A MARK Twain quote includes the words: “Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; heaven being copied after Mauritius.”
You don’t have to look far to see why; the omnipresent contrasts in the capital Port Louis and around the island leave an indelible impression.
The port city, founded by French Governor Mahe de Labourdonnais in 1735, is a melting pot of cultures that brings with it a rich diversity of religions and rituals, architecture, food and landscapes; everyone and everything co-existing in harmony.
In the central business district around Place D’Armes (ammunition corner), lies the epicentre of the Mauritian corporate sector; the monoliths that house big banks and other commercial enterprises dwarf the tiny, bustling Indian and Middle Eastern spice traders’ shops a few blocks up the road.
It’s business as usual at China Town on Royal Street as Muslim worshippers attend Friday prayers at the mosque next door.
In the back streets, food hawkers and Muslim bakeries offer a snapshot of everyday life for many Mauritians, as does the buzz of the Farquhar Street market precinct, where locals shop for their fresh produce, and which is seemingly not on the tourists’ list of must-sees.
But it’s a totally different vibe directly behind the markets at the Caudan waterfront where travellers flock and dish out rupee (the local currency) like confetti, at the swish harbourside eateries and shops.
Today in Mauritius, many French colonial ties remain, including the spoken French and Creole languages, and place names, but the influences of the Dutch, Chinese, Indians, Arabs and British can be seen all around.
A racetrack built just back from the central business district is full of punters on weekends, upholding an iconic British tradition established during their colonisation in the 19th century.
Statues and monuments in various places pay tribute to Mauritian forefathers such as William Newton and Dr Navinchandra Ramgoolam.
Similarly, the Mauritian landscapes are just as diverse as the charming people on the streets and the buildings that occupy this exotic place.
The imposing but picturesque mountain ranges that envelop the capital act as a natural windbreak for the shipping lane – the main reason Port Louis became the island’s main harbour in 1722.
The remnant black rock and fertile, dark brown soil as you drive around the island, are reminders of the island’s emergence from the ocean floor during a volcanic eruption eight million years ago.
Sugarcane, introduced by the Dutch in 1639 and the main export commodity, dominates much of the lower lying areas outside Port Louis.
Sugarcane plants that reach almost 3m grow everywhere like wild weeds, even up against houses in the shanty areas; red, yellow and white wildflowers add colour to the roadside.
The lush rainforests of the Black River region in the south-west of the island are home to the Mauritian tropical birds seen bobbing through the cool, fresh mountain air, momentarily lost through the rolling dark clouds; water appearing out of nowhere to feed the gushing waterfalls of the magnificent gorges.
Indeed, a land of many contrasts.
The writer was a guest of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority and Air Mauritius.