Mag­nif­i­cent Mau­ri­tius

From spec­tac­u­lar moun­tains to golden beaches, this mul­ti­cul­tural is­land in the In­dian Ocean of­fers visi­tors a range of de­lights, as Neil McAl­lis­ter dis­cov­ered.

The People's Friend Special - - CONTENTS -

Neil McAl­lis­ter dis­cov­ers the charms of trop­i­cal Mau­ri­tius

APART from some very nice ho­tels, all there is to see is just miles and miles of sugar cane,” a friend had told us be­fore we flew to Mau­ri­tius. The road up from the air­port seemed to sug­gest Mike had been cor­rect, but half an hour into the ride, a line of jagged hills ap­peared, their shape as un­real as a child’s draw­ing. To em­pha­sise their other-world­li­ness, Mount Pi­eter Both ap­pears to bal­ance a huge rock on its peak.

We had de­cided to stay in three places: first, a small ho­tel on the north coast, then a west-coast re­sort, be­fore fin­ish­ing our visit in a guest house in the south­ern port of Mahébourg.

The is­land is tiny and out­side Port Louis, the cap­i­tal, roads were a de­light to drive in our hire car.

Paus­ing at Cap Mal­heureux to pho­to­graph a splen­didly painted Hindu tem­ple, we no­ticed a row of road­side flower sellers lin­ing the seafront ceme­tery.

Mak­ing our care­ful way be­tween the mon­u­ments, we watched fam­i­lies care­fully tend and lay fresh flow­ers on the graves.

We had vis­ited on the Fête des Morts, when peo­ple hon­our fam­ily who are no longer with us. Those with no head­stone to tend lit can­dles and laid bunches of flow­ers on a large white cross be­fore pray­ing for their de­parted fam­ily.

Hav­ing a car al­lowed us to call in at ev­ery cove and beach along the coast, all of which are public, even those used by ex­pen­sive re­sorts. Whilst they may seem ex­clu­sive dur­ing the week, at week­ends, when Mau­ri­tians take to the coast, even £1,000-a-night tourists share the idyl­lic palm-fringed beaches, lapped by aqua­ma­rine wa­ter, with is­lan­ders.

Paus­ing on Grand Gaube beach, as I snapped a crudely painted dodo dec­o­rat­ing a boat, the owner strolled over for a chat.

“That was done by my grand­daugh­ter,” he told us. “I have seven grand­chil­dren. Five live here and two live in Ger­many, where their fa­ther teaches French and English.”

I won­dered if he had vis­ited his teacher son in Europe, but he wasn’t keen.

“I am quite happy here,” he said con­tent­edly, wav­ing a hand at the idyl­lic scene.

The con­ver­sa­tion was just one of many we en­joyed with Mau­ri­tians. Lan­guage isn’t a prob­lem. Ev­ery­one speaks Kreol, most peo­ple also speak English, the of­fi­cial lan­guage, and French is widely used. If that wasn’t enough, much of the pop­u­la­tion also speaks Hindi.

This lin­guis­tic mix is a re­flec­tion on Mau­ri­tius’s history. Un­til Dutch sailors ar­rived in the 1600s the is­lands were un­in­hab­ited, pop­u­lated only by rare and ex­otic birds and an­i­mals.

By 1710 the Dutch had been re­placed by French set­tlers, who were con­quered by Bri­tain a cen­tury later.

The Bri­tish brought in­den­tured labour from In­dia, which is why 70 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion are eth­ni­cally In­dian. The legacy at in­de­pen­dence in 1968 was a truly mul­ti­lin­gual and mul­ti­cul­tural na­tion.

Back in colo­nial times, a rail net­work crossed the is­land. In pre-tourism days the jour­ney to Flic en Flac was of­ten one-way as the vil­lage com­prised lit­tle more than the sea­side ceme­tery.

In the 1970s La Pirogue, Mau­ri­tius’s first lux­ury re­sort, was built on what was then a de­serted stretch of white sand beach.

The thatched rooms, fash­ioned in the shape of up­turned boats, have ma­tured over the years, along with the lush trop­i­cal gar­den, home to hosts of gor­geous birds like the star­tling red fody and cheeky bul­bul, which looked like it was wear­ing a jaunty pointed cap as it pinched crumbs from break­fast ta­bles.

WEvis­ited on the Hindu Ganga Snan fes­ti­val, when thou­sands of fam­i­lies per­form a wa­ter­front re­li­gious puja at ev­ery public beach. As we pho­tographed, one wor­ship­per passed over a gift of bread known as Prasad. Our new friend was de­lighted to learn that we had just writ­ten a book about In­dia.

It turned out he was a tele­vi­sion pro­ducer, and a few days later we spent a day be­ing filmed for a doc­u­men­tary.

Af­ter a few hours pho­tograph­ing shrines, tem­ples, beaches, salt pans, his­toric sites and a Martello tower – just like those on the English Chan­nel coast – we re­tired to a lo­cal beauty spot where, as I was in­ter­viewed about the work we do for the “Friend”, Hazel put her cam­era to use, record­ing my brief mo­ment of fame!

The south­ern part of the

is­land where we were filmed is higher and cooler than the coast, with some spec­tac­u­lar scenery, both on the coast and in the vol­canic moun­tains.

Once a year, tens of thou­sands of devo­tees make their way to the sa­cred lake and tem­ples of Ganga Talao, be­low two huge stat­ues.

In­stead of fry­ing on the lovely beaches, we spent each day ex­plor­ing in our car, paus­ing to en­joy pic­nics of fresh baguettes and cheese – another lovely legacy of the French cul­ture.

At one stage, we fol­lowed a road high into the hills, where the si­lence was bro­ken by the tin­kle of a dis­tant ice-cream van, play­ing “Greensleeves”, which seemed in­con­gru­ous in the trop­i­cal land­scape.

Driv­ing the empty roads of Mau­ri­tius is as easy as mo­tor­ing around ru­ral Nor­folk. The hills are a bit steeper, how­ever, as sheer vol­canic cliffs rise from wooded val­leys. You don’t find many hair­pin bends in East Anglia, ei­ther!

Mahébourg, our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion close to the air­port, is a de­light­ful place, where we spent four days walk­ing the back streets, chat­ting to peo­ple, pho­tograph­ing gar­dens full of colour­ful flow­ers and en­joy­ing brews in breezy, in­ex­pen­sive cafés.

The town has two proper at­trac­tions; a fas­ci­nat­ing mu­seum, set in a lovely colo­nial man­sion, and a tiny bis­cuit fac­tory.

No, I’m not jok­ing; the lo­cal em­ployer, lo­cated in a gor­geous gar­den on the out­skirts, charges £3.50 each for a guided tour to watch man­ioc bis­cuits be­ing made.

Af­ter the tour, visi­tors are let loose on the tasty stock. Hazel bought two pack­ets but, to pre­vent me nib­bling, she packed them deep in our suit­case to en­sure we were able to re­turn home with a taste of this fas­ci­nat­ingly ex­otic is­land.

boats Glass bot­tom beach. wait by the Bis­cuit fac­tory work­ers spread­ing man­ioc mix on to a hot­plate. A wel­com­ing swim­ming pool.

The view to­wards the coast from the foothills of Mount Pier Both. Surfers in head­ing off search of the waves. A tran­quil spot. La Pirogue Ho­tel, the first lux­ury re­sort.

Notre Dame Aux­il­i­atrice – the fish­er­men’s church. pub­lic beach. A bright and busy Trop­i­cal flow­ers.

Fruit in the Cen­tral Mar­ket.

Colour­ful Hindu Tem­ple.

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