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White sand beaches, turquoise water, swaying palms … this Indian Ocean island has it all.
I am lying on a Persian carpet on a sea of brightly coloured cushions looking up at a canopy of stars in the sky. Beside me stands a large, brilliantly jewelled teepee, and not far beyond, under a white marquee, a table set for fine dining for two. The night is still and dark, lit only by candles and flaming torches. And later, as we dine on champagne and rock lobsters, by a spectacular bonfire.
If not for the gentle lapping of the ocean, I could imagine myself in some exotic desert oasis. But I am on the tropical island of Mauritius, in the heart of the Indian Ocean. Or, to be more specific, at the island's oldest resort, the super-luxurious One&Only Le Saint Géran, where service has been raised to an art form and magic moments like this are many.
With its pale, colonnaded, hacienda-style architecture, the resort sprawls along the longest beach on the island. Step out of your room and immediately you're on the beach, with the azure and turquoise sea a step away. Your beach butler will have already prepared your thatched-umbrella-ed sunbed and will be waiting with cold face towels, iced water and the extensive beach lunch menu – so there's no need to leave your sun lounge all day. My favourite choices were the wagyu beef burger, sushi and sashimi and the local noodle dish, mine frite. All packed beach lunches are delivered in a beautiful wooden box, complete with linen napery. Service, indeed.
Take some respite from beach lounging and you can repair to La Terrasse, the open-air, poolside restaurant. Come evening, it's time to head for the bar and indulge in one of the extraordinary cocktails conjured up by "rum wizard" Valayten. Dinner options include a traditional Mauritian-style feast of delicately spiced curries at Rasoi by Vineet, a white-canopied restaurant overhanging the water, or fine French-island fusion dining at Prime, where I tasted my first sea urchin soufflé.
For those who have less tolerance for all-day sun soaking, swimming and beach strolling, there are water sports, tennis, a fully-equipped gym and a spa where you can have your massage in an open-air pavilion.
It may be a luxury hot spot, but children are welcome here and there are multiple activities for them: the kids' club includes a child-friendly pool, a cinema and chef-taught cooking classes. As this 39-year-old resort boasts a return-visitor rate of more than 40 per cent, it's likely many of the parents holidayed here as children themselves.
Hard as it is to tear yourself away from such indulgence, the island itself calls, with lush scenery, sugarcane-lined roads, bustling markets, a stunning harbour flanked by mountains and the sea, and some great exploring and shopping. Hiring a car and arming yourself with a map is one option, especially if you have time to wend your way around the island seeking out villages and off-the-tourist-track spots over a couple of days. I chose the easier course, getting a local driver for my excursions who also turned out to be an excellent guide.
First destination-must is the capital, Port Louis. Wander around its pretty landscaped waterfront flanked with beautiful old buildings, reflecting the eras of Portuguese, Dutch, French and English colonisation. Throw in the colour and culture of the Indian and African migration and you have a united nations of style and exotica. You can easily spend a few hours here, and there are plenty of restaurants for a leisurely waterside lunch.
A visit to the island's main markets is not to be missed. Even if you're not a foodie, the produce market is worth a look with its huge array of exotic and colourful fruits, vegetables and spices. Then browse the clothes and craft bazaar for inexpensive buys: sarongs, saris, jewelled sandals, cashmere wraps, turquoise, coral and pearl jewellery, brightly coloured woven baskets and local artefacts.
Port Louis is packed with designer boutiques and it is here you will also find quality cashmere, fine gold jewellery and diamonds, all products of the island's industries. For more leisurely shopping, head 20 kilometres up the coast to the tourist town of Grand Baie, which is also a perfect waterside spot for lunch or an afternoon drink.
If you've shopped 'til you dropped, set aside a day for a bit of adventure. Go east and snorkel at Ile aux Cerfs, a small island surrounded by coral reefs and crystal-clear water. Go west and swim with dolphins in their natural habitat at Tamarin Bay. Or take a walk on the wild side with lions in the Casela Nature and Leisure Park, where you can actually stroll and hang out with the big cats. Their trainers are on hand at all times, but still it's a heart-stopping thrill.
Whatever you do in Mauritius, make time to dine. Street food is fantastic, with Indian, Creole, Chinese and African on offer (try a dholl puri, a flatbread with curry). There are many great restaurants, from local eateries with delicious authentic fare to top-notch places with exquisite fusion food. The curries are many and wonderful, seafood is a mainstay, rougaille is a delicious Creole stew worth a try, the island fruit is sweet and delicious, and "millionaire's salad" (heart of palm) is an everyday dish.
Life is good in this prosperous piece of paradise, where the racial harmony of its Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist population is evident – and prized. And where, one night, a magic carpet can whisk you a million miles from care.
Where to stay
One&Only Le Saint Géran. Junior suites per night from $US875 (low season) for two, including breakfast. (In Australia, One&Only Hayman Island opens on July 1.) oneandonlyresorts.com.
What to pack
Swimsuits for day, island chic for night.
What to eat
Any type of curry with all the trimmings – it's addictive.
What to drink
A mojito, or any cocktail made with the local rum.
A cashmere wrap, and a carving of the extinct dodo.
Getting cosy with a big cat.
Tandem skydiving from 10,000 feet for stunning island views.
Paul and Virginia by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
For more information see mauritius.net.