You may not have heard of the other Mauritian island, but it's beautiful, warm hearted and sees remarkably few tourists...
Thanks to the unfettered building of ever more could-be-anywhere resorts, the holiday paradise of Mauritius is fast losing its lustre. Yet there is another side to the island. In fact, there’s another island to the island. It’s called Rodrigues and it couldn’t be more different. Just 11 miles long and five miles wide, it’s 360 miles east of Mauritius, has only a handful of family-run hotels and a close-knit Creole population of 38,000 that loves to dance, fish for octopus and picnic by the beach.
This forgotten little corner of the Indian Ocean has a tiny airport, which sees four turboprop flights a day, all from Mauritius, and just one petrol station. It’s part of the Republic of Mauritius, but locals scrunch their faces up at the mention of Mauritius main island. Many haven’t been there and are perfectly happy that way. Those that have say it’s too built-up, too fast-paced, and lament the fact that many of the beaches there are now private, unlike the gorgeous free-to-roam sands of Rodrigues.
My taxi to the hotel was driven by a plump 29-year-old called Au Pin. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and pointed his beat-up old Toyota past small box houses that reminded me of South Africa. He asked if I’d like to buy a beer at the next roadside shack.
The ice-cold bottle of Phoenix set me back the equivalent of 75p. With the windows wound down, catchy local music on the radio, octopus drying on wooden frames in the lagoon and the tropic-scented air wafting by, it was worth a dozen “cold towel, sir?” certainties that I might have encountered on a more tourist-focused island.
And for the hell of it, rather than for an extra fare, Au Pin took me to see the island’s largest church, St Gabriel’s. It’s snug in a high hollow in the middle of the island and is built of coral. I entered just as the choir practise reached a triumphant crescendo.
At the evening meal, the buffet included ‘salad enhanced with octopus’ By the time we reached the Mourouk Ebony Hotel — on the other side of the island from the airport — I’d learnt about Au Pin’s wife and kids, his worries and plans. Foremost among the last was expanding the little shop attached to his home. We pulled over to pick up his new sign. He puffed with pride and showed it to me as if it were a certificate: “Au Pin — General Retailer in Foodstuff and non Foodstuffs”.
If you crave branded toiletries, signature dishes and rainforest showers, look away now. The reception-cum-dining- room-cum-shop of the 30-room Mourouk Ebony had evolved from use rather than been designed from scratch.
The rattan chairs were saggy and had been repainted several times, an aquarium sprouted Chinese bridges and figurines above its waterline, and the “telefon cabin” by the reception desk was like something from a Jacques Tati film.
The welcome was warm, though, the line of red-roofed chalets pretty and the view of the vast, empty beach and dreamy lagoon magnificent. I tried the pool, read on my veranda and walked along the deserted beach. The only people I saw were two local families setting up a barbecue in the shade, who waved, and a young French couple hand-in-hand in love, who said bonjour.
At the evening meal, a young, tall-hatted chef was sweating and fretting over large steel buffet trays of casseroles, curries and salads, which included one called “Salad enhanced with octopus”. After dinner, staff moved the chairs to make way for a band and dancers in orange and blue floral shirts. There’s a mania on the island for Sega, a flirty dance where men and women cut in close to impress with their gyrations.
I’d normally recoil at the thought of hotel staff providing entertainment, but here it happened unannounced. I spotted the pretty room maid, the woman from reception with the big glasses and the thickset security guard, all having enormous fun. Their gusto and unbounded pleasure won everyone over. Except for the cutting in and out, the dancers’ feet remained firmly planted, which the barman said harked back to the days when the Creoles of Rodrigues were slaves and forced to make their recreation in leg irons.
To tour the rest of the island, I sought out Willy, the big-smiling scooter- and kiteboard-renter, who laughed heartily when I suggested showing him my driving licence, said nothing and tossed me a set of keys.
The island isn’t swaying palms and lush jungle, and there isn’t a stick of sugar cane. Much of it is quite stark, in fact, with scrub and forest tufts. And the villages aren’t cutesy and clapboard, but earthy and less kempt than on Mauritius. But everywhere I went, strangers waved hello and conversations started effortlessly. I drove at 25mph for four hours and wasn’t overtaken once.
I crossed the backbone of the island by Mont Limon, up at 1,300ft, lingered in several shuffle-speed villages, bought some sizzling barbecue sausages at a beach stall, and in the far southwest of the island found the superb François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve.
The island was home to the dodo’s cousin, which was called the Rodrigues solitaire. It was similar to the dodo: flightless and unsuspecting. With solitaires the only game in town, early settlers hunted them from the face of the island, and the earth, in double-quick time — perhaps as early as 1761. There’s a lumpy leftover skeleton of one in a cabinet here.
There’s no hope of reintroducing the solitaire, but the Aldabra giant tortoise — from the Seychelles — is playing stand-in for two endemic varieties, also lost centuries ago. The reserve has a trail through a little gorge where dozens of them lumber about in the sun, munching the grass into lawn-like perfection. The last-surviving endemic mammal, the Rodrigues fruit bat, is being nurtured back to large numbers here too.
I didn’t have time for a dive, but chatting to tousle-haired Benoit in the dive shack, it was made passionately clear to me that I was missing a real treat. Apparently, the giant lagoon, a marine park, is three times the size of the island. Born on Mauritius, Benoit was in self-imposed exile on Rodrigues. “In Mauritius, the diving is from basalt rock,” he said. “Here, it’s all live coral. There are no big developments and no pesticides used on the land. So the lagoon is unpolluted.”
The locals say that Rodrigues is what Mauritius main island was like decades ago. To me, it felt wonderfully warm-hearted and innocent, and very authentic. If you like the sort of place where a waiter might pull up a chair to explain how to catch octopus, where the person next to you at a bar will almost certainly say cheers, where beaches are empty and arrivals are blissfully cold-towel free, then Rodrigues could be for you.
I travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours.
Getting there: The Sir Gaëtan Duval Airport sits at the far west of the island and is served six or seven times a day by Air Mauritius to Mauritius, plus Air Austral has started a service to Saint-Pierre de la Réunion on the French dependent territory of Reunion. Both are great options for a two island trip - flying to Rodrigues after a few days on Mauritius or Reunion.