Mauritius is an island of contrast. When Mark Twain set foot here in 1896, he gave it the equivalent of a rave review with his famous words of praise: “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then Heaven; and then Heaven was copied after Mauritius.” Turquoise water, bright white sands, and breathtaking scenery are key ingredients in any tropical paradise, and Mauritius has them all, but after seeing it in person, I wonder if Twain, glad to be far away from his financial problems at the time, may have seen more in it than there is to see.
Whatever version of paradise existed in Mark Twain's day has today been encroached upon by slums and all the byproducts of overpopulation. The 2009 population estimate is a staggering 1.29 million, on a land barely 60 km by 35 km, most of which is dedicated to sugarcane fields. Nevertheless, one can still find pockets of paradise at several public beaches, tall waterfalls on private land, and of course, luxury resorts.
AccommodationsMy dad and I were fortunate to stay at a four-star hotel: Le Meridien Ile Maurice. It was truly luxurious with large ocean-facing rooms fitted with French doors for easy access to the beach. The beach itself was well-equipped with lounge chairs, iconic beach umbrellas, a volleyball area, ping pong table, and, occasionally, a "licensed" salesman of trinkets to break the monotony of those who chose to tan all day.
The only inconvenience was the outrageous requirement that men dress up for dinner at all three restaurants on the premises. I can understand such a rule at five-star restaurants back in civilization, but it makes no sense at a tropical resort, especially since the dress code at all other times is beachwear and flip-flops. This was unacceptable. So much so, that we decided to forgo dinner every night and make do with the buffets of breakfast and lunch.
BeachesWhen you type Mauritius in a search engine, the images you get back are of bright, sunny, enticing, beaches. And Mauritius certainly has them.
The best beaches are on the east coast of the island. The water is crystal clear, and in some locations, fish the size of your arm will swim alongside you when not even knee-deep. Fisherman here need not be born with the patience gene.
To experience the very best beaches, however, one must travel to Ile Aux Cerfs, a baby island less than a mile off the eastern shore. Much of Ile Aux Cerfs is a private hotel, but a tiny sliver on the northern tip is public beach and can be reached by a fifteen-minute speedboat ride.
There is an outstanding restaurant right there on the beach and everything else one needs to relax and ponder about life, the universe, and everything.
Mauritius has two local beers: the Phoenix and the Blue Marlin. Both are quite good, though locals seem to be more fond and proud of the Phoenix.
DrivingOne drives on the left in Mauritius. Or at least, that's the goal. With so many vehicles on the roads barely capable of reaching 40 km/h, and drivers making frequent and sudden stops in the middle of the road to go and get something from the store, one actually spends a good amount of time on the right, in oncoming traffic.
Our rental company's idea of a compact car was a golf cart -sized Hyundai with over 110,000 km on the odometer. On such a tiny island, those are unlikely to be highway miles. Despite its many shortcomings, the car got us around well enough, and its small size actually came in handy in avoiding being run off the road by buses. Because of the frequent torrential rains and cyclones, the road in many areas is elevated to a meter or so above ground. That's all fine and good, except there is no guardrail to prevent you from falling off into a ditch. So, there you are at the mercy of the bus drivers.
Between towns and villages, the dominant landscape consists of sugarcane fields speckled with the occasional palm tree and black volcanic rock.
The tallest waterfall in Mauritius is the Chamarel Waterfall, which stands around 100 meters. It's no Norwegian waterfall, but is still a beautiful sight that sits on private ground and is undoubtedly a big moneymaker for the property owners.
Nearby and also on the private property are curious dunes called the Seven Colored Earth. I can't tell if there are seven distinct colors, but they are believed to be the result of uneven cooling of lava.
On the south-western part of Mauritius stands a giant cliff called Le Morne Brabant (556 m). In the early 1800s, it served as a hideaway for escaped slaves. Legend has it that one fateful day, the slaves panicked when they saw a troop of soldiers heading up the cliff and rather than risk being captured, jumped to their deaths, unaware that slavery had been abolished and the soldiers were in fact the bearers of good news. Hence, the mountain was named Le Morne, or "The Mournful One." Today, it's a popular location for parasailing.
To be fair, I'm including photos of what towns and villages look like in Mauritius, because you are not likely to find them in tourist guide books. They are not exaggerated in any way; it's just the typical scene in inhabited areas.
Sunshine and Sunsets