Magical Mauritius

The island country of Mauritius occupies a quiet corner of the globe off the African mainland, east of Madagascar, in a part of the Indian Ocean where the water seems to be perpetually 75 degrees F.

The resort we stayed at, LUX* Le Morne, sits on a lagoon outside of the main tourist area. The waters off the white-sand beaches were calm during our stay and the currents, untangled. Waves broke far from the coastline, and bathers, undisturbed by swimmers, could wade out knee- and waist-deep for yards from their thatched cabanas, where waiters served panache, a cocktail made from beer and the juice of sugar cane.

Mauritius has the beaches and blue waters of the best tropical destinations in the Caribbean and other parts of our hemisphere, without the crowded waters and noise that come along with water sports. Which isn’t to say there aren’t opportunities for activities. You can jet ski off parts of the island, while snorkeling in the lagoon takes you through clouds of tropical fish that seem as curious about you as you are about them.

LUX* Le Morne’s views are dominated by the can’t-be-faked backdrop of the Le Morne Brabont mountain, which is shaped more like a square than a triangle. My bride, Julie, who is a triathlete, suggested one day that we hike up the mountain with a guide. Being no triathlete myself, I agreed to take the “low-impact” version of the hike but later ended on the summit of the mountain 1,500 feet up, with panoramas of the Indian Ocean stretching into infinity. I’m still not sure if there even was a “low impact” hike or if Julie made that up as a way to convince me to get to the top.

The mountain, like much of the island, has a serene beauty, but beneath it lies the difficult truth of its history as an exploited colony. As legend has it, escaped slaves hid on the mountain in the 1800s. On the day slavery was abolished, French soldiers came to the mountain to inform the hiding slaves, but they misunderstood the reason for the visit and jumped to their deaths rather than return to captivity.

Inland, the island is filled with sugar cane, which makes up the vast majority of its agriculture. The smell of the cane gives much of the undeveloped inland area its perfume. Mauritians rely on the cane for their economy, which has struggled since textile plants for international retailers left the island. (The supplies were never local, but Mauritius was a site for production because of its cheap labor.)

Other crops include coffee beans and the “hurricane palm,” the palm tree from which hearts of palm are taken. It takes several years to grow those trees to adulthood and when they are chopped, they are replaced by younger ones. The effort in growing and harvesting this crop has led Mauritians to call a hearts of palm salad “a millionaire’s salad.” (That’s a whole lot of rupees, each of which is worth about three American cents.)

The island has also taken to growing black tea, but there is not much of an international market for it. Our taxi driver, Jan, blamed this on the elevations at which the tea is grown. In Mauritius, the highest elevations for tea are about 2,000 feet. By comparison, a country like Sri Lanka grows teas at 4,500 feet, Jan said. The Mauritian tea, he said, is only sold domestically and in Great Britain as a bargain tea.

Tourism became a focus only in recent years after textiles left, but the down economy saw the amount of visitors from the U.K. and India drop significantly. Tourism has since become the growth area for the economy not only because of the utopian beaches there but because of Mauritius’ significance to the Hindu religion. Slightly less than 50 percent of the country is Hindu, but during a festival in February the population of 1.2 million grows by 200,000.

The destination is the Ganga Talao lake, an organic crater which, legend has it, is filled with water from the Ganges. Local lore says a Hindu priest dreamed that the god Shiva told him about the lake. Near the lake is an impressive 100-foot statue of Shiva called the Mangal Mahadev. A second 100-foot statue was under construction on the opposite side of the road during our visit, and construction crews hoped to have the new statue finished by the time of the next pilgrimage.

Today, there are 10 temples there and the roads in the area are uncharacteristically large and wide, with ample parking spaces. Worshippers believe the face of Shiva was manifested on a rock in one temple. They stop to pour water on that stone – custom that arises from the belief that Shiva drank poison to protect the universe and therefore could use a drink of water. Outside the temples, people leave offerings such as food, which are taken not by deities but by the local monkeys. Monkeys are some of the only wildlife on the island, and notably there are no dangerous animals such as snakes for locals to worry about.

When the Dutch ruled the island centuries ago, they cut down native trees, including ebony. The imperial forces decimated much of the natural resources and also contributed to the extinction of the dodo bird and a species of Mauritian tortoise. The Dutch left in the early 1700s during the South African gold rush, and the island then came under French colonial rule. Most locals speak both French and English and the culture is a melting pot of Asian and European influences. Thus meals might include stir-fried dishes in exotic sauces paired with croissants.

Port Louis differs from the rest of the island in that it is a legitimate urban city, complete with tourist-trap restaurants, fast food chains and markets where vendors swarm tourists. Wanting to experience “the real Port Louis,” we asked a guide to show us around, which he did. The vendors, though looking to make a sale, were in no way intimidating to those of us familiar with New York City.

My wife negotiated down the price of a refrigerator magnet with no more astute a tactic than a smile and a “please.”

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