Mauritius is a long way away from the UK and the thought of a 12-hour flight with babies and young kids is enough to send most parents running. But the island has a lot going for it for a special family holiday and, in my opinion, makes a great ‘first long haul’ destination for those willing to take the plunge.
Why we booked
Many reasons, but in no particular order:
1) the lack of jet lag. During British Summer Time, Mauritius is just 3 hours ahead, making it easy for Leo (and us) to adjust during a relatively short (< 10 day) stay.
2) it’s tropical but, in our summer, it’s not too hot – it’s the Mauritian winter and temperatures are in the upper 20s (we went in late September).
3) the quality of the accommodation. Compared to the Caribbean, which has quite a lot of tired and chintzy accommodation (floral bedspreads!) and a rather laid-back approach to service (not good with hungry kids), Mauritius specialises in cool luxury at surprisingly good prices. £-for-£, I think you get a better standard of hotel here than elsewhere in the world and the service is excellent. Many of the hotels are particularly geared to families, with complimentary kids clubs, babysitting and kids menus.
4) the beaches. White sand, turquoise, warm waters, palm trees – this looked like paradise.
5) it’s small but there’s enough to explore when the beach wanes (unlikely!) – tea plantations, botanical gardens, nature parks, plantations…
6) it’s malaria-free and requires no jabs.
7) we got a good deal, flying with British Airways staying 9-nights, booked through Trailfinders – less than £3k for all of us, staying half board.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Sugar Beach Resort, located on the west coast of the island in the resort of Flic-en-Flac (review to follow). Being on the West Coast has its advantages: in the Mauritian winter, you avoid the cool trade winds that can blow along the East Coast. Plus you get stunning sunsets – the perfect way to end the day – and a gorgeous view down the coast to the dramatic Morne peninsula.
Flic-en-Flac itself does not have a lot to detain you but it’s sufficient for a change of scene. Bear in mind many of the hotels in Mauritius are quite remote from towns/resorts, so think about that when making your choice. We deliberately selected somewhere within easy reach of civilization! When we wanted to get out of the hotel, we would hop on one of the frequent buses that ran along the coast road and headed into the village for a bite to eat (Leo loves buses, so this was an awesome outing in itself). There are snack vans serving delicious roti (chapatti bread filled with curried fish and vegetables) and fruit salads for pudding.
What were the highlights?
Again, in no particular order:
1) Arriving at Mauritius airport. Having flown overnight, we were groggy and desperate to get to the hotel for a wash and change. At immigration, on seeing that we had a small child in tow, the officials ushered us to a dedicated family counter and whisked us through the formalities. We had picked up our bags and were out of the airport and into the taxi* before we knew it. A great way to start the holiday and something that endeared us to the island immediately.
*Do book a private transfer if you can – it just speeds up the whole process even more and prevents any hanging around. It doesn’t cost much in the grand scheme of the holiday and is well worth the extra!
2) The food. Many of the hotels in Mauritius offer half board as standard. Normally, this wouldn’t suit us but given we were travelling with Leo, we figured we would be eating in the hotel every night any way. What we fear is the dreaded buffet: indistinguishable platters of oiliness, kept warm under lamps for hours… However, I am happy to report that the hotel buffets were utterly exceptional – so much so that we couldn’t wait for them each evening. The chocolate fondant pudding was heart-mumuringly good (the French influence on the island has clearly had an impact on the cuisine). Outside of the hotel, the roadside rotis were delicious and cheap and made a nice change from the formality of restaurant dining.
3) La Vanille. This little nature park on the South Coast makes for nice day out with little ones. Butterflies, giant tortoises and crocodiles kept our son entertained, but his favourite attraction was the amazing collection of spiders – utterly terrifying for arachnaphobes. The whole place is easy to get round with a buggy and there’s a little cafe onside serving kiddie-friendly spaghetti to stop at for lunch.
4) Bois Cherie tea plantation. This was a surprise hit with Leo. Up in the hills, cool and cloudy and brilliantly green, the tea plantation building itself is very retro indeed, art deco in style. You can have a look round the museum (Leo like the steam engines), walk through the tea bushes and then – most importantly – head off to the cafe for tastings. Leo had his first ever cup of tea here, but to be fair it was mainly the biscuits he enjoyed.
5) The beaches. Did I mention the beaches? The picture says it all. Calm, sandy and shallow, they are perfect for little ones. Plus once in the sea, there’s some fantastic snorkeling for Mum and Dad – oh, and dolphins to go swmming with.
What wasn’t so good
At the time (2009) BA flew outwards overnight and back during the day. Thankfully, they’ve changed their schedules to be overnight flights both ways – a huge benefit, as the daytime flight back was rather tortuous with a wide-awake, wriggling toddler! 12 hours is a long time to be up in the air and it’s time better spent asleep. Air Mauritius also does overnight flights both ways.
Although Mauritius does an excellent job of presenting itself as a tropical paradise, it is actually a highly urbanised and industrialised island (it has a big textiles industry and you can buy major brands, such as Ralph Lauren, in outlets there). This can come as a bit of a shock to you if you are expecting it to be Robinson Crusoe! We hired a car for the day and got stuck in heavy traffic driving through the central plateau, often behind buses belching out noxious exhaust fumes. Of course, you can avoid all this by staying on your lounger on the beach but to do so would be to miss the point of Mauritius. Make sure you get out for a least a day or two and see what’s on offer.
Fly non-stop. Prices may be keener with Emirates and other Gulf airlines, but you don’t want to make a long journey any longer when flying with tots.
Don’t be fooled into thinking Mauritius is a winter sun destination! Our coldest months are also Mauritius’ wettest: go there between December and March and it could be very wet indeed – cyclones are possible. Clearly it won’t necessarily rain all the time and the weather seems to be more and more erratic these days and difficult to predict; but nonetheless to reduce the risk of rain I’d head for the Caribbean or Red Sea at this time of year and save Mauritius for the Spring and Autumn. We went at the end of September and, even then, did not have wall-to-wall sunshine. Cloud often built up during the day, but this didn’t bother us so much as it was warm and meant we didn’t have to worry so much about lathering Leo in sun cream. I think it’s a great place to consider for May and October half-term holidays.
For getting about, I’d really recommend hiring a car. When travelling with little ones, it gives you so much more flexibility than on organised excursions. You can stop for food or toilet breaks when you want to; spend longer at places they like and rapidly depart those that they don’t. I found driving on the island to be fine – the roads were in good order and not at all dangerous. In fact, given the congestion on many of the roads, there was no danger of speeding – the most likely problem would be a scrape to your door as other buses and cars squeeze past on the busy streets.
Personally, with small kids in tow, I wouldn’t bother with the much-touted ‘coloured earths of Chamarel’ – unless you are driving past and fancy a peak, like we were. They really are rather underwhelming and certainly not of any interest to children (you can’t even climb on them)! The Pampelmousses botanical gardens are worth a visit but don’t bother with a guided tour and don’t bank on spending too long there – they are a good place for cool respite away from the beach and a run-around but the multiple varieties of palm are probably lost on under 5s.
Mauritius is one of those places we think about often: a photo of the perfectly tropical beach at Flic-en-Flac adorns the wall on our landing to remind us of happy times. Whilst we were there, we met a family from Switzerland who were spending 3 weeks at our resort. Packing up after 9 days, we envied them chronically – and still do. We would have loved longer and pledged to go back.
With overnight flights both ways and the lack of time difference, Mauritius has major advantages over the Caribbean and Far East for anyone thinking about taking the long-haul plunge. For our next visit, I’ve got my eye on the newly opened Trou aux Biches and the grande dame of Mauritian hotels, Le Touessrouk. If I see a good deal to either, I won’t think twice about booking!