"An enchanting and unspoiled island" Gerald Durrell
Named after the Portuguese navigator Don Diego Rodriguez who discovered it in 1598, the small self-governing island dependency of Rodrigues lies 560km to Mauritius’s northeast. The island is just 17.5km long and 8km wide, with an 80km-long coastline sheltering around twenty secluded beaches. Rustic simplicity and a laidback Creole charm are its hallmark, and visitors to Mauritius’s sleepy sister, nicknamed “Cinderella of the Mascareignes”, invariably return misty-eyed. The pace may be as slow as the tortoises that once covered the island – Rodrigues is often referred to as a “Mauritius of fifty years ago” – but there’s a surprising amount to do. Although the island’s main attractions can be covered in three days, you could easily spend a week here.
With the second highest number of endemic island species in the world (after Ascension Island), Rodrigues is a natural destination for ecotourism and in the island’s centre a network of eco-trails and cycle routes crisscross the hills. Offshore, trips run to several small islands, including Île aux Cocos, where noddys and terns bob on branches in the breeze. The island has a great network of guesthouses and tables d’hôtes, but there are no big hotels, motorized watersports, billboards or shopping malls, and just two discos island-wide. Port Mathurin, on the north coast, is Rodrigues’ capital and only town, with a centre just seven streets wide, while the beautiful east coast beats Mauritius hands-down for snorkelling, diving and deep-sea fishing.
A main road leads from Sir Gaetan Duval Airport at Plaine Corail along the island’s centre to Mont Lubin before branching off into different directions. Visitors are lured to the hilly east mainly for its coastline, the most celebrated on Rodrigues, which has almost all the coastal beauty spots, the best swimming beaches and watersports including kitesurfing, deep-sea fishing and diving. In the centre there are opportunities for ecotourism and adventure among the island’s hills, while the west holds Rodrigues’ premier eco-attraction, François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve. As there’s no coastal road in the west or east, however, note that many journeys involve going back to the centre and out again.
The island’s verdant centre is dotted with smallholdings producing maize, free-range chickens, honey and the red-hot chillies for which Rodrigues is famed. Views along the ravines radiating to the coast from the central mountain ridge reveal a spectacular seascape a myriad hues of blue, while the summit of Mount Limon (398m), Rodrigues’ highest peak a fifteen-minute climb from the road, offers 360-degree island panoramas. Attractions in the mountains nearby include Mauritian Wildlife’s newest eco-venture at Grand Montagne, the island’s only botanic garden and the highest zipline in the Indian Ocean.
The wide stretch of white sand at Pointe Coton is generally thought of as the most beautiful beach on the island, while for snorkellers “the aquarium” offshore from the neighbouring fishing village of St François – a channel lined with coral and teeming with fish – is undoubtedly a highlight. There was no road, no phone and no TV at St François when the first guesthouse opened here 25 years ago, and the tiny settlement remains sleepy despite being the east’s tourism hub. The palm-fringed stretch of white sand at Anse Ally, to the north of the village, is also home to the new design hotel Tekoma – an opening that cements the area’s hip reputation. The main reason for St François’ popularity, however, is that it’s within walking distance of the gem in Rodrigues’ crown, Trou d’Argent, “Money Hole”. This wild cove where pirates once landed was recently named among the thirty best-preserved beaches worldwide.
Of the roads winding down through valleys to southeastern coastal settlements, the road to Mourouk has the most magnificent views of the lagoon and islands. The village itself may be small, but as the island’s kitesurfing centre, has a big reputation. Port Sud Est, a tiny village with one-room shops, lies nearby. Another dizzying road snakes down to off-the-beaten-track Graviers, start point for the island’s best-known coastal walk – look out for famous local fisherman Tonio cooking up a beachside fish feast in season.
The west is the driest, flattest part of the island, partly covered by the prairie of Plaine Corail, famous for its limestone caves. There are two worthwhile attractions here just ten minutes’ drive from the airport: Caverne Patate, the longest and best-known cave, and the island’s newest attraction, the François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve, where giant tortoises already look at home.
Walking among around two hundred giant tortoises in the wild is the key draw at François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve. Brought over from La Vanille Réserve Mascareignes on Mauritius eight years ago, some 1500 Aldabra tortoises have now been reintroduced into the wild in this 20-hectare nature reserve. The tortoises can be stroked and adopted, while a suspended wooden walkway takes you past 186,000 endemics replanted as part of an on-going “re-wilding” project.
Also included in the ticket is a half-hour guided visit to a limestone cave: the only show cave in the Indian Ocean. Strategically placed lights reveal rock formations such as columns, curtains and eccentrics, and small groups are shown the bones of a solitaire, stuck in the cave walls. Elsewhere in the reserve there’s a cage of rare golden-coloured Rodrigues fruit bats (Pteropus rodricensis), the island’s only endemic mammal, saved from extinction by Gerald Durrell, and still critically endangered with around nine thousand pairs – they can be seen flying at dusk island-wide. A small but good museum details the human, natural and geological history of the island, and there’s a café-restaurant on site.
Rodrigues’ well-preserved marine environment is its key attraction. Thanks to an enlightened environment minister, himself a diver, the island has no industrial pollution and around 280 species of coral, a dizzying array of marine life including rays, jacks, turtles and white-tipped reef sharks, and dramatic underwater scenery which includes caves and canyons. The island has two marine parks, one at Mourouk in the southeast and another at Rivière Banane in the northeast
Diving is mainly off the south and east coasts. The windward coast, and close to the reef, the east coast is arguably the best, with around twenty dive sites including deep blue dives, coral dives and canyon diving. The most famous dive sites are La Passe St François, a kilometre-long channel near St François teeming with exotic fish, from tuna to rays, and the equally impressive La Grand Passe to the south off Port Sud Est. Although Rodrigues’ dive scene and virgin sites are best for qualified divers with experience, there are also shallow dives suitable for beginners and dive schools offering beginners lessons. The ideal months for diving are October to December, and March to April; dive centres close in July and August.
The best beachfront snorkelling is near the reef at Marouk, where equipment can be rented, in “the aquarium” off St François and around Île Hermitage and Île aux Chats, reached by fishing boat from Port Sud Est. Enquire at Rodrigues Tourism Office about glass-bottom boat trips.
Several of the eighteen islets sprinkled around Rodrigues can be visited, typically by travelling in an off-duty fisherman’s pirogue. The most popular day-trip is to the blinding white sandbar of Île aux Cocos (Coconut Island), 4km off the west coast. At around 1.5km long and 150m wide, it’s famous for its seabirds, and a stroll around the sanctuary reveals the bridled tern and fairy tern, and lesser and common brown noddy, which, unbothered by human presence, cling to the casuarinas and palms. Stakeholder Discovery Rodrigues manage the island and give an introduction of the main highlights to boat arrivals, but you’ll need to get there independently by arranging your own boat crossing.
It takes a bit of an effort to get to the volcanic desertscape of Île Catherine, also off the west coast. From the end of the road at Cascade Pistache (reached by bus from Mount Lubin), it’s a two-hour trek to Pointe Mapou, from where a fishing boat can make the trip across: it’s best to undertake this as a randonnée with guide Milaineda Edouard.
The three uninhabited southern islets make for popular day-trips with swimming and snorkelling: Île aux Chats (Cat Island), known for its beautiful beach, tiny Île Hermitage (Hermits Island), closer to shore, and the largest, Île Gombrani.
Surrounded by leafy avenues, Rodrigues’ capital PORT MATHURIN is both pleasant and easy to navigate on foot, and holds a few reminders of the island’s French and British colonial heritage in nineteenth-century buildings such as Governor’s House. It’s best visited early Saturday mornings when locals from outlying areas descend to shop and gossip at the sprawling weekly market. The coast road east from the town is the route most travelled by visitors.
A lovely wooden, yellow-painted colonial building with turquoise shutters, Governor’s House was built in 1873. Once abuzz with colonial affairs, it is still used for government meetings and visitors can only peek into the sitting room, with its old-fashioned furniture, to get a flavour of bygone days.