For those fortunate enough to visit the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, a catamaran cruise around its black volcanic rock and white sand beaches is one of their holiday highlights.
Things have changed around these parts over the last two centuries or so. For English sailors, perilously patrolling the Indian Ocean in the early 19th century, protecting East India Company shipping from French pirates, the daily tot of rum was the highlight of a day that could be monotonous or dangerous or both. Nowadays the rum flows a little more freely on the daily catamaran cruises. Rum is a legacy of the sugar plantations established by the French when Mauritius was their colony for much of the 18th Century. Today the rum is laced with vanilla, another one of Mauritius’ great exports.
Although we have a great day of adventure ahead our skipper makes a slow start. He knows that we want to ogle the millionaires’ properties along one of the world’s most desirable coastlines. We gasp in awe at architects’ creations of gleaming glass and steel pavilions, infinity pools and Chelsea Garden Show planting. Private yachts and private moorings seem as essential for these properties as the sixth en-suite bathroom.
Soon we are sailing out through a holiday brochure sea: infinite shades of blue with pools of azure, aquamarine, cobalt, turquoise and a dozen other blues – all merging into the pale blue horizon. In the distance we can hear the dull roar of waves as they break on the reef, but we sail on through a lagoon of calm and tranquility.
“Gunners’ Coign”, John our multi-tasking barman/deckhand/ guide says as he vaguely gestures at a mossy wedge of dark volcanic rock.
“Big naval battle here. The French beat the English,” John says with the briefest of historical allusions.
I am one of those sad people who had read the guide-book on the flight out and researched further on the internet. In fact, the French victory was gained a few miles further south, way back in 1810 but it had been an empty victory.
The British retreated, licked their wounds and came up with a stunningly successful military strategy. They landed vastly superior numbers of troops up on the North Coast, miles north of the capital of Port Louis, whilst the French weren’t looking.
Seeing the overwhelming forces the French surrendered immediately. Subsequently, English became the language of education and government on an island approximately the size of Surrey. The French won the naval battle but the English won the war.
Everyone else jumped ship to snorkel. Nine weeks on from my hip-replacement I feared that neither my insurer nor surgeon would approve of such reckless activity. Instead I chatted to John. His father was a fisherman and John was concerned that fish were not as abundant as they once were.
Maybe John was tenth generation on from African slaves imported by the French to work the sugar plantations. Perhaps eighth generation on from Indian indentured workers recruited to work the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery. As the government slogan says, “One Island, many peoples, all Mauritian.”
The snorkelers returned jubilant: “Shoals of zebra fish.”
“Adidas fish”, John jokingly corrected. There were also sightings of King Fish, some Parrot Fish and Trumpet Fish in the crystal-clear waters.
John shouted, in Creole, for the skipper to move on. Once Creole was the slaves’ language, excluding their French masters on the sugar cane plantations. After the British abolished slavery, Creole became Mauritius’ unifying Lingua Franca: it’s vocabulary bolstered with a smattering of English, Indian and Chinese words. But 90% of Creole exhibits French origins.
We motored on around Mauritius’ palm-fringed coastline. Visitors chatting excitedly about their experiences of Mauritius so far: the astounding diversity of the Sir Seewoosagur Botanic Garden, the multi-coloured earths of the south of the island, a Mauritian cookery course at their hotel, rum tasting and surprisingly lychee wine tasting.
After a splash of swimming in the clear waters of a mangrove forest we cruise on to a blissful atoll. Yet more pools of azure leading to an archipelago of black volcanic mini islands dusted with white-sand drifts. I decide that this is the most breathtakingly beautiful spot where I have ever lunched.
Lunch is a BBQ like no other. Small tables wait in the sea-water and chairs have become passé. We make ourselves comfortable sitting in the luke-warm water that ever-so gently laps around our knees, thighs and ankles. John has re-opened his mobile bar with beers and wines while the hotel has sent a chef ahead to BBQ chicken and fish as well as serving up some impressive salads.
Time to head back and after one last stop for a swim, a Dutch shoe designer reapplies her make-up and rearranges her designer swimwear. She frames a selfie with the sea – still azure – green plains and black volcanic mountains as the backdrop. It is a classic Mauritian scene, one that will not need editing.
Air Mauritius, British Airways and Tui provide direct flights from London to Mauritius.