Winter sun holidays: Escaping to the lagoons and beaches of Rodrigues, Mauritius' tiny neighbour

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Lying in the shade of tall palm trees on a tiny desert island while sampling some freshly barbecued fish and watching the boats bob up and down on the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon, I realised that this was the ultimate island retreat. 

An island escape is the perfect holiday if you’re looking to relax and get away from it all, but I was actually on an island (Ile aux Chats, or Cat Island) off another island (Rodrigues) which itself is reached from the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius – an island holiday cubed, if you will. 

Either this was the most relaxing place I’d ever visited, or I was in a vacation version of the film Inception.

Rodrigues, Mauritius' little-known neighbour, is the perfect holiday-within-a-holiday destination

Rodrigues, Mauritius’ little-known neighbour, is the perfect holiday-within-a-holiday destination

Located off the east coast of Africa, Mauritius is well-known for its stunning beaches, luxury resort hotels and year-round sunshine, but for those seeking a more remote island experience, its little-known neighbour of Rodrigues is the perfect holiday-within-a-holiday destination. 

It is the place where Mauritians themselves come to relax and is known for its tranquillity, its lack of development and its beautiful wildlife as well as the beaches, which rival anything Mauritius has to offer.

Just a 90-minute flight due east of Mauritius, this tiny island is just 42 square miles in size but is entirely surrounded by coral reefs – which cover an area more than twice that – which make it an ideal destination for diving and snorkelling or just soaking up the stunning scenery.

Named after the Portuguese explorer Diogo Rodrigues, the island looks as it has come straight from the pages of a travel brochure, with lush green hills inland surrounded by golden sandy beaches and the sparkling clear turquoise ocean. 

Sarah recommends staying at the island's Cotton Bay hotel, which is set by the beach. Pictured is the hotel's honeymoon suite

Sarah recommends staying at the island’s Cotton Bay hotel, which is set by the beach. Pictured is the hotel’s honeymoon suite

The island's 'Plage de l'Est' beach. 'This tiny island is just 42 square miles in size,' Sarah writes

The island’s ‘Plage de l’Est’ beach. ‘This tiny island is just 42 square miles in size,’ Sarah writes 

On the beaches, fishermen hang up fresh octopus to dry (pictured)

On the beaches, fishermen hang up fresh octopus to dry (pictured)  

Plastic bags are banned on the island and the island’s chief commissioner is keen to preserve the island as an ecological destination and restrict large-scale developments. A dependency of Mauritius with a population of just 38,000, Rodrigues is far less built up than its larger neighbour and is practically unknown to foreign tourists.

This means that there are just a handful of three and four-star hotels on the island – there are no five-star hotels yet, although the island is currently in discussion with several operators who are hoping to be the first five-star brand here – but instead, the island boasts dozens of excellent guesthouses. 

While the term might conjure up a dank B&B from a British seaside town in the 1960s, this couldn’t be further from the truth: in Rodrigues it can be like having your own boutique hotel, with individually-designed rooms, private pools and even sometimes a pair of giant tortoises for company.

Locals will tell you that you need at least five days to really appreciate the island, and while you would certainly be ultra-relaxed after almost a week on Rodrigues, a long weekend here is ample time to explore the delights of the island and get as much sun, sea and sleep as you need.

The spa at the three-star Cotton Bay hotel. 'There are just a handful of three and four-star hotels on the island,' Sarah writes

The spa at the three-star Cotton Bay hotel. ‘There are just a handful of three and four-star hotels on the island,’ Sarah writes

The view of the sea from Cotton Bay hotel. There are no five-star hotels yet on Rodrigues, but according to Sarah, the island is currently in discussion with several operators who are hoping to be the first five-star brand there

The view of the sea from Cotton Bay hotel. There are no five-star hotels yet on Rodrigues, but according to Sarah, the island is currently in discussion with several operators who are hoping to be the first five-star brand there

Cotton Bay hotel's swimming pool. Sarah says that an escape to Rodrigues is 'pure luxury'

Cotton Bay hotel’s swimming pool. Sarah says that an escape to Rodrigues is ‘pure luxury’

Sarah says that Rodrigues 'is entirely surrounded by coral reefs, which make it an ideal destination for diving and snorkelling'

Sarah says that Rodrigues ‘is entirely surrounded by coral reefs, which make it an ideal destination for diving and snorkelling’

I flew from Mauritius’ international airport early Friday afternoon and landed just after 3pm, my window seat giving me a great view of the sandy islands and vast lagoon that surrounded Rodrigues. By 4pm I was swimming in the sunshine in the outdoor pool at the Domaine de la Paix guesthouse, the number-one-rated guesthouse on Tripadvisor for the whole of Rodrigues.

It has eight individual rooms ranging from twin to doubles and family rooms as well as a spa treatment room and each is beautifully decorated with handmade furniture and artwork, one even boasting a whale skeleton. 

Guests tend to have their favourites, from the circular Harmony room, to Zenitude where you can gaze through the roof at the starry night sky. With the rooms scattered around its hilltop location hillside among the palms, passion fruit trees and colourful bougainvillaea, it was easy to see why it was so well rated by visitors. It has stunning views of the coast, a stone-built magnesium pool (no harsh chlorine here, just healthy mineral salts) and no passing traffic meant the only sounds were the wind in the trees or an occasional chirrup from a passing bird, making it a very relaxing place to stay.

Rodrigues' Anse Bouteille beach. According to Sarah, locals will tell you that you need at least five days to really appreciate the island

Rodrigues’ Anse Bouteille beach. According to Sarah, locals will tell you that you need at least five days to really appreciate the island

Air Mauritius has several flights a day between Mauritius and Rodrigues

Air Mauritius has several flights a day between Mauritius and Rodrigues

While owner Francois is happy to provide evening meals, I decided to go a little further afield and on my first night ventured down the road to the beach-side Les Cocotiers hotel to sample a traditional Mauritian buffet dinner and rum cocktails while watching a display of local dancing (inspired by Scottish, Polish and Russian influences), which delighted its Mauritian guests.

You can easily explore Rodrigues by car or foot – trekking through Rodrigues’ unspoilt countryside and hills is a popular activity here – but I was keen to see the island from the water and so the next morning, after an impressive breakfast of fruit, freshly-made bread, pastries, passionfruit and cooked eggs I headed to the stunning beaches at Port Sud-Est on the south coast to meet Gonzague, the skipper of a little sailing boat – my transport for the day.

Leaving the kite-surfers weaving and diving in the blue skies behind us, we chugged out into the lagoon for a morning’s snorkelling, greeting various scuba divers and octopus fishermen on the way (the fresh octopus is hung up on the beach to dry) before having lunch on the aforementioned Ile aux Chats.

A view of the spectacular scenery in Rodrigues. 'Trekking through Rodrigues' unspoilt countryside and hills is a popular activity,' Sarah says

A view of the spectacular scenery in Rodrigues. ‘Trekking through Rodrigues’ unspoilt countryside and hills is a popular activity,’ Sarah says 

A street in Rodrigues’ main town, Port Mathurin, where Sarah spent the final morning of her trip

The market at Port Mathurin. During Sarah's visit, the town was 'hosting a loud and colourful Creole festival, complete with market stalls and loud music'

On the left is a street in Rodrigues’ main town, Port Mathurin, where Sarah spent the final morning of her trip. Pictured on the right is the market at Port Mathurin. During Sarah’s visit, the town was hosting a ‘loud and colourful Creole festival, complete with market stalls and loud music’

The tiny island studded with palm trees and fringed with sandy beaches is called the island of cats due to its shape from the mainland (although we did see one friendly cat on the island too) and is one of a whole host of nearby islets straight from the pages of Treasure Island, such as the Ile aux Cocos, Ile au Sable, Ile aux Crabe and Ile Gombrani. They are all popular destinations for day trips with some, such as ‘my’ island Ile aux Chats, allowing barbecues.

While I lay in the shade and drank up the spectacular view along with the sunshine, Gonzague was cooking up a storm and soon returned laden with capitaine fish, sausages, chicken and prawn skewers (and had thoughtfully brought along a cool box full of wine, beer, water and Coke).

Sun-dazed and wind-swept from the boat ride back, it was bliss to cool off with a swim back at Domaine de la Paix before heading out to the lively beach town Anse aux Anglais for dinner. 

While there were dozens of family groups sitting at picnic tables on the beach enjoying the evening warmth, I made instead for the packed local corner restaurant La Plage, where I tucked into what was becoming my favourite cocktail, Ti Punch. This is a potent mixture of rum, limes and sugar syrup and was the perfect starter to my main dish, the famous ‘Bol renverse’ (upside-down bowl), a bowl stuffed full of stir-fried rice and vegetables and a fried egg, which is then upended in a perfect semi-sphere on your plate.

My final morning was spent exploring Rodrigues’ main town, Port Mathurin – which was hosting a loud and colourful Creole festival, complete with market stalls and loud music – and chatting to the island’s chief executive, Jacques Davis Hee Hong Wye.

A sailboat by the Rodrigues coast. Describing her own boat trip, Sarah writes: 'We chugged out into the lagoon for a morning’s snorkelling, greeting various scuba divers and octopus fishermen on the way'

A sailboat by the Rodrigues coast. Describing her own boat trip, Sarah writes: ‘We chugged out into the lagoon for a morning’s snorkelling, greeting various scuba divers and octopus fishermen on the way’

Trou d'Argent beach in the eastern part of Rodrigues. The locals are hoping to boost sustainable tourism on the island

Trou d’Argent beach in the eastern part of Rodrigues. The locals are hoping to boost sustainable tourism on the island

The St. Gabriel Cathedral, located in the town of St Gabriel. According to Sarah, you can easily explore Rodrigues by car or foot

The St. Gabriel Cathedral, located in the town of St Gabriel. According to Sarah, you can easily explore Rodrigues by car or foot

Pictured is one of the giant tortoises at the Francois Legaut sanctuary, which reintroduced giant tortoises to Rodrigues after they were hunted to extinction

Pictured is one of the giant tortoises at the Francois Legaut sanctuary, which reintroduced giant tortoises to Rodrigues after they were hunted to extinction

‘We want to boost tourism and the local economy, but to do it in a sustainable way,’ he explained. ‘We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of mass tourism elsewhere and instead want to position the island as an ecological destination.’

If you go for a week then the more active are spoiled for choice if beaches and boating are too relaxing. 

Options include ziplining 100 metres above the trees, visiting The Garden of Five Senses botanical gardens, crossing the hair-raising Indiana Jones-style suspended bridge, or going kayaking, kite-surfing, wind-surfing or fishing, or visiting the giant tortoises at the Francois Legaut sanctuary, which reintroduced giant tortoises to Rodrigues after being hunted to extinction in the 18th century.

I wasn’t able to squeeze in a trip to the giant tortoise sanctuary but the indefatigable owner of my guesthouse, Domaine de la Paix, had a solution – his very own pair of female giant tortoises that lived at his other villa across the island. As giant tortoises live for 150 years, these two were mere babies at 15 years old. Munching on colourful bougainvillaea flowers, the pair looked extremely content as they basked in the Rodrigues sunshine and I knew exactly how they felt. 

An island break is a real treat anyway – but an island holiday in the middle of another island holiday? That’s pure luxury.

Sarah Bridge is a travel writer and founder of the travel reviews aladyofleisure.com.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Getting to Rodrigues: Air Mauritius has several flights a day between Mauritius and Rodrigues and the trip lasts 90 minutes. 

Getting to Mauritius: Direct flights to Mauritius from the UK depart from London Heathrow (British Airways) or London Gatwick (Air Mauritius) while indirect flights from UK regional airports are with Emirates (via Dubai), Air France (via Paris) and Turkish Airlines (via Istanbul).

Where to stay in Rodrigues: Sarah stayed at the Domaine de la Paix guesthouse, 10 miles from the airport. Price per room starts from £150 with some minimum stay restrictions. Hotels on the island include Mourouk Ebony hotel and Cotton Bay hotel – both have swimming pools and beachfront locations. 

Visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/mauritius/entry-requirements for the latest travel rules. 

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