"You can pretend you're a peasant here. But at our time of life, we don't want to live like peasants." The concept behind
Zilwa, which means "islander" in Creole, is the latest venture from Attitude, a Mauritian company that operates nine hotels around the island. Its aim is to give guests a taste of the "real"
I had previously visited the country for a Mauritian friend's wedding: renting a cheap flat, visiting his family, eating at snack bars. I ask my friend, Sebastien, if this kind of experience can be replicated in a four-star hotel.
"The hotels can give you the perception of a Mauritian experience - a sega dancing night and Mauritian food once a week - but that's it," he says. "However, it is possible to experience the real
His tips for an authentic experience include going fishing, shopping in the village of Goodlands, and betting at the horse races in the city of
I was surprised to find that Zilwa encourages guests to leave the hotel and try most of these activities. "So many people just stay in their resort," says
So we went: to the nearby village of Goodlands by bike. Our guide, Jason, took us to his favourite street-food stalls to eat gateaux piments (chilli cakes) and dholl puri (stuffed flatbreads). The best time to visit Goodlands is early in the morning on market day (Tuesday and Friday), but it is busy and atmopsheric at any time.
Zilwa also arranges dawn boat trips with fishermen. We went out with Dessy on his bright yellow pirogue, a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a eucalyptus pole. We didn't fish, but just sailed as the sun rose, watching other fishing boats and chatting about the fisherman's life.
Dessy explained that the boats leave later on "lazy Mondays", because families have all-day beach barbecues on Sundays - washed down with a lot of rum. We landed on his village beach at Cap Malheureux for breakfast and an early-morning dip. Local women were already there, swimming and doing callisthenics.
There are also plenty of Mauritian activities to try at the hotel. We had a Creole lesson; played a traditional Mauritian game (sapsiway, a version of keepie uppie); watched a cookery demonstration; and learned to make lychee-infused rum. We also sampled the infamous beach barbecue on Gran Zil, the larger of the hotel's two tiny islands. You can swim to it, or go by raft, or kayak - at low tide, you can practically walk. That morning they had caught an octopus, so we had a delicious octopus curry with pilaf. And, of course, several tots of rum.
An even better culinary experience was dinner at a family's home. Vish, the hotel's bar manager, took us to his parents' house in the village of Saint Francois. His mum spoiled us with gateaux piments, lentil soup, fish curry with chutneys, pickles and bread, fresh mango, cardamom tea . . . while Vish kept the rum and cokes topped up. His family often host hotel guests, who have been known to stay as late
The hotel's restaurants don't offer quite as much Mauritian food as they might. The best bet for local cuisine is the Taba-J snack bar, which serves spicy seafood rougaille, pickles and farata bread, plus a dish of the day.
There are, however, lots of nice Mauritian design touches throughout the resort: thatched, shingle and red pitched roofs; Creole riddles on the wall; wooden furniture made by local craftsmen. Occasionally, the authenticity detracts from the comfort - to my shame, I longed for some posh toiletries rather than the traditional square soaps provided. But usually it adds to the experience, particularly the bright paintings inspired by
The staff - almost all of whom are Mauritian, with 90% from the villages around the hotel - are well-versed in the "islander" concept (they all attend a workshop that explains the hotel's aims). The company offers literacy and basic skills courses to unemployed workers in Calodyne - some of them are then recruited by the hotel. There is also a profit-sharing scheme for staff, which is rare on this island. The Attitude group has provided bins for public beaches, bought equipment and school uniforms for children and funded leisure activities in the villages (a twice-weekly aerobics class in Calodyne, for example).
I'm still not convinced that you can really get to grips with a country from the comforts of a luxury hotel, but Zilwa goes further than most in giving guests an authentic experience, and does some good at the same time. Despite breaking new ground in
* The trip was provided by
House of gods . . . a Hindu temple in
Island life . . . the Zilwa Attitude has Mauritian design touches such as thatched bungalows, and the staff are mostly locals
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