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Oberoi Resort & Spa, Mauritiusby Susan McKee

Escape Reality at the Tropical Oberoi Spa in Mauritius

The spa at the Oberoi Resort, Mauritius.
Photo courtesy Oberoi Resort.

Chocolate chip cookies, apple tarts and crème brulée cartwheeled across my daydream, but the soft yet insistent voice cut through my reverie. "Madame," she said. "Madame!"

It must have been the coconut. After the most delicious massage I've ever enjoyed, I awoke covered with curly white aromatic shavings like a giant macaroon.

I had fallen asleep as my petite masseuse administered the "paillasson" at the spa in the Oberoi Resort on Mauritius. The therapy involved the entire coconut - first, a full body scrub with the coir husk, then a peeling with the soft, white interior and finally, a rub with scented oil.

Bliss!

But, now, my time was up and she wanted me awake and gone to my frangipani-scented shower.

Reluctantly, I rolled off the table and wrapped up in the plush terrycloth bathrobe, slipping my feet - even they had been coconut oiled -- into the scuffs. With one last wistful glance at the waterfall out the window, I headed to the dressing room.

One reason to visit a resort is to step out of the ordinary. Instead of deadlines and traffic, there's leisure and tranquility. If there's a spa on site, all the better. An appointment with someone whose only job is to pamper body and soul is a gift beyond measure.

The Oberoi Mauritius is all about retreating from reality. First of all, it's on the island nation of Mauritius - one of those places that will cause your friends to stare at you blankly as they try to place it on the globe. (Hint: look for a small island that's south of the equator and east of Africa.) Nobody's likely to run across you accidentally when you're surrounded by the Indian Ocean!

Oberoi Resort, Mauritius.
Photo © Susan McKee.

In fact, very few Americans visit Mauritius. Last year, of some 350,000 tourists, only 3,900 carried U.S. passports. Celebrities who really want to get away from the hassles of fame come here (the ones who pretend they're annoyed by notoriety go to New York or Paris).

The island does have one big claim to fame. Remember the dodo bird? This is where it was driven into extinction - not so much by the colonizing Dutch, but by the housecats they brought with them (what carnivore could resist pouncing on a bird that didn't fly?).

Although centuries of Arab and Portuguese sailors had made note of the island, it seems there was no indigenous human population at the time of the Dutch arrival in 1598. They named it in tribute to royalty, specifically, Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange.

The Dutch harvested ebony wood and then lost interest in the island in 1710. Five years later, the French arrived. Mauritius became a favorite base for pirates who raided merchant ships laded with treasures on their way between Europe and the Far East. In exasperation, the English took the island away from them in 1814.

The French had imported slaves from East Africa and Madagascar to work the sugar plantations they established on Mauritius, but the British outlawed slavery in the 1830s. They imported their labor in the form of indentured servants from India. When Mauritius gained independence in 1968, it remained with the British Commonwealth. Although English is the official language, most everyday conversation is in French.

The population, about 1.2 million, is an exotic mix found nowhere else in the world - 64% Indian plus lots of Chinese, Africans and Creoles plus a handful of Europeans. I was continually startled when dark-eyed women in brightly colored saris would address me in French. And I can't think of a country where you can enjoy a freshly baked croissant with a really good cup of tea.

Which brings me back to the Oberoi, featuring varied and inventive cuisine in its open-air restaurant overlooking the ocean. Opened in late 2000, it's on the un-touristy northwest corner of the island. Spread across its 20 acres, there are 76 separate villas - sort of like guesthouses in a giant garden on the beach. Guests with a yen for complete privacy can claim one of the villas with its own swimming pool enclosed in a private garden, order room service and never venture out to mingle with the hoi polloi.

I chose the option of breakfast in my room, or, rather, on my private patio. The island abounds with tropical birds I'd never seen before, but they're obviously used to visitors. Each morning, I had to defend my breadbasket from a couple of red, black and white feathered thieves.

Oberoi Resort, Mauritius.
Photo © Susan McKee.

Flowers are everywhere: frangipani, bougainvillea, jacaranda, orchids, hibiscus, anthurium. Every time I returned to my room, the maid had rearranged the towels and folded the clothing I'd discarded on the rattan couch - then carefully placed fresh flower blossoms in the folds.

The large marble bathroom, freshly flower-strewn each day, has a sunken tub and separate shower, both of which have only a glass wall separating them from a secluded garden.

If you can rouse yourself to leave the resort, expeditions around the island are many and varied. I enjoyed an afternoon at Pamplemousses gardens, had lunch barbecued by my captain on a boat trip to a picturesque cove, drove a bit along the Tea Route, visited a sugar plantation and took an underwater trip on a mini submarine.

The island is volcanic, so the topography is varied. There are steep jagged peaks inland and deep gorges with plummeting waterfalls. At Black River Gorge National Park, the resident monkeys begged treats from visitors. I marveled at the rainbow-hued volcanic dunes at Chamarel.

The sunsets over the Indian Ocean each evening were symphonies of pastels. My only disappointment was the night sky. There was a full moon while I was on Mauritius, and its light was bright enough to keep me from spotting the Southern Cross or any other unfamiliar constellation of stars.

I had other spa treatments while hiding out at the Oberoi, but my strongest memory is of that coconut massage. I found out that its name, paillasson, means coconut in Creole. I'd go back just for that.

IF YOU GO

To get to my island paradise, I flew first to Paris and then continued on Air Mauritius for another 11 hours. Although long, with an evening departure it was easy to finish dinner and then sleep the rest of the way. Several of the people I met on the island had come to Mauritius to rest up after taking a safari in Africa (it's just a four-hour flight from Capetown).

The Oberoi Resort (1-800-562-3764; http://www.oberoihotels.com) is located on the Baie aux Tortues, but I saw (and heard) many more frogs than turtles. The pond in the center of the resort is filled with them, and they, in turn, filled the evening air with their croaking. The resort chain, headquartered in Delhi, India, has 35 properties in Australia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka.

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