Nicki Grihault explores the idyllic lagoons, great diving and deserted beaches on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues
Ever wanted to stop the modern world and get off? On Mauritius’s sister island of Rodrigues, the pace of life is as slow as the giant tortoises that once roamed the island. How can you rush around a capital that is only seven streets wide?
A trip here is about relaxation and simplicity. Known as the ‘anti-stress’ island, and shaped like ‘a short, plump fish’ (it's 18kms long and 8kms wide - about the size of Jersey), this sleepy volcanic island is a pinprick on any map. It's described by some tour operators as ‘a Scottish Island with sunshine.’ In its turquoise and aquamarine lagoon, almost twice the island’s size, women wearing wide straw hats spear octopus and fishermen harness the power of the wind to set sail in wooden pirogues.
Along with Mauritius and Reunion, Rodrigues is part of the Mascarene Islands and is described as the Cinderella of the group. These days exclusivity is about uncovering a new island and escaping the hordes – and simplicity the new luxury. Still, few people had heard of this tiny island before Prince William came to study zooplankton and measure octopus in his gap year in 2001. He reportedly said ‘it was a nice place to be’, but although only a 90-minute flight hop from Mauritius, only around 5,000 British tourists per year make it there.
The few decent hotels here are scattered throughout the island. The red-roofed Marouk Ebony Hotel in the southwest is a magnet for lovers of watersports and is where Wills got his daily kite-surfing fix, when he returned on holiday in 2003. A keen diver, he wrote his dissertation on ‘The Coral Reefs of Rodrigues’, taking the chance to explore virgin sites. In the southeast, The Cotton Bay Hotel sits near a decent beach, but tends to be populated by an older crowd. Les Cocotiers, a calm, peach-painted French colonial-style hotel, whose balconies overlook the pirate cove of Anse aux Anglais, just outside the capital, Port Mathurin, is by far the most charming.
The local bus is fittingly emblazoned 'King of the Road', as outside the capital, there’s barely a car or a person in sight. Winding towards the highlands on the well-maintained main road, the 52 hairpin bends yield panoramic views. Wild mountainsides, barren in places, are indented with twisted ravines stuffed with thirsty tropical plants. In the quiet, mainly Roman Catholic villages, octopus hang drying in the wind. Policemen spend their days fishing, while the one jail lays empty.
Often described as ‘like Mauritius was 30-50 years ago’, Rodrigues’s landscape is unspoilt and undeveloped. Its French-speaking people are easy to connect with, dance the sega and have a similar colonial history to Mauritius. But instead of sugar fields, coconut and casuarina trees dot the landscape, and the predominantly Creole culture gives the island a unique flavour. Famed for octopus curry – its chillies are some of the world’s hottest – local dishes are of fish and pork, flavoured delicately with saffron, lemon and paw paw. The best Creole table d’hôte is found at Auberge de la Montagne, in the hills of Grand Montagne in the island's centre. Dishes are prepared by Francoise Baptiste, the author of the island’s only cookbook.
Rodrigues is not full of nightlife, but days can get busy. Landlubbers can mountain bike, explore by 4x4 or even by horse, and it’s a paradise for sports fishermen. Walking is big here – to any of the 20 secluded beaches on the east coast, including the stunning pirate cove, Trou d’Argent ('the money hole'), which many consider the most beautiful beach on the island. On the west coast, a crunch along a white coral path reaches the most visited site, the Caverne Patate, where an hour-long tour takes in stalagmites and stalactites.
For Robinson Crusoe wannabes, it’s hard to beat the startling white sand of Ile aux Cocos (Coconut Island). In this bird sanctuary, the most popular day excursion, noddies bob on palms in the wind and sooty terns call ‘yeh yeh’ as you loll in the shallows after lunch.
The island’s newest attraction is the Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve at Anse Quitor. Here, over 400 giant tortoises wander through an area planted with 100,000 native and endemic shrubs and trees, representing a Rodrigues of centuries past. It seems Cinderella’s character remains unchanged, despite discovery by Prince Charming.