovated.
Built in 1758, the stunning, colonnaded Creole mansion of Château Labourdonnais was modelled on Versailles, with a tree-lined avenue and fountains, and only opened to the public in 2010. The garden has the largest banyan tree on the island, planted by Charles Telfair, but it’s most famous for its 150-year-old orchards that once supplied the island with fruit and where over fifty different types of mango alone are still grown. The 45-minute tour includes a nip of the excellent artisanal rum and fruit jellies produced here, and the gourmet restaurant, Le Table de Château, is well worth a lunch stop.
The excellent, interactive L’Aventure du Sucre museum in the old Beau Plan sugar factory uses stories, art, documentaries and games to bring the island’s history alive, following the story of its sugar industry and its impact on everything from the island’s economy to its population. The 2hr 30min guided tour takes you through the production process, from chopping the sugar cane to exploring a real-life sugar barge – and includes a rum tasting at the end.
“Apparently, there has been only one prominent event in the history of Mauritius, and that one didn’t happen.” Mark Twain
The sinking of Le Saint Géran off Île d’Ambre in August 1744 and loss of two hundred lives inspired young French writer Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre (1737–1814) to write the romantic novella Voyage à l’île de France. Set against the idyllic tropical scenery of Mauritius, where Bernadin spent two years as a military engineer, it’s the story of childhood sweethearts, Paul and Virginie, whose plans to marry are cut short by tragic events. A ship carrying Virginie flounders on the reef during a stormy night, and although Paul swims out to save her, modesty prevents her from removing her heavy clothes to swim ashore; Virginie drowns and Paul dies of a broken heart.
Today you can visit Paul and Virginie’s “tomb” in Pamplemousses Gardens, discover pieces recovered from the Le Saint Géran on display in the National History Museum in Mahébourg and see an evocative sculpture of the lovers entwined by Prosper d’Epinay at the Blue Penny Museum in Port Louis. The book is available in English as Journey to Mauritius and can be found in bookshops island-wide.
The splendid white-sand beach at TROU AUX BICHES is one of the best on the island, and although busy with boats at weekends, it’s a good spot for snorkelling. It blends to the north with Mont Choisy, the longest and most beautiful beach in the area. Both share the same origins, fishing villages which grew into resorts due to their fabulous beaches, but lack the crowds and commercialization of nearby Grand Baie. Inland, the town of TRIOLET is home to the island’s largest Hindu temple, worth a stop just to take in the atmosphere; shops on the main street sell small, painted Hindu statues which make original and inexpensive souvenirs.
A wooden tiger guards the entrance to Maheswarnath Temple, the largest Hindu temple in Mauritius. As it was built in the nineteenth century, it’s bone white, a contrast to the lurid pinks and oranges of many modern temples. You can spot a few traditional paintings and designs, including stone carvings of a bull and a horse. There is usually someone on-site to show you around in return for a donation.
Sadly the giant turtles that earned this protected marine park the name Baie aux Tortues, TURTLE BAY, in the seventeenth century have long gone, but it’s a pretty and tranquil spot. Surrounded by plains of sugar cane, the white-sand beaches have been claimed by a cluster of luxury hotels and remain close enough to Port Louis for lovely views of the Moka Mountains. A couple of kilometres north, you’ll find sleepy fishing villages, slips of white sand and the interesting Mauritius Aquarium at Pointe aux Piments, named after the chilli bushes which used to grow here.
A visit to see Mauritius Aquarium’s 150 species of exotic fish is ideal preparation for diving or snorkelling. Children are engaged with questions on the walls and a touch-pool, but the big draw is an open water tank with turtles, giant moray eels and reef sharks – try and time a visit for feeding time. There’s also a café with free wi-fi and small shop selling fishy souvenirs in the garden.