According to the famous American author Mark Twain, Mauritius was made first and then heaven was copied after it. Known for its powder-soft, palm fringed beaches and translucent lagoons, the island is particularly attractive for Indian tourists because 75 percent of its population comprises ethnic Indians.
A resplendent dot in the Indian Ocean, 2,400 km off the eastern coast of Africa, the Republic of Mauritius dominated by the tiny, volcanic island of Mauritius (2,040 sq. km) is a tourists paradise. The white, powder-soft, palm fringed beaches, spectacular coral reefs, and translucent lagoons of the four islands of the republic (St. Brandon, Rodriquez, Mauritius and Agalega), make Mauritius (pop: 1.2 million) one of the most scenically endowed island nations worldwide. To these marine charms add its imposing mountain ranges, cascading waterfalls, thick tropical forests, sugarcane fields and salubrious year- round climate. Little wonder that in his travelogue Following the Equator, the famous American author Mark Twain was moved to remark: You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.
Unsurprisingly, after enduring economic hardship for a decade following the island nations independence from British rule in 1968, the socio-economic profile of this Commonwealth nation experienced a metamorphosis when its government, under Sir Sewoosagar Ramgoolam, took the decision to improve its infrastructure and develop the tourism industry. Since the early 1980s Mauritius, which offers world-class hotels, night clubs, casinos, water sports, wildlife, deep sea fishing, shopping and other exciting leisure options, has transformed into a highly preferred holiday and tourism destination. In 2007, 906,971 tourists (almost equal to the population of the island republic) from around the world visited Mauritius — an increase of 15 percent over 2006, generating a revenue of Rs.4,000 crore (cf. Indias Rs.4,050 crore).
The pleasant weather, unspoilt natural beauty and exotic beaches are the main attractions of Mauritius. The beaches and plush resorts are ideal for rest and recreation. And for those seeking action and enjoyment, theres more than they can handle. Add to all this, its warm and friendly people, and the food and service in restaurants is superb. I was charmed by the bustling capital and business centre of Port Louis, where most multinational companies have their offices. However, hotels are expensive in Mauritius and only affluent tourists can holiday here, says Chennai-based management consultant Raghu Reddy who recently visited Mauritius.
The island is particularly attractive for Indian tourists because 75 percent of its population comprises ethnic Indians with African Creoles, Muslims, French and Chinese who live and work in harmony, lending it a cosmopolitan charm. Languages spoken include English, French, Creole, Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Telegu and Mandarin. The richness of Asian, European and African cultures is reflected in the variety of customs, religions and delectable cuisines that Mauritius presents to appreciative tourists.
Although some reports indicate that Mauritius was visited by Dravidian and Austronesian seafarers as early as the 10th century and Arab sailors reportedly visited the islands and named them Dina Arabi in the 15th century, the first European to land in Mauritius was Portuguese sailor Domingo Fernandes Pereira in 1507. But it was another Portuguese sailor Don Pedro Mascarenhas who gave the name Mascarenes to the group of islands now known as Mauritius, Rodrigues and Reunion. However, the Portuguese did not settle permanently on these islands.
Almost a century later in 1598, a Dutch squadron under the orders of Admiral Wybrand Van Warwyck landed in Grand Port district, the first port in the south-east of the island and named it Mauritius in honour of Prince Maurice Van Nassau, stadtholder of the Netherlands. But unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch stayed put until 1715, when a French expeditionary force took possession of the island, and established Port Louis as a naval base and shipbuilding centre. Thereafter until 1767 the island was administered by the French East India Company after which French government officials took charge. During the Napoleonic wars, Isle de France became a base for organising successful raids on British commercial ships which provoked a British expedition to capture the island in 1810. By the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Mauritius regained its former name and was ceded to Great Britain together with Rodrigues and Seychelles islands.
The most significant development of over a century of British rule (1810-1968) was that following the abolition of slavery in 1835, sugarcane planters contracted huge numbers of indentured labour from India to work on their plantations. The Indian immigrants toiled hard to build a vibrant economy and after the end of their contracts, established themselves as traders and service providers on the islands.
Inevitably the freedom struggle in India inspired the majority Indian population of the newly emergent island nation, and in 1948 when franchise was extended to all adults who could pass a literacy test, general elections were held. This was followed by a series of constitutional review conferences and on March 12, 1968 the Union Jack was hauled down in the governors residence for the last time and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was sworn in as the islands first prime minister.
In 1992, Mauritius became a republic within the Commonwealth and today, (annual per capita income $5,000 or Rs.225,000) its a developed nation renowned for political stability and racial harmony, and is one of the worlds most successful democracies. Under the incumbent prime minister Dr. Navinchandra Ramgoolam who took charge in July 2005, the island republic is poised for further growth and development, particularly after its emergence as a new hub for the information and communication technology (ICT) industry. Mauritius is also an international financial hub offering an array of privileges and fiscal incentives to overseas investors, and is the major route for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into India.
Meanwhile even as Mauritius rapidly shifts gear into a higher stage of economic development, the islands tourism industry is also going more upmarket. Besides offering a spectrum of natural and man-made attractions, a sub-tropical climate, attractive beaches and tropical flora and fauna, Mauritius presents a unique gastronomic adventure to visitors. Mauritian chefs are adept at conjuring up exotic fusion curries, French steaks, English roast beef, Chinese delicacies and assorted seafoods.
The best time to visit is during the winter months of July-September, though there are ideal seasons for differing water sports. For deep sea divers the best time is December-March. For surfers, June-August and for fishing aficionados October-April.
Getting there. Mauritius is well-connected to India with daily and weekly Air Mauritius flights from Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi.
The administrative capital of the Republic of Mauritius and the countrys only port, it is situated on the west coast against a canvas of sombre mountains. Founded by French governor Mahe de Labourdonnais in 1735, the city is dotted with colourful markets, French colonial style buildings, shops, churches and mosques which rub shoulders with big business and financial institutions. The historical centre of the city, Place D Armes, links the port to Government House through an esplanade lined by palm trees and cannons with the statue of Labourdonnais at its entrance. The Citadel Fort Adelaide, built in 1835 by the British is sited on a hill, with panoramic views of the city, and hosts concerts by local and visiting artistes from around the world.
A must-visit destination is the crowded Caudan Waterfront which offers excellent shopping and boasts a casino, cinemas, restaurants, a bustling nightlife and harbour cruises from the marina. The 155-year-old Jummah Mosque in the middle of Chinatown, reflects the aesthetics of Islamic architecture. Other major attractions include the Theatre de Port Louis; the Champ de Mars race course; Aapravasi Ghat, a Unesco World Heritage site that pays a special tribute to thousands of indentured Indian immigrants who built modern Mauritius; China Town for shopping; Rajiv Gandhi Science Centre and its four museums: Natural History, Blue Penny, Postal and Photography. Restaurants in Port Louis are a foodies delight, as much for the connoisseur as for the fast-food consumer.
Accommodation. Top-end: Hilton Mauritius Spa & Resort (Rs. 23,618 per night). Mid-range: Sofitel Imperial Mauritius Hotel (Rs.10,766). Budget: Les Cocotiers-Apavou Hotel (Rs. 4,912).
North Mauritius welcomes tourists with excellent white soft-sand beaches, coral fringed islands, water sports facilities, shopping and entertainment. One of the most attractive beaches of this island is Trou aux Biches, a sandy bay shaded by casuarina trees where holidayers can indulge in water sports, snorkeling or deep sea diving to view the coral atolls, colourful reefs and exotic fish. Likewise Grand Bay beach offers sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, and shopping and leisure options apart from a plethora of restaurants, bars and discotheques. A leisurely stroll on balmy evenings across the recently upgraded La Cuvettte beach is utterly relaxing. Another remarkable cove, half-way between Grand Bay and the fishing village of Cap Malheureux, is Pereybere, one of the best swimming spots on the island. This serene beach with its shopping facilities and numerous restaurants and pubs is very popular with tourists.
The more daring souls can descend into the sea by signing up with the Blue Safari Submarine to explore the ocean bed, or experience the thrill of walking on the sea bed fitted out with a unique solar powered diving system.
One of the most popular attractions of north Mauritius are the Pamplemousses Gardens, designed in 1767 by French architect Pierre Poivre, and now known as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens. A stroll across the 60-acre gardens with a labyrinth of rare palms, lotuses, Victoria giant water lilies and tortoise garden is exhilarating and educative. The gardens fauna includes Java deer and giant tortoises.
Cultural and heritage sites are also sprinkled about the island and a visit to its largest village Triolet Shivala which houses the biggest Hindu temple, the Maheshwarnath built in 1819, is likely to prove spiritually uplifting. A visit to the ancient sugar factory LAventure du sucre, now converted into an ultra modern exhibition centre, highlights the evolution of the island over four centuries and its erstwhile dependence on the sugar industry.
Accommodation. Top-end : Royal Palm Hotel (Rs.53,182 per night). Mid-range: Merville Beach Hotel (Rs.9,829); Casuarina Hotel (Rs. 8,028). Budget: Grand Bay Beach Hotel (Rs.1,919 per room pernight); Felicata Bungalow Hotel (Rs. 5,014).
The eastern coast of Mauritius is a stretch of undulating blueness with miles of beaches including the wild, authentic Poste La Fayette and Roches Noires (Palmar), the casurina lined Belle Mare as also the fishing village of Trou DEau Douce which has a fine sandy beach. At Belle Mare beach, the 240 m high Tamarind Waterfalls spill into the sea and Pointe du Diable offers a spectacular view of the Grand Port. Yet perhaps the most inviting beach is the islet Ile aux Cerfs or Deer Island, for diving, snorkeling, parasailing, under- sea walks, water skiing and golfing.
For wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers, the eastern coast of Mauritius has plenty to offer. The Domaine De LEtoile, a natural sanctuary robed in indigenous forests, lush valleys and rivers, is a fascinating ornithologists haven. The Domaine du Chasseur situated in the south of the central plateau is another exciting spot where thousands of deer and wild boars roam freely in a natural environment of 1,000 hectares. An added attraction here is the warm and welcoming Pavillon de chasse where visitors can taste the best traditional recipe of palm heart, deer and fish cooked over wood fires.
Accommodation. Top-end: Plage Resort (Rs.27,434 per night); Le Touessrok Hotel (Rs.25,335). Mid-range: Le Coco Beach Hotel (Rs.13,962); Le Tropical Hotel (Rs.12,283). Budget: Veranda Palmar Beach Hotel (Rs.4,884); Bougainville Hotel (Rs.6,104).
South and South-east Mauritius
The south offers a different landscape of high cliffs battered by waves. One of the most popular bathing spots in the south east is Blue Bay, offering a grand spectacle of huge waves dashing against the cliffs of Gris-Gris. Well worth a visit are the natural caves of La Roche qui pleure within the cliffs of Gris-Gris and the 30-metre high geyser Le Souffleur, which spouts a spectacular jet during high tide.
The luxuriant greenery of La Vannille Reserve des Mascareignes brings the visitor to a sanctuary where thousands of Nile crocodiles are bred in captivity, and the 200-hectare Valley of Ferney where you can spot a glory of birds such as the kestrel, pink pigeon and echo parakeet. In the midst of all this, the small town of Mahebourg, with its well-planned wide streets bearing testimony to its Dutch and French heritage, retains its old-world charm and is worth visiting.
Accommodation. Top-end: Shandrani Hotel (Rs.38,511 per night), Mid-range: Le Preskil Hotel, (Rs.10,511), Budget: Blue Lagoon Beach Hotel (Rs.6,201).
West and South West Mauritius
For adventure sport buffs, West Mauritius offers action-packed escapades and leisure excursions. Petite Riviere boasts a modern and sophisticated karting circuit, and jeep safaris through the Carlie hills thrill visitors with waterfalls, deep gorges, and a green profusion of tropical forests. Excitement runs high at Les Cerfs Volants in the south of the island, which has 11 speed zip lines that traverse the sugarcane fields of St. Felix estate and fly over tree tops. The trail lasts four hours and includes a swim under a waterfall in the heart of a forest.
Beach lovers can sunbathe or splash about in the white casuarina lined Flic en Flac beach or the Tamarin beach located at the foot of a stunning mountain backdrop which features great surfing spots. A major draw in south west Mauritius is Chamarel Village with its unique seven coloured earth created by volcanic rocks. Dunes of earth in rainbow shades of blue, green, red and yellow are an amazing sight. The stupendous 100 metre high Chamarel falls form a visual treat, while the bobbing black dolphins of Tamarin Bay keep gawkers entertained.
Accommodation. Top-end: Taj Exotica Spa & Resort (Rs.25,530 per night). Mid-range: Imperial Mauritius Sofitel (Rs.13,101); The Sands Resort & Spa (Rs.15,845). Budget: Beach Apartment (Rs.4,747); Gold Beach Resort (Rs.7,288).
The inland town of curepipe is the centre of the countrys tea and shipbuilding industries. Overlooking the town is its biggest natural attraction, the Trou aux Cerfs, a volcanic crater offering sweeping views of the island from the summit. A 15-minute drive from Curepipe is the 500-acre Domaine La grave, an enchanting virgin forest with a range of sports activities in the lap of nature. Located 6 km south west of Curepipe on the mountains is the verdant, unspoilt beauty of Black River Gorges National Park sprawled across 6,574 hectares, and demarcated to conserve endangered indigenous flora and fauna. The breathtaking landscape, radiant with 311 species of native flowering plants and nine species of rare birds in the park offers a wonderful, arcadian experience to city weary visitors.
Deep in the heart of Mauritius in the Savanne district is the sacred lake Ganga Talao or Grand Bassin, 1,800 feet above sea level. Hindu legend has it that Lord Shiva accidentally spilled a few drops of the Ganges water balanced on his head on the island, which was renamed Ganga Talao in 1972. On the banks of the lake is a Shiva temple overlooking a 108 ft tall statue of Lord Shiva, the second largest in the world. Every year thousands of pilgrims descend on the sacred lake during the Mahashivaratri festival in February to offer prayers.
Named after portuguese explorer Diego Rodriguez, this is the smallest (109 sq km) of the Mascarene Islands and is a dependency of Mauritius, granted autonomous status in November 2001. With a peak elevation of approximately 355 metres above sea level, it is located 560 km east of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. It has a sheltered lagoon of about 200 sq. km with over a dozen islets. With Port Mathurin as its administrative capital, this volcanic island surrounded by coral reefs and lush vegetation is a microcosm of Mauritius in terms of ambience and scenic beauty.
The climate, however, is hotter and dryer and since the island is in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. During the summer months — November to April — cyclones lash the island particularly in January and February. The great majority of people are Creoles but some descendants of the first European settlers, Chinese traders and Indian civil servants have also settled here. The influence of the Catholic church in the daily life of the people is clearly evident. With its tranquil beaches, authentic culture and laid-backness, Rodrigues is an ideal getaway for those seeking to escape the tourist crowds of Mauritius.
The mountainous island has plenty to offer. Port Mathurin shelters the unique harbour of the island and the 1,057 metre long Caverne Patate which goes 26 metres underground is studded with stalagmites and stalactites. The Lle aux Cocos island, a long strip of white sand dotted with causuarina trees 4 km to the west of Rodrigues, is a nature reserve sheltering four unique species of sea birds. To round off, the Francois Leguat tortoise reserve spread over 18 hectares is a must see for its unique species of giant tortoises, and 100,000 native and endemic plants.
Accommodation. Budget: Cotton Bay Hotel (Rs.13,974 per night); Pointe Venus Hotel (Rs. 13,974).
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)