It is perfectly possible to be in Mauritius and not see a spot of sea.
As a business traveler, if you are staying in any one of the upscale business hotels in the central business district of Ebene, where most men in sharp suits ponder the fate of the island as a gateway to Africa, the white sandy beaches and rhythmic Sega dances in the charming fishing villages are but a distant laidback dream.
This is an economy working overtime, with a new ambitious government and a population weaning off idyllic vistas of just the surf, sand and sea, and wanting much, much more – quicker.
“This country got rich too soon,” says Sattar Hajee Abdoula, CEO and Head of Taxation and Advisory Services at Grant Thornton in Mauritius. “So everyone is aspiring to be rich.”
We are driving back in Abdoula’s white Mercedes convertible after a sumptuous three-course dinner in the plush, green, valley-facing home of one of Mauritius’ most-successful senior bankers.
“The mind-set has totally changed in the country,” says Abdoula matter-of-factly, pulling into the driveway of the classy Hennessy Park Hotel in Ebene Cybercity where a room can cost up to $220 a night.
It’s Friday night, and the hotel’s parking lot is packed to the rafters. The swanky customers and swarthy bouncers are all headed to the swish Backstage Lounge Bar in the hotel’s ground floor that has at its entrance an arty installation of a collage of inverted guitars, and once you walk in, meandering hallways that lead to live music and the bar, where hordes of young men in leather jackets and women in lacy tank tops writhe in unison on the dance floor.
Somewhere in the distance, away from the island’s commercial heart, the high tide and the moon, resembling a nail in the sky, succumb to nature’s chorus, as the fierce waves lash on to the shores of this green island in the Indian Ocean.
The land once home to the dodo is a biodiversity hotspot. You hear inspiring stories of people moving to organic farming and the growing prevalence of permaculture; even tales of the pink pigeon that has been heroically saved from extinction. Everywhere you look, swaying sugarcane plantations, and the sweet smell of money.
There is a profusion of green on land and blue in the ocean: and both economies are being revamped by the country’s scientist-president, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim.
The natural resources of Mauritius were a big draw card for CIDP, which runs a sophisticated facility here for high-performance research and clinical trials, sourcing active ingredients for pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies around the world.
“Mauritius is the hotspot for diversity, with a multi-ethnic population we can access for trials,” says Claire Blazy-Jauzac, Group Managing Director of CIDP.
The island is a rich repository of fauna and flora known for several indigenous species – and not just the extinct dodo. Its farming practises are rated among the best in Africa.
“Africa is lanes and streets and cities behind Mauritius when it comes to agricultural practices,” says MD Ramesh, President and Regional Head South and East Africa for Olam, Africa’s leading agri-business.
“Mauritius has a great talent for agriculture and is far better than most of Africa.”
Durban-based Ramesh says he is seriously considering moving to Mauritius when he retires and is actively seeking a Mauritius passport.
Visitors to Mauritius’ gleaming new airport terminals will see the first signs of a country prospering from tourism dollars. For those seeking retirement, the climate – both political and weather – is conducive, says Ramesh.
To most, the tax haven is a haven for more reasons than one, including the comfortable lifestyle it offers, access to amenities and most importantly, the fresh seafood. The juicy prawn curry and rice in any of the eateries in the village of Moka, called the heart of the island, is worth arriving in the country for.
You also can’t miss the bounties of the land. Robert Gordon-Gentil converted a sugarcane field into a thriving restaurant business 15 years ago. Chez Tante Athalie at Pamplemousses in Grand Baie serves authentic Creole cuisine on weekdays for lunch. In its front yard are hulking trees Gordon-Gentil planted with his own hands when they first started; he sources all his ingredients for the restaurant from this garden. Here, he also displays his collection of vintage cars. The foreigners and diners love the assortment of cars and cuisine. Occasionally, Gordon-Gentil also drives his old cars to town, making sure they don’t stutter to a stop on the way.
Surprisingly for a small island-nation of 1.3 million people, peak-time traffic on the arterial roads, especially in Port Louis, is a nightmare. It’s best to set aside enough time to traverse between different parts of the island that the locals categorize simply as East, West, South and North. Also watch out for stray dogs that are rampant and a serious problem in Mauritius.
Getting around is expensive.
“Mauritius presents a real business case for Uber,” says 26-year-old freelance photographer Keshawve Jeewon, who runs his company GrandMoments, offering photography and videography services by the picturesque mountains of Flacq district.
He drives his dad’s old Ford pick-up truck when scouring the island for work, but owns an Audi A4 sedan for his social sojourns.
“An Uber-like service should be started as soon as possible. Someone will get rich very soon,” says Jeewon, almost as if he had been toying with the idea himself.
In the distance, as we drive past verdant Verdun, he symbolically points to Mauritius’ second-highest mountain named Pieter Both, characterized by a rocky formation at the top resembling a human head, in thought.
It’s in contemplative mode looking for new horizons of opportunity, like young Jeewon, and the country itself.