From spectacular mountains to golden beaches, this multicultural island in the Indian Ocean offers visitors a range of delights, as Neil McAllister discovered.
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.
The view towards the coast from the foothills of Mount Pier Both. Surfers
in heading off search of the
A tranquil spot. La Pirogue Hotel, the first luxury
boats Glass bottom
beach. wait by the Biscuit factory workers spreading manioc mix on to
a hotplate. A welcoming swimming
Notre Dame Auxiliatrice – the fishermen’s church.
public beach. A bright and busy
Fruit in the Central
Colourful Hindu Temple.