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mauritius north villa IlotThe distinctive wedge-shaped Coin de Mire (Gunner's Quoin) dominates the horizon. The island gained its name from the quoin, or block, used by ship's gunners to raise the angle of the cannon barrels to steady their aim. The steep cliffs of the island, only four kilometres from the mainland, make landing virtually impossible, but sailing past this imposing, sun-drenched wall is a delight. Of particular interest is the cave in the cliffs, the Trou de Madame Angon (Madam Angon's hole). In the 19th century the British navy used it for target practice.

You can take a cruise or snorkelling trip from Grand Bay with several operators sailing to the outer islands of the north. There are also some that offer a range of packages, from diving charters to multi-day adventures around the island based on a luxury live-aboard catamaran. The dive locations in the lee of the islands are varied and challenging, with at least 10 different sites all close together. The wreck of the Jabeeda sits 29 metres below the surface in the clear, sheltered waters of the north of the island, where rays lie camouflaged in the sand. This Japanese-built fishing boat was sunk in 1996 by the Mauritian Scuba Diving Association - one of 12 such artificial reefs on the Mauritian coast.

White-tip Shark lurk in the hold and Capitaine fish (White Snapper), half a metre long, patrol the depths under the hull. Nearby, shallow coral gardens teeming with tropical fish offer easy dives for novices. Experienced divers can enjoy the action on the drop-off: shoals of pelagics, including Tuna, Barracuda and the occasional Dolphin, cruise by the steep, black wall.

All four northern offshore islands have been designated as nature reserves, but various operators run tours to îlot Gabriel. This tiny, flat sandbank - along with its neighbour, the larger île Plate - is almost encircled by coral reef and makes a popular day-trip from Grand Baie. île Plate (Flat Island) has one of the only two remaining working lighthouses on Mauritius and also boasts a fossilised forest. Permits to over­night on any of the islets around Mauritius must be obtained from the National Coast Guard.

Cruises to îlot Gabriel usually depart from Grand Bay at around 9 am, returning in the late afternoon. Spacious catamarans, representing a number of different cruising companies, line up on the main pier waiting to take eager party-goers to the islands. If you have good sea legs, this is undoubtedly one of the top attractions on offer. The trip is very scenic, and relatively calm when you sit in the stern. But, if you want adventure, you can sit out on the trampolines and enjoy a windy, exhilarating passage as the sails fill and the double hulls rise and crash on the swells.

The spirit is light hearted, with wine, beer and the ubiquitous rum flowing even before the sheer western cliffs of Coin de Mire pass out of sight. The sea gets wilder as the catamaran heads for the open ocean, but, once in the mooring in the shallow lagoon between îlot Gabriel and île Plate, you can visit the flat, sandy island or don a snorkel and mask and flop into the turquoise mill pond, while your lunch of fresh fish and chicken is being prepared on the barbecue. The reef is colourful and brimming with tropical fish, which rush to devour the scraps thrown overboard by the cruises' satisfied clients.

The more distant islands of île Ronde and île aux Serpents are out of bounds to casual visitors for conservation reasons. Their names are confusing and lead some to believe that they are the result of an early cartographer's mistake. île aux Serpents (Island of Snakes) is a bird sanctuary that does not harbour snakes and is more round than its neighbour, île Ronde (Round island), which does have snakes.

île Ronde is a sanctuary for a number of endangered plant and reptile species, among them hurricane bottle palms, the île Ronde day gecko and the Telfair skink. The island has been managed as a nature reserve by the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation since 1984, but it is unlikely to be opened up to visitors other than bona fide scientists.