The Black River district stretches along the coast from Pailles just below Port Louis to Baie du Cap in the south. Named after the river’s black stones by the Dutch, it’s the island’s least populous district and remains a long way from being built up, although new hotels, villas and residences are in the pipeline. Descendants of runaway slaves still live in Catholic Creole fishing villages here, and the area is reputed to have the island’s most authentic séga.
The ancestral home of Malcolm de Chazal, Mauritius’s most famous painter and poet, sleepy CHAMAREL is nestled in the highlands on the edge of Black River Gorges National Park, with views over Île aux Bénitiers and Le Morne beach. The hamlet is named after French army captain Antoine Regis Chazal de Chamarel, who farmed vanilla, pepper and coffee near here in the eighteenth century. Chamarel is now the only place producing coffee on the island, while its sprinkling of tables d’hôtes offer an authentic taste of island cuisine. The big draw, however, is the popular and often oversold geological marvel, Seven Coloured Earths.
A multicoloured lunar landscape under the shadow of Piton Canot, Seven Coloured Earths has been a tourist attraction since the 1960s. The undulating dunes of mineral-rich volcanic sand – in green, pink, brick red, purple, orange and grey – were caused by mineral oxygenation and are best viewed at sunrise and sunset, when the light accentuates the colours.
With an 8km-long swathe of wide golden beach and a beautiful lagoon, FLIC EN FLAC is the west coast’s liveliest resort, although it has somewhat become a victim of its own popularity. Thanks to the fringing reef and calm water close to shore, it’s also the most popular dive spot on the island and an ideal place to learn, while the excellent Casela Nature & Leisure Park, a favourite family day out, is on the doorstep. The prettiest, most private stretch of beach is to the south, in the discreet enclave of Wolmar, where upmarket hotels offer views over Tamarin Mountain, and on a clear day, to Le Morne.
Down on the coast, the village of LA GAULETTE feels more of a travellers’ haunt than anywhere else on the island, with kitesurfers contributing to the cool, laidback vibe. Off-duty fishermen make the crossing from here to crescent-shaped Île aux Bénitiers, where you can have a blissful day snorkelling and picnicking on a budget beneath coconut trees on the island’s lovely sandy beaches. Boat trips anchor at “Crystal Rock”, a rocky outcrop good for snorkelling and a swim.
Mauritius’s sensual, hip-wiggling national dance, séga (saygah) comes from the Bantu word tchéga, meaning play or dance, and originated as a courtship dance among African slaves in the eighteenth century. In traditional séga, Creole lament rises above the rhythmic beat of the ravane, a goatskin drum, accompanied by the maravanne, a gourd filled with small stones and shaken, and a metal triangle, originally tapped with a panga, used to cut sugar cane. The step is a shuffle, the feet never leaving the ground as the woman sways around the man as he stands with hands on hips, waving a colourful handkerchief. The dance becomes wilder and more frenzied as the tempo increases, and the couple edge together until clasping each other, bend their knees and gyrate backwards, until reaching the floor to the cry of “en bas!” (down). Famous séga singers include Ti Frère and Kaya who popularized “seggae” – séga with reggae. Séga is danced at Mauritian family gatherings, festivals and celebrations, but visitors are more likely to see “séga hotel”, sometimes around a fire on the beach, with women in colourful cropped tops and billowing skirts, and men in loud shirts and pedal pushers. Watch carefully, as guests are usually asked to join in.
The small, low-rise resort of TAMARIN, named for the tamarind trees planted here by Dutch settlers, is the largest and most developed of the coastal fishing villages that form an arc around Tamarin Mountain (La Tourelle de Tamarin). It’s mainly a residential area – and a favourite with South African expats – but with luxury yachts moored at the new Balise Marina, boutique hotels and tasteful guesthouses sprinkled along the uncrowded beaches and a few cool nightspots opening up, it’s fast becoming cosmopolitan.
Most visitors flock to Tamarin Bay to see the dolphins who pass by in the early mornings on their way to Le Morne Peninsula, and although the waves have decreased due to changing currents and reef erosion, it’s still the only place in Mauritius to ride a board from July to September. Nearby there are some 170km of walking trails in Black River Gorges National Park, while world-record-breaking blue marlin put Grande Rivière Noire on the game fishing map.
There are popular boat trips to see and swim with the spinner and bottlenose dolphin pods which hang out in Tamarin Bay. Typically, boats hang around until the dolphins pass, and passengers are encouraged to slide into the water with goggles, snorkel and flippers (usually provided) to catch a glimpse as the pod swims by, although you may see more by staying on the boat. An alternative way to mingle with the dolphins is by stand-up paddleboard.
Boats leave from Rivière Noire in the early morning, and can be booked through most hotels. Although sightings aren’t guaranteed, they are likely, but beware of overcrowding and illegal operators. Specialist operators typically take a speedboat around 7am, returning around 8.30am or see the dolphins as part of a catamaran cruise, continuing on to “Crystal Rock” for snorkelling and Île aux Bénitiers – Dolswim are particularly good. Some upmarket hotels in the area also offer dolphin-watching tours by private boat.
For those interested in Mauritius’s history, La Route des Marrons offers a chance to walk in the footsteps of runaway slaves. The trail starts from the last bus stop in Coteau Raffin village at La Gaulette and traces the route slaves followed to reach safety beyond Chamarel mountain. It’s a four-hour moderate return trip, mostly uphill, along a marked varied ancient track. Highlights along the way include an old mountain village, where descendants of slave families still live, and endemic fauna and flora – look out for bois puant (stink wood), a natural insect repellent used for furniture and bois cyclone, which blossoms after cyclones, as well as bats, lizards and birds. The trail ends close to a big red house with a magnificent view, from where the slaves assessed their route before heading down to hide in the densely forested valleys. The only way back is to retrace your steps.