I arrived on the island of Mauritius fairly exhausted after a 36-hour travel day involving 4 flights from Malta and a 6-hour layover (turned tourist outing) on neighboring Reunion – more on that in the next post.
After realizing a few days earlier that my hotel in Mauritius, Le Meridien Ile Maurice, was a staggering 40+ miles from the airport on the opposite end of the island, I figured I’d better go ahead and reserve a car for my two day stay. I was thinking of getting one for the next day anyway so I could get out and explore the island but the looming $100 cab fare from the airport made that decision a no-brainer.
It turned out to be the right decision because Mauritius is a large island that is much more easily discovered with your own wheels.
Mauritius has an interesting history. Unlike many small islands ravaged by colonization, Mauritius had no existing native population when the first Dutch colonizers arrived in 1598. The first colony never really flourished and in 1710 the Dutch set sail for greener pastures permanently leaving their mark by causing the extinction of the island’s native dodo birds.
Shortly thereafter, the French moved in as they often did in those days; followed by the British who took over in 1810. During the years of British rule, the African slaves brought to the island by the original Dutch settlers to work the sugar cane fields were finally freed. They were quickly replaced by as many as 500,000 Indian workers shipped in with broken promises of a better life.
Sheer weight of numbers gradually allowed the Indian majority to improve their conditions and ultimately gain independence from British rule in 1968. Since then, the relatively young nation is still finding its way economically with a diverse population that includes five ethnic groups.
The lack of a native island population able to claim superiority is a large part of the reason Mauritius is often cited as an example of multi-ethnic success. The island’s next-largest ethnic group is the Creoles, direct descendants from the African slaves brought to the island. Though English is the official language of Mauritius, Creole is the first language of 70-80% of the population and is still spoken widely.
As a result of the economic boom largely fueled by tourism, living standards in Mauritius have improved steadily in recent years. Despite these gains, Mauritius remains the most densely populated country in Africa.
As I worked my way across the island toward my hotel, I realized my initial perception of Mauritius had been way off base. I hadn’t done my homework and had assumed that, like neighboring Réunion, Mauritius was more culturally aligned with France. Now, driving through the small towns and villages I was far more often reminded of India.
Le Meridien Ile Maurice
When I arrived after nightfall at the oasis that is Le Meridien Ile Maurice, I was greatly relieved to finally be off a plane, out of a car and quickly escorted to a beautiful suite, complete with chilled bottle of champagne, overflowing fruit basket and personalized welcome letter.
Home, sweet, Starwood home. And people wonder why I love my Starwood hotels…days like this are why. The obsession continues unabated.
It was too late to do anything but pop the cork on the champagne, peel an orange and start my work day online as business hours neared back in the U.S. So I caught up on emails for a few hours before collapsing into bed excited to see the view outside my balcony at sunrise.
The sunrise did not disappoint as I got my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean’s emerald waters just steps away. I grabbed my camera and embarked on a self-guided tour of the hotel property.
From the dock that extends from the beach, I realized that the water in Mauritius is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s an impossibly clear marriage of emerald and turquoise that seems more fitting of the crown jewels than a body of water. I couldn’t stop looking at it and, more importantly, I couldn’t wait to get in it.
Driving Around Mauritius
Thanks to having my own wheels, I had a loose plan of total island domination for my one full day on Mauritius.
Looking at the map and grasping the size of the island after my drive from the airport the night before, I accepted the fact that I would have to stick to a few keys areas if I wanted to make it back to the resort by sunset (which I did).
Mauritius is world-famous for its beaches so that was tops on my list. I asked the concierge for recommendations for some of the island’s best beaches and, of course, they were scattered across the map. I picked the ones that combined the most glowing reviews with the most realistic drive times and headed out.
My first stop was the northern tip of the island and an endless stretch of white sand called Trou aux Biches (translated as Does’ Watering Hole). This fast-developing tourist destination is lined end-to-end with beachfront apartments, villas and bungalows instead of the ubiquitous mega resorts and had a very relaxed, homey vibe. Your own personal slice of beachfront nirvana available for weekly or monthly rental.
Next, I made the long (and often confusing) drive south to the southwestern coast to a town called Flic en Flac.
Many of the island’s 5-star mega resorts are located here and it’s easy to see why. Unlike some of the questionable towns I’d noticed fronting some of the resort areas, Flic en Flac was a pleasant little town blessed with perhaps the most stunning stretch of beachfront real estate on the island.
The drive down had taken more than an hour so I decided this was as good a place as any to stop for lunch and soak up the view. Plus, I figured a good meal would help keep my strength up for the next stop I’d planned for my island tour.
Casela Nature Park – Lion Encounter
A few days before my arrival, one of my ever-alert Twitter followers mentioned that if I was going to Mauritius, the Walk with Lions at Casela Nature & Leisure Park was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was terrified yet intrigued when I saw his lion-petting picture (that’s right, petting a lion) during his visit.
Ever a sucker for a great photo-op, I simply had to check this out.
A little online research revealed that Casela was one of only three places in the entire world where you can interact one-on-one with lions, tigers and cheetahs (the other two, in case you’re in the market for such things, are Lion Encounter programs in Livingstone, Zambia and at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe).
Casela offers both hour-long walks with the animals and their trained guides – which are extremely popular and were booked up completely when I inquired – and a lion/tiger/cheetah interaction. I decided that the interaction experience was probably more one-on-one lion time than I needed anyway so after lunch I headed just down the road to the park.
As you enter the front gate at Casela, it’s time to make your first decision: lion, tiger or cheetah.
They are all the same interaction price but since they are located in slightly different areas, you have to decide up front. Now, I would have preferred to suss out their attitudes first or perhaps see who looked the most sleepy but a sight-unseen decision had to be made. I weighed my options and went with my gut: lion.
My thought process…the tiger thing didn’t work out so well for Siegfried and Roy…and I knew there was no way I could outrun a cheetah…maybe I’d have a shot against a sleepy lion. Lion, it is!
The park cashier relieved me of about $40 US and I was briefly consoled by the fact that at these prices they were surely raking in enough dough for adequate safety procedures. He handed me my ticket and directed me through the beautifully-landscaped reserve grounds to where a safari vehicle would pick me up for the drive through the gates to the animal enclosures. So far, so good.
There were five more people waiting for the safari vehicle and I was happy to see them. We all climbed aboard the Jeep and before I knew it we were pulling up to three vast, wildlife enclosures. Each one containing – you guessed it – lions, tigers and bears, oh my! cheetahs.
Our small group was then divided up by animal choice and I was alarmed to realize I was flying solo with the lion. Did they know something I didn’t? I mean the white tigers and the spotted cheetahs were cute and everything but obviously the lion is the king of the jungle, why no other takers?
Had they heard my lion had a bad attitude? Hadn’t been fed yet? Heroin addiction? What??
I briefly considered switching to the tigers so I’d at least have other
victims guests in there with me, especially since I had sized them all up on the Jeep ride over and was convinced I could outrun every last one. But I ultimately decided to defer to my first instinct and stick with operation lion.
Plus, everyone else was going along with this like it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do so I thought it was entirely possible I was just being overly-dramatic.
Next, we were introduced to our individual trainers (I was pleased to see none were missing any limbs), given release forms to sign (shocker!) and escorted to our selected enclosure for what I could only assume would be a lengthy and detailed safety presentation perhaps involving self-defense techniques in case of emergency and, almost certainly, the distribution of weapons.
Instead, my guide looked me straight in the eyes, rattled off two safety rules that would have fit easily on the back of my tiny entrance ticket and handed me a walking stick.
The entire 30 second “presentation” – I swear to God – went something like this:
Lion Guide: (stern look) “When we go in there, just remember two things – 1) stay right behind me and 2) never, ever run.”
Me: (gulp) “Got it.”
Right. Comprende kemosabe. What does he think I’m going to do? For God’s sake it’s a lion enclosure. I obviously will follow his instructions to the letter.
So, now the moment has come and it’s time to go in. As we approach the gate (the two of us and a park photographer in tow), I have a moment of panic when I do a quick head count and realize that the one lion I was expecting was actually more like 8 to 10 lions (I lost count while trying to regain my composure but I swear to God it was like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in there).
My mind (and heart) races. Who’s going to keep an eye on all these lions? I certainly can’t, suddenly my very grasp on consciousness seems precarious. Lion counting? No way.
My guide is just one person and, like me, he’s also armed with only a stick. The photographer is useless, he doesn’t even have a stick. Is anyone in this death-trap shooting with anything more practical than a Nikon?? Dart guns? Something? There should be snipers. Where are the snipers? I scan the trees. Nothing.
As all of these thoughts are racing through my head I suddenly realize that I’m still standing paralyzed just inside the gate while my guide and the photographer have marched directly across the field toward the first group of lions.
Fantastic. In less than 10 seconds, I have completely abandoned 50% of my already meager safety instructions. I’m going to be on Dateline.
My guide soon realizes I’ve gone rogue (though the amount of lag time involved wasn’t exactly confidence inspiring) and quickly walks back to retrieve me with a disapproving look on his face. By this time I’d somehow regained control of my legs and I met him half way. I cannot even attempt to explain what it feels like to be standing next to a lion.
I have somewhat regained my composure and am moving where the guide tells me but only out of sheer self-preservation. The primal instinct to get the hell of out there is overwhelming. I realize that my guide and this photographer know these lions and work with them every day which explains their blasé comfort level but this is a first for me and I need a minute.
I mean, if not talking to strangers is always good safety advice surely not talking to strange lions ranks right up there, too.
We approach the first lion who my guide has determined is ready for his close-up and he takes my walking stick, steps behind the lounging lion’s back and places the end of it gently but firmly between his front leg and torso. This is apparently some sort of coded message to the lion that I’m not lunch.
The guide indicates that I should crouch down behind the lion and pet it as the photographer lines up the shot. I pray that the lion has properly de-coded the message and crouch as instructed but am not sold on the petting part.
He brusquely pats the lion to show me that it’s OK and I follow suit (though with less vigor). I realize the photographer has started shooting so I make a concentrated effort to smile and try to enjoy this…no one wants to buy photographs of themselves looking terrified.
After taking a number of photos from different angles, I’m actually starting to relax because I figure we’re just about done here. I even begin to enjoy what an incredible experience this is, momentarily forgetting that in order to get these shots I had to turn my back on four other lions currently eyeing me with interest. But no, as soon as we finish with lion #1, we move right over to lions # 2, 3, 4 and so on repeating the process until my guide is convinced I’ve gotten my money’s worth or I have a complete panic attack – whichever comes first.
After each lion group, I thank him profusely and indicate that I’m completely satisfied but he encourages me to continue on and meet the other lions. I can’t help but feel I’m pushing my luck and ultimately, we conclude our lion business and exit the enclosure.
Once safely outside the gate I exhale for the first time in about 20 minutes.
Now that I’m no longer potential lion food, I walk back to the enclosure gate to watch the lions interact and for the first time can truly appreciate their beauty (instead of just their teeth) while the photographer is preparing my photos. I honestly can’t believe I have just done this.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill and yet terrifying at the same time. An incredible animal experience that may have even surpassed my reigning favorite animal encounter – swimming with the jellyfish in Palau.
I’m so glad I did it and I’ll cherish those pictures but in all honesty, if I’d realized how many lions there would be I surely would have chickened out. After all, it only takes one bad apple. Just ask Siegfried & Roy.
I left Casela still riding the adrenalin high of my death-defying lion encounter and decided I had time for just one more sight before heading back across the island to the hotel.
So, I drove down to the Le Morne Peninsula famed for its iconic craggy peak visible from much of the island. The peninsula has some of the island’s best beaches and a few new hotels but it’s significance is directly tied to a local legend associated with the cliffs.
The story goes that a group of escaped slaves fled to the peninsula hiding out atop the mountain to remain free. Unaware that slavery had been abolished after their escape, and believing they would be re-captured when they saw an approaching troop of soldiers, they flung themselves off the peaks in large numbers giving it the name Le Morne – meaning the Mournful One.
After a completely exhilarating day on this beautiful island, the sun was beginning to set and I took it as a sign that it was time head back to the hotel. It was a brief but amazing stay here in Mauritius.
Tomorrow I fly back to Reunion to continue my appreciation of that island’s unique beauty before flying on to Paris to meet up with my friend Susan who will be travelling with me for the next two weeks.
But there’s one thing I know for sure…I’ll never forget my visit to Mauritius.