The 76-seater twin-prop took off into unblemished blue, its whir accompanied by the clucking of baby chicks, loaded behind the cockpit.
Chickens in the cabin was a clue: the 90-minute flight from the Mauritius capital Port Louis would transport me 400 miles to a backwater few have heard of.
I was off to Rodrigues, a small island in the Indian Ocean.
Mellow: The pristine beach on Rodrigues, a small island in the Indian Ocean that belongs to Mauritius
I’d been told it was like Mauritius — to which this island of 38,000 souls belongs — 50 years ago. And that I should expect sunshine, beautiful beaches, pristine nature, and a relaxed vibe. Oh, and that Princes William and Harry used to holiday here incognito, free of paparazzi.
That’s about all I knew. Now, as I peered from the window, I saw below me a fish-shaped island in a lagoon of the most impossible, milky jade, surrounded by a sapphire ocean. Promising.
A short runway and relative inaccessibility have saved Rodrigues from development and mass tourism. That’s just how the islanders, who live from fishing and agriculture, like it.
That’s why this sublime island in the middle of nowhere is such a joy. After driving to our hotel, over hills of black lava and lush vegetation, negotiating free-range livestock with little road sense, we reached the pristine beaches of the East coast.
Whereas most accommodation is in guesthouses inland, or along the North coast, the Tekoma, one of half-a-dozen hotels on Rodrigues, has pride of place. My bungalow had direct views over the ocean and I woke to pyrotechnic sunrises, and saw fishermen bringing in their traps, brimming with colourful reef fish.
These unpolluted waters yield squid, emperor fish, marlin, the prickly shoemaker fish, tuna and the most succulent parrot fish. For both snorkelers and gourmands this is nirvana.
Rodrigues only has a population of 38,000 and has so far been saved from development and mass tourism
When not snorkelling, or scuba-diving beyond the reef, brimming with over 250 species of coral, we explored the island.
Smaller than Manchester, it’s easily seen in a day. We passed little houses, all selling home-made pickles, honey, baskets woven from leaves, and octopus, hung out to dry from washing lines.
Much of this produce is to be found at the market in Port Mathurin, advertised on cardboard in the local Creole language (‘3 ti po pou Rs100’).
We drove inland, through alpine-like scenery, passing what must be the most inviting prison on the planet — with sea views, and an outer wall painted with colourful murals.
‘When I first came here, I thought I’d go mad,’ a French expat I met in town told me. ‘Mauritius, by comparison, is like New York. But then, you get used to the pace, and you never want to leave.’
A room at the Tekoma Hotel located on the north coast. It is one of half-a-dozen hotels on Rodrigues
No wonder tortoises once flourished here. Rodrigues was home to thousands of giant tortoises but by the 1770s they’d all been eaten. Thanks to Charles Darwin, an early proponent of breeding endangered animals in captivity, the late 1800s saw giant Aldabra tortoises brought here. And in 2007, the Francois Leguat Tortoise Reserve opened, staffed by a skeleton team and eco-conscious volunteers.
‘Our residents are descendents of Darwin’s tortoises,’ says Arnaud, a reserve manager. ‘We brought some from Mauritius and now have around 2,300.’ They were mating as we walked through the Canyon Tiyel, a few hopeful singletons lumbering up to us, to be tickled under the chin.
We meet one tortoise, released into the wild, and duck under six-inch spiders hanging between the trees, while the island’s last surviving native birds flutter around us — the brilliant yellow Fody and Rodrigues warbler.
A day was spent visiting the Île aux Cocos. Only 15 fishing boats have a permit to bring tourists to this nature reserve, about an hour’s journey into the lagoon. Twelve of us came ashore, among hundreds of nesting noddies and skittish white fairy terns.
We lunched on the local staples of octopus curry, rice, papaya salad, pickles, and a lethal rhum arrangé made by our boatman, Rico, surrounded by white beaches and the most limpid waters I’ve ever seen.
The island is known for its wildlife, especially tortoises, which have flourished there
But the best was saved till last. On a day when the 32c heat was tempered by a breeze, my guide and I undertook a three-hour coastal walk, from my hotel to Gravier.
It took us on a rough path, through forests of casuarina trees and wild flowers, across beaches and over cliffs, and into deserted coves where we stopped for refreshing dips.
Along the way, we passed only a fisherman caulking his wooden boat, and sunbathing goats. Lunch awaited at journey’s end: a feast of crab, octopus salad, fresh fish, and huge lobsters, straight from the deep.
There is little to beat such barefoot simplicity. Just make sure you leave your watch behind.
Luxury Holidays Direct (020 8774 7299, luxuryholidaysdirect.com), seven nights half-board at Tekoma Rodrigues from £1,485pp, includes return flights from Heathrow via Mauritius, (airmauritius.com).