The Republic of Mauritius is 900 kilometres east of Madagascar in the south-west Indian Ocean. It is renowned for being the only known home of the dodo, which became extinct less than 80 years after the island was settled by the Dutch in the mid-1600s.
They took African slaves with them but abandoned the colony in 1710. It was quickly snapped up by the French, who lost it to the British during the Napoleonic wars in the 1800s. The British allowed French-Mauritians to retain their language and legal code and imported labourers from China and India, now the majority of the island's 1.2 million people. It gained independence from Britain just 40 years ago.
The tropical pear-shaped island is a holiday destination for the rich and famous, but you don't have to be either to enjoy it. It's easily accessible from Australia and you will find fine food, warm hospitality and stunning scenery. It has endless sugar plantations, forested ridges and gorges, brightly coloured flowers, palm trees and emerald-green jagged peaks.
Lion Stroll at Casela Nature and Leisure Park
Casela covers 14 hectares within the Yemen Reserve, and was set up as a bird sanctuary in 1979. It has over 1500 birds and 150 species from five continents. It's also a habitat for the island's native Java deer, Mauritian macaques, wallabies, tigers, lemurs, ostriches, antelopes, zebras, monkeys, wild boars and giant tortoises all roaming free.
It's where you can get up close and personal with lions as they wrestle, play and climb trees. Hour-long walks begin with an introductory talk and safety procedures. You're permitted to touch the big cats and strike poses with the eleven magnificent creatures as well.
Graeme Bristoe is a third-generation lion handler and there isn't much he doesn't know about them. Your safety is top priority, of course, and Graeme knows his charges so well he can detect any unusual behaviour. He says walking with the lions is just like walking the family dog.
The young ones consume around two kilos of chicken, red meat or tuna a day. As they mature, that increases to 5-7 kilos every other day.
To be close to these majestic but highly endangered cats is an indescribable experience. If you rub them behind their ears they purr. As with the lions, cheetahs are selected for their genetics. It is hoped they will breed and that their offspring will hunt their own live prey and eventually be introduced into the wild.
Bwanah is the boss cheetah and the other two are called Impi and Sabi. Unlike the lions, they don't care for human company, and are loners of the animal kingdom. They aren't known for attacking humans as they prefer to run away when coming across a two-legged critter like Ben Dark!
There's no shortage of dive sites around Mauritius' 177 kilometre turquoise coastline, which is protected almost entirely by coral reef. There are no fewer than 60 well-established high-quality centres and it's a great place to learn to scuba. When you're in the water it is easy to see why the fishing industry is so successful in Mauritius.
Diverland Mauritius can take you to around 25 dive spots of every level. There are coral gardens, drop offs, rock formations and wrecks under ten minutes away from their base. All equipment can be rented including underwater digital cameras, so you can record everything you have seen.
Much of the diving is along the west coast outside the coral reef, ranked as the world's fifth largest. The Flic en Flac area has good conditions year-round; visibility is usually excellent and it's protected from prevailing winds.
Rempart Serpent attracts possibly the greatest concentration of weird and wonderful sea creatures in the world. You'll see the devil scorpion fish, and extremely rare weedy scorpion fish, Mauritius scorpion and devil fire fish. There are clear fin lionfish, dragonfly fire fish, dwarf lionfish, Indian wasp fish and common stonefish. In the eel family there are leopard, yellow mouth, yellow edged morays, white mouth and snowflake morays.
The Cathedral is an underwater cavern, part of a particularly rugged stretch of reef made up of rock arches, tunnels, chimneys and craggy overhangs. It's quite dramatic with sunlight streaming through a fissure in the roof of the cave.
More than just a quad bike outing, leave the beaten track and ride in the African reserve for an encounter with many fantastic animals. Then visit the adjacent reserve of Yemen with views of the west coast through dry indigenous forest, savannah, through rivers and up the mountain.
The easiest way to get around at other times is on two wheels. Cycling is cheap and you're free to go where the wind blows.