Mahébourg and the southeast
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As the location of the international airport, the sleepy southeast is most visitors’ first and last taste of Mauritius, yet it’s one of the least touristed areas on the island. Beyond the historic capital MAHÉBOURG, layered blues herald the island’s largest lagoon and the coral gardens of Blue Bay Marine Park, which stretch out from the low-key resort of Blue Bay towards the luxurious Île des Deux Cocos. The area is also a repository of Mauritius’s colourful history, which can be explored at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation’s conservation project on the Île aux Aigrettes and on some of the offshore islands, such as Île de la Passe, which played a crucial role in the Battle of Grand Port.
A small but sandy strip of coastline extends between the villages of BLUE BAY and POINTE d’ESNY to the south of Mahébourg. Blue Bay is the closest resort to the airport and sprinkled with seaside bungalows, cute guesthouses and a few hotels. The public beach here is particularly popular with locals and is the base for several worthwhile water-based excursions: glass-bottom boat trips glide around Blue Bay Marine Park; catamarans and local fishermen offer island-hopping up the east coast; and trips to Île des Deux Cocos depart from a private jetty near the coastguard’s office. Posher Pointe d’Esny is around a ten-minute walk away and a more private and tranquil stretch of sandy beach. This stretch catches the southeast trade winds and was the favoured spot for regattas during the British era, if a bit breezy in winter. Today it’s among the best beaches in the southeast, with a well-preserved lagoon, and lined with beautiful beach bungalows. Both villages are on the flight path, but with flights mostly in the daytime, planes don’t tend to disturb a good night’s sleep.
A 353-hectare reserve extending a kilometre out to sea, Blue Bay Marine Park has the best preserved underwater scenery on the island, with a strong current which keeps it pristine and translucent. Around forty different species of coral – some up to eight hundred years old – have been identified here, including one of the largest brain corals in the Indian Ocean measuring 5.5m in diameter. The seventy or so species of tropical fish, meanwhile, include seahorses, surgeon, parrot fish, trumpet fish and butterfly fish, along with turtles and moray eels. Designated a Ramsar site in 2008, the park is only accessible only by glass-bottom boat. For more information contact Mauritius Marine Conservation Society (MMCS; w mmcs-ngo.org) and Reef Conservation Mauritius (w reefconservation.mu).
A five-minute boat ride from Mahébourg leads to tiny, coral Île aux Aigrettes (Egret Island), where the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation have attempted to re-create Mauritius as it was four hundred years ago by removing invasive plants and reintroducing endangered native flora and fauna. A visit lasts around two hours, and includes a walk with an informative ranger and a drink at a wooden café-shop hidden in the forest. Giant Aldabra tortoises can be seen lumbering under the canopy, and it’s the best place to see pink pigeons living in the semi-wild. You may also spot Telfair’s skink and the Mauritian fody. The entrance fee goes into conservation.
A speedboat trip from a private jetty in Blue Bay delivers you to LUX* Resorts’ private luxury island, the four-hectare Île des Deux Cocos, or Island of the Two Coconuts. You can book an exclusive stay in the island’s sumptuous two-bedroom Moroccan-style villa, with a rooftop terrace and a bath big enough for four, but their one-day island excursion package (daily 10.30am–3.30pm; t 698 9800, w iledesdeuxcocos.com) offers a more accessible taste of life as a twenty-first-century Robinson Crusoe. Guests are welcomed with a sparkling wine aperitif and chilled, perfumed towels at the jetty before a morning of snorkelling in Blue Bay Marine Park and sunbathing on the fringe of powder-white beaches surrounding the island’s forested interior. A gourmet buffet lunch, with drinks included, and home-made rum arrangés at the thatched bar round off the afternoon.
Full-day island-hopping trips by catamaran from Blue Bay typically cruise through the southern lagoon up the east coast, stopping at Île de la Passe, which played a pivotal role in the Battle of Grand Port and is the best example of French island fortification in the world; Île aux Fouquets, also known as Île Phare, where visitors can clamber up an old lighthouse built by the British, and picnic on a pretty cove; and the tiniest of the islands, Îlot Vacoas, which is inhabited by the lizard-like relatives of the rare, endemic Telfair skink, a type of snake with legs. Snorkelling, a side-trip to Grande Rivière Sud Est waterfall and Île aux Cerfs, and a barbecue lunch on board are often included.
The most charming and photogenic town on the island, MAHÉBOURG (pronounced “my-bore”) was the site of Mauritius’s first settlement. Founded in 1805, its grid-like streets were designed by the French General Decaen, who named it after Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais. Today, the southeast trade winds caress Mahébourg with a constant cooling sea breeze year-round and its narrow streets, sprinkled with dilapidated Creole-style wooden houses, some from the seventeenth century, are interesting to wander. Locals still sit outside like they used to do all over Mauritius, and women continue to wash clothes at La Board underneath the hundred-year-old Cavendish Bridge. Lovely views are to be had from the waterfront towards Lion Mountain across the bay.
The south’s only market, Mahébourg market is the most traditional on the island, with bargain basement prices. The centrepiece is the bustling food market, where men wander with sacks of potatoes on their heads past colourful fresh fruit and vegetable stalls under makeshift canopies. It’s open daily, although most excursions come to Mahébourg on a Monday when it’s busiest. A small section sells crafts, such as woven baskets, wooden souvenirs and spices, there’s a huge array of inexpensive, dazzling traditional Indian clothing and the dholl puri from the snack stalls is reputed to be among the island’s best. To get a good photo and a bit of insight into local culture, take a tour with Mauritius Photographic Safari.
Born in Saint Malo in 1699, Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1699–1753) started his illustrious career as a ship boy in the navy at the age of ten. Later appointed Governor of Île de France (present-day Mauritius) by the French East India Company in 1735, he arrived in Mauritius aged 36. His first job was to transfer the capital from Grand Port (present-day Mahébourg) to Port Louis, which was more sheltered and had a superior harbour. He also started an eleven-year development and construction programme to provide the colony with a road network and develop its agriculture, and waged war against the maroons (deserting slaves). Under his energetic leadership, Port Louis emerged as a vibrant city, with a well-planned grid of streets, workshops and houses. Proper quays, warehouses, fortifications and a shipyard made it the safest port in the Mascarenes and a popular port of call. Along with Pierre Poivre, Mahé de La Bourdonnais did more for the development of the island than any of his predecessors or successors.
Mauritius’s largest surviving native bird, the pink pigeon (Columba mayeri), is among the rarest birds in the world. It has a distinctive pale-pink body and brown wings and tail, and feeds on the leaves, flowers and fruits of exotic and native plants. Although still endangered, there are now around 470 birds in the wild, which may be spotted in the Black River Gorges National Park, in the aviary at Casela Nature & Leisure Park or in the semi-wild on Île aux Aigrettes.