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Travel: Hotel stay for the culturally curious

25 January 2019

Mauritius offers its visitors much more than luxury hotels and beautiful beaches. Now a new hotel is helping travellers to connect more with its people, as Nicki Grihault discovered

An aeriel view of the sandy beach of Palmar, on the east coast of the island of Mauritius, on whose shore Salt of Palmar is located. See gallery for more images

An aeriel view of the sandy beach of Palmar, on the east coast of the island of Mauritius, on whose shore Salt of Palmar is located. See gallery for m...

I SIP a coconut rum arrangé on the porch of Mirella Armance’s village home, while her brother sings the Mauritian sega, beating out the rhythm on a drum held against his chest. Her two-year-old grandson sways to the raw lament, brought to the island by African slaves. Across the courtyard, one of her nine daughters (five of them adopted) wiggles her hips as she washes up.

Mirella supplies free-range chickens and eggs to my hotel. By paying to attend this pop-up Creole feast that she regularly puts on in her home, I’m not only being given a taste of a more real Mauritius, getting behind its beach-fringed luxury-hotel image, but I’m also helping to support the five generations that live under her roof (the oldest is her husband’s 102-year-old grandfather).

Salt of Palmar, which opened on the east coast on 1 November last year, is a new concept in hotels. While most hotels work on the basis of tempting guests to stay in, and spend money in their bar or restaurant, Salt is inciting its guests to go out, and to encounter the island’s people, a mishmash of French, Indian, African, and Chinese brought by successive waves of colonisation.

At the 59-room hotel, staff are encouraged to share their local knowledge, invite guests to family events, and to share their skills as “Saltshakers”. The hope is to offer a more relational and more cultural holiday experience, harnessing the kindness and generosity of the Mauritian people and their natural curiosity about travellers.

“The multicultural Mauritian people, living in tolerance and harmony, are an example to the world, and worth putting more in evidence,” says Salt’s creator, the British hotelier Paul Jones, the man behind several leading resort and hotel brands around the world. After 30 years in Mauritius, opening the first of his new concept hotels here (there are plans for more in the Indian Ocean, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East) was his “way of giving back to the island”, he told me. “In connecting people to the country, I want to encourage Mauritius to develop.”

The hotel restaurant

MY FIRST offer comes from Gloria, one of the few fisherwomen on the island, who invites me to join her in fishing for crevettes (shrimps) in the river. The crevettes are found in the hotel’s delicious shrimp croquettes, but we cook our catch over a wood-fire, Mauritian-style, on the beach. Later, Sharonne, the sales manager here, but also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu silver-medal winner in the Indian Ocean Games last year, invites me to visit bartender Denis’s taro farm, the source of the hotel’s taro chips, in the leafy village of Clemencia.

Set against Clemencia’s mountainside is a 150-year-old Tamil temple, the island’s oldest, strung with prayer flags, and presided over by a painted man in a loincloth, flanked by peacocks. Denis’s mother prays here at festival times, he tells us, even though she is Roman Catholic. The Hindu driver nods knowingly: he prays in Roman Catholic churches, too. Mauritians mix and match religions as they do their food: a breakfast favourite on this coast is a French-inspired baguette, stuffed with Indian-style deep-fried gato pima (chilli cakes).

As the next day is a Sunday, I ride out on an electric bike, accompanied by Jonathan, the hotel’s personal trainer and an ex-international running champion, to attend a church service in French. The 19th-century St Maurice’s, built out of volcanic basalt in Poste de Flacq, is overflowing with Creole families in their Sunday best, straining to catch a glimpse of the first communion of some of their children.

Artisans who contributed to the creation of Salt are also keen to acquaint hotel guests with their skills. Sharonne drives me in the hotel’s Mini Cooper convertible — one of a fleet of convertibles and bikes available for guest hire — which comes complete with This is Mauritius, a new guidebook written by locals, tucked in its glove pocket.

Heading up the east coast, past trees laden with mangos and lychees (which tawny Mauritian fruit bats plunder at dusk),Reotee Buleeram, who, having woven baskets for 40 years, created the hotel’s brightly coloured beach bags out of recycled plastic.

Nicki GrihaultThe faithful flock to the Sunday service at St Maurice’s church in Poste de Flacq

DRIVING through an avenue of London plane trees with the wind in our hair, we arrive next at Janine’s pottery studio, in Pamplemousses. As I attempt to mould slippery clay on the potter’s wheel, as part of a free “taste of pottery” class, she tells me how making 950 original ceramics for the hotel’s restaurant pushed her creativity to new levels.

Other sustainable initiatives at the hotel include refillable water bottles, a ban on wasteful buffets, and natural, handmade toiletries — including a heavenly smelling salt-scrub. Most inspiring is the Salt Farm, set to open in March, in partnership with the non-profit organisation Island Bio.

Sitting on a tree stump, chatting with its founder, Olivier Fanfan, in Island Bio’s original organic garden in Baie-du-Tombeau, I learn that he set it up after his mothers’ death from cancer. Its high incidence on Mauritius may be connected to use of pesticides. The garden helps people in deprived communities — such as green-fingered Yannick, an uneducated docker’s son who tells me that he spent five years in prison for smoking marijuana — by providing agricultural training and an income from selling affordable, pesticide-free vegetables to ordinary Mauritians.

Island Bio plans to offer a “wonderment programme” to Salt guests, using the five senses to introduce guests to permaculture practices at the Salt Farm, which will also feature a vegetarian restaurant in a greenhouse, and a yoga pavilion.

With a big accent on harnessing natural, organic, sustainable, and local produce at the heart of Salt, it is no surprise that, back in my room, I lie down in eco-luxury on an organic Carpe Diem bed (created by a chiropractor in Sweden and said to be the best in the world), with a view of the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows, a soft sega playing on the Roberts radio. Later, relaxing in the salt-therapy room at the Salt Equilibrium spa, soothed by coloured lights coming through blocks of Himalayan-salt walls, I breathe in imperceptible healing salt vapour.

Recognising the link between people, plate and planet, Salt’s offer of slow food means that only locally produced organic food is served à la carte in the restaurant. The produce is mostly homemade at the hotel — from the wild boar and venison cured sausages to the natural yogurt — and one third of the menu is vegetarian, including raw cuisine. At the end of each day, guests can opt to chat about their experiences of the day around a communal table.

On my final evening, I sip a cocktail from a diverse menu that reads like an island storybook at the rooftop bar, reflecting on my visit. Salt promises “homegrown hotels with a huge heart”, and I had seen how my stay made a direct difference to the lives of people in the area. What is more, by allowing real Mauritian lives to touch mine, I had reconnected with something more of my own humanity.

As I hugged Sharonne goodbye, I felt lighter than when I arrived, but a bit teary, as if I were leaving a friend.

Travel information

A B&B stay at Salt of Palmar (www.saltresorts.com), in a double room, costs from £172 per night, based on two people sharing. Many staff-led local experiences and skill swaps are free, as is afternoon tea at the rooftop bar, in-room snacks and drinks, and sun cream. If you want a tour-operator package, seven nights in a garden-view room at Salt of Palmar, on a B&B basis, with Luxury Holidays Direct (020 8774 7299, www.luxuryholidaysdirect.com), costs from £1259 pp, including return economy flights, and private transfers (valid for travel up to 31 March).

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