Mauritius’s south coast is the island’s wild side, known for its unusual rock formations and for the cane fields and tea plantations that form the backdrop to fishing villages like Baie du Cap, where time seems to have stopped. The small port of Souillac, near Mauritius’s southernmost point, is the base for trips to the pounding surf at Gris Gris and interesting Robert Edward Hart Memorial Museum. Inland you can visit Darwin’s Aldabra tortoises at La Vanille Réserve des Mascareignes, before stopping off at the unusual Tookay Temple in Rivière des Anguilles. The southwest also has some of Mauritius’s most beautiful and varied natural landscapes; Bel Ombre, nestled in the foothills of the Black River Gorges National Park, is Mauritius’s newest, and greenest resort, offering activities from quad biking and golf to kitesurfing, and the beginning of a scenic drive along an untamed stretch of rocky coastline, where fishermen still sell their catch from roadside stalls.
BAIE DU CAP is one of the most scenic traditional fishing villages on the south coast. Drive by in the late afternoon to see fishermen hauling in their catch at the landing station, men playing cards or dominoes under the shade of the trees and young boys fishing or playing guitar.
The contemporary Matthew Flinders Memorial just outside the village, originally sculpted out of stone and copper (which has since disappeared), commemorates the British explorer most famous for mapping the coastline of Australia. He stopped here on his way home from his two-year voyage in 1803 only to be detained by the French as a spy. Climb up the steps of the promontory at Macondé, at the end of the village for sweeping views of deserted beaches and lush, forested hillsides with rock overhangs and caves along the Baie du Cap inlet and Le Morne Brabant looming in the distance.
At nearby St Martin, another monument marks the sinking of the Trevessa in 1923, some 3000 kilometres off this coast. Miraculously, 16 men survived 25 days at sea in a lifeboat which landed here.
An area spanning 2500 hectares, sloping down to the sea from Black River Gorges National Park, Domaine de Bel Ombre, or Beautiful Shadows in Creole, is promoted as the “unspoiled south”. Although the beaches may not be as beautiful as other parts of the island, and the area can be breezy in winter, it suits those seeking a restful holiday in natural surrounds far from commercialization and crowds.
The area owes its development to the Irish naturalist Charles Telfair, who arrived here in the early nineteenth century and was given the rights to the “small Eden of Bel Ombre” by the first British governor, Robert Farquhar. He introduced farming tools, the island’s first horizontal mill and created vast orchards and vegetable gardens, becoming particularly known for his enlightened treatment of slaves. A sugar estate, opened in 1910, further developed the region, and the old sugar mill can be visited today at the entrance to the Heritage resort. As sugar fortunes plummeted, the Domaine de Bel Ombre opened up to tourism and the first hotels appeared in 2004, along with a golf course and nature reserve.
The 2500-acre Frederica Nature Reserve lies in the foothills of Black River Gorges National Park, and is home to Java deer, monkeys, pheasant, wild boar, Mauritian fruit bats, the lesser-spotted echo parakeet, pink pigeon and Mauritian kestrel. Trips start from a whitewashed house with sun-yellow shutters, and include trips to the 152-metre L’Exemple waterfall by quad bike (doubles and mini-quads for 6–12-year-olds available), 4WD excursions and guided nature treks on foot.
RIVIÈRE DES ANGUILLES (Eel River) is a service town for one of Mauritius’s largest sugar plantations. Most people pass through on a visit to La Vanille Réserve des Mascareignes, a popular family attraction, but the colourful South-Indian Tamil Tookay Temple, sited atmospherically in the sugar fields near Camp Diable, is worthy of a diversion. A more adventurous side-trip is to the small Le Souffleur blowhole, on the Savanna Sugar Estate near the village of L’Escalier. The water here once spurted out up to 18m, but since the hole has eroded, it’s more like 6m these days. It’s a bit tricky to get to along rough tracks, so best visited by 4WD and the help of a local. About 2km east along the coastal path is the perhaps more impressive Pont Naturel, a natural rock bridge over the boiling sea.
It was Charles Darwin who sent Aldabra tortoises to Mauritius, saving them from extinction, and today his work is continued at La Vanille Réserve des Mascareignes, a breeding park set up in 1985. Around a thousand tortoises now live among the lush tropical foliage here, and can be seen at all stages of development, from tiny hatchlings to hundred-year-old Domino who ambles around the tortoise prairie. Around two thousand Nile crocodiles, originally imported from Madagascar in 1985, also lurk in ponds and under bridges – the reserve used to be called The Crocodile Park, and is still known by that name locally. The crocodiles are farmed, so some are used for handbags and belts in the gift shop, and served in Le Crocodile Affamé/The Hungry Crocodile.
Other highlights include deer, cheeky Macaque monkeys, wild boar, one of the world’s largest collections of insects, including butterflies, and an aquarium. It’s easy to spend two to three hours here, with opportunities for kids to hold a baby Aldabra tortoise or crocodile, and a Mauritian fruit bat or iguana, and explore the jungle adventure playground.
The well-preserved port of SOUILLAC was founded by Vicomte François de Souillac, who, as governor of the island from 1779 to 1787, encouraged the development of the south. It was he who organized the boats known as “côtiers” which transported sugar cane to Port Louis; the old stone warehouse lies just out of town and now houses Le Batelage restaurant. This fishing town’s only claim to fame today is as the largest settlement in the south coast, and the base for visiting a couple of spectacular natural attractions and a museum dedicated to Mauritian poet, Robert Edward Hart.
A cliff-top vantage point at the southernmost point of the island, Gris Gris offers spectacular views over a white-sand beach and wave-pounded basalt rocks. Either take the steps down to the beach or follow the red earthen track along the cliff-top for a half-hour walk through a filao forest to a viewpoint overlooking La Roche qui Pleure, the rock that weeps – you’ll see why when the waves crash over it. Gris Gris is always included on excursions along the southern coast, and is a popular destination for guided bike rides from southern hotels.
Renowned Mauritian poet Robert Edward Hart (1891–1954) was given this cute coral-stone cottage, Le Nef (the Nave), by his friends when his house was destroyed in a cyclone. It is now a memorial museum, housing a collection of his personal memorabilia, from his ancient bed sheets to his glasses and violin. Of Irish-Mauritian descent, Hart was awarded the Legion of Honour by France, and an OBE by Britain, although few visitors have heard of him. The house is a bit tricky to find on the backstreets of Souillac, but is worth a quick stop if passing from Gris Gris or Telfair Gardens.
Once as prized as gold, sugar has had a strong influence on the landscape and culture of Mauritius. Sugar cane was introduced from Java by the Dutch in the seventeenth century and developed during French colonization (1715–1810) before becoming the cornerstone of the economy under the British (1810–1968). Occupying forty percent of the country, and encompassing fifteen different types of sugar, blond fields of sugar cane are still a fixture of the landscape. The sugar industry now outputs about 500,000 tonnes (compared to a peak of 718,000 tonnes in 1973) and Mauritius was the first country in the world to produce electricity from bagasse, a clean renewable resource, which now accounts for about sixteen percent of the island’s electricity output.
Mauritius has been lauded in recent years for its agricultural or artisanal rum. A ban on using sugar cane juice to produce alcohol – a hangover from British colonial times in the nineteenth century when the value of sugar exceeded that of rum – was only lifted in 2006, and since then the island’s rum producers have been experimenting. Saint Aubin Red Cane Rum (rhumsaintaubin.com) and La Bourdonnais, from Château Labourdonnais in the north, in particular have attracted the attention of international experts; while at the Rhumerie de Chamarel in the west, which produces the highest altitude Chamarel rum, visitors can watch the cane being crushed, fermented and distilled in season. You’ll also find fresh, high-quality infusions across the island. Traditional restaurants all have rum arrangés, usually lined up in glass jars on the bar: look out for vanilla, pineapple, coconut and passion fruit.
Tea plants were first brought to Mauritius from China by a priest in the 1960s, and have thrived in the cooler, wetter, central part of the island where they now cover an area of forty square kilometres. To discover more, take the four- to five-hour La Route du Thé tour (626 1819, saintaubin.mu/larouteduthe), organized by the Bois Chéri Tea Estate, who produce around seven thousand tonnes a year, including brews flavoured with vanilla, coconut, lemon and passion fruit. The tour starts at Domaine des Aubineaux in Curepipe, the family’s colonial home built in 1872, before heading across Plaine Champagne to the Bois Chéri Tea Factory and museum, then on to the elegant Le Saint Aubin for a typical Mauritian set lunch.