A Sugar Chateau.
Fair warning to wine enthusiasts, this post, despite it’s chateau title, has nothing to do with wine or even with Bordeaux. It is about a chateau, but one on the tropical island of Mauritius – a favourite haunt of mine, as you’ll see from some previous blog posts.
If you are more familiar with the wine estates of Bordeaux, the Chateau de Bel Ombre isn’t exactly what you might think of when you think of a chateau, it is one of a series of old colonial, plantation style houses across the island that all use this nomenclature.
Built at the heart of estates in the heyday of Mauritian sugar production, they bear witness to the history of sugar cane production on the island. Their transformation from family homes into tourist attractions reflects the recent changes in the sugar industry on the island.
Sugar production now represents just 2% of the GDP of this prosperous African island, a big drop from 25% in the 1970s, although sugarcane still covers almost 80% of the arable land, producing around 500 000 tonnes of sugar per year.
Cost of cane sugar production here is among the highest in the world due to a low milling capacity, a short season and high labour costs. The beautiful but rocky terrain on the volcanic slopes makes mechanisation almost impossible.
In 2017 EU trade preferences were removed when a WTO ruling forced Europe to re think ex-colony quotas and prices. Although most of Mauritian sugar is still exported to the European Union, the resulting plunge in sugar prices meant a radical rethink for the industry.
Sugar production here has changed and continues to change; exports of uncompetitive raw sugar are being replaced by refined and speciality products including rum, and sugar cane ‘bagasse’ or residue which is being used for electricity production. European compensation to producers has helped less productive estates re-purpose towards tourism and real estate development. The “sugar” estates remain big economic players, not least because of their large land holdings.
In the quiet South West of the Island, The Domaine de Bel Ombre is such an estate. Cane was planted here from 1765 with a small sugar mill built in 1802. The Compagnie Sucrière de Bel Ombre was created in 1910 and, after a series of consolidations with neighbouring estates right through until the 1950s it became the largest sugar estate on the island. It wasn’t only sugar; there was also hunting, livestock and forests. These forests now form part of Part one of the leading and most innovative natural reserves on the island.
Sugar production at the mill ceased in 1999. All that now remains of the former sugar mill is ‘La Place du Moulin’, a collection of small shops, with the preserved stone arches and old turbines bearing witness to its industrial past.
The 2500 ha of the estate between coast and mountainside are now dedicated to real estate and tourism, in particular golf and ecotourism with the Frederica nature reserve on the slopes above the beach. This seems appropriate, as in the 19th century naturalist Charles Telfair once owned the estate. His name now graces the 5 star Heritage Telfair hotel built on the property’s beach front, but his legacy is also in some of the trees and the gardens that remain around the original chateau. The Heritage Resort includes two beachfront hotels, a beach club, and a golf club with an estate of private and rental villas built around it and, at its heart, the Château de Bel Ombre. This Anglo-Indian colonial style house has been recently restored to its former glory. The ground floor is now a restaurant with tables in both the wooden panelled and ‘trompe l’oeil’ dining room and on the surrounding veranda with views across the garden towards the ocean.
Two star Michelin chef David Toutain helped create the menu, inviting the Mauritian chefs back to work in his Parisian kitchens. It is designed around local specialities including produce sourced directly from the domain such as pineapples, palm heart, venison and wild boar. The chateau regularly hosts wine dinners with recent Bordeaux guests including Chateau Giscours, Chateau du Tertre and Chateau Haut Bailly (I did manage to mention wine after all).
There are other ‘chateaux’ on the island that will also be happy to welcome you to dine including nearby Chateau Saint Aubin, and Chateau Mon Desire and Chateau Labourdonnais in the north (although the restaurant here is in the grounds rather than the chateau itself) but as far as I’m aware Château Bel Ombre is the only Mauritian ‘chateau’ where you can also stay the night for the complete colonial plantation experience.
The upstairs has been made into one guest suite, apparently the largest suite on the island. I can believe it, it is more of an apartment with its own dining room and salons all with spectacular views across the estate and a wrap around terrace so you can follow the sun, or the shade, to take your morning coffee, afternoon tea or evening drinks.
It’s not uniquely about food and wine, Heritage prides itself on their wellness activities; all year round the resort hosts sunset yoga classes on the terrace of the chateau and hosted their first Wellness Festival this May.
Wellness, history, nature, food and wine – there’s so much more to Mauritius than the beach.
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