“Are you on holiday?” asks the flight attendant as we disembark the 12 hour flight from London to Mauritius. “Then you must walk with lions!” It’s such a bizarre suggestion I wonder whether it’s a bluff preserved for first time visitors, until our driver Enrico mentions it again en route to resort. Who knew walking with lions was a thing. It sounds exactly like something you would be warned about as a child: ‘don’t talk to strangers; especially the ones that offer you sweets. Oh, and don’t walk with lions…”
On the hour and a half journey to the St Regis Hotel & Spa, Enrico reels off the many other activities Mauritius has to offer, like a human guide book with the added bonus of local insights. For those looking beyond the deck chair, there are rum distilleries, waterfalls, mountain hikes, Buddhist temples, tea plantations, the ‘seven coloured earth’, Black River Gorges National Park, street food and shopping at Central Market, in the capital Port Louis, and Casela World of Adventures, where you can walk with said lions. Not forgetting the main draw of paradisal long stretches of white sandy beach, sea of every kind of blue and the all important sun. There is, as we discover, far too much to fit into a week. The hotel itself has so much on offer, we end up only leaving twice: a 14 km round-trip cycle to the nearby fishing village of Le Morne, on the guest mountain bikes, and a stroll along the road in search of the nearby food truck that sells the famous Mauritian chickpea chilli bites (or gateaux piments), another tip from Enrico.
Situated in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and 1200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa, Mauritius is surrounded full circle by the third largest coral reef in the world. As a result, it boasts warm, shallow, glassy, tropical fish-filled, though shark-free, lagoons that are a dream to swim in. Its main trades are sugar cane, textiles, cashmere, and of course, tourism, the latter accountable for over a million holidaymakers each year and around 120 hotels, and counting. The majority of hotels are squeezed into the north and east, while St Regis, has prime position in the south west on Le Morne Peninsula, in front of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of La Morne Brabant Mountain and behind a 1km stretch of pristine sandy beach. With less than a handful of other hotels in the vicinity it’s very quiet and perfect for singles, couples or young families looking for some undisturbed downtime.
Tapping in to the island’s rich sugar cane plantation heritage, the St Regis Resort and Spa (the 30th property in the collection, opening in March 2013) is designed to give the air of a Victorian manor house and estate: cedar tiled roofs, silver from gentle weathering; dove grey and white shuttering, balustrades and coving – a lovely colonial style that feels luxurious and relaxed, and removes any rigid feelings associated with resorts. Adding interest to the communal areas and bedrooms are one-off wooden artefacts and intricate illustrations of indigenous nature and the island’s former resident dodo, which lives on in the country’s coat of arms.
The resort sits within sprawling gardens, with water features and tropical flora attracting plenty of wildlife – albino lizards cling to walls, butterflies kiss the array of punchy petals, the biggest dragonflies I’ve seen, flit from pond to pond, and at night, fruit bats soar overhead. At the heart of it all is the grand Manor House, where a 24-seat cinema, games room, and well-stocked library provide shelter and entertainment from the rain or midday heat, and the 1904 bar serves a fine selection of cocktails, such as La Belle Creole Mary, St Regis Mauritius’ rum, aloe vera and coconut-rimmed twist on the bloody Mary. For the uber rich, a 1,659 square foot private villa, with four pools, private gym and all manner of other envy-inducing treats, sits behind a security manned gate at the far end.
Our fine Ocean View Deluxe Villa, one of 108, was a deliciously bright and spacious place to live for a week, with a bathroom boasting an enormous egg-shaped tub and shower fit for four. A walk-in wardrobe I would never squeeze in to my Victorian three-bed, and a terrace ample enough to hold a little party. There was a top class entertainment system we almost completely neglected, and free wi-fi running throughout the hotel and beach for impromptu Instaboasting. All rooms come with a butler to attend to any whim 24/4, one who drops off sweet bites at dusk every evening; who, after listening to Adam’s sunburn woes one night, returned five minutes later with ‘some cream from the clinic’. They’ll also do your ironing, unpack and repack your luggage, and pretty much anything else you ask for, though our demands were limited to a request for peppermint teabags, and the odd golf cart ride to dinner. The impeccable service extends throughout, from the multitude of people tending to the lush landscaped gardens, who bid a friendly bon jour when you pass, to the bar tenders, waiting staff and constantly-manned concierge desk. This is a 5-star luxury hotel that feels like it through and through, while managing to maintain a calm that can be lost in such establishments.
The allure of a full body massage at the Iridium Spa was enough to draw us inside for an hour, otherwise, we became water babies, making the most of the fine weather and complimentary activities on offer: paddle boarding, wake boarding, pedal boating, kayaking, snorkelling, as well as a dabble in one of the premium offerings from Club Mistral Prestige: a one-hour, private introduction to kite surfing, where the veteran instructor speed-boated us over to a serene, secluded spot and talked us patiently through the basics, and after, sped us over to the famous One Eye, recognised as one of the best kite surfing spots in the world, to watch the pros. I can’t imagine a better place to learn in.
One of the biggest pulls of travel, for me, is trying the new flavours on offer, and at St Regis, they are in abundance, with four restaurants making imaginative use of local ingredients, presenting dishes so consistently delicious we scrapped them clean, went back for more, and returned home three permanent pounds heavier. St Regis’s Bangkok-inspired Floating Market, serving Malay, Thai and Vietnamese flavours, does a mean ginger and lemongrass crème brulee. There’s a duck red curry I’d like to eat right now and a green papaya and seared beef salad I’d happily devour every day. The hotel boasts a fantastic wine card, worthy of its 2014 Wine Spectator award, with a large selection from relatively neighbouring South Africa, including one of my all-time favourites, The Ladybird from Stellenbosch. So plump and delicious, kicking off with that on the first night, together with impeccable dishes of succulent tuna twirled around sticks of pineapple and seabass steaming with ginger and garlic, filled me with the warmth that ‘life does not get much better than this’.
The Boathouse Bar & Grill, open for lunch and dinner, is also a fine place to eat, with a prime spot on the beach. Lunches become lounge-y affairs, and the appetiser fresh bread with roasted garlic cloves and tapenades, a good enough reason alone to dine there. The adjacent bar offers a shady spot for a cool draught Phoenix beer, while you watch the fishing boats go by and attempt a seven-letter word on Scrabble.
Away from the a la carte there’s Le Manoir Dining Room, a buffet dinner of French-Mauritian recipes, where we accidentally over ate on various curries and breads one night, and enjoyed a breakfast of champions each morning. Guests can pick and choose from the three as part of the half board, and at a concessionary rate, they can, and should, head to the fourth offering, Atsuko, for exceptional sashimi and tender hunks of Wagyu. There really is no danger of getting bored of the food at St Regis. But if you’re after something more, I must recommended the two-hour private cooking course, a proper hands-on experience that culminates in a sit-down three-course meal of aromatic Mauritian dishes. The cinch-to-make paratha has already made an appearance on my dining table twice since, and I have the ingredients in to make the palm heart vindaye and chicken curry. One of the highlights of the trip.
Nina Simone came on from my play list while I was lounging on the terrace one afternoon, taking in the gentle sound of lapping waves and breeze blowing through the palm leaves; sipping peppermint tea and watching the little blue and red-headed birds flit between the coconut palms, chatting away with the cheeriest of chirps: ‘birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me. And I’m feeling good.” Her words articulated my thoughts so precisely, they brought a lump to my throat and the prickle of a tear. It was around day 4 of 6, the time in a holiday when the excitement of the new turns to the impending sense of doom that is home time. It was going to be very difficult to leave, and even trickier to resume normal routine. Time to live in the moment, head for a swim and squeeze the most out of this love before it’s too late. “You need to go home, work hard and save for your next visit,” one of the Club Mistral guys says in response to our melancholy in the final hours. Where, ‘we’ll be back’ is a cliché said without much substance, this time we firmly believe it. After all, we have a good 10 days’ worth of to dos still undone, and that’s without walking with lions…
The St. Regis Mauritius Resort, Le Morne Peninsula, Mauritius. For more information, including events, offers and their video gallery, visit www.stregismauritius.com.