Paradise inland: Mauritius
There is more to Mauritius than pristine beaches, as Lorraine Mallinder discovers on a colourful tour of the island's bustling towns and serene landscapes
It's another sunny day on the paradise island of Mauritius and the only sensible plan would be to walk right into the postcard. You know - the one with the azure waters and golden sands that you will inevitably send to envious friends and relatives.
And yet, here we are in the midst of urban chaos, lost in a procession of men, women and children - all dressed in dazzling colours, their faces and backs pierced with all manner of hooks and skewers - carrying aloft floats festooned with plants, flowers, peacock feathers and statuettes of Hindu deities.
Rose Hill, a bustling little town on the country's central plateau, is not the first place you'd think of visiting in the sweltering heat of midday. Today, though, the burghers are celebrating Kavadi, a festival of penance celebrating Lord Murugan, the Tamil god of war and victory. A man hoses down the street so worshippers won't burn their feet.
It's an almost hallucinatory experience, watching the tide of saffron robes pass by, the strains of nadaswaram (a wind instrument) filling your ears and the scent of spices wafting through the air. Mauritius, with its large Hindu contingent, roughly three-quarters of the population, is often called Little India.
The influence of the subcontinent is everywhere, from little shrines featuring the monkey god Hanuman and the elephant-headed Ganesh on roadsides and beaches to the food.
Ah yes, the food! There's a man on the other side of the procession tucking into his dholl puri, a crêpe-like snack filled with curried bean sauce, tomato chutney and chilli. Mauritians, it must be said, love their chilli.
It takes a while to pick a way through the melee to the vendor, whose glass box, piled high with these melt-in-the-mouth delights, is perched, rather precariously, on the back of a rusty bone shaker of a bicycle. Eyes squinting against the tropical sun, he expertly whips up the bright yellow crêpes and, metal spoon whirling, slops the spicy fillings into their centres before rolling them up in paper and slapping them into our hands. Lunch, for the princely sum of 20 rupees (HK$5).
The breezy heights of Chamarel village, in the southwest of the island, offer a reprieve from the heat and hubbub. Driving along surprisingly smooth roads, we pass brooding mountain ranges, red flame trees and vast expanses of jewel-like sugar-cane fields. Then it's up into the hills, craning our necks to see the spectacular view over the lush emerald valley to Le Morne, the dark mountain on the southwestern tip of the island, as we navigate the twisting road leading to Chamarel.
Le Morne is a Unesco World Heritage site and a place of deep cultural significance. It was here that slaves took refuge in the dying days of French colonial rule, hiding out on its steep inclines, keeping their spirits up by singing and dancing to the hypnotic beat of the ravanne drum, sounds echoed today in the island's traditional sega music.
After the peaceful uphill drive, it comes as a surprise to find Chamarel chock-full of sightseers chattering away in English, French, Russian, Putonghua and other tongues. They flock here to see the Seven Coloured Earths, a collection of tiny hillocks boasting seven distinct colours of sand. It's a curious phenomenon, as the oohs and aahs emanating from spectators crowded around the cordoned-off area attest. Many come away with the archetypal souvenir of Mauritius: a test tube filled with the seven graduated colours, plugged with a cork. And around the corner are the twin waterfalls of Chamarel, set into a pretty horseshoe of steep rock plunging into a deep gorge of dense vegetation.
The sands are but a short drive from a stiff drink at the Rhumerie de Chamarel rum factory. This stone and wood monastic haven is set among fields of sugar cane, from which the purest juice is extracted, to be distilled in the production of some of the finest rums in the country.
In the coolness of the sheltered garden, flanked by tasteful water features, guides offer samples of the island elixir. Some of the premium flavours, matured in oak barrels, are reminiscent of single malt whisky. Others are more frivolous, flavoured with lime, vanilla or coconut extracts. It would be tempting to linger were it not for the drive back downhill, to Port Louis.
No visit to Mauritius would be complete without a visit to its maddeningly chaotic capital. This is the island's melt-ing pot, where traces of Chinese, Hindu, Muslim, Caucasian and Creole cultures are scrambled together in a sensory onslaught. In the market, fruit and vegetable sellers compete fiercely for custom, bellowing, bantering, bartering and beckoning in the bubbly vowels of the local Creole language - 18th-century French with African syntax.
At one stall, a young man with Bollywood looks poses for a photograph with a glass of the local milkshake in each hand. "Alouda!" he shouts, proffering a glass of what tastes like evaporated milk and ice cream. Reaching the end of the glass, I get a mouthful of chopped agar-agar and crunchy basil seeds. It's different and, humongous sugar content aside, slakes the thirst.
Walking down the dusty streets of Port Louis, with its grey colonial architecture and sun-faded shop signs, we come across a couple of characters smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze outside a tailor's shop. Inside, we encounter a scene out of Charles Dickens: lopsided illustrations of finely attired gentlemen adorn the crumbling walls amid the comforting whirr of pedal-operated cast-iron sewing machines. Before long, my other half is being measured for a shirt by Mr Haulkhory, owner of this venerable institution.
By sundown, we're back on the coast. My companion has proudly donned his new shirt for our visit to one of the island's most relaxed watering holes - the Kenzi Bar, in the wonderfully named seaside village of Flic en Flac. Inside the wooden shack, with its sandy floors and exotic design, a jam session is in full swing: a dreadlocked band reels off a blend of sega music and Jamaican reggae - known as seggae. Our Breton waiter comes over to take our order. What's it to be?
A pina colada for me. We are, after all, on the beach.
Getting there: Air Mauritius (www.airmauritius.com) operates direct flights from Hong Kong to the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, twice a week.