A small island charms its way to our writer’s heart.
A TINGE of envy crept into my heart when some Mauritians of Indian origin greeted me with Bonjour, the most common greeting you will hear on Mauritius. Having read up on this slice of paradise in the Indian Ocean prior to my five-day, four-night sojourn at the La Plantation d’Albion Club Med, I had expected English to be the most widely spoken, as it is generally accepted as the official language.
How interesting, then, to listen to these Mauritians, who looked like Malaysian Indians, speaking fluent French or Creole. Of course, the moment a Mauritian notices your puzzled expression after failing to reply to a question, they politely switch to English, putting non-French-speaking visitors immediately at ease.
I thought it was simply cool, to be of Indian descent, living on a beautiful tropical island in the middle of a great ocean and being in command of two very widely spoken languages – English and French. A good 68% of Mauritius’ 1.3 million inhabitants are Indians (the majority of whom are Hindus), 28% Creole (African descent), and 3% Chinese. There are also the French and other nationalities in the expatriate population.
The 2,040sqkm island is located some 2,000km off the south-east of the African continent. Neighbouring Madagascar, this country includes Rodrigues, the islands of Agalega, and the archipelago of Saint Brandon. Its position just 20° south of the Equator means the island experiences summer and winter. The winter season, from May to October, is not cold and severe but warm, dry and pleasant.
During my trip from Nov 1 to 6, it was the peak tourist season (November to April, to be exact). and the weather can be hot and humid, with quite a bit of rainfall.
Anyway, this small mountainous island is blessed with what seems to me to be neverending stretches of white sandy beaches and tropical vibes.
It is also home to a colourful mosaic of cultures following a rich history of colonisation by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British. Mauritius, incidentally, was so named by the Dutch in honour of Prince Maurits van Nassau, in the 17th century.
Miles and miles of sugar plantations line the narrow Mauritian roads – these I had expected to see, having been told by a doctor before my trip, that this was what struck her about the island. I had also written to a former colleague in New Zealand as she had visited the island some years ago. She said that she was charmed by the island and its beautiful people.
As for me, the picturesque landscape of the island truly bowled me over.
I was very happy when I found out that the Grand Bassin (Ganga Talao) – a crater lake situated 549m above sea level – was on our itinerary, planned by tour agency Mauritours.
It’s a good thing the drive up the mountain (in the district of Savanne) went smoothly; it was neither tiring nor nauseating as I had initially feared.
Thick forests lined both sides of the road that we journeyed on. The monotony of the scenery was broken by a magnificent 33m statue of Lord Shiva. The gigantic bronze deity indicated that we were entering sacred ground, and the crater lake was not too far from there.
Calmness descended as shrines and tall statues of Hindu deities came into view to the left of the Grand Bassin.
This is where the Mahashivarathri celebration takes place every February, attracting thousands of pilgrims from all over the world.
While in this area, in the hilly south-western part of Mauritius, a visit to the Black River Gorges National Park is recommended.
With 60km of trails, much of the forest is open for discovery if you have time for long walks.
The Seven Coloured Earth of Chamarel, which was on my to-do list, was also on the tour schedule. This geological wonder of coloured sand dunes – with splashes of red, brown, grey, purple and brown – in the middle of the Chamarel plantation, is simply breathtaking.
Another scenic sight in the vicinity is the Chamarel Falls, with the lush vegetation of the Black River Gorges surrounding it. At a height of 83m, it is the highest waterfall in Mauritius. I was totally mesmerised by nature’s design!
Next on the itinerary was the petting farm, just a stone’s throw away. There, I saw tortoises – cousins of the Galapagos variety – basking lazily in the sun.
The island has plenty for tourists to feast their eyes on, and if you have enough time, a visit to the 14ha Casela Nature And Leisure Park in the western part is worth visiting. The park is home to some 1,500 birds (of over 150 species), and various animals such as lions, cheetahs, zebras, ostriches and monkeys, none of which are native to the island.
My travel mates and I experienced a mini African safari on a coach but how we wished we were riding Bombardier quads, which are a more exciting option to explore and get a feel of the park.
A visit to Port Louis allows visitors to experience life in the capital city. Although there are many places of interest, we only had time to visit the Port Louis market, La Citadel and Le Caudan Waterfront.
The Port Louis market is a busy place where locals head to for fresh produce, like vegetables and meat. It was interesting to browse the handicraft items, clothes and souvenirs on sale at the stalls.
Also known as Fort Adelaide, La Citadel is located on a hill, overlooking Port Louis. This lookout point offers a lovely view of the city.
I would recommend a visit to the Le Caudan Waterfront, especially if you plan to indulge in a spot of shopping. This commercial area is dotted with retail shops, including those carrying luxury brands. There are many restaurants here offering a variety of cuisines, and entertainment outlets as well. I thought it would be a good place to meet up with friends for drinks, or take leisurely walks along the harbour.
Mauritius may not be a big island but its rich culture, warm hospitality, tourist attractions and magnificent beaches make it a unique and charming getaway.