Dreaming away in Mauritius

¬†Distant, isolated and loaded with tropical seductions — a perfect year-round climate, talcum-soft sands, crystalline waters, world-class diving, big game fishing, fields of purple litchi fruit, rum and tea plantations — Mauritius, long called the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, has for decades been one of the planet’s most elite island getaways.

An officially English-speaking former Dutch, French and British colony, it is Africa’s farthest-flung nation, a speck of volcanic rock with a few smaller offshore islands and shoals, more than 2,000 kilometres east of the African mainland. Starting in the late 20th century, that remoteness, combined with its natural gifts, attracted jet-setters and the five-star resorts catering to them. Prince William of Britain, Princess Stephanie of Monaco, J.K. Rowling and Robert De Niro have all been spotted in Mauritius in recent years.

But the winds are shifting. In 2006, air travel restrictions were loosened, and new European budget and private carriers like Corsairfly, Eurofly and Virgin Atlantic began to fly in. The high-end chains are still building: since 2008, Four Seasons, InterContinental, the Starwood Luxury Collection. And a number of boutique brands have set up beachfront palaces, and St. Regis and Conrad are coming soon. But they are no longer alone. Affordable stylish hotels — the Aanari in Flic en Flac, Le Recif in Pointe aux Piments — are arriving, too.

Seizing the moment, I ditched the gray of winter and set off in December to explore Mauritius’ many corners — the glamorous beaches and offshore reefs, the bustling capital, the small villages and the less-visited outback — with an appetite for discovery.

I began my explorations in Grand Baie, on the island’s northern tip. Set along a palm-fringed coastal road, the town is a lively oceanside strip of hotels (mine, Ti Fleur Soleil, was cheap but comfortable and charming), scuba centres, souvenir shops and restaurants that serve up Creole, Indian and Chinese food — reflective of the main ethnicities among the nearly 1.3 million people of Mauritius, long a crossroads of Africa and Asia. Small wooden fishing boats drift lazily in the bay, and fishermen set out red snapper, octopus and the rest of the day’s catch on newspapers by the roadside. Dance music and chatter filter out of open-air bars.

For many, Grand Baie is either a quaint side trip from the adjacent Royal Palm resort — an ultra luxurious compound with a guest book that includes the former French president Jacques Chirac — or a stop before visiting the nearby beaches of Mont Choisy and Pereybere.

On April 16, 1896, Mark Twain stepped from an oceangoing ship into the busy streets of Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, and was delighted to find “a little city but with the largest variety of nationalities and complexions we have encountered yet,” as he recounted in his travelogue “Following the Equator.” It was a lively place full of “French, English, Chinese, Arabs, Africans {hellip} and great varieties of costumes and colours,” he wrote.

 When I stepped off a wheezing bus in Port Louis, I found a mix of clapboard neighbourhoods, colonial mansions, large French-style squares and a few gleaming skyscrapers. It was immediately clear that the ethnic stew described by Twain endures. Trucks painted with Hindu deities honked and sputtered while sari-clad women of Indian origin and African-blooded Creole families shouted greetings and replies to one another in Creole, the local lingua franca.

Threading my way through the crowds, I passed through Chinatown, where elaborate characters covered double-happiness archways and storefronts bore names like “Lising Kok Ultimat Door Mats” and “Ip Min Wan Standard Store.” The lettering shifted to Arabic at the creamy white Jummah Mosque, which dates back to the 1830s

Wearing white skullcaps, bearded men chatted with sidewalk vendors selling Qurans.

I boarded a cheap public bus a couple of days later and headed south. Mauritian grannies and teenagers piled into the rusty seats around me. An hour later we arrived in the coastal town of Flic en Flac.

I bargained with a taxi driver named Raja Bapamah, who agreed, for 1,500 rupees, to spend an eight-hour day helping me explore the plantations and religious sites of the island’s interior — areas well off the standard jet-set itinerary.

After snaking through densely forested backwoods, we arrived at Bois Cheri, a tea plantation dating back to the 19th century. Stooped labourers dotted the green fields, plucking leaves and tossing them into huge wicker baskets on their backs.

Back on the road, I asked Bapamah about the plastic statues of the Buddha and Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, on his dashboard. He explained that roughly half the population is Hindu, but the Christian and Muslim minorities are very much tolerated, as is the odd Buddhist. Periodically, colourful temples whooshed past along the roadside. Bapamah explained how to identify them: The Hindu temples are always red and white; Tamil temples are multicoloured, with elaborately carved deities and animals; and mosques are white with trim in green.

As we pushed farther into the island’s centre, a towering long-haired man appeared in the distance, copper-colour and at least 30 meters tall, with a cobra around his neck and a trident in his hand. Monkeys scampered around his feet. It was a statue of Shiva, the Hindu god, and behind him lay a large placid lake surrounded with temples. We had arrived at Grand Bassin, the holiest site in Mauritius.

“According to the legends, when our ancestors came, fairies used to have baths, swim and dry their hair on the small island in the middle,” said Satish Dayal, head priest of the Sviv Jyotir Lingum temple, one of the main shrines bordering the lake. “Since then the sacredness of the lake has become so strong.”

Within the temple, bells rang and pungent incense filled the air as Hindu faithful lined up to have their foreheads anointed with red paint.

Outside, the sun had begun to dim over the lakes, forests and fields. The coastal resorts could not have felt farther away.