Most people may think of Mauritius as a sun, sea and sand destination, but there's far more to this cosmopolitan Indian Ocean island than that.
The sweet smell of jasmine, mixed with the scent of freshly-baked savouries, cinnamon and ginger spice, hung in the air. At a dozen closely-set tables, diners chattered in Hindi, French and Creole, some switching from one language to another with apparent ease. Indian women in colourful saris sat next to men in suits; a Hawaiian-shirted tourist eyed a stunning Metis girl whose hair dropped to her shoulders in a mass of black curls. Then a waiter, bearing a platter piled high with shrimp curry, fish masala and cumin rice, sailed in from the kitchen, dispensing laden plates with an easy smile. My stomach rumbled in anticipation.
Diners at the Cari Poule, one of the most popular restaurants in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, are a microcosm of this tiny, cosmopolitan isle: two-thirds Indian, part African-Creole, with some Chinese citizens and a few Europeans (mainly descendants of the island's first sugar planters). Mauritius is a heady mix of ethnic and religious groups, attractive Creole and colonial architecture, transparent seas, low mountains and sugar cane plains. For such a small island, it has variety in abundance.
Take Port Louis. Until recently the capital rarely featured on a visitor's priority list, but development of the Caudan waterfront in the late 1990s, incorporating old dockside buildings and a new marina, changed all that. The Caudan has helped draw new life into a city that was once deserted after office hours. Visitors now follow locals to the upmarket boutiques, multiplex cinema and pavement cafés of this happy mix of old and new.
The heart of the city is changing too, though there are still remnants of its former life as the capital of a French, then British, colony. At Government House, a statue of a matronly Queen Victoria looks out unsmiling from the three-storey, colonnaded building built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Government House is the traditional focal point of the capital, standing at the head of the Place d'Armes – renamed the tongue-twisting Place Sookdeo Bissoondoyal in honour of a leading Indo-Mauritian politician. From here a broad avenue, flanked by elegant palm trees which seem to mirror the columns of colonial buildings, leads to the docks and to the statue of Mahe de Labourdonnais, the former French governor who did much for the city in its early days.
To the north of SB Place lies Mauritius' own China Town, a busy thoroughfare of small shops and family traders, where Indian curry houses give way to Chinese sweet and sour. Garish plastic and chrome ornaments gleam from shop windows while halfway down Royal Street stands the extraordinarily ornate Jummah Mosque, with its priceless teak doors and decorative towers, built for Muslim merchants in the mid-19th century. China Town bustles with traders and traffic and, having glimpsed the mosque's marble interior, dodged porters in the watch-your-wallet street and avoided the ruinous temptations of the Chinese casino, I needed a bit of space. Turning into Jummah Mosque Street I climbed up to Fort Adelaide, Port Louis' citadel, built by the British in 1835. At the entrance to the crumbling ruins I was almost alone. To the south rose Port Louis' volcanic backdrop, with the peaks of Pieter Both and the appropriately named La Pouce ("the thumb"). Below, to the north, lay the changing city skyline, the docks and the vastness of the Indian Ocean beyond.
Outside Port Louis, the PR people have summed up Mauritius as sun, sea and sand, which is partly what it's about, but what stands out in my mind are the extraordinary Pamplemousse Gardens (one of the best kept tropical gardens to be found anywhere), the rugged south coast and that strange sense of disjointed familiarity one sometimes has in foreign climes – shopping streets in Rose Hill and Quatre Bornes have a touch of multi-ethnic London, with branches of Barclays and adverts for desk diaries "newly arrived from England".
On my last visit, while idly watching Creole fisherman at Cap Malheureux, Mauritius' beautiful northern tip, I was jolted out of my tropical bliss by the sound of an ice cream van playing "Jingle bells". "Mr Whippy" served up a Flake 99 to a Chinese schoolgirl and changed the tune to "I come from Alabama with a Banjo on my Knee".The rhythm changed again at dusk. In my friendly, family-run hotel (excuse the brochure-speak) I was kept awake all night by the wailing sounds of popular Hindi music. "A wedding," said Joggee, the proprietor, "a distant cousin. You could have joined in." It was a Grand Baie wedding, complete with garlands strung across the street, and tables laid out with samosas, onion bhajis, chapattis and rich Indian sweets sprinkled with coconut and dripping with honey.
Grand Baie is Mauritius' answer to St. Tropez, fashionable and bustling in season, with one of the island's leading hotels. It's the main centre for sailing and diving, or for exploring the reef in a glass-sided submarine. Most of the island's leading gift stores are here, though quality varies. Goods range from cuddly dodos to imported Asian handicrafts and distinctive prints by one of Mauritius' best-known artists, Malcolm de Chazal.
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