As I clamber off the boat on to Ile aux Aigrettes, I am stepping back in time.
Surrounded by pristine turquoise water, this tiny coral island off the southeast coast of Mauritius is home to some of the oldest species native to this remote paradise in the Indian Ocean.
The ill-fated dodo once roamed here, and now a team of dedicated conservationists is working hard to prevent more endangered flora and fauna from following in its footsteps.
Rare giant tortoises, bats and rodents are now thriving on this perfectly round islet, just 27 hectares in size, which wallows in the warm waters of Mahebourg Bay.
Shaded by resurgent ebony trees, once-threatened creatures, including the pink pigeon and Telfair’s skink, are multiplying, and tourists can now go to the island to catch a glimpse of them.
Most visitors to Mauritius are understandably drawn to its stunning beaches, luxurious accommodation and glorious weather, and many explore no further than the confines of their hotel. But this tropical utopia has so much to offer the more adventurous visitor.
Ile aux Aigrettes is a jewel in the crown of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF), who are rightly proud of their achievements.
Since 1987, the non-governmental organisation has been concentrating on returning the island to the “natural museum” of endemic species of animals and plants that it was before humans disturbed the delicate ecosystem more than 400 years ago.
I take an ecotour of the islet with a trained ranger, which lasts about two hours at a relaxed pace.
The walk is perfect for nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers and photographers of every level, and interesting things can be found with every twist and turn of the trail.
Within minutes, we encounter one of the island’s celebrities – an Aldabra giant tortoise affectionately called Big Daddy.
He is one of about 20 of the species here and he lives up to his name – he is huge, and unquestionably the boss of the community.
My guide takes time to explain to my group all about the species and what is being done to make sure they continue to prosper.
The MWF released 20 Aldabra tortoises on Ile aux Aigrettes in 2000, as part of continuing restoration work on the island. By 2004, they were allowed to roam completely free.
The aim was that the tortoises would eat the ebony fruit and disperse the seeds around the island in their droppings, naturally encouraging growth of the rare trees.
My guide says the strategy has been a success, not just because ebony trees are being spread across the island, but also that they have been found to germinate more successfully, because they have passed through the tortoises’ droppings.
The magnificent animals are also breeding on the island and tiny babies are regularly taken from Ile aux Aigrettes to the Gerald Durrell Endemic Wildlife Sanctuary (GDEWS) in the southwest region of Mauritius, where they are reared until their release back into the wild.
The MWF works closely with local and international partners – including Chester Zoo in the UK – with the long-term aim of recreating lost ecosystems by saving some of the rarest species from extinction and restoring the native forest.
They also work hard to raise awareness about conservation issues through their education program.
As well as working on Ile aux Aigrettes, the MWF have projects on Round Island to the north of Mauritius, and Rodrigues, an island about 350 miles to the east.
I find the experience to be both fascinating and exhilarating, and it’s comforting to know that by visiting the island, I am contributing towards this special project.
The hotel where I am staying, The Residence, has a partnership with the MWF in which guests are able to make donations to the charity.
Regular tours are arranged, and it takes just 45 minutes to reach the coralline limestone haven.
Once I return to The Residence, which is inspired by turn-of-the-century plantation houses, I can be as adventurous or as lazy as I please.
From windsurfing to water skiing, the hotel has all kinds of complimentary water sports for when you want a change of scenery from its pristine secluded beach.
In just one minute’s speedboat ride from the shore, I arrive at the coral reef which stretches along this part of the east coast of Mauritius.
The water may only be two or three metres deep, but the marine life is breathtaking.
As soon as I take the plunge into the waters kept calm by the reef, I encounter butterflyfish, Moorish idols and bluestripe snappers, as well as all sorts of coral species.
Other free activities organised by the hotel include canoeing, glass bottom boat trips, tennis and volleyball, while scuba diving, deep sea fishing, horse riding and catamaran cruises are available at an extra cost.
For children, The Residence has The Planter’s Kids Club, where youngsters between three and 12 can be looked after from 9am to 10pm.
Experienced staff members supervise activities including treasure hunts, snorkelling classes, sports competitions, body painting, hiking and picnics.
While the kids are being taken care of, the perfect escape for parents is the Sanctuary Spa.
With 11 treatment rooms – one of which is set in the hotel’s tropical gardens overlooking the sea – the spa offers all kinds of therapies, from anti-ageing treatments to massages.
While many visitors to Mauritius choose to stay away from the capital, Port Louis, I am keen to go on a day trip.
I travel with one of The Residence’s drivers in a comfortable 4×4 across the island, through sleepy villages and field after field of sugar cane plantations – one of the main exports here.
After just 45 minutes, we arrive in a bustling melting pot of cultures.
To get a feel for the historic city and for one of the best views, it is well worth trekking up to the citadel. From there, you can see the famous racecourse of Port Louis – still one of the most popular activities for Mauritians – and the docks from where huge amounts of sugar and fish are shipped around the world each year.
During my trip to Mauritius, I find the island’s luxurious pursuits can be balanced perfectly with opportunities to explore its rich and diverse wildlife.
With a small amount of adventurous spirit, you can encounter rare and stunning animals, learn about fascinating conservation projects and hike in pristine nature reserves – that is if you can peel yourself away from the beach.
* James Edgar was a guest of The Residence Mauritius