Island playground

Island playground

While the beaches are just as pretty as your friends’ Instagram feeds suggest, Mauritius has plenty to offer beyond silken coves lapped by turquoise water. By Keith Bain

CRUISE ITS COSMOPOLITAN CAPITAL
While its warm waters shelter shark-free playgrounds with coral reefs and gnarly waves, Mauritius is also a place of cultural complexity, its multicultural communities are fashioned from a happy diversity that includes a rich amalgam of Creole, Indian and French heritage. On the bustling streets of Port Louis, there’s a sizeable Chinese quarter, too, and crumbling buildings that reveal an intriguing history. Be warned, though, that traffic in the capital is absurd. It’s streets are tiny, and peak hour gridlock on the main roads is insane. Which makes walking tours the only way to explore the city. Guides from my Moris (mymoris.mu) lead visitors on a food-focussed on-foot adventure that delves into the city’s history and back alleys, taking you into ancient spice warehouses and hole-in the-wall sweet shops. Along the way, you tuck into Mauritian street food, starting with deep fried chilli cakes and Indian-style ‘crêpes’ stuffed with spicy vegetables. Walks culminate behind the wrought iron gates of the Victorian-era market, where you’ll find stalls piled with photogenic fruits and vegetables.

Nearby, Le Caudan Waterfront has over 150 stores selling anything from pareos (sarongs), artwork and essential oils to Indian textiles, handmade jewellery and duty-free designer wear. Also down by the waterfront, at the Blue Penny Museum, you can seek out the island’s biggest little treasures – a duo of tiny stamps that are among the world’s rarest. The red one-penny and blue two-pence stamps were issued in 1847 and are considered the island’s two most valuable objects. Also on the edge of the water is Aapravasi Ghat, a compelling World Heritage Site that marks the main point of arrival for the ancestors of most people on the island – indentured Indian labourers who were contracted to work the sugar plantations.

If you’re here on a Saturday, be sure to spend the afternoon at Champs de Mars Racecourse. The second-oldest racetrack on Earth, it’s atmosphere is thrillingly unique – and visitors can reserve a spot at one of the VIP ‘lodges’ (crown-lodge.net), shared viewing boxes where you’re plied with snacks and drinks and have a superb vantage of the equine action – even if you don’t bet, you’ll have a great time. Racing season runs March to December, and it’s worth dressing up.

GAWK AT ITS GORGEOUS GARDENS
Ten minutes north of the capital, Pamplemousses is home to the oldest botanical garden in the southern hemisphere, the 62 000-acre Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens – the name’s a mouthful, but it’s worth exploring. Guides can be hired to show you the most wondrous of the 650 plant varieties that thrive here, including its pond of gargantuan Victoria amazonica water lilies, whose three-metre wide leaves can support the weight of a child. There are also tortoises and stags, and tall talipot palm trees that flower only once – when they’re about 60 or even 80 years old – and then die.

Nearby, L’Aventure du Sucre is a marvellously in-depth museum dedicated to unravelling the history of sugar, the island’s economic mainstay. Its fascinating self-guided tour tells the story of slavery on the island, and its abolition, and there are sugar and rum tastings in the shop.

Minutes away, the lovely Domaine de Labourdonnais centres on a lovingly restored 19th-century colonial mansion modelled on Versailles. It’s surrounded by tree-filled gardens and lavish meals are served at its restaurant, Le Table de Château. After lunch, pause at the adjacent rum bar to taste the estate’s artisanal-style spirits – the ones infused with fruits harvested from the on-site orchard can be sipped like liqueurs. Alternatively, there’s the three-course Creole lunch at Chez Tante Athalie, a good-value spot set on an old sugar plantation near Pamplemousses. After feasting on spiced seafood and aromatic curries, you can check out the collection of vintage cars in the garden.

HIKE ITS HEAVENLY HILLS
Mauritius is a volcanic remnant studded with the silhouettes of craggy peaks, some of them rising almost vertically and forming sculptural shapes. It’s possible to walk up and over some of the island’s most impressive peaks, and some of the best hikes are through the verdant hills of Black River Gorges National Park. The reserve shelters ridiculously-oversized ferns and intricate lichens, wild boar and macaques, and there are some 50 km of hiking trails where you can walk (or run) for hours without spotting another soul. You’ll do better with a guide, though, who will help you to identify some of the island’s special birds such as echo parakeets and white-tailed tropicbirds that soar above the canopy – only if you’re exceptionally lucky are you likely to spot the ultra-rare pink pigeon, though.

You can arrange hikes and guided trail running sessions in the park with Yanature (trekkingmauritius.com), and the same company leads treks up the monolithic edifice of Le Morne Brabant, on the south-western corner of the island. It’s a beautiful hike that starts easily enough, but after a while demands some energetic scrambling as the slopes start to steepen. Your guide will explain why the mountain’s ecosystem earned World Heritage status, and tell the sad tale of runaway slaves who took refuge on the summit (which is now out-of-bounds) and jumped to their deaths rather than face capture. The stiff climb up culminates with heart-stopping views across Le Morne’s tranquil bay which is favoured by kite-surfers and surfers alike.

SAVOUR ITS SCINTILLATING SOUTH
Apart from the manicured, primped and grass-umbrella-lined patches of tranquillity that are found in front of virtually every Mauritian resort, the island has some surprisingly raw and wild coastal stretches, too. One spectacular drive winds along the south coast between Baie du Cap and Souillac, where breaks in the reef that otherwise encircles Mauritius permit the surf to build ferociously and then bash against the mainland. Near Souillac, windswept Gris Gris is known for the dramatic views from its cliff top walk – you stare out across the ocean while tumultuous waves steadily hammer against the volcanic black rock beneath you.

Just north of Souillac, on one of the island’s original sugarcane estates, Le Saint Aubin is an old colonial residence – it was built in 1819 from the timber of demolished ships, and in 1970 it was disassembled and moved, piece by piece, to its current location. It’s now a pretty restaurant serving Creole dishes, and behind it there’s a tasting room where you can sample the estate’s rums.

Adjacent Saint Aubin is the island’s largest tea plantation, Bois Cheri, which has a restaurant overlooking a crater lake. Before settling in for a tea tasting, though, pop into the factory to see how the harvested leaves are air-dried, fermented and chopped before a series of intricate and ancient machines deposit the tea into tiny teabags, individually tagging and boxing them in a matter of seconds.

Also worth visiting is Grand Bassin, a volcanic lake that’s among the island’s most sacred Hindu sites, presided over by a 33 m-high effigy of Shiva. At one end of the lake, there’s a temple where priests bestow blessings in return for a small donation, and outside, monkeys steal most of the food that’s been offered to the gods. Once known to Hindus as Pari Talao – the Lake of Fairies – they now call it Ganga Talao, ever since water from the Ganges was symbolically poured into it, in 1972. The lake is the location for Maha Shivaratri (or ‘Great Night of Lord Shiva’), the most important Hindu festival in Mauritius which happens every February or March, according to the Hindu calendar (this year it’s on 13 February). It’s traditionally the culmination of a pilgrimage when Hindus walk here, barefoot, from their homes – although these days many journey by car or bus. However you arrive, though, it’s an enchanting time filled with colourful rituals and rich devotional chanting.

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