Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Was I planning to come to Mauritius? I was not. I thought I’d go to Mauritania. And no, I didn’t simply confuse the two countries and buy the wrong ticket. But I had seen lovely photos that my friend Haley posted on Facebook a few weeks earlier. And then I realized that it’s “winter” in Mauritius right now, which means that it’s not high season and yet each day is perfect with a high of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, and sunny day. Coming from a muggy summer in Southeast Asia, that sounded to me like heaven.
Except I didn’t realize that each perfect day often starts with an early morning downpour. And so the other morning when I went outside at 6am to meet the driver, the heavy rain surprised me and convinced me that the tour was surely canceled. He looked at me funny when I asked: of course it wasn’t. He had a dozen French people in the van all going to the same place. He knew, I didn’t, that in an hour’s time there would not be a cloud in the sky.
It was a dolphin tour that I’d signed up for. Pretty much anywhere else in the world, if people tell you that you can swim with dolphins, they mean captive dolphins living in enclosures. There are obvious problems with that. In Mauritius, however, when they say “swim with dolphins,” they mean out in the open sea. Our driver now took us from Grand Bay in the northwest, where most visitors stay, to Tamarin Bay in the southwest where spinner dolphins are known to frolic in morning hours. Our captain, Christian, was waiting for us on his boat. And off we went.
Soon enough we found ourselves in the vicinity of a pod of dolphins, numbering fifteen or twenty. We had put on our snorkeling gear and were sitting facing outward on the edges of the boat. Now we could see their dorsal fins breaching the surface of the water, perfect blades slicing through it. “Go! Go! Go!” Christian cried. And we jumped. In the blue eeriness of the sea, half a dozen dolphins swam right past me, slim torpedoes, almost close enough for me to touch. Before me a quartet of them joined together in momentary underwater ballet, bobbing up and down in the water in vertical formation.
And then, just as quickly, they darted forward and were gone. They were masters of the sea; we just wore fins on our feet and had little hope of catching up.
We climbed back into the speedboat. But a short while later, we saw another boat nearby making a purposeful turn. Christian steered our boat to follow them, and in short order we had jumped into the water again. Looking down into the depths, I found myself swimming on top of — and keeping up with — a school of perhaps ten dolphins. I worked my legs to follow them, hoping that they would stay at this leisurely pace or even come up closer toward me. Just then, I noticed a sharp, squealing noise in my ears.
It couldn’t be, could it? I paused to listen harder. Whether it was the fellows beneath me or other dolphins swimming near the surface, the arhythmic squealing in my ears was unmistakable. It was coming from the dolphins, the sound of them talking, as it were.
Even as Christian decided that it was time to move on, in the middle distance a dolphin jumped clean out of the water and made several backflips in a row as though to bid as farewell. As we arrived at Benitiers Island for lunch and an afternoon on the beach, I decided that, though I was surrounded by French people I could talk to little more than I could talk to dolphins, this was US$50 well spent.
Yes, I was expecting Mauritius to be like the Maldives, expensive and full of honeymooners (although I found a way to do the Maldives economically as well). But the prices surprised me. The studio apartment I rented in Grand Bay was costing me $34 a night. And the other full-day boat trip I took, to Flat and Gabriel Islands to the north of Mauritius on a catamaran, special guest-starring five (so I counted) humpback whales, cost me $30.
IF YOU GO:
I find the Southern Hemisphere winter to be a great time to visit: great weather and not crowded, easy to find accommodation.
You may of course opt for all-inclusive resorts, would are naturally more expensive than my studio apartment but not as much as in many similar destinations. Many apartments are in buildings attached to travel agencies; or put another way, you’re renting from a travel agent. But you’re certainly not obligated to book activities through your landlord. In fact, I found the agency that owns my apartment to be less than competent, so I went to one of its nearby competitors.
A great many tourists are from France, Italy, or China, countries not famed for English-language skills. But local Mauritians are generally fluent in both English and French, having been ruled by both empires. (You can still find Martello towers around Mauritius, built by the British during the Napoleonic Wars to defend against potential French naval assaults.)
If you choose the budget path, your flights are likely to be your greatest expense. There is no great way around this, given where Mauritius is located. But make sure to check the website of Air Mauritius. Prices that it offers tend not to show up on Google Flights and other travel search engines, and at least for me they were by far the best deal.
It is unfortunately inconvenient to get around the island by public transportation, namely the bus system. The distances are farther than you’d expect, and the buses are infrequent enough that you may have to wait a full hour if transferring. Construction for a metro system is underway, which may eventually provide convenience but right now only contributes to traffic congestion. Taxis are relatively expensive, but, as in many parts of the world, they are open to haggling. For reference, a roundtrip taxi from the capital Port Louis on the west coast to Le Morne Brabant, the peninsula in the island’s southwestern corner, should cost about 2,500 rupees (US$73), though I haggled that number down to 2,000. A one-way taxi from Port Louis to the airport should cost about 1,200. Renting your own vehicle may be a better option if you want to explore large portions of the island.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."