|Country Information & Lifestyle|
The Gem of the Indian Ocean
The Mascarene Islands are situated in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar with Mauritius being the largest and has 330 km of beaches almost entirely formed from coral reefs with a vast central plateau and beautiful mountains.
From the Arabs and Portuguese to the Dutch, French and English, the history of the Mascarene Islands has been determined by the traders, explorers, colonisers and corsaours. The Mascarenes were un-inhabited until the arrival of European colonisers from the 16th century. Mandelslo's description of a man in 1601 is said to have provided Daniel Defoe with inspiration for his tale - Robinson Crusoe.
Mauritius is one of the most densely populated islands in the world and has a tropical climate with two seasons, summer and winter. The summers are hot and humid and cyclones can occur between November-April, May-October is less humid with a little rain.
Although there are said to be three seasons - summer, winter and the racing season. The Mauritian Turf Club is the second oldest in the southern hemisphere founded in 1812, most horses come from South Asia and Australia, and are trained in one of the island 8 stables. Race meetings are held every Saturday pm from 1st week may to end of November.
The local cuisine is an inspiring combination of Indian, Creole, French and Chinese influences, adapted to the local produce. Rice is at the heart of the Mauritian cuisine and meat appears in casseroles and curries, and chilli turns up everywhere, so beware, strengths vary. Seafood is prepared in a mouth-watering range of ways and by the beach, and elsewhere, food stalls sell fresh fruit cut in pieces and sold in bags for a few rupees. Stalls also fry up mine frite and boulettes, fish and potato croquettes, or dhal puri, (Indian flat brad with curried lentils). Rum is the national drink.
The rich diversity is found in every aspect of Mauritian life, churches are next to mosques, Indian temples next to Chinese pagodas and Muslim festivals are celebrated with fervour and devotion all year round by the different communities. Some of these celebrations can be quite spectacular like the fire-walking ceremony that is performed on the Cavadee Day.
Folklore is another living tribute to the variety and depth of the islander's culture, this is illustrated in the many different sounds and rhythm, see and hear the beautiful, sophisticated Indian dances, or the Chinese spectacular lion and dragon dances, or dance the frantic rhythm of the Sega, the most typical folkloric dance of Mauritius
Diverse beliefs and practices, some originating in the popular customs which African and Asian immigrants brought to the island, have persisted into modern day Mauritius. Local sorcerers known as longanistes or traiteurs, are called in to settle quarrels, exact revenge, reverse bad luck and administer love potions. Cemeteries are powerful sites for such practitioners of magic, and the locals often can be seen at mid-day sacrificing a small chicken, breaking coconuts, and lighting candles or camphor sticks on the graves, surrounded by a small knot of followers.
The phenomenon of the loup garouy or were-wolf is a good example of how a popular belief can become serious. The Dodo, a giant flightless bird was killed off in the 17th century and was developed from the pigeon family.
Despite rapid developments in the tourism and textiles industries the giant sugar estates are still the country's third biggest employer. Mauritius produces the best unrefined sugar in the world and most of it is exported to the EU.
Port Louis is the capital with busy streets, old fashioned market and the Caudan Way waterfront with al-fresco cafes, trendy designer shops, clubs and 24 hour casino. Take a harbour cruise for one of the best views of the city, where old mixes with new, and there are some very interesting buildings.
No one should miss the covered central market where traders from continents have converged for nearly 150 years, and today Indian, Chinese and Creole traders stand shoulder to shoulder to selling their wares. The Chinese quarter, encompassed in several streets off the market, is the most colourful part of the city, with specialist food and spice shops, and herbal remedy stores.
Visit the Jummah Mosque with its teak door, the islands most impressive mosque. The Chinese temple Kwan Tea Pagoda the oldest in town is dedicated to the Chinese God who fought for justice. Bank notes at the entranced of the temple are deposited by the faithful and burnt at funerals and memorial services as burial money.
The north coast is an unbroken chain of powder-white beaches and gentle crystal lagoons. At Pointe aux Piments surrender to the magic of a Mauritius sunset and watch wellie-footed fishermen wading in a shallow lagoon. At the resort of Trou aux Biches look out for the toothless fruit lady called Madonna who is a local celebrity. Her skill at chopping pineapple with a razor-sharp machete is a spectacle in itself!
Grand Baie is the only proper restored town; here you can take a trip to Rodrigues the centre of big game fishing. Pointe aux Cannoniers, at the northern end of Grand Baie, was once a garrison by the French and later turned into a quarantine station by the British during the cholera epidemic of 1856 which nearly wiped out the population of Port Louis. Two of the islands off the coast served as quarantine stations during the epidemic.
Coin de Mire is the closest island to the shore and is composed of crumbling volcanic sandstone making landing impossible. Getting to Flat Island is worth the effort just to pad along the lovely beaches ringed with coral reef. Gabriel Island makes a good day trip, but you need permission to land on Serpent Island which is a nature reserve.
2km north of Grand Baie is Pereybere where the pace of life is slower, and then the coast road swings east to Cap Malheureux, the islands most northernmost point. Continue on through fields of sugar cane and emerge at the sparkling white beaches of Grande Gaude. Poudre de Or is where Saint Geran foundered in a storm in 1744, and Ile d' Ambre is an uninhabited island named after the Ambergris once found there. You can visit the island with a local fisherman.
Inland are the famous Pamplemousse Botanical Gardens and on the scenic drive past the quirky peaks of Moka Mts you will see the first sugar cane estate established in 1743. Malenga is the nearest you will get to Pieter Both, whose pinnacle resembles a man's head perched precariously on cloak-shrouded shoulders. The locals say the day the head comes off some great catastrophe will destroy the island, but even during the worst cyclones of 1892 and 1960 have failed to shift it.
The east coast is more isolated and has glorious beaches, secluded hotels, sleepy villages and much of the area owned by sugar estates. This is the most beautiful rural area in the country and the sugar is inter-lined with vegetables. Arriving at the village of Trou d'Eau Douce thrusts you back into the realms of real life. The little village is a maze of narrow, streets, tumbledown dwellings double as clothes-horses as women wash their clothes in the rive and fishing boats line the shore.
Ile aux Cerfs(Paradise Island), is a long-time favourite with Mauritans and holidaymakers and is managed by Le Touessrok resort, but is open to the public. The island is 285 ha of woodland and has lovely beaches and blue waters.
The drive from Trou d'Eau Douce south along the Old Coast Road is one of the loveliest on the island. Fishing hamlets and picturesque villages are scattered along the route. The Grand Port district is full of historical connections and there are many ruins in the area. Along the water's edge are the caves of Salles d' armes where French gentlemen once fought duels.
Mahebourg, under the French, was a busy thriving port, but nowadays is a dusty, rather run-down place. Multi-coloured pirogues bob around the islet of Moucher Rouge, while in the back streets life trundles by. Women still scrub clothes on the stone sinks at La Lavour, the outdoor wash-house, and there is a thriving daily market.
Ile aux Aigrettes was opened in 1998 as a nature reserve and is just 20 minutes ferry from the La Croix de Sud hotel. A guide will take you to see the endangered Mauritian kestrel and bands of pink pigeons breeding happily among flora found nowhere else in the world.
The rugged south coast comes as a breath of fresh air. Gorgeous scenery stretches for miles, glorious sandy beaches to be explored in a day's drive, and scant evidence of the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Rivers flow from central uplands to the ocean. Bel Ombre is the heartland of the south coast's sugar industry, the largest settlement is Souillac. The most southerly point, Le Gris Gris, called some say because black magic used to be performed here.
In the west the main attraction are the beaches and turquoise lagoons of Flic en Flac and Le Morne, 30 minutes from Port Louis. Grande Riviere Noire is one of the poorest regions, the rugged mountains once provided a hideaway for marrons(runaway slaves). Chamarel is known for the unique rolling landscape of multi-colored terrain thought to have been caused by the uneven cooling of lava. The colours never fade even after rain, and even if different coloured earth is mixed they will have separated by the next day.
The water filled volcanic crater at Grand Bassin is known among Hindus as Ganga Tala. Legend says the lake contains nocturnal fairies, but it was after the Hindu priest dreamed it was linked to the sacred river Ganges, that Grand Bassin became a place of pilgrimage for the annual Maha Shivaratree festival. Off the coast of Le Morne Brabantis is the uninhabited Benitiers Island, with gorgeous, powdery sands.
Rodrigues, a dependency of Mauritius, lies 640 km east and is markedly different from the motherland in character and culture. This is the place of authentic island life. Being so isolated and still relatively inaccessible, it remains unspoiled. The smallest of the three Mascarene Islands, Rodrigues is remote, laid-back and rather neglected, with a rugged, simple beauty, and warm, friendly people. It is possible to fish in shallow lagoons, dive, snorkel the reefs and walk through casuarinas forests.
The capital, Port Mathurin, has a Saturday market and very little else. The beach of Anse aux Anglais at low tide is a favourite haunt of a group of fisher women known as piqueuses ourites, who make their living spearing octopus which they hang out to dry in the sun.
Inland from Port Mathurin are lots of waterfalls and little villages overlooking the north and south lagoons. The 6km journey from Mont Lubin to Port Sud-Est must rank as the most beautiful in the entire island. The road snakes its way down hillsides, twisting and turning along a series of hairpin bends, each giving way to vistas of the lagoon dotted with small coral atolls.
Take a fisherman boat to Cocos Island, 11km from Port Mathirin, the last refuge of the Fody and Brush Warbler, which have virtually disappeared from Mauritius. This idyllic island, one of the 28 floating inside the lagoon, is real desert island living. Sugar white beach where you can camp for the day and pretend to be Robinson Crusoe. A permit is needed from the Central Administration office in Port Mathurin.
Equally beautiful is Cat Island for swimming, snorkelling and just chilling out, and Hermitage Island is one of the most picturesque for authentic island life, isolated still relatively inaccessible, and remains unspoiled. No high rise or shopping malls, rugged beauty peace and quiet. Kreol is spoken but English is understood.
The Mascarenes, each one offers different landscapes and completely different experiences, and until the 1970s were never more than a dot on the map. Few people discover all the islands in one trip, so come and enjoy the way of life on one of them, and then you can in time visit all, adopting a little Creole insouciance along the way!.