TOUGH LIFE: The award-winning Maradiva Villas Resort and Spa Mauritius offers plenty to do, but relaxation seems to be high on the list. TOP FROM LEFT: Snorkelling on the reef in Mauritius; a keeper sits with a lion at Casela Nature Park; the best way to dine.
TOUGH LIFE: The award-winning Maradiva Villas Resort and Spa Mauritius offers plenty to do, but relaxation seems to be high on the list. TOP FROM LEFT: Snorkelling on the reef in Mauritius; a keeper sits with a lion at Casela Nature Park; the best way to dine. Debra Solomon

Escape into the lion's den

WOULDN'T you know it? Just before I arrived in Mauritius, a certain royal family booked out all the presidential villas of a ridiculously gorgeous resort for all of January.

Well, there go my summer plans. How to explain to the family we'll have to do without our own butler, chef and huge private swimming pool?

We could choose one of the other many such beautiful resorts on this exotic island, but to my surprise, plenty of quality affordable accommodation is available.

Budget beds aren't the only surprise in Mauritius.

For a start, the island makes a very do-able stopover en route to the rest of the world. This blob in the Indian Ocean near Africa is just seven-and-a-half hours flying time from Perth, 10 hours from Melbourne and 11-and-a-half hours from Sydney. Simply sit on the beach for a day or several before flying to Johannesburg (four and a half hours) or Europe (11 hours).

Air Mauritius will even throw in one night's stay with the airfare, while the government has made it easy for foreigners to tie the knot here. No surprise Mauritius is a popular meeting point for global friends and family.

During my week on the island, I didn't meet another Australian tourist. Instead, the buffet breakfast crowd was mostly French, German, Swiss, Russian, South African or British.

But Mauritius has always been multicultural. I was surprised to learn there were no indigenous inhabitants when the Portuguese landed in the 1600s. They were taken over by the Dutch, who were taken over by the French, who were taken over by the Brits.

Throw into the mix some African slaves and Indian migrants and eventually we land in 1968 when Mauritius became independent.

The island prides itself on racial and religious harmony to the point where every resident gets their own - and everybody else's - religious holidays off work.

Relatively high employment and free education (in French and English) for the 1.2 million residents makes for a couple of striking departures from many island paradises.

Firstly, few folks are hanging around on street corners with nothing to do.

Secondly, local hospitality staff are welcoming and helpful, but are self-confident and are happy to chat with guests.

Surprisingly, little development has occurred outside the capital of Port Louis, and few places could be called touristy.

Sugarcane fields cover 40% of the island. Add the tea, banana, pineapple and mango plantations and more often than not, you will be surrounded by lush farmland.

The attractive creole village of Chamarel is a good lunch stop (mains cost about $20 at most cafes and a local Phoenix beer about $4).

Visit Curepipe where the garment manufacturing district has a swag of factory outlets, although imported labels are not at outlet prices by our standards.

Flic-en-Flac has a bevy of tourist bars and bistros as well as a great public beach.

Surprise activities included walking with lions, and strolling underwater on the sea bed.

At Casela Nature Park on the island's west side, you can pat real lions as you - and a cache of trained handlers - walk with them. Group numbers are limited so book ahead. I didn't, but was able to do a meet-and-greet in the lion enclosure.

I willingly entered a lion's den and sat on the ground stroking a carnivorous beast. And here I am.

Non-divers can experience marine life on a seabed walk, a submarine ride or a sub-scooter drive. Bigger thrillseekers can drive an nderwater scooter.

Or go for a ride in a real submarine to see a shipwreck.

Plenty of snorkelling and sailing options are available, too, with many hotels including waterskiing and glass-bottom boat rides in the room rate.

If you love to bargain market stallholders to within a dollar of their lives, haggle away for pandanus baskets, traditional sega dancing costumes, model ships or toy dodos (the island's extinct native birds) at the Port Louis markets.

Across the road is the island's best shopping mall with brand-name shops, air-conditioning and waterfront cafes.

Here in Mauritius, rum tastings are de rigueur. You can be filled with island spirit at the sugar cane and rum factories.

Cosmetic medical tourism is on the rise here as well. With a tummy tuck, lid lift and dental work, your new makeover could be the biggest surprise of all.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Mauritius

GOOD TO KNOWABOUT MAURITIUS

Air Mauritius flies weekly from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Return airfares start from $1445 ex-Perth, $1548 ex-Sydney and $1729 ex- Melbourne, taxes included.

Bookings: http://www.airmauritius.com/

More information: http://www.tourism-mauritius.mu/

Visas: At the time of writing, Australian citizens did not require a visa



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