Mauritius, July 22-27, 2010

It is raining in Singapore in the morning and there is an accident on ECP, but we reach Changi Terminal 1 on time. The terminal is facing a major uplift in the quality and number of services, which is great: it has been the most boring terminal so far. Air Mauritius boards early and seating is complete about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. Still, we are grounded on the runway for 40 minutes past the scheduled time. Of course, we get no explanation for the delay, which is funny since nothing much seems to happen in Changi: no landings or take-offs in our sight.

We reach Mauritius on time even if the flight gets really bumpy (not near as bumpy as the return flight, though) and the local weather forces the plane to attempt another approach to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) International Airport. It is raining in Mauritius, too. Babou, our local taxi driver, is waiting for us. He takes us to our accommodation Auberge Aquarella in Mahebourg, just 7 kilometers away from the airport.

Aquarella is desolate; we will probably be the only tenants tonight --- it is winter season in this tropical island. We settle in our intimate hut that faces the Indian Ocean with nothing to obstruct the view, and the waves cheerily splashing outside. In the late afternoon we head out to the town center even if we don't really have an idea where it is. Later we find out that no city map exists because, according to the locals, it is such a small place.
We follow the shoreline until we get to a place that looks like a bus terminal. We are hungry and see a number of restaurant signs but none of the places seems to be open at 5pm on Thursday (but KFC). It is getting dark and it starts raining as we head back to the hotel in hope of finding their restaurant still open --- we are the only guests, so hopes are not high.

Much later we find out that on Thursday afternoons people go to out of town markets to shop for weekend groceries so all the places really are closed.

We pass a supermarket where we get some emergency snacks in case we won't find proper food: chocolate stuffed croissants and South African Pinotage. Croissants are gone before we leave the supermarket :) But just then we see the sign to La Vielle(sic!) Rouge --> 50m, and the place is open, and actually quite nice. There are a few people inside, although not too many customers but some folks with luggage, waiting for a ride to SSR we presume. We order a couple of mugs of local beer (Stag) and smoked Marlin (a common dish in restaurants as we later find out); then fish curry and fish kebabs with South-African Chardonnay. Ice cream and pineapple in caramel sauce for dessert crowns the meal --- and an espresso which is not very good, more like a long black but probably made into bad water(?)
After an early morning continental breakfast we are ready to hit the streets of Mahebourg again. After walking around a while we find ourselves at National History Museum. The exhibition is about Dutch, British, and French governance in Mauritius and pretty much concentrates around slavery during all these eras.
We continue strolling the busy and not so busy streets of Mahebourg, but later in the afternoon head a bit out of town following the shoreline to the south. The ocean is amazing turquoise, and the wind nice and calm. It is getting a bit hot, though.
On our way back we stop at Pub Escapade for drinks. We are not hungry yet, but after we're given some free snacks we feel bad not to order anything from the menu. Tei has palm-heart salad with octopus --- another common dish in restaurants --- Tomi has some heart-stopping deep fried vegetable rolls and balls. To finish the meal, we are served some local rum.
We return to our hotel and try to enjoy the pool for a while but soon the wind grows and the clouds gather, and it is gets chil-li-ly. It is about the time to start our dinner hunt adventure, again.
We walk straight to the pasta place we've seen earlier, but there are no lights inside. We walk around downtown for quite a while but are unable to spot a single eatery that is open. Luckily it is not cold or raining. Again we resort to the supermarket's supply of salty snacks and African wine.

We return to check the pasta place, and find the place next door (or is it the same place?) Restaurant Les Copains D'Abord open. We have some very fresh and tasty mixed salad and pumpkin soup for starters, and dry deer curry for Tei and deer kidney for Tomi (as they are out of tongue :p) We finish the meal with pineapple-mango-guava sorbet and espresso (again not an espresso but rather a long black, and not too good one :(.

Our dining is interrupted a couple of times with a Sega dance performance that is technically talented (as far as we can tell) but lacks soul (at least in the young dancers, the drummers are fun as always)

We start our last morning in Mahebourg with a brisk morning run along the south shoreline we walked yesterday. At 10am. Babou picks us up and the plan is that he takes us to Chamarel. We ask him to take as many detours as possible, especially along the southern shore. First he takes us to a sugar factory and a neighboring power plant. The smell is overwhelming. We learn that most of the current-day sugar factories also produce the power they use. At some point later along the way Babou stops in the middle of the sugarcane field to get us some juice from the canes to drink. The juice is very sweet and sticky.

Babou makes another stop for us to admire the view at a point that is probably the most windy place on the whole island.

Further along our way we stop for some coffee and smoked marlin salad at Le Petit Regal Restaurant in a small town name of which we don't recall. Soon after we start the climb to the mountains and Chamarel. Weather-wise we have enjoyed a gorgeous day so far, but as we gain altitude the air turns cooler and foggier.
After struggling the muddy path up (Babou's Toyota is not quite a 4WD) we reach our lodging La Vieille Cheminee (an old chimney, which still resides by the roadside as a reminiscent of the village's old sugar mill dating back to 1874), a picturesque agricultural farm on a top of the hill. It is raining quite heavily now. Our accommodation for the next three nights will be a creole style farm house that comprises of a comfy bedroom, a large bathroom, and a country style kitchen. Even more delighted we are about the patio with a dining area and a fireplace, and the view to the downhill pineapple plantations, and the local rum distillery.

Despite the nice kitchen, we won't be cooking our meals, since breakfasts and dinners will be cooked and served by our hosts for us to warm them in the microwave. They even provide the wine.

We are super hungry, and the host, Boris, offers to take us to the village for lunch. There are a number of restaurants, all of them alive at lunch time but they will be dead as the sun sets, since there won't be any tourists around at that time anymore.

Most of the restaurants, Boris tells us, pay commission to taxi drivers to take their passengers their place, with the exception of one place, which does not see many customers. We buy some nice and cheap local wine from him one day. We end up eating at Domaine du Cachet. We start with seafood gratin, and Tomi has fish vindaloo and Tei chicken and prawn curry, with house white wine.

It's still raining heavily when we leave the restaurant and start our trek back to the chimney. We take a quick look at the village first. Soon the rains stops, but it starts again, then it stops and starts, stops and starts, and it is literally pouring when we walk the last tens of meters of the muddy path to our house, and then the sun comes out. Warm shower and dry clothes welcome us. Luckily, we found some laundry detergent in the village, so it is not only us that get clean tonight.
The nature quiets down as the evening falls: only a gecko couple carry on their conversation in the patio ceiling. The dinner arrives at 6:30pm. We have a creole meal tonight: black lentil dahl, sausages in thick tomato-based gravy, cucumber salad, green vegetables, with chutney and rice. Rest of the night we enjoy some wine at the fireplace. A cat, color-coordinated with the floor tiling, joins us.
It rains the whole night, very heavily at times, what we can tell from the noise level under the tin roof. We wake up at 7am. but skip the morning run since it is still raining. When we finally get up a couple of hours later, the breakfast is awaiting on the patio: coffee, juice, baguette, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and pineapple.

Rain has also stopped. We climb up to the very top to admire the scenery from the pool for a while. Then we head down to the road towards Seven Colored Earth. After 1.5 kilometers of walking we pass a waterfall (The Chamarel Waterfall) that plunges more than 100 meters down to a green bowl.

Another 1.5 kilometers of walking, and we are at the colored land, admiring the hues of different volcanic minerals that taint the soil. It is quite impressive how the colors change when observed from a slightly different direction relative to the sun.
We return to the village to check the rum distillery. The reason we are interested in it, beyond rum that is, is that the place is featured in Food Stuff section of the most recent issue of DestinAsian magazine. We are disappointed to find the place closed, but then again, it is Sunday.
We return to the village and visit Restaurant Ruben for lunch. The place is about to close but we get excellent service. We start with a tuna salad and a garden salad and some bread with chili spread, a common condiment here. We share the entree of fish and seafood curry in saffron sauce. On our way back we shop some local fruit wine Bordofin Blanc and Bordofin Rose and a couple of bottles of Phoenix beer at the local village shop.
Tonight we have more of a French country style dinner: chicken thighs with herbed carrots and beans, and tarragon potatoes. And apple crumble for dessert. The rain goes on and off throughout the evening. We still enjoy the peace and quiet of the night. The cat joins us again: he must hate the rain as much as we do. Once we erturn inside to wash the dishes, he is all over the dinner table licking the plates.
Again, it rains the whole night, and in the morning even if occasionally the sky shows some signs of clearing and the sun coming out. We have a plan to go hiking in the Black River Gorges National Park, but there is no point going if one can't enjoy the scenery. We are still optimistic, and at 10am we hop into our host's pickup and he takes us to the Black River Gorges Viewpoint. It is raining and really windy. Skies clear a bit and we see a glimpse of the gorge. Magnificent.
We decide to take a hike to the top of Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire (828m), the highest peak on the island. We do not have an idea how long it will take to reach the peak, but we can see it, so we boldly go on. The trail goes down first, which we find a bit alarming, and then up, and then down again, and up, etc. The trail is really muddy; we have to be super careful in placing our feet to avoid slipping and sliding.

We enjoy the hike tremendously. Unlike Singapore, it is so peaceful and beautiful up there: we don't meet a soul on our way up or down, and we don't even see or hear much wildlife --- no loud birds or cicadas! However, see some beautiful butterflies, flowers, and mushrooms.

After an hour and half of hiking we are almost on top. The trail turns vertical just before reaching the summit, and the strong gusty wind empowered with horizontal almost sleet like rain catches our rain ponchos. It is getting increasingly challenging to balance, so we turn back as we don't want to take the risk of not making it down safely.
It takes us another hour and a half to get back down to the main road, and one more on a winding road downhill to reach Chamarel. We head straight to the Cheminee. After almost six hours on our feet they are not only muddy but also tired. Even if the trail was not very steep, except in the very end, we had to use all our core muscles to balance on the slippery terrain plus use our arms to grab shrubs and roots to pull us up or to stop us from falling and sliding when coming down.
We wait for the dinner quite a while and super hungry since we skipped the lunch. Tonight the Madame herself brings us the dinner: we have steaks and sausage (which we need to cook ourselves) with beans and gratin of kohlrabi, and prunes and cream for dessert (number one in Tei's all time hate list of traditional Christmas dishes).

It is windy outside but it does not rain. Neither the night nor the morning sees rain, so we head out for a run at 7am. We run east to the unexplored direction of the rolling country road. There is no traffic and the morning air is cool and clear. By the time we are back from our 50-minute run, the breakfast is awaiting.

Today we plan to visit La Rhumerie de Chamarel, inspired by the DestinAsian magazine's review of its restaurant. We take a Rhumerie tour with a nice guide Anais, and afterwards taste some rums, do some shopping at the gift shop, and then we are ready for the culinary experiences in the restaurant L'Alchimiste. Without a reservation we are turned down, and we are disappointed. For a fully booked restaurant, it looks quite empty to us. On the other hand, we try some positive thinking: perhaps we don't want to dine at a place that is fully booked to large tour groups. Still we are disappointed.
Somewhat dispirited we return to the village to look for another place for lunch. We take a surprise right turn to the main road and end up at La Chamarel Restaurant. The host rushes out to greet us and before we are even able to gasp we are seated. It is not an upscale restaurant but at least the service works and food is delicious. We have seafood salad and smoked marlin to start with, and grilled lobster as an entree with South-African Chenin Blanc.

We take a taxi back to the chimney and we see Babou already waiting for us. His job is to take us around the southern part of the island and then to the airport. We take our last hike up to the hill through the pineapple plantations.

Since we do not have too much time, Tomi goes to the office to sort out the payment and Tei hurries up to the house to pack. Not everything goes right, though. With all the hassle in payment, Tomi's credit card gets forgotten in the swiping machine (you know those old types!?), which we notice much later. However, when La Cheminee tries to send the card to us in Singapore via DHL, packed in between two CD's for safety, DHL gets overly curious and opens the package, and finds the card. And refuses to send it.
Babou takes us over the mountains we walked yesterday and to Curepipe, the second largest city of Mauritius located in the central plateau. The weather turns worse and worse as we approach the central plateau. We visit a souvenir store/workshop, where tens of young and middle-ageish women build miniature models of historic sailing ships in all sizes. Next door is a tax-free shop selling brand apparel, brands that we are not really interested in. The weather is getting worse: the wind is strong, chilly, and blows horizontally. Rain just makes it much worse.
Next Babou takes us to a Trou aux Cerfs, a dormant volcano in Curepipe. There is a paved walking, jogging, and bicycle path around the crater that is relatively popular even in this inclement weather: we see parents with kids, young couples and best friends enjoying their workout. From the rim of the crater we get a good view over the central plateau: so much about it, the weather is truly miserable and that's enough of an incentive to get back to Babou's car.
On our way back to the airport we pass several small towns and villages, such as Rose Belle, which looks more lively than Mahebourg. Three hours before our flight we are on the airport. Check-in goes smoothly to our surprise.
We spend the waiting time in a airport restaurant having some pizza and wine. While Tomi is out to get us the drinks, a family lands to the next table and guy asks Tei something about Tomi's chair in French. With Tei's rusty French (unused for some 15 years or more) she can't figure out if he asks if it is available or or not, and even worse she can't come up with a reasonable answer in French, so she replies in English. The whole family bursts into laughter. When she asks what is so funny, the guy explains that when "I speak you French, you speak me English". Tei tries to explain that she kind of understood his question, but can't respond in French, with no avail. How can someone be so offended over such a small issue? He goes on with the laughter and ruckus forever, and Tei still can't see anything funny in it, and honestly, starts to feel offended herself.

On a final note, if you wonder why the last picture: that elder Chinese women keeps a close eye on the younger people playing cards at the next table. However, we don't know if she is monitoring the game or players, but she exhibits the kind of staring behavior that is strongly discouraged at least in Finnish culture but quite common in SE and East Asia. And having said that, on our flight back we have the worst turbulence we've ever experienced, especially Tei.