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Reach for Vanilla skies

November 30, 2011

(Published in ttgluxury Winter 2011)

Hiking into volcanoes, painting, popping open Champagne bottles with a sabre – plus a new hotel brand concept. It can only be a ttgluxury Experience. Matthew Parsons joins agents who visited La Reunion and Mauritius on a Vanilla Islands trip with Sunset, Air Mauritius and LUX Island Resorts

Mauritius is synonymous with luxury, but with an ever-growing choice of high-end resorts, agents could be forgiven for starting to think they’re all merging into one gorgeous blur of sand, sea and stylish suites.

It’s crucial for agents to know which type of luxury resort suits clients best, so for the latest ttgluxury Experience, the group had exactly that opportunity, checking out seven resorts in one hotel group. And at the same time, finding out more about the Vanilla Islands concept and how it could help them think beyond the usual Mauritius fly-and-flop by jetting off to La Reunion to see how its rugged terrain and French lifestyle could become a twin-centre with a difference.

And it didn’t stop there – not only were the agents among the first trade trip to twin Mauritius and La Reunion thanks to Sunset Faraway Holidays, they also started to get wind of the biggest news in the Indian Ocean this winter: the transformation of Naiade Resorts into LUX Island Resorts.

With chief executive Paul Jones (see p62) at the helm for a year, Naiade has been in the process of a massive makeover into LUX which has seen most of the group’s properties in Mauritius and La Reunion make the switch. So, a big week lay ahead for the group after being rounded up by Sunset’s Sharon Jones and heading off on an Air Mauritius flight from Heathrow.

LUX Belle Mare (formerly Naiade’s Beau Rivage) is first on the agenda after touching down on a sunny Thursday afternoon in mid-September, and straight away it makes a real impression on the agents with its surprise painting lessons.
Those who aren’t feeling too artistic are left to enjoy lunch on sofas near the beach, happy to relax with delicious canapes and gaze out to sea.

In fact, food and drink score highly at LUX Belle Mare, as despite the short stay of one night, the group is treated to a stunning 12-course meal at fusion restaurant Indochine. Afterwards the hunt for the pop-up bar (a new trademark of LUX) is a nice touch, with clues leading the group to a makeshift candlelit bar hidden among gardens.

Hikers’ paradise
Next on the schedule is a first for all of our agents – La Reunion. It is also a chance to check out Air Mauritius’s first-class cabin for the 40-minute flight, which impresses. While it is not possible to gauge service on such a short flight, the spaciousness and flat-beds win the agents over.

Within minutes of touching down, a journalist from the local radio station jumps upon us and wants to know more about the trip, and what we are expecting.

It’s a similar question the tourist board must also be asking, as it develops its Vanilla Islands branding exercise, to promote the French department alongside Mauritius, Madagascar and the Seychelles in a bid to promote the lesser-known islands to the UK market.

Claire Nativel, UK and Ireland market manager for the Reunion Island Tourism Board, says: “We hope the exoticism, emotions and cultural inheritance of the Indian Ocean combined with culture, relaxation and nature will boost visibility for the region as a whole. This trip turns the Vanilla Islands concept into reality – and a more concrete idea for agents.”

Air Mauritius’ sales manager Jeremy Moore adds: “We are a keen supporter of the Vanilla Islands concept to help encourage travel to all the islands. This twin-centre experience will give people the chance to see two very different destinations that are just 40 minutes apart.”

However, Reunion is not for faint-hearted clients, as our guide Myella points out when she kicks things off with a few words of warning about swimming, strong currents – and sharks in particular.

It should be noted that the sea does offer friendly pursuits, such as humpback whale watching from June to September.

But it prompts Global Star Travel’s Dawna Brown to joke that maybe Reunion should come with a “health warning”.

“I was put off in the first 10 minutes, because of the shark warnings! It seems to be for hikers, and strong windsurfers. You need to be an outdoor person,” she says.

However, once the group delves into the centre of the island, with its misty mountains and waterfalls – and a spot of Creole cuisine of rice, fish, chicken, bean sauce thrown in – perceptions rapidly change.

“I thought Reunion would be small, with little going on,” Casterways Travel’s Kelly Tobin says. “The reality was that it was busy and diverse. If you’re not into the adventurous concept, such as hiking, you may struggle to find activities; you don’t come here to lie on a beach.”

The UK market represents just 5% of overseas visitors, with France making up the majority. However, the tourist office is keen to hit 10% over the next few years.

Our driver on the island, meanwhile, says we are the first group of Brits he has had in the 10 years he has been in his job, so there’s a lot of work ahead.

Our well-earned rest on the second night comes courtesy of LUX Ile de la Reunion, the island’s only five-star hotel – and also the only hotel to have direct access to a stretch of beach with its own coral reef.

With an impressive colonial lobby, Creole-style villas dotted among gardens, and suites designed with touches of Philippe Starck, the hotel certainly lives up to its new LUX name. With the hotel only ever receiving a few English-speaking guests though, some of the group finds there is a language barrier, and as a result say it may be wise to pre-book excursions if a client’s French is not up to scratch.
“I can see it’s important to have a client’s itinerary pre-planned. If they arrvied without this, they could spend a whole day trying to sort out trips,” suggests Canon Travel’s Vivian Townsend.

Global Star Travel’s Brown adds: “I was expecting La Reunion to be really five-star, but I was disappointed. Facilities could be improved, there was a language barrier, and the hospitality was not up to scratch. The British are more demanding. I will promote it though, as it’s good for independent travellers who are looking for something different – it’s good to have seen it as I know who it will suit and who it won’t.”

Volcano adventure 
The first full day is a knockout success, with the morning spent trekking into the heart of an active volcano. This experience takes everyone by surprise. Excited by seeing moon-like landscapes, the group hikes for 45 minutes into a crater.

“I never thought I’d do that!” exclaims Travelmania’s Jayne Gardner.  “It’s such a unique place.”

Following this, a well earned “p’tit punch” follows at colourful Creole restaurant Plaine des Cafres on the way home, which saw Air Mauritius’s Moore take to the bongos, backed by Sunset’s Sharon Jones on wooden shaker for a musical interlude. The group was really getting into their stride now.

Day four, and an early morning drive sees the group ascend to a region known as the Maido peaks, home to hilltop communities that are only accessible by foot (or helicopter) and have no electricity. These kinds of trips are popular with hikers who want to escape modern life, and arriving to see the mist rise around us, it’s easy to see why.

Disco sensation
Our agents’ spirits also rise, preparing us for the flight back to Mauritius to check out four-star family-friendly Tamassa (pictured below), which the agents like for its “funky vibe”, contemporary rooms decked out in vivid greens and LED lights among the pools.

Tamassa is by far Brown’s favourite of the bunch: “It is more relaxed and not so formal. I like the bright lights, it’s funky.” Casterways Travel’s Kelly Tobin agrees, as she likes the “the buzz” of the hotel. Maybe that was partly because she enjoyed the late-night disco with a few of the group – maybe not such a good idea given the morning departure to drive to the south-west for a quick lunch at LUX Le Morne (formerly Les Pavillons).

As soon as the group arrives, they are whisked off to sooth sore heads at the resort’s spa – fresh carrot juice, mixed with face and foot massages, soon place everyone back on track.

The hotel hits the spot for Canon Travel’s Vivien, who says: “I love the beach, it’s quiet and you can just walk and walk.”

Most room categories are inspected, and with a beach wedding the backdrop for lunch, the resort ably shows off its romance factor, with the group agreeing it’s a perfect wedding and honeymoon choice.

It’s tough to tear ourselves away, but the van is waiting to whisk us north to our final hotel – LUX* Grand Gaube (previously known as Legends).

Our final two days allow more time to get to know Mauritius, from its botanical gardens and sugar museum to newly opened Labourdonnais, a 1777 Creole mansion which has just undergone a major refurbishment.

Being able to explore the islands, and meet locals, was a key factor to the success of the trip. “Meet the staff” evenings were also beneficial, with Gardner saying she now sees LUX as a “very personal group of hotels”.

As a result, our agents were able to meet general managers – crucial to building relationships and helping their clients.

LUX’s marketing executive Lindsay Leighton agrees, adding it was also good for the managers to hear agents’ feedback.

“The trip was a great success,” she adds. “The agents were lucky to experience the beauty of Mauritius and the dramatic landscape of Reunion, as well as enjoying our hotels. The way Sunset, LUX , the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, the La Reunion Tourist Board, Mauritours and Connections organised the itinerary meant the group got the most out of the destinations and the hotels.”
Meanwhile, Shamira Kaumaya-Hatt, commercial director at Sunset, adds: “This ttgluxury Experience was important to show agents the diversity. Partnering both the exotic beaches of Mauritius with the stunning scenery of Reunion Island makes for a perfect combination.”

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