After years of planning and preparation, SALT of Palmar opened to high acclaim on Mauritius' east coast last November. It has all the features that are expected of a luxury boutique hotel: seafront location, stunning pool, beautifully executed meals made from predominantly local produce, a tranquil spa which houses the island's first salt-therapy room.These attributes, however, are not what embody the brand's core concept.
SALT is about truly experiencing and appreciating the culture of the area. One of the first things I learn is that crafting soap from scratch is a little like creating handmade chocolate. Soap-maker Nathalie carefully pours two mixtures (a dark activated charcoal derived from the outer shell of the coconut plant and a cream-coloured calcium bentonite clay) into oval-shaped moulds. As the mixtures blend – a little like pouring milk into a shot of coffee – intricate patterns begin to materialise, leaving a unique kaleidoscopic effect.
"No two soaps are the same," Nathalie explains, glancing up to ensure that I'm watching.
I'm enthralled with the soap-making process. It seems so simple, yet when I attempt to follow Nathalie's example, my patterns don't look nearly as elaborate. While her creations are coiling works of art, my attempts are a rough collection of blobs. There's an art to this that I just can't perfect.
"The soap has to stay in the mould for 24 hours, then it needs to sit and dry for a few more weeks," Nathalie explains. "Many soaps you get elsewhere are too young – they need time to dry properly."
The final step is to punch a small hole and loop a delicate rope through each one so the soap won't fall on the shower floor. Genius! The soaps I've watched Nathalie create are a small batch of the thousands she will make this year for SALT of Palmar and any guest staying at the resort can partake in the same experience.
Guests can also learn the handiwork of traditional Mauritian basket weaving with Reotee, the weaver responsible for the beach baskets found in each of the rooms. I travel to her home with a guide and it's here that I understand the significance of the huge pandanus leaves I noticed neatly laid out all over the driveway upon my arrival.
Reotee weaves bags out of pandanus leaves and recycled plastic (SALT of Palmar guests are gifted with the recyclable plastic version). Hundreds of her bags in eye-popping colours are on display at her home, which doubles as her shopfront.
Apart from involving the locals who help shape the resort, SALT also offers their onsite team members (they don't like to call them staff) an opportunity to share their skills with guests. There's Sharonne who teaches Brazilian jujitsu, Karishma is crochet master and Denis can show guests how to cultivate taro. The skills-swap arrangement isn't just one-sided, either – talented guests, who are so inclined, are encouraged to share their expertise with staff and locals.
The insider experiences are certainly highlights, as are the opportunities to practise a new skill alongside a new friend. Most SALT guests, however, are also keen to head out and explore without a chaperone – which is exactly what those involved in the brand desire.
"We don't want to shadow guests. We provide a SALT guidebook with content pulled together by locals, and a newspaper via the hotel app," says Nitesh Pandey, senior vice-president of the SALT brand. "Our guests appreciate tips on where to go, as many of them want to go out on their own and find that restaurant, bar or beach."
It takes me some time to really accept and appreciate this, as it is not the usual modus operandi for resorts – that is, encouraging guests to explore the island, dine out and shop at local stores off site.
"We want our guests to use the hotel as a base camp," Pandey explains.
"So you don't want guests to hang out at the resort?" I query, still struggling with the concept. "No," Pandey answers with gusto. "Each SALT resort will be about exploring the destination and connecting with the local people. We are simply the facilitator of that."
And what a stunning facilitator it is. Bright tropical hues and thick black-and-white stripes appear throughout the resort in a chunky block-style arrangement, designed by French artist Camille Walala to complement the landscape of Mauritius. The rooms, organised around a 25-metre pool in a riad-style building, feature floor-to-ceiling windows and the occasional splash of bright colours through modern furnishings. They are not large, nor do they have televisions or minibars. If you fancy a drink, grab a beverage from the general bar fridge that operates on an honesty system and then skip off to enjoy it in your own patch of paradise. There are also two bars with tantalising cocktail selections, craft beers and wines sourced from boutique wineries across the world.
Hands down one of my favourite places to while away an hour or two is the glass-fronted rooftop bar (another first for Mauritius). That dazzling blue water appears to glimmer more from up here, the powdery sand the island is renowned for could be mistaken for fresh white snow from this angle, and the cocktail selection elevates the already idyllic experience. On Fridays it gets even better – happy hour translates to free drinks and complimentary head and shoulder massages.
Even the meals are designed to remind guests that there's more to the island than resort life. The menu and food by culinary expert Dave is out of this world, with menu including everything from raw food to fish straight from the sea. There is no buffet – the idea is that you sit down and take your time to enjoy your meal, then get going, get moving, get out of here.
Although guests are encouraged to explore the island, the moments spent at the resort are designed to delight and this begins from the moment of arrival. I'm greeted with the loveliest beverage I've ever tasted – a tantalising concoction made from local pineapple baked in sugar and salt for a minimum of eight hours. General manger Raj explains that salt is woven into many facets of the resort, a nod to it being an essential ingredient in life.
The entry foyer features a library nook (with more than 200 books), a shop with no sales staff (the honesty system works here), a couple of iPads so guests can check themselves in, and a bakery-cafe from where the most amazing aromas drift. Fresh bread is baked here daily from 6.30am to 10.30pm and coffee is on tap around the clock – perfect for night owls or anyone dealing with jet lag.
When my time in paradise is almost up I once again take a few small steps to the beach, where I sink into a plush beanbag and use the slosh of the sea as my soundtrack to the ultimate relaxation.
You can fly to Mauritius directly from Perth with Air Mauritius. Or you can fly from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide via Perth code sharing with Virgin Australia. See airmauritius.com
SALT of Palmar is on the east coast of Mauritius, about an hour's drive from the airport, with 59 rooms. Rates from $US200 a double room a night including breakfast. See saltresorts.com
Tatyana Leonov was a guest of SALT Resorts.