Cloud nine in the Indian Ocean
Colonial remnants and great beaches aren't Rodrigues' only attractions. The Indian Ocean island also boasts the most infectious feel-good factor, says Adrian Mourby
On my first night in Rodrigues I stayed with Lelio Rosseti and his wife. Lelio had to excuse himself from time to time to watch the Queen's state visit to Dublin on satellite television. Twenty-five years ago, Mr Rosseti had worked for the Post Office in Britain, and at dinner, under the stars, he told me of his admiration for Margaret Thatcher.
He also explained to me how, in 2009, he organised the celebrations for the bicentennial of the British landing on Rodrigues. “Lieutenant Colonel Keating called the French governor down and told him that from now on he'd be working for Britain and, because the French had no weapons with which to fight, he said yes and that was the end of that!”
Lelio laughed at his island's good fortune at being spared armed conflict. The very civilised terms of surrender allowed Rodrigues to remain French-speaking and predominantly Catholic. This is a French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that for 159 years was run by the British. In 1968, there were protests on Rodrigues when Mauritius, the big-sister isle 370 miles away, forced through independence.
Rodrigues is different, very different. I realised this as soon as I arrived by plane from Mauritius. Over there, a security officer had confiscated my duty-free gin even though it was still in its tamper-proof bag.
“You could have opened it and resealed it,” he insisted.
“No, I couldn't. That's why they're called tamper-proof.”
But after skimming in over Rodrigues' red corrugated rooftops, all that changed. Suddenly, there were no officials.
Jean Paul, an amiable man with a shaven head, picked me up. As we headed up the northern coast road, I got my first real glimpse of Prince William's gap-year hideaway. This island is very green, even in winter. Out to sea, there were men apparently walking on water with spears. This wasn't such an optical illusion as it appeared. Rodrigues is surrounded by a reef that creates a very, very shallow lagoon. These guys were wading out on the horizon illegally fishing for octopus before the next tide. We passed a few dead octopi along the road, each drying on an improvised cross. No one steals them, Jean Paul told me. Rodriguans may fish illegally, but they don't steal from each other. We also passed the prison, which is on a beautiful headland and decorated with childish murals urging you to lower carbon emissions.
I'd been booked to stay with the Rossetis at Villa Mon Trésor but first there was a lunch of octopus salad and South African wine waiting for me at Pointe Vénus. This open-sided hotel is built on the spot where, in 1761, a French abbé made the first record of Venus tracking across the sun.
The general manager, Marc Bogé, joined me as I sat and enjoyed the hotel's ocean view. Marc is a friendly Frenchman who came on holiday from Champagne many years ago and stayed. “Don't you miss Champagne?” I asked. “Only the kind you can drink.”
After Jean Paul had dropped me at Villa Mon Trésor, I wandered down to look at the sunset, which was as good as they claimed it to be: you normally get reds and yellows like that only with Photoshop. A number of people had turned out to chat on the broken concrete picnic benches by the shore. They seemed far more interested in gossiping than in watching the stunning pyrotechnics on the horizon.
The following morning Jean Paul collected me for a trip to the Ile aux Cocos, which is a bird sanctuary. On a beach below Pointe du Diable I met my host for the day — Joe Meunier, known on the island as Joe Cool.
Joe was wearing a dazzling red and yellow Hawaiian shirt and his boat had an awning in the same colours. The Ile aux Cocos is only about a mile from the shore. Also in the boat were a young French-speaking husband and wife from Réunion and two Sri Lankan couples who lived on Mauritius many years ago but who now reside in Maidstone and Carmarthen respectively.
We disembarked in front of a white tin-roofed shack. While Joe unloaded lunch I was taken for a walk through the reserve by Marie Paul. We saw white fairy terns and noddy birds. The noddies were unfazed by us, squabbling on the lush, green paths right in front of me. The fairy terns, big-eyed and vulnerable and as white as balls of cotton wool, had wedged themselves into forks in the mapu trees where each was sitting on an egg. Marie Paul explained that they don't build nests. We walked the length of the island (maybe 1,000 yards) and then back to where Joe was handing out rum.
All the time we were walking, I had been struck by the clouds that were stacked scarily high above us. I have never seen the sky go up that far before. I was also aware of the contrast between the tiny waves that lapped against the scuttling yellow crabs in front of me and the distant roar of the Indian Ocean crashing against the reef. This was a truly paradisiacal island. Like the Maldives, but real.
The next day dawned hot and bright with Jean Paul ready to take me to the François Leguat Tortoise Reserve, named after the first European to live on Mauritius back in 1691. He and his companions left after two years because they'd made the mistake of not bringing women with them. Lonely and not a little frustrated, Leguat wrote a detailed record of the island, describing how there were valleys on Rodrigues so full of giant tortoises that you walked across on their backs.
Unfortunately, during the 19th century, the seamen of the Royal Navy ate them all, wiping out two species. Now they're being reintroduced from Madagascar. Since 2008, more than 1,500 aldabra and radiated tortoises have been bred on Rodrigues, but the stars of the show are the oldies. I met one called Adrian who was 80 years old and weighed almost 27 stone and looking damn good on it. Must be that quality of life that Marc was talking about. I hope that at 80 I've still got something of his slow swagger.
That night, I saw Sega for the first time at my new hotel, the Mourouk Ebony, which overlooks the lagoon on the island's south side. After we had all eaten our octopus salad on the red-roofed veranda, the chairs were cleared away and seven musicians played for a team of eight dancers. The music mixed French accordion with goatskin drums and various other forms of percussion. The male dancers wore orange floral shirts and the women had full-length party dresses. The whole thing was rather like country dancing, energetic waltzes and polkas and a lot of extra crashes and bashes from the orchestra.
As I wandered back to my little room I couldn't help feeling that real Sega would be between family members or youngsters courting. These four couples had all the motions with none of the emotions.
Then I looked up at that massive navy-blue sky above and saw the clouds still hanging there, towering white in the moonlight. I have seen depictions of clouds like that in early 19th-century maritime paintings of the kind Lt Col Keating would have surely known. I always thought them fanciful. But in a landscape like this, without street lights or any other forms of pollution, the skies of our seagoing ancestors are up there still. The quality of life on Rodrigues is not just the people, it's the landscape in which those people live out their lives.
Getting there: Adrian travelled to Rodrigues with Air Mauritius (020-7434 4375; airmauritius.com), which offers return flights via Mauritius from £816. He stayed at the Marouk Ebony Hotel (00 230 83 23 351; maroukebonyhotel.com), where rooms costs from £78 per person per night half board, based on two sharing. For additional information contact Discovery Rodrigues ( tourism-rodrigues.mu).