Marooned in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is a multi-racial, multi-cultural melting pot with influences from Europe, Africa and Asia – and a growing reputation as a golf destination. Peter Ellegard reports.
Mauritius is a beguiling destination that, once visited, draws you back again and again. Its allures are many: the beauty of its scenery, dominated by distinctive, craggy mountain peaks; bays of glorious white-sand beaches, fringed by palm trees; the tranquil and shallow turquoise waters of the lagoons beyond, protected by reefs encircling the island, and its friendly, always smiling people.
As the Emirates Airbus took off from Heathrow on a cold, dreary November evening for my fourth visit to Mauritius, via Dubai, I pondered how much change I would see since I last visited, almost 20 years ago.
I remember huge swathes of the tropical island being covered by sugar cane plantations, and workers out in the fields cutting the cane plants by hand with machetes to load onto oxcarts. But cheaper international competitors, plummeting prices and slashed EU subsidies, have decimated the once-mighty sugar industry. As a result, many plantations have disappeared. Tourism is now the big cash cow.
CHAMPIONSHIP GOLF. On my last visit, I had passed sprawling tracts of sugar cane stalks swaying in the sea breeze as I drove through the 6,000-acre Domaine de Bel Ombre, on the southwest coast. This time, it would be my base for the week.
In the intervening years, the estate has closed its sugar mill, dug up much of the sugar cane it had grown for 100 years and transformed itself into a luxury hospitality company.
Since 2004, it has operated two five-star hotels fronting a beautiful stretch of beach – the Heritage Le Telfair Golf & Spa Resort and the adjacent Heritage Awali Golf & Spa Resort – as well as villas, two spas and the 18-hole Heritage Golf Club championship course.
One of seven 18-hole courses that now grace Mauritius, it is set to really put the island on the global golfing map in May, when it hosts the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open, the first-ever tri-sanctioned pro tour event; a collaboration between the European Tour, Africa’s Sunshine Tour and the Asian Tour.
The four-day stroke play championship, from 7-10 May, will feature at least 40 players from each tour’s 2014 Order of Merit, competing for a purse of £1 million.
PALATIAL VILLA. The Mauritius Open was last held in 2008, being superseded the following year by the MCB Open, a European Seniors Tour event that evolved into the MCB Tour Championship. This remains on the Seniors Tour calendar as the season’s finale each December. Like the MCB Open and previous Mauritius Open incarnation, it is held on the Legend Course at Constance Belle Mare Plage.
Some 600 million households on five continents will be able to watch the pros battle it out for the Mauritius Open honours on live and recorded TV coverage. The result will count towards each Tour’s Order of Merit, as well as official world golf ranking points.
Having been given a palatial three-bedroom villa, complete with its own plunge pool plus the use of my own golf buggy to explore the resort, I felt like a Tour pro. But I was not getting special treatment; all guests staying in one of the villas enjoy the same facilities. You can even have a chef cook a meal in your villa if you don’t want to eat at one of the twin resorts’ 12 restaurants.
ON COURSE. My first pit stop was lunch at the C Beach Club, which will be the Mauritius Open players’ clubhouse. I met with Heritage Golf Club’s amiable general manager Ryan Dodds, who explained that hosting such a high profile event should raise awareness of Mauritius as a golf destination.
He was preaching to the converted. With its perfect, year-round tropical climate, top-class courses and plenty to do besides lazing on the beach or lounging by the pool, Mauritius really is a no-brainer for golfers who want to combine a beach-based holiday with as much golf as they want to play.
Another two courses are due to open on Mauritius by the end of 2016. For an island just over three times the size of the Isle of Man, having 10 18-hole courses to choose from, by designers including Ernie Els and Bernhard Langer, will please even the most ardent golf nut.
Like the Heritage course, the Avalon course (opening late next year in nearby Bois Cheri) is a design by South African Peter Matkovich. That will give the island’s southwest four courses, the others being Tamarina and Paradis.
PART OF PARADISE. Paradis and Tamarina make enjoyable golfing excursions that are not overly exacting. They offer golfers stunning settings and exquisite views.
Paradis nestles under the towering Le Morne mountain on a peninsula next to two hotels owned by the island’s largest hotel company, Beachcomber. It was a welcome return to Le Morne as I have stayed there twice before, and the Paradis golf manager, Mario, even remembered me from two decades earlier!
Paradis is an ideal holiday golf course, being neither long nor particularly difficult. Care is needed, however, to avoid a waterway that crosses several holes and the beautiful lagoon that edges five of the back nine holes.
It was my first time playing Tamarina and I was struck by the mountain views incorporated into the layout by designer Rodney Wright. The iconic sharp-peaked Mount Rempart, resembling a small Matterhorn, forms the memorable backdrop to several holes, most spectacularly on the dogleg par-4 7th and the tricky par-4 15th. Another favourite was the par-3 6th, with elevated tee boxes requiring a tee shot over a river to a small, protected green 275 feet below.
STUNNING VIEWS. The east coast comprises the Legends and Links courses at the Constance Belle Mare Plage – Langer’s testing Le Touessrok layout taking up the entire offshore island, Ile aux Cerfs, and the Ernie Els-designed Four Seasons Anahita course. This will share the Mauritius Open with the Heritage, hosting it on alternate years, starting from 2016. The second new course will be in the north.
Els is kind to wayward drivers, with expansive and forgiving fairways, if you can avoid the well-placed bunkers on many holes or the meandering Lazy Burn on the short par-4 9th. Stop off after the 9th green to see the two giant Aldabra tortoises that live in a pen just behind it. They are partial to bananas, and lumber towards you in expectation of a snack.
Accuracy is key for approach shots, with the small and undulating greens heavily protected by bunkers. Anahita’s par-5 4th, called Ocean Drive, and the par-3 8th, Manta Ray, both play directly towards the azure Indian Ocean before the last three holes serve up one of golf’s most drop-dead gorgeous finishes. Keep your eye on your shots instead of the passing boats, the inviting sea or Ile aux Cerfs, across the bay, otherwise your score will suffer.
QUALITI SERVICE. Anahita is managed by the adjacent, luxury Four Seasons hotel, and the service quality is as high on the course as it is in the hotel. A waiter even serves cold lemon juice and cookies at the halfway point.
A five-minute ride in a small ferryboat brings you to Ile aux Cerfs. Make sure you stock up on golf balls as you will need plenty. It is a brute of a course, albeit a beautiful one, with narrow fairways, water hazards galore, mangrove swamps and thick stands of trees to negotiate. The constant wind off the ocean makes club selection and deciding where to aim even tougher.
Amazingly, I belied my 23 handicap and mostly kept it on the short stuff, losing only two balls in the water and getting round one of the toughest courses I have ever played in a gross 91 and 40 Stableford points. Pretty much every hole has the wow factor, as well as the “ow” factor when your ball vanishes into a hazard…
NINE HOLE COURSES. There are also four nine-hole courses on the east coast, among them one designed by golf legend Gary Player, next to the Saint Gerain hotel.
I played two rounds on the Heritage course, one with Heritage’s Ryan Dodds the day before he jetted off to the Algarve to pick up the award of Best Golf Course in the Indian Ocean for the Heritage Golf Club at the inaugural World Golf Awards – a testament to its quality.
Resort guests get golf included. With wide fairways and not too many unfriendly hazards, it is a manageable course for most golfers. Several holes offer commanding views over parts of the course and its pitch and putt sibling, as well as to the ocean.
Matkovich also uses tall grasses to mimic sugar cane on some holes, notably the par-3 8th. Beware the huge volcanic rock just before the 4th green, get stuck behind it like I was and you are as dead as the proverbial dodo, with no shot to the green.
TIME TO INDULGE. The Heritage restaurants are all different. I particularly enjoyed the food, service and beachside views at the Awali resort’s Infinity Blue and the Heritage Le Telfair’s Asian-inspired Gin’Ja. Here my duck choice was flambéed at my table with panache, not to mention dining under the floodlit branches of a huge ficus tree next to the historic Chateau de Bel Ombre, the grand plantation house which now specialises in local food sourced on the Domaine.
I indulged in a very relaxing spa session, choosing from the Seven Colours Spa Millennium Collection at the Heritage Le Telfair. The treatments are based on a colour and flower you select. I chose lavender, said to be very calming, and indeed it was.
NATURE RESERVE. The active can explore the Domaine by 4x4, quad bike or Segway. I sat behind tour leader Fabrice on a powerful 700cc two-seater quad bike as he drove me through the Frederica Nature Reserve. The reserve covers almost half the entire estate, and we saw a lovely waterfall, wild boar and deer, as well as an overlook giving a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, coastline and ocean.
Pointing out the old sugar mill at the entrance to the sister hotels, Fabrice explained that Mauritius once had more than 250 sugar cane factories. Today there are just four left; Bel Ombre’s having closed in 1998.
Sadly, there was no time to visit Belle Mare Plage and play the Legends or Links courses there. That will have to wait until next time.
However, I did catch a traditional Sega show at the Heritage Awali on my final night. The Creole rhythms were every bit as vibrant as I recalled from previous visits, and I was mesmerised by the colourful dresses of the dancers as they whirled to the insistent beat by a bonfire on the beach.
I will make sure I don’t leave it another 20 years before I return to this treasured island.
Good to know
Direct flights from London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports by British Airways (www.britishairways.com) and Air Mauritius (www.airmauritius.com), with flights taking about 12 hours. Alternatively, Emirates (www.emirates.com) flights go to Mauritius via Dubai from Heathrow and Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.
Rental cars are available in Mauritius but it is easier to be transported around the island to play different courses. Tour operators arrange transfers between courses for guests on packaged holidays, or you can organise visits with local transportation companies through hotels. Allow up to 90 minutes to travel between golf resorts and courses in the southwest and those on the east coast.
WHERE TO STAY
Heritage Resorts (Heritage Le Telfair Golf & Spa Resort/Heritage Awali Golf & Spa Resort/Heritage The Villas) www.heritageresorts.mu
Four Seasons Resort Mauritius at Anahita www.fourseasons.com/mauritius
Paradis Hotel & Golf Club www.beachcomber-hotels.com
Le Touessrok Resort www.letouessrokresort.com
Tamarina Hotel www.tamarinahotel.com
Constance Belle Mare Plage Resort www.constancehotels.com
One&Only Le Saint Gerain http://lesaintgeran.oneandonlyresorts.com
WHERE TO PLAY
Heritage Golf Club (18 holes) www.heritagegolfclub.mu
Four Seasons Golf Club Mauritius at Anahita (18 holes) www.fourseasons.com/mauritius/golf
Le Touessrok Golf Course, Ile aux Cerfs (18 holes) www.letouessrokresort.com
Paradis Golf Club (18 holes) www.paradis-hotel.com
Constance Belle Mare Plage (two 18-hole courses) www.constancehotels.com
Tamarina Golf Club (18 holes) www.tamarinagolfclub.mu
Le Saint Gerain (9 holes) http://lesaintgeran.oneandonlyresorts.com
Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority www.tourism-mauritius.mu or www.mtpa.mu