My three-year-old son’s jaw dropped. His eyes were saucer-like as he gaped at the infinity pool that seemed to pour out on to the white sandy beach below.
“Are we in Mauritius now, mommy?” asked Leo. I smiled and nodded. We were here. Finally. We had spent the past weekend crammed into the cottage of our Mauritian relatives where we had frantically tried to see as many family members as we could – especially my husband’s grandmother, who at 94 is ailing.
But here, at last, Ambre was the holiday dream we had been promising Leo for several months. Like almost all the other features of the four-star resort, the 735m2 main pool has been renovated, and it’s undoubtedly the heart of the hotel and spa facility.
It’s also where we spent our entire holiday, with little Leo quickly tiring of the kiddies’ pool and, with us, braving the main pool, which he never tired of conquering in his protective, floating swim suit.
It has cost Sun Resorts over R117 million to transform Ambre into an “affordable luxury resort”, and while there remain some signs of the disrepair into which the hotel once fell, it is “island living at its tropical best”.
What’s even better is that the resort is family-friendly – Leo’s screams of delight in the pool were joined by those of other children, and barely an eyebrow was raised among the other guests.
Our room was just steps away from the beach, and our small balcony offered a sweeping view of it, perfectly framed by exotic palm trees.
The bedrooms are serene with a “fresh tropical feel” and accommodated the three of us comfortably.
Our days were spent building sand castles and searching for starfish and shells on the resort’s 1km stretch of soft, sandy beach. The water sport activities are at your leisure.
We hopped on to a glass-bottomed boat, searching for angelfish darting in the coral. Leo and his dad climbed into kayaks and fun boats and explored the calm waters, with Leo pretending he was a swashbuckling pirate.
Our mornings stretched into a leisurely breakfast at Indigo, one of the resort’s three restaurants. This typically comprised buffet fare with a Mauritian flavour, such as the Alooda drink my husband opted for – a fusion of basil seeds, crushed ice, milk and vanilla essence.
Dinner was fresh and easy: curry, rice, faratas and servings of local Creole food.
A wonderful fusion of Indian and Chinese food specialities were plentiful.
But the exotic tastes may not be to everyone’s palate and the restaurant also offers a wide array of delicious international cuisine.
Lunchtime on our half-board package was the budget killer. Although we had rented a car and had a determined plan in mind to eat out at lunchtime rather than risk the massive prices of hotel dining, we were often in the pool or languishing on the beach when 1pm rolled around.
The resort, like the strip of resorts that run along this eastern portion of the island, is somewhat isolated.
At the local supermarkets, you can stock up on affordable snacks, but there is little in the way of satisfying local restaurants.
So while nothing could beat eating lunch at Ambre’s beach restaurant Le Plage, with our feet buried in the cool sand, we paid handsomely for the privilege.
Here, a hamburger and a basic pizza will cost you R150, excluding a drink. Expect to pay R100 for a cocktail. As one of our fellow resort-goers put it, “No matter how much money I have, I will never pay R150 for a hamburger anywhere.”
Half-board is also not family-friendly. There is simply no way you can stretch a breakfast throughout the day until dinner time for a young child. I was five months pregnant and constantly ravenous. An earlier dinner would be ideal for families – perhaps from 6pm, not 7pm.
There is a definite South African presence at Ambre. Resort staff attribute its popularity to the fair prices.
Our relatives tell us that Mauritius is teeming with South Africans, and that there are thousands on the waiting list to emigrate to the country. Indeed, many of the big malls are being built by South African firms, and it’s not unusual to find mega-shopping complexes featuring Mr Price, Woolworths and Shoprite stores.
As we were on a rare family holiday, we never opted to put Leo into Ambre’s Sun Kids Club, but many parents did, better to enjoy the resort’s spa and nightclub. The kids’ club offers care for four- to 11-year-olds and another facility for 12- to 17-year-olds, and the qualified staff work tirelessly to recruit children for activities.
For us, we’re glad we never missed making those wonderful holiday memories with Leo – memories that centre on the idyllic pool that began and ended so perfectly on the beach. When I asked Leo last week about his holiday, he grinned and said: “I love that Mauritius. Can we go back tomorrow?”
IF YOU GO
It’s the quintessential image of Mauritius and the one that has been sold to millions of tourists: the paradise of staying in a luxury resort on the small tropical island.
But visitors keen to veer off the somewhat sanitised tourist map can hire a car or hop on to one of the colourful – and ancient – buses to experience the island behind the brochures.
Be wary of the narrow roads and honking scooters, and heed highway billboards like this one: “Drive like Hell and you’ll get there.”
Here are some of the little-known treasures that island has to offer, which we discovered on our earlier visits: