The early evening chants from a nearby mosque resonate through the air and drift across the bay, while in the background the lapping sound of the ocean provides an almost hypnotic rhythm. For a moment I am transported back to an evening spent gazing across the vast Bosporus, where the streets of Istanbul were brought alive by a beautiful melody of sound from bellowing muezzins. Only the gentle wind caressing the coconut trees brings me back to the reality of my balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean and dusk descending on Grand Baie. Tonight is the first of a seven-day stay on the sun-drenched northern coast of Mauritius and it’s exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s late August and the daily temperatures are ideal for a few days of relaxing with some sun, sea and sand. Oh and a few kilometres of cycling to accompany that!
There is an amazing variety of activities to partake in on an island which punches way above its weight. From relaxing on perfect beaches to hiking across the mountainous stretches of the island, or super activities at sea like diving, deep water fishing or swimming with dolphins. But, over recent years, Mauritius has slowly transformed itself into a major destination for trail runners, mountain bikers and road cyclists alike. This has been fuelled by a desire by local organisers to showcase that Mauritius is not just all about lazing on the beach and sipping cocktails while the world passes by, although that’s certainly not a bad option either! One such event is the CRA Beachcomber Vets and Masters Tour de Maurice cycling tour which is now in its 10th year and continuing to attract riders from Southern Africa, Reunion and a good sprinkling of European athletes. It’s the main reason I am visiting the island again after a hiatus of four years and this time the trip includes travelling with a new addition to our family, a 10-month-old baby girl.
The race itself consists of three stages which stretch from one side of the island to the other and totals over 270kms in distance. It’s not simply a race that you sign up for a week in advance. Some good training needs to be put in place and although the event caters for “vets 35+” and “masters 45+”, the guys who end up on the start line are seasoned riders who have plenty of race experience and are hungry to win the overall title.
Day 1 takes us to the south-west of the island to a world heritage site called Le Morne Brabant. It’s a large mountain which juts into the sea from the peninsula and is a symbol of the slave fight for freedom, their suffering and sacrifice. Back in the day it was home to many escaped slaves and hence its importance in the history of Mauritius. It forms a suitable backdrop for the start of the race which is flanked by a beautiful golf course which runs along the shore.
The roads are immaculate here and there is a fast pace from the start. For anyone feeling like a prisoner in the pack, their chance to escape would arrive after a 15km neutral stage and prior to one of the many climbs on this super route. A strong contingent has come across from Reunion as well as an ex-Olympian from Namibia, so competition is fierce and there is no room for error. An interesting fact is that in its short history not a single male winner has come from South Africa and this has included the South African national champion in his age group. Perhaps next year that will change? The oldest rider this year was a hugely impressive 72 years young. I myself had to adjust to the high humidity and the pace out front, but was encouraged that at the end of the race I could tuck into a not so endangered Dodo craft beer!
The great thing about cycling here in Mauritius is that the roads are quiet and the scenery is spectacular around every corner as you take in a side of this island many don’t get to experience. Sweeping views of the steep volcanic mountains, which all seem to be shaped like animals, are complemented by the turquoise allure of the tropical waters, while the rows of coconut trees sway in unison as a mid-morning breeze sweeps across the riders.
Down in the south, the numerous ravines are interspersed with mangroves and small waterfalls and all make for a spectacular backdrop. A good day of riding is rewarded with cold drinks at the finish and a great lunch to fuel up for the next day’s efforts. And then back to the hotel to cool down in the pool and carbo-load.
Day 2 and 3 starts in the north and south-east of the island respectively and both stages wind their way through hills of sugarcane, fields of pineapple plants and lanes of oak trees which accompany the riders on the long stretches of flat road and undulating climbs. Remains of the past are scattered around the countryside in the form of French cannons, Dutch towers, old colonial homestays and sugar mill chimneys which are buried in the dense vegetation. We pass by them as the kilometres clock up and the temperature rises. There is however no time to stop as once again the racing out front is fast and small villages pass by in a flash. Local villagers gather on the side of the road and show their appreciation for the brief procession of cyclists and police motorbikes alike. The odd dog jumps out to try to grab a piece of prime well-aged calf muscle, but it’s all in vain and luckily it causes minimum disruption.
After 3 days of good camaraderie and tough competition, the race concludes and the good folks from CRA and Beachcomber have a final prize giving at the beach of Mon Choisy. Each of the category winners ends up with return flights to Mauritius and accommodation for the following year’s event to come and defend their titles. A super incentive and a very healthy reward.
The main sponsor of the race is Beachcomber Resorts & Hotels, who have thrown their weight behind a number of big events in Mauritius including trail running, women’s golf, mountain biking and rugby 10s. We had the good fortune of staying at their Mauricia Beachcomber Resort & Spa based in Grand Baie for the duration of our time. As mentioned earlier, this was the first time visiting with a little baby and the experience was superb. We were housed in a sea-facing room with vistas across the bay and with close proximity to the main restaurant area and the baby room. The baby room is a great innovation as it has all the key essentials for those travelling with an infant. The ability to sterilise bottles and order pureed food made a big difference. Baby cots and bathtubs are complementary and if you ask in advance, a suitably quiet room will be arranged. The rooms are spacious and clean, the food is excellent and the amenities cater for your every need. These amenities include a top-class spa, kiddies club, tennis courts and volleyball amongst others. We took great pleasure in lazing under the palm trees that align a clear blue pool which stretches around the bar terrace. One can get used to this.
The hotel is within 5 minutes’ walk from the main centre of Grand Baie, an ex fishing village which has become a firm favourite for the numerous tourists who stream in all year round. It has a rich mix of French and local cuisine amongst its pocket of fine restaurants and the smell of fresh baguettes is complemented by local dishes amongst the street stalls popping up along the main strip. One can take a slow walk down to the shore mid-morning and marvel at the fresh catch which has been caught from the local fleet of boats. Back at the hotel, whether you take the half board option (breakfast and dinner included) or the all-inclusive option, your every whim and need is catered for and the island hospitality shines through. It’s part of the DNA here.
Apart from its incredible hospitality and tourism infrastructure, Mauritius also prides itself on its multiracial and multicultural outlook to life and it can easily be seen across the island where temples, mosques and churches nestle in peaceful harmony within metres of each other.
The island has been influenced by a combination of both British and French rule over the past few centuries, along with an influx of labourers from the sub-continent to work on the vast sugar plantations that were major sources of income for Mauritius. In fact the first foreigners to land on the island arrived in 1510 and with that the majority of precious woods and the dodo disappeared. Much has changed since then, but the old traditional values and religious festivals still remain intact and are a main focal point for many households. Roughly 48% of the population of 1.2million Mauritians are Hindus with roots in the motherland and there has been no weakening of the ties. India happens to be one of my favourite destinations and one does not need to travel all that way to experience its culture in full. You just need to drive through a local village and the smell of incense fills the air along with many mini shrines to the various gods that are part of the Hindu religion. A major attraction is the Maha Shivaratri pilgrimage, a celebration of Shiva, which has been recognised as one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, which manifests in the south of the island in Grand Bassin lake. This dates back to 1897 and legend has it that this is where the river Ganges is said to have resurfaced; the umbilical cord to India not having been severed. It takes place in Iate February or early March whereby offerings of milk, yoghurt, butter, honey and sugar symbolise the five elements of the world, namely sky, wind, water, fire and earth. It’s definitely a must-see from talking to the locals and will be on my bucket list in the future.
Albeit smaller in nature, we were lucky enough to experience the celebration of Ganesh on our final day. Crowds of worshippers singing and chanting while proceeding to walk their clay effigies down to the seashore as a final offering to their beloved god. If you can manage to travel to engage in these kinds of festivities then it provides an additional cultural element to an otherwise amazing holiday destination. That’s the joy of travelling when you open yourself to what’s outside the four walls of your hotel and step off the beaten track.
After seven very eventful days, it was finally time for our small family of three to pack up and take the hour-long shuttle back to the airport in the south. On reflecting a major highlight was three days of incredible cycling, great friendships created along the way and for us as a family a beautiful bonding experience. Seeing the joy in our daughter’s eyes at her first dip in warm ocean waters, her continuous curiosity in this new world around her and the experience of travelling abroad as a family is priceless. Stepping on to the plane we left knowing that great memories had been created and we would be back for a further taste of this magnificent part of the world in due course.
Air Mauritius offers direct flights from Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. They have a super baggage allowance in economy class: 2 bags of 20kgs each excluding infants. www.airmauritius.com
• Mauritian Rupee is the local currency but Euros and Rands are readily accepted at most hotels and restaurants.
• There are no malaria issues to be concerned about.
• Mauritius is extremely safe but like any country, take caution at night.
• The sun is extremely harsh and is highly recommended that you wear a hat and a good sunscreen for those days of relaxation or activity.
• Best time of year to travel: May to December when the weather is cool, dry and sunny! The rainy season is from November to April.