Bypass the resort and get a lot more for your money. Experience a lot more too.
Budgeting in Mauritius? What is the point of that, I hear you say. Mauritius is the place where you push the boat out and have the holiday of a lifetime, surely? Why bother going all that way, suffering that 14-hour long-haul flight, when I have to be mindful of money?
I hear what you’re saying, but take it from someone who has done it, and enjoyed it. My husband and I took our three children there last Easter and experienced the island independently, without the backdrop of a luxury resort. Mauritius is simply wonderful for families, you don’t need the Four Seasons Hotel to ensure this. The public beaches are extraordinary, the ocean with its shallow water and gentle waves is perfect for small children. I’m totally not suggesting you rough it out there, but there are so many three/four star hotels and Air B&Bs with excellent reviews, so why go five star when you don’t have to? It may be Africa, but it’s very civilised and snoozy, you’ll find it pretty difficult to escape the tourist trail, so why not think out the box, cut costs, and at the same time explore a little?
I remember being a little embarrassed telling friends we were jetting off to Mauritius last Easter because the island is synonymous with luxury and conjures up assumptions of extravagance. Truth was, whilst we were keen to make it the holiday of a lifetime for us and our three children, there needed to be an element of keeping within a budget. We knew a couple who had blown over £20K on a romantic break over there, and we had a fraction of that figure in mind for our two week holiday, and that had to include our flights! Could we do it? Was it possible? We thought so! Bypassing the resort, away from the honeymooners and golfers, wasn’t an issue for us, as we’d never been on a package holiday and we weren’t about to start. We needed the holiday to be family friendly but we also valued our independence and sense of adventure.
Here’s what we did and how we did it. Hopefully you can pick up some ideas on how to extend your spending money, or even just some inspiration on how to do things differently and see a bit more.
Getting there: when and how
A huge chunk of your holiday expenditure will be allocated to flights, especially as, with children in school, you’re restricted to holidaying out-of-term-time. We flew during the Easter break when the airfare was an eye-watering £850 each, but there wasn’t a lot we could do about it. We chose to fly with Emirates via Dubai because, from experience, the comfort on the A380 aeroplane and customer service is always of a very high standard. However, trawling through Dubai airport at 3am to catch your connecting flight is an ordeal for anyone, let alone a family of five, so you may prefer to fly direct from Heathrow with British Airways and Air Mauritius. You don’t get your A380, or your wonderful Arabic hospitality, but you’ll get there at least.
May to October is deemed the most favourable time to visit, in terms of weather. We arrived at the beginning of April, towards the end of the hot season.
Where to stay?
We had an amazing opportunity to stay with my husband’s business partner in Tamarin on the west coast. I’m aware that not everybody has a contact on the island they can shack up with, but there is an abundance of really good quality AirB&Bs available on the island, many of them with swimming pools. I recommend the area of Flic en Flac beach, also on the west coast, where we spent a lot of time. Flic en Flac is a public beach but news for you – all beaches are public in Mauritius, so there’s absolutely no need to shell out for a luxury hotel with the assumption that you’ll have a better quality beach. Flic en Flac is a beautiful spot and there are plenty of AirB&Bs suitable for families. While writing this article I browsed the website and found a two-bedroom apartment for four guests, two minutes from the beach and access to a swimming pool, at £670 for the fortnight.
Eating out isn’t cheap in Mauritius, so the ability to self-cater will also help your money go further. There are two supermarkets in close proximity to Flic en Flac, and we found food shopping a fairly painless procedure.
If you’d prefer to go down the hotel route, then simply shop around and be prepared to go for less than the five stars. A week at the Four Seasons, for example, will set you back an eye-watering £2,500 per person, so opt for places where your money will go further like, for example, Le Palmiste where you’ll get two weeks all-inclusive for half this price. Whilst it doesn’t overlook the beach, it is close to the Trou aux Biches, one of the best on the island. I also loved the look of The River House self-catering suites in Tamarin Bay, a beautiful area very close to where we stayed. Here, a room for two adults and two children for two weeks will cost £2,279. As you can see, there is heaps of accommodation offering very realistic and competitive rates.
How to get around: hire a car
Make sure you pre-book your taxi before arriving at the airport to ensure you don’t get ripped off. We paid around £25 to travel an hour to where we were staying on the west of the island. I wouldn’t advise using buses with children in tow as they’re slow and unreliable. There are no trains on the island.
We hired a car for £30 a day, the car wasn’t much to look at, but it was safe on the road and got us from A to B.
The journeys we took by car in Mauritius really added to our experience of this country. We saw that, away from the resorts, the country was poor and many neighbourhoods are rundown and neglected. This, in itself, is was a lesson for my children who need to understand that not everybody is as fortunate as they are. More often than not, you’ll drive through endless stalks of sugar cane. The tall green plants cover a third of the island. (We didn’t manage to make it to the Sugar Museum and Factory, but I’m told it is worth seeing)
Overall, there are some incredible windy roads and breath-taking views. These were our favourite roadtrips during the holiday:
into the hills – take the B104 from the west coast, up into the hills to Chamarel where Mauritian rum is made, along the B103 which takes you through Black River Gorges National Park, and on to the Grand Bassin (more on this later). You’ll ascend to 1,800 feet, the temperature will drop and everything will feel wild and green.
west to south – start out as described above, up the hills to Chamarel, but instead of heading east to Grand Bassin, descend from the hills and to the south coast, finishing at Souillac, to the stunning views of the Indian ocean and lunch at Chez Rosie (read on!) There are fewer resorts here on the south of the island, you’ll discover the Mauritius away from the tourist trail and pass through some typical villages where there is lots to see.
through the mountains: one of the things I loved most about Mauritius was its mountains. We were able to see the island’s jagged peaks even when just trundling down to the supermarket, but one of the best routes to experience the sheer wonder of these views is along the relatively new dual carriageway between Terre Rouge in the North to Cyber City in the middle of the island. This amazing road cuts through the heart of the island’s most mountainous region, and the scenery is epic. Try and build it into your route home from Grand Baie or Trou aux Biches in the north if you can.
Absorb the culture
Independent travel encourages you to explore more. There are so many beautiful temples in Mauritius. Even if you’re not religious, it’s worth visiting one or two to marvel at the architecture and appreciate the essence of the country. My eldest children are six and eight, and enjoyed this educational aspect of the holiday. Here’s two which I recommend.
Ganga Talao, commonly known as Grand Bassin, is a sacred lake situated in a secluded mountain area, deep in the heart of the island. It is a beautiful drive (as mentioned above!) into the hills, 1,800 feet above sea level, and the climate is considerably cooler. The road is windy, but a pleasure to drive, and teeming with tropical greenery. It’s a good quality road, it has to be because of its importance. Every year, thousands of pilgrims trek to the lake to worship, helped along the way by local people offering food and moral support. The final stretch of the road is as wide as a runway and, arriving at the temple, you get a sense of how popular this annual festival is. We were awestruck by the gigantic statue of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, an impressive 33 metres high.
Ganga Talao was a must-see for me, I had been intrigued by the sound of it. It rained buckets when we visited, the tropical mist descended, and although these weren’t ideal sightseeing conditions, it enhanced the spirituality of the location. The children enjoyed a little walk around the lake and admired the statues. My daughter, aged eight, was pleased to see Ganesh on his pedestal, she had learned about him at school.
Tookay Temple. We passed this signpost on our way back from Blue Bay and deviated from our route home to explore. I’m so glad we made the detour. The temple was breath-taking. We didn’t stay long because the sun was blazing, the ground was hot and we were barefoot, as everyone must be when visiting temples. The children enjoyed pootling around the ornate exterior. It was an educational experience for them watching the local families arrive with their offerings for the Gods.
Botanical Gardens. Lots of rain this morning, so our experience here was somewhat dampened, but the collection of trees here are incredible. No sign of any flowers though, is that usual for Botanical Gardens? It is a relaxing and therapeutic place to stroll.
You simply must snorkel while in Mauritius. We bought those Easybreath scuba masks from Decathlon for the children before we left home, and they used them a great deal, even in the swimming pool. It’s possible to snorkel from the beaches but in Flic en Flac, just for something fun to do, we hired a boat for around £50 to take us a hundred metres from shore. It wasn’t the best £50 spent, as you can see fish and coral by swimming out from the shore yourself. The water stays shallow for a long way out, so it’s perfectly safe to do so. Even when the boat took us out, I could still touch the bottom on tip toes.
To swim with dolphins, or not to swim?
One of the popular tourist activities which you’ll see advertised is swimming with dolphins which, after I had taken part in, had very mixed feelings about and I’m not sure whether I’d recommend it. It’s a pretty hectic scene, with hundreds of other people all trying to swim after dolphins at the same time, and I thought it was particularly intrusive for the animals. Still, you can make your own mind up. There are lots of companies which will provide you with this experience, and their fees will vary. Our host, who we stayed with, chose one of the more upmarket tours and so we paid a premium and received the best of the best, namely an exquisite lobster lunch and good wine.
Of course, you don’t have to opt for the VIP service, the tours take in the same sights namely the famous Crystal Rock and the desert island, Ile aux Cerfs. Understandably, as with anything, you’ll get what you pay for. The crew of one particular company ruined our quiet lunch by behaving like boy racers and tirelessly revving the engine of the speedboat in the shallows of the water to create a whole lot of spray and noise. I was glad we had our professional and gentlemanly crew, rather than those cowboys. I don’t think I would have felt as safe on the Indian Ocean in their hands. I’d steer clear of the budget option, especially with little children in tow.
Hang out with the locals
Funnily enough, we wanted to meet Mauritian people while we were in Mauritius. One of the most beautiful beaches we visited was Blue Bay, with the most serene waters I’d ever seen, barely a ripple…aside from the hundreds of locals who were making the most of their weekend and had also descended on the area with their picnics and crates of beer. Sounds off-putting, but there was room enough for everyone and we enjoyed being part of the Mauritian social scene. It didn’t feel overcrowded, and didn’t spoil the experience. We got talking to a Mauritian living in the UK who was home to visit his family.
I also had the pleasure of mingling with husband’s colleagues while I was in Mauritius, and finding out a bit more about their lives. I also made friends with two Mauritian ladies who took me to a nearby temple to experience daily prayers and a great biryani curry. These type of encounters make your holiday memorable.
Meet the expats
It can be interesting to get a glimpse of how life is working out for westerners who’ve made the move to the seemingly paradise island. While doing some pre-holiday research, I’d stumbled on the blog of an English lady living in Mauritius…and so I contacted her, explaining I would be visiting the island in April and would she like some photographs taking? She did! Sophie Le Brozec has established a Life Coaching business since moving to the island, and is helping women all over the world. I met her, along with her husband and two daughters, on La Preneuse beach early one morning before the sun ramped up, and enjoyed a photo session and good old chat with her.
I’d also taken it upon myself to book a professional photo session of my own family, simply so I’d end up with some meaningful images with me in them. (I’m never in them!) I tracked down a talented professional called Beata Albert and had the pleasure of being snapped by her on Flic en Flac beach. I loved the photos, I loved meeting her. Again, another memorable way of remembering our holiday.
Places to eat
Being primarily self-catered, our lunches consisted of French baguettes from the bakery and dinners were usually BBQ oriented. Of course, we did eat out a handful of times, and I would recommend the following places:
Big Willy’s in Black River: owned by a South African and popular with the expat crowd, this is a lively night spot with DJs and football on TV BUT during the day it is family friendly and does an excellent lunch. I made sure I returned with hubby at night, thanks to a babysitter, and we had a very good dinner in a lively environment. A brilliant place. Something for everyone.
Chez Rosey in Souillac. This place is really off the beaten track, and worth the trek. As mentioned earlier, it took us an hour to drive to this southern point from where we were staying in Tamarin, and the drive took us through the real Mauritius, beyond the manicured tourist towns. An incredible sight awaited us….maybe I don’t need to say any more, but just let the photographs speak? An Octopus Curry at this simple but delicious restaurant really topped off the experience. There are other things on the menu if tentacles are not your thing. I just love simple! Yummy food while sitting on plastic chairs wins every time for me. The children enjoyed their very authentic fish and chips. Proper food.
The Bay, Black River: This is a swish boutique hotel, and the bar/restaurant is rather romantic at sunset. We scooted out for an hour after kiddie dinner and enjoyed a beer while the children messed around on the shore. A beautiful setting to eat and drink.
Flying Dodo, Bagatelle: This isn’t an overly inspiring location. Set in a retail park, there’s no picturesque scenery to look at. Still, it’s also a brewery and so the beer was good, the food was fine and the children were well catered for. The place fills up with expats at the end of the day. A fairly safe bet if you’re on your way home and needing a bite to eat. That’s what we used it for.
Although the above places were wonderful to eat out, one of my memorable eating moments was a polysterene box of noodles from the shack on Flic en Flac beach. There are a handful of stalls on the seafront. Choose to eat from the one with the longest queue, even though you’ll be waiting a while! We also picked up a MacDonalds a few times for the kids, and drove down to Flic en Flac (you can tell we loved it there!) There’s a particularly lovely spot to the right of the beach. Part of it is covered in weedy-beachy plants, the rest of it is sand, so a very pretty spot to sit and contemplate the sunset. Of course, we made sure we grabbed a can of beer for ourselves while they tucked into their Happy Meals.
Finally, nothing to do with budget, but be aware…
It’s bloody hot!
Yup, the weather can be scorching in Mauritius. That sounds like an obvious thing to say, but be sensible with how much sightseeing you plan to do as a family. The humidity is very tiring and we often felt quite lethargic when we visited at the beginning of April. The weather was a mixture of blistering sun – we’d yet to enter the Mauritian ‘winter’ – and thunderous showers which dampened a few outings such as the Botanical Gardens. On the day we ventured out on the boat to see the dolphins, it was warm and overcast, the perfect balance, and we thanked our lucky stars. I honestly don’t know how we would have weathered a full day on the ocean in bright, sunny conditions.
Whilst Mauritius is a small island (45km wide, 65km long), it can take a while to get places. There are a few motorways, but traffic jams can hamper you, especially around Port Louis. Make sure you steer clear of rush hour, as the roads just can’t cope with the volume of cars. We had a rubbish end to a lovely day out when we got stuck in a jam around Cyber City, tried detouring, and ended up lost and even worse off.
So, did we keep within a sensible budget in Mauritius? Well, without wanting to discuss money in too much detail, yes we did. While we saved on accommodation costs, I’ve shown that decent accommodation for a family can be sourced at a reasonable cost. Self-catering enabled us to draw our holiday money out further, as did skipping expensive activities like spa days, horse riding, quad biking, helicopter rides…and so on. We really did approach Mauritius as simply as possible, and I can honestly say it was everything I hoped it would be. It is a beautiful island. I don’t feel I saw and did everything I wanted to, namely sightseeing in the capital Port Louis, but that’s because we took it at a fairly slow pace. Holidays are for exploring but relaxing too. I would love to return and perhaps next time going down the Air B&B route.