Away from its famous beaches, Mauritius offers adventure aplenty, from quad biking through a deer park to trekking up mountains and ziplining across rivers
The only Mauritian creature the whole world has heard of is a dead one. Nothing is as dead as a dodo, wiped out by the end of the 17th century by Dutch settlers, after at least a million years of evolution. This large, portly, flightless bird, unique to the island, is now a national icon, emblazoned on everything from towels to T-shirts.
The Mauritius of holiday brochures – palms waving in the breeze on manicured lawns and elegant hotels beside the beach – is not the dodo’s world. Echoes of the past can be found in the island’s less explored forests, extinct volcanoes and islets, and on domaines, or sugar estates, now turned into adventure parks.
Eco-adventure Mauritian-style is riding double quads along 300kms of track through Out of Africa-style savannah, scattering Java deer that double as hunting quarry in your wake. Casela Yemen Nature Escapade, near Flic en Flac in the west, was once the island's third largest sugar estate and also offers trekking, mountain biking and 4×4 rides. Next door, at Casela Nature and Leisure Park, nestled at the foot of Mount du Rempart, which Mark Twain described as a ‘pocket Matterhorn’, is a chance to glimpse the dodo’s closest living relative – the Nicobar pigeon.
Ninety-year-old Domino, named after the restaurant who donated him, is often found asleep in the mud on the tortoise prairie at the family-friendly La Vanille Réserve des Mascareignes. It was Charles Darwin who sent Aldabra tortoises here from the Seychelles to save them from extinction and this is the only place in the world to breed them. The legs of tiny hatchlings churn around like a wind-up toy. One-year-olds are the size of a tennis ball; three to five-year-olds the size of a football.
Peter Pan, the long-tailed macaque who enjoys splashing visitors from the pond, is a favourite with children, and beyond are the creepy smiles of Nile crocodiles. They have the least reason to smile. Crocodile fritters, kebabs and curry are served in the Hungry Crocodile Restaurant, and in the gift shop is a tempting array of scaly belts and handbags.
The island’s flat northern beaches are most celebrated, but this rugged southwest coast is the wilder side of Mauritius. At Gris Gris, waves pound the shore and Le Morne point is one of the world’s best places for kitesurfing. Trekking and quad-biking trips at Valriche Nature Reserve at Domaine de Bel Ombre lead to a pretty 150m waterfall. Nearby is Les Cerfs Volants, in the grounds of St Felix Sugar Estate. With a 2km course over rivers and through forest and sugar cane, it’s the only zipline adventure park in the Indian Ocean.
At Chamarel, where nature has conspired to produce seven layers of coloured earth – bizarre purple, orange and reds – Parc Adventure at Domaine Louisa, an army-style rope-bridge challenge through the forest, builds up an appetite for an octopus vindaloo at a local table d’hote. For those in search of derring-do, Vertical World’s newest eco-venture involves abseiling down Tamarin Falls, canyoning through waterpools and ziplining as a grand finale.
Up on Plaine Champagne, Black River Gorges National Park has the most accessible of the island’s remaining native forest, including soaring ebony trees. Named after the black stones in the river, the forest was once so dense, it was hard for the dodo to take off, but there was plenty of food on the ground to dig out with its huge bill and powerful feet, and digest with the help of a stone it had swallowed. The three-hour round trip to Black River Peak is one of the most spectacular walks on the island.
Although small, Domaine d’Anse Jonchée in the southeast, near the fort where the Dutch put up the first flag in 1598, is a tranquil place to walk through lush vegetation and ancient forest where, along with mosquitoes, you’re likely to encounter the Mauritius kestrel, the island’s only bird of prey. Its alfresco Panoramour Restaurant has one of the island’s best lunchtime views – of the Bambous Mountains sloping into an aquamarine sea – as well as one of the island's most adventurous menus, sporting roasted wild boar and fresh deer curry.
Domaine du Chasseur is the newest eco-park, although operated by old hands, and offers quad biking to a waterfall as well as trekking and mountain biking in over 2,000 hectares of wilderness just below Curepipe. Sea ventures offered include regular fishing trips, island hopping and pirogue regattas. With stupendous views over Lion Mountain and Mahébourg, it also holds the promise of lunchtime rum, produced to an ancestral recipe.
The pretty thatched eco-chalets nestling in a valley backed by mountains and fronted by sugar fields at Domaine L’Étoile nearby were originally built as a film set for Paul & Virginie, based on the island’s most popular legend. Its archery course, using traditional bows with 20 targets in a forest clearing, is unique to the island.
A five-minute boat ride from the Preskil Hotel, on the southeast coast, lies a rocky outcrop, surrounded by a limpid sea. Isle aux Aigrettes (Egret Island) is said to be the last resting place of the dodo and the closest you’ll get to a Mauritius of 400 years ago. The path leads past aldabra tortoises rummaging under the last remaining coastal ebony forest and pink pigeons fly over the seven-metre-high canopy that once lent the dodo protection from cyclones. Both have been saved from extinction - just a shame the dodo wasn't so lucky.
When to go
Mauritius is a great place for winter sun, as its seasons are opposite to ours. May to November is main tourist season. The best time to trek, climb mountains and explore is in the dry season, September to December. Cyclone season is from December to March.
Air Mauritius flies from the UK to the island.
Where to stay
The Ti Vilaz loges at Domaine d'Anse Jonchee, thatched rondavels perched on a mountaintop overlooking the southeast coast, are perhaps the most adventurous accommodation option on the island.
What to read
Naturally, I'm going to recommend my own book: Thomas Cook Traveller’s Mauritius by Nicki Grihault. And check out Dodo - The Bird Behind the Legend by Alan Grihault - my dad! - at dodosite.com.