Paradies found: Mauritius

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It turns out the picture-perfect beaches you’ve always dreamed of are all in Mauritius. But there’s much more to do in paradise than lounge on the sand, as Jake Newby discovers 

Mauritians don’t shy away from describing their country as ‘paradise’. Engage one in conversation, and it won’t be long before the word leaves their lips. They’ve plenty to point to when justifying its usage: palm tree-lined white sands stretch down to azure waters from lush sugar cane fields and spectacularly craggy peaks. The people are warm and friendly, the pace of life relaxed. 

Mauritius also embodies yet another cliché that makes it worth exploring: it’s a true cultural melting pot. Geographically part of Africa, the island’s population is predominantly Indian and Hindu, yet alongside spectacular shrines to Shiva are beachside chapels and glittering mosques, while Chinese New Year is celebrated as a national holiday. The vast majority of the population is multilingual – a French-based creole is the main tongue, with French and English widely spoken. The various ethnic and religious groups seem to mix comfortably; it’s not uncommon to see people from different backgrounds engaging in the French greeting of a kiss on each cheek. 

The French influence is a legacy of colonial rule. France occupied the island for a century from 1710, taking over from the Dutch. Britain subsequently invaded during the Napoleonic wars and presided over the country until independence in 1968. Chinese – mostly skilled workers from Guangzhou – arrived in the late 18th century and continued in a steady flow until relatively recently. Port Louis, Mauritius’ small capital, even features a couple of blocks designated as a Chinatown, with red lanterns strung up along streets with names such as Sun Yat Sen Road. Across the island you’ll find people pedalling on Shanghai-brand Seagull and Phoenix bicycles. 


Maison Eureka

The vestiges of European colonialism make for some of the more interesting attractions. Maison Eureka (+239 433 84 77; eureka-house.com; entry around $60), supposedly named after banker Eugène Le Clézio’s exclamation when he won the property at auction in 1856, has been preserved as a museum. The rooms, filled with antique furniture and fading photographs, make for an intriguing wander, while a narrow path leading off from the back of the immaculate gardens snakes its way down to a pretty waterfall. 

For those in search of even more spectacular falls, Mauritius’ Black River Gorges National Park offers plenty. The mountainous area provides ample opportunity to stretch muscles made rubbery by lounging on the sand – hiking trails of varying difficulties wind their way through the green peaks and valleys. Some can be challenging, but there are plenty that are just a few hours, leaving you time to head to the nearby Rhumerie de Chamarel (+230 483 7980; rhumeriedechamarel.com; entry $75). 


Black River Gorges National Park 

Given that much of Mauritius is covered by sugar cane, it’s no surprise that rum is produced in large quantities. La Rhumerie de Chamarel is one of a number of rum producers to offer tours. Nestled photogenically beneath Mauritius’ highest mountain, Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire, the small rhumerie’s tours are brief, mainly so that they can cut to the chase: the tasting. 

A distant second to sugar cane in Mauritius’s crop output is tea and the Art Deco Bois Cheri Plantation (+230 507 0216; saintaubin.mu) is worth a visit. However, the main reason for visiting is the restaurant (boischeri.restaurant.mu). The menu of Indian and Creole dishes, using Bois Cheri’s own tea and vanilla from the company’s sister business at Saint Aubin, is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the eatery’s panoramic views over the 250-hectare plantation. 

For local cuisine, you’re best checking out one of Mauritius’ markets. Port Louis’ daily Central Market is a bustling hub with sellers hawking everything from fresh coconut and Indian spices to tourist T-shirts and fake bags. For a more authentic experience, head to the Sunday affair in Centre de Flacq, to the east of the island, for row upon row of fruit and spice stalls alongside food stalls serving up all manner of tasty, cheap dishes. There’s dholl puri, a fried take on Indian paratha made with split yellow peas, stuffed with your choice of curried fillings; mines frites, Chinese-style fried noodles; a range of sponge cakes with luminous fillings; and gajak, fried snacks including samosas and delicious gateaux piments (deep-fried falafel-like fritters laced with chilli). After eating your fill, sprawl back out on the beach and remind yourself how clear the sky can be. 

Getting there 
Air Mauritius (airmauritius.com) flies direct to the island from Hong Kong from around $7,068 return (inc tax). With only a four-hour time difference there’s little jet lag to deal with, so you’ll soon get over the journey. 


Fire-breathing at LUX*

Where to stay 
Mauritius’s beaches are studded with luxury resorts, mostly concentrated on the east and west coasts. LUX* (luxresorts.com) has a resort on each side of the island: in the west at Le Morne, near the surfing hub of Tamarin, and in the east at Belle Mare, in Flacq. The former features a string of charming seaside huts; the latter boasts one of the island’s best beaches. The Belle Mare resort’s dining options include the classy Chinese restaurant Duck Laundry (with a Chinese chef at the helm) plus Amari by Vineet, an impressive Indian eatery operated under the guidance of Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star. In addition to offering activities on site (from horse rides along the beach to glass-bottomed boat trips), LUX* Belle Mare can help you organise excursions to swim with dolphins or go big-game fishing (marlins and mako sharks are common in the area). Packages at the resort start from $3,076 per night based on two adults sharing. 

Getting around 
Biking through the sugar cane fields can make for a fun afternoon wherever you’re located, but the best way to navigate the small island is by car. Rental is available through hotels (around $540 a day). Signage is minimal and the largely unlit roads zig-zag seemingly at random through the sugar cane. Some spectacular coastal routes balance this out. Alternatively, hire a taxi to take you around – just be sure to agree a price and a rough itinerary before you set off ($540 for the day is reasonable). Finally, a trip on one of the country’s brightly decorated buses can be fun if you want tochat to the locals as you see their country (mauritius-buses.com is indispensable). 

Visas 
Hong Kong citizens, along with those from most European countries and North America, can enter Mauritius either visa-free or by obtaining a visa upon arrival. 

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