LUXURY TRAVEL: Could it get any better than this?
How do you beat a luxury island getaway that promises narcoleptic-like relaxation and endless hedonism? Sarah Buitendach took one for the team and found out
The glare of your cellphone screen at 3am, scrolling through hateful rants on social media, main-lining double espressos at dangerously short intervals before noon, mentally tallying the quagmire of mails that you haven’t answered while you try to stay engaged in a productive conversation. Ah, the 21st century. What a time to be alive.
But apparently — and let me just put on record that it has taken me a somewhat worryingly long time to figure this out — there is an alternative to reaching for the repeat script of sleeping tablets and sedatives to handle it all.
It starts with a Porsche Cayenne picking you up from Mauritius’s international airport, ends with a swim on a private beach and features long siestas, piña coladas (hey, it’s a tropical island — don’t judge me) and a multicourse meal at SA’s best restaurant, The Test Kitchen.
And yes, you’re right, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning Test Kitchen is in Cape Town. But for April and May, Luke Dale-Roberts, chef impresario of the SA food scene and Test Kitchen owner, has transplanted his team to do a pop-up at the luxury resort of Shangri-La's Le Touessrok Resort & Spa on the Indian Ocean island.
Which is why I find myself in said luxury vehicle, cruising along a coastal road towards the resort one early-winter afternoon. Not that the concept of a cold season has reached Mauritius, of course. Kilometres of hilly sugar-cane plantations are interrupted by tight, teeming villages of unfinished, higgledy-piggledy houses in ice-cream colours, Hindu temples, streetwise dogs and signs of chichi new property developments being built. The latter is proof that South Africans (and everyone else) are taking the country’s "tax haven/get a passport when you invest" shtick seriously.
It’s lush, the island republic has had a lot of rain this season and everything is an iteration of green — from Kermit the Frog to Emerald City. Which is, coincidentally, more or less the colour you’d be if you popped in to visit the suite I’m "assigned to". It’s got everything that opens and shuts, from an "all you can eat for free" minibar to an ironing board (heaven forbid you might actually engage in something so taxing as using it) and, most importantly, shuttered doors that open up onto a private balcony and views of a palm-lined beach on your doorstep. That’s the view from your bed — and the bath, as I discover, book and champagne perched on its rim, submerged a short while after arriving.
My utopian living quarters are on the "Frangipani Island" side of the resort — code for fancier, child-free accommodation. Though, frankly, the other side of the resort, which is suitable for littlies, looks fancier than anywhere this adult has ever stayed. In the "big people zone" you get your own set of pools in which to loll about endlessly and there’s a spa and a gym. There’s also a private island, Ilot Mangénie, owned by the hotel, where you get your own patch of beach and a private butler. For a couple of rands (OK, more than a couple) you get a cabana, which is more or less what would happen if you combined a good old SA boma and queen-sized bed. In said cabana you are expected to lie and read, perhaps drink a dash of rosé, wade into transparent turquoise water, maybe have a snooze. And if you get peckish, say, for the truffle pizza, ring your butler and voilà — it appears before you. There’s no Wi-Fi (though there are plans for its installation), so you can’t even be tempted to Instagram the moment. All you can do is switch off completely.
After you’ve dragged yourself onto a tender boat (they go every 20 minutes) in a sea air-induced fugue and got back to the mainland, there’s a private beach where all-inclusive happy hour takes place every evening. This is not a "queue for hours and hope to get some kind of unidentifiable mixed drink" set-up. There’s a prosecco station, and barmen on hand to pour you classic, classy cocktails while you revel in smugness on fuchsia loungers, under party lights and a setting sun.
The resort’s Republik Beach Club & Grill restaurant opens onto this sandy nook and it’s there that The Test Kitchen operation is in full swing. On the sweltry night we eat there, we’re met by the familiar face of Markus Fiedler, who manages the Cape Town home base. Then there’s head sommelier Tinashe Nyamudoka and his posse (who, in this instance, are from both the Mother City and the hotel) readying the wines for the evening.
You can see Dale-Roberts and head chef Ryan Cole and the team in the open-plan kitchen, deep in the prep zone for the night ahead. There’s something confusing about recognising so many people, but in a totally foreign space — among bougainvillea and crotons — not gritty Salt River.
How did they end up there, I ask a pineapple print-shirted Dale-Roberts. The answer comes as a surprise.
"The catalyst for me doing this pop-up for this length of time was actually the drought in Cape Town and the fact that Day Zero was forecast to be mid-April," he explains. "So at that point I started thinking: ‘What am I going to do if the taps run dry?’ I had visions of the restaurants closing their doors. So I contacted a guy who I knew working in the hotel. He’d already approached me before. I said: ‘Let’s turn this into a win-win. I can move a large portion of my staff out here and we can do something cool together.’"
Of course, the logistics of moving an entire crew over 4,000km is no laughing matter. And then there’s acclimatising to working in a hotel kitchen with in-house staff. And dealing with new produce and suppliers. Mauritius imports things like beef, but it also has produce that the average South African won’t be familiar with.
One morning, we accompany Dale-Roberts and the team to the market in the nearby town of Flacq. It’s a vast, vegetable-piled haven of organised chaos. There the chefs handle okra and herbs, unidentifiable gnarly root veg and strange fruit. They chat with the store owners and local members of the team about what to try out. And how.
"It’s nice to see stuff that I used to work with in London," says Dale-Roberts. "There’s chayote, taro root and palm heart — which is a pretty versatile ingredient. It’s a bit like an artichoke in the cooking and really cool.
"And the fish here is obviously such a beautiful thing. The hotel has its own fisherman who goes out every day. You call him and you get what he’s caught." You can see Dale-Roberts’s hesitancy in this moment and he adds: "We’re not used to working like this — shooting from the hip, I mean. I’m worried that one day he’s going to say: ‘I haven’t got any fish.’ In which case we’ve got to have plans A, B, C, D and E."
But so far, he should have little cause for concern. The set menu we have for dinner one evening is exceptional. There are snacks to kick the evening off, such as ceviche served with pineapple and lemongrass ice and baby poke bowls conjured up using local wild boar, sushi rice and bloomed mustard.
Bigger plates include herb-fired tuna with olive dressing, fermented tofu dip and grilled asparagus, and an absolutely sterling local venison that’s served with cacao, beetroot, liver stuffing and dukkah. I’ve eaten at all of Dale-Roberts’s SA establishments and this is certainly a treat. Definitely one to tick off the epicurean bucket list.
Foodies from around the world would give their eyeteeth to eat at this Indian Ocean jewel, but I have to laugh at the irony when Dale-Roberts explains the difference between cooking in your own restaurant and in a large resort. He tells me about service the night before: "A table came in and just wanted prawns. So we just give ’em a plate of prawns — there’s no point in getting all uppity about it. That’s hotels. People want what they want, when they want it." And, at this particular resort, they certainly get it.
• The Test Kitchen Mauritius pop-up is on until May 26 at Shangri-La's Le Touessrok Resort & Spa.
*The writer was a guest of the hotel, Mauritius Tourism and World Leisure Holidays