If you have ever been overwhelmed or in a state of awe because of all the art and natural beauty around you, you may have experienced a phenomenon called Stendhal syndrome, according to Medical News Today.
In my case, it is not unsuspectingly stumbling upon a collection of Gauguins in someone’s house in the Hamptons that has induced my condition. No. It is the island of Rodrigues, an island about 350 miles east of Mauritius on the southeast coast of Africa. This island is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the world.
I am brought to semi-consciousness by the soft, modulated French voice of the air hostess on this early-morning Air Mauritius flight as we make our runway approach to the small island.
I become aware of the first symptoms of Stendhal as I look down. As we descend through the light clouds, the island reveals itself like a floating green planet, with its surrounding coral reef tenderly hugging it like its very own atmosphere, the color a lucid blue.
Jean-Paul from Rodrigues Tourism greets me at the tiny, quaint airport near the capital Port Mathurin and we set off in his four-by-four to my home for the next week, Mourouk Ebony Hotel. The tropical heat is palpable in April, but it is still one of the best times of year to visit. The sea temperature is pleasant all year round and ranges from 24 to 28 degrees Celsius (75 to 82 Fahrenheit). The rainiest months are January, February, and March. The best time to travel here is between June and November. I gape in undisguised awe at my surroundings as we drive.
Rodrigues is a mountainous island, richly imbued with a myriad of tropical flora, marvelous beaches — both milky white and surprisingly black since the island is volcanic — and coral reefs that surround the island. The leisurely pace of life is quite obvious as we pass various local inhabitants on their scooters or on foot, waving at each other. They seem to be perpetually smiling, these people. Odd, I thought at first, until I got to know them a bit better and understood why there is no occasion for misery or bitterness here.
We are en route to Mourouk, a coastal village in the southeastern part of the island and home to a Creole-style hotel, straight out of your dreams. Mourouk Ebony Hotel sits against a hilly landscape and overlooks a huge turquoise lagoon that sharply contrasts the deeper blue winding channel which shelters a multitude of uninhabited islets. Lazy ceiling fans move around high above the airy reception area and lounge. The warm reception reminds me of days of yore when hotel staff still treated guests as friends. All rooms were equipped with air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms with showers and a mini-bar — with no steps to climb!
From your private terrace, you have an uninterrupted view of the sea. I take a walk around the hotel after a delectable lunch. If you’re inclined towards physical activities, they offer archery, windsurfing, kayaking, diving, snorkeling, beach volleyball, tennis, kites, and indoor activities such as billiards as well as a television and video room. You could also spend your day by the pool or on the beach (mere steps away) with a book and a cocktail!
There are more contemporary lodgings on the island, but you can’t do better at this price with its sense of authenticity.
1. Ancient Animals
Now I’m off to see the turtles, the wonderful turtles of Rodrigues.
This sister island to Mauritius was once covered in dense, native forest and was teeming with animal and bird species, many of which have become extinct. Walking among the giant tortoises at François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve, I feel as though I have gone back in time, experiencing Rodrigues as it was over 300 years ago before it was devastated by human presence. I am spellbound by their head conservationist’s passion and determination to make this sanctuary work.
“There were hundreds of thousands of tortoises here, it was like walking on a pavement of tortoises!” However, the “discoverer” man ate them — almost all of them. The main attraction now is the giant tortoise, which is the Aldabra species, the most genetically similar to the long-extinct tortoises which lived here. Baby tortoises are now born and raised here and the staff is working with the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation to exterminate introduced plants, replacing them with indigenous varieties.
On the way back to the hotel, JP tells me a bit about the history of this astonishing island. Born from volcanic activity between 1.3 and 1.5 million years ago, the island — 18 kilometers long, 8 kilometers wide — is the smallest of the Mascarene archipelago.
Rodrigues bears the name of its “official” discoverer, Portuguese navigator Don Diego Rodriguez.
The first settlers to set foot in Rodrigues in 1691 were seven French Huguenots led by François Leguat.
The British took possession of the island in 1809. At the time, the island counted about a hundred inhabitants. Today, the number of inhabitants is approximately 41,600.
The most striking thing about this place is the lack of throngs of loud tourists. Rodrigues is not nearly as overrun and “shiny” as Mauritius. It’s a protectorate, and that is a massive part of the charm of the place.
The tide has come in and as we drive back, I notice that what was before laid bare as black volcanic sand has now been magically transformed. It is as if a soft green-blue carpet has been delicately laid over it. After an afternoon nap, I wake up to the sound of soft guitar strains coming from the lounge. It is dusk. I walk onto my balcony and as the soft, sticky fragrant night air envelops me, I watch in rapture as the last light disappears over the still sea.
We are treated to a superb barbecue dinner that night, accompanied by folk dancing and music.
2. Island Life
The following morning, we set off to one of the neighboring uninhabited islets for some rest and relaxation. We explore the tiny islet, have a barbecue lunch, swim in the gin-clear water, and just indolently lie about like royalty. We have a French couple with us with their two children, aged about 6 and 8. These kids must have thought they had discovered paradise. They explore, swim, make sandcastles, and play on the beach as though the end of the world was nigh. The hotel will organize any excursions for you.
3. Bird Sanctuary
The following day, Rodrigues Tourism took me to Ile aux Cocos, an island bird sanctuary. As the white and gray clouds play on the water, intermittently allowing the blue sky to make an impetuous appearance, the iridescent surface of the sea seems to change color between that of molten mercury and the sheerest of tourmaline. The water is as brilliantly translucent as Ernest Hemingway’s mind on a seldom-spotted abstemious day.
Our guide tells us there are 45,000 birds on the island of various species and not all are friendly — when you approach their nests too closely they go positively Hitchcockian on you.
4. The Market
I spent the following morning absorbing the wonderful sights, sounds, colors, and aromas of the weekly Saturday market in Port Mathurin. You can buy anything here from fabrics and clothes, as well as local arts, crafts, the freshest fish, and other fresh produce, including their world-renowned Rodrigues honey. We have lunch overlooking the water at Marmite des Iles where I order the best garlicky prawns I have ever had in my life.
That night, we were treated to a traditional song and dance show. The tiny but charming and hilarious owner of the supper club, Lulu, introduces me by name to all the patrons like some celebrity and I almost choke on my émincé (thinly sliced) of beef.
5. The Food
The next day was spent sleeping late and eating lunch at the gorgeously quaint Le Tropical restaurant.
The flavors that make Rodrigues cuisine are vast: a cono-cono (shellfish) salad said to have aphrodisiac virtues, a traditional corn soup, steamed crab with garden spices, an octopus curry on a bed of corn, pork in honey, boiled country ham with fine herbs, and a cabri sauteur (goat) with local flavors or some country chicken with ginger and curcuma. For dessert, a papaya sorbet, a coconut and honey pie, or even a traditional corn pudding for dessert — yum!
The food everywhere on the island is fresh and delicious.
6. We Are Sailing
On my last day in this splendid place, we head to another of the uninhabited islets on the Ariel, a catamaran belonging to and skippered by a chap called Marlon. Originally from Cape Town in South Africa, he moved here with his family about a year ago. “I have never looked back,” he said with a wide grin. After a day of sunshine, picnicking, and frolicking, I dread my imminent departure. I want to grip time in my hands and force it to a standstill. The next day, standing at the airport and waiting for the plane to take me back to stress, pollution, deafening technology, and general chaos, I feel more forlorn than I have in many moons. The whisper becomes a mantra in my head: “not yet, not yet.”
Rodrigues is the art de vivre (the art of living) — go and see how it’s done.
Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from the states to Mauritius. However, Air Mauritius will fly you there via South Africa and other destinations. The trip is long, but believe me, it will be worth it!
For more information on traveling to Mauritius, check out these articles: