Sunrise at Legends Hotel.
Sunrise at Legends Hotel. Liz Light

Mauritius: Heaven can wait

MAURITIANS proudly claim that Mauritius was created first and heaven is a copy. They may be right. This tropical island is an Indian Ocean pearl.

Ancient volcanic mountains are a jagged-edged anchor in the island's centre and sugarcane in all shades of brown and green spreads from the mountains to the coast.

Mauritius is surrounded by hundreds of bright white beaches, with sand so fine it squeaks when walked on, and coral reefs protect blue lagoons from the thundering ocean.

Legends, my hotel, on the north coast clusters around its own perfect crescent beach. Fishermen paddle across the lagoon, I watch the clouds changing shape, have a nap and soon the sun has crossed the sky and it's time for a rum cocktail. It would be easy to spend my whole holiday here, but the rest of Mauritius is calling.

The first stop, Pamplemousses, has a world-acclaimed botanical garden. French botanist Pierre Poivre began planting here in 1760 and, as Mauritius was the Indian Ocean stop off for ships sailing from the Orient to Europe, he imported spices, palms and other tropical plants from all over the world. His spice collection was the beginning of Mauritius' now thriving spice industry.

The garden guide shows us cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, pepper, pomegranate and camphor trees. We see ginger, lemongrass and turmeric plants, vanilla vines and 15 different kinds of sugarcane - all things that can be bought at the local market.

The centrepiece of the garden is a pond of giant Victoria amazonica water lilies that have leaves as big as tables and exquisite flowers that last just two days, opening white, changing to red and then dying. I've tried many times, unsuccessfully, to see these illusive flowers, so it's a thrill to see so many thriving in the warmth and sunshine.

Next, I visit the shrine of Father Laval, Mauritius' own saint. Father Laval, beatified in 1974, arrived in Mauritius in 1841 and spent the last 23 years of his life living with poor, uneducated former slaves, working in agriculture, sanitation, health and education. He spoke Creole, reputedly converted 67,000 people to Christianity and many miracles are attributed to him.

A crowd of all ethnicities take turn to pray to a statue, in repose, of the good Father. People touch its head and then their own, while offering flowers, candles and prayers.

The multi-hued crowd at Father Laval's shrine reflects the island's melting-pot history. There were no indigenous people and Mauritians are a mix of British and French colonisers, Africans brought here as slaves to work the sugarcane fields and Indians who came in thousands as indentured labour after slavery was abolished. Centuries of love, lust and intermarriage have created these proudly mixed and multicultural people.

Port Louis, the capital, is cradled in a valley between steep hills and the sea. Cultures and religions mingle closely. Christian churches, an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple and a Chinese temple are all close to each other. Folk happily visit a temple on Saturday and church on Sunday, keeping all their bases covered.

The main street is a grand colonial avenue with heavily colonnaded Victorian buildings. In front of the austere, stone Government House, a statue of imperious Queen Victoria keeps an eye on things. The Court House is an old sweetie with grey shutters around its windows, hiding behind a luxuriant garden of palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea, frangipani and other extravagantly flowering tropical trees. It's too pretty for lawyers and criminals.

In the Natural History Museum I pay my respects to remains of dodos - lots of bones, drawings, and a few feathery reconstructions.

Dodos have been dead since 1660, but Mauritians still hold them in their hearts. There is dodo beer, dodos on the country's crest and hundreds of variations on dodo in souvenir shops. The big fat flightless birds were fatefully curious and habitually greeted hungry sailors when they landed on the beach. Sadly, they were eaten to extinction.

The Company Gardens, in the heart of the city, is a quiet, cool, green oasis with statues of founding fathers, worthy labour leaders and almost-saints.

Here children swing on the hanging tendrils of vast banyan trees and families sit and eat dhall puri.

Dhall puri, a uniquely Mauritian takeaway, is my favourite street snack. It's flat bread, with a dollop of soft yellow split peas and spices incorporated into the bread before it's rolled flat and cooked.

The bread is the wrap for salad, tomato and coriander chutney, a curry of choice and a thin spread of chilli paste.

At the bottom of town the market is in full swing. The wet market with chooks, fish and great slabs of indefinable meat being hacked into customer-sized pieces has too much carnage for me but, outside, Queen St is a crush with Mauritians browsing for bargains. Numerous British fashion houses get garments made in Mauritius and the seconds and overruns are sold here.

The redeveloped wharf area has a more genteel ambience. Heritage buildings now house sophisticated shops, hotels, restaurants and bars. It's a no-go zone for cars, and in the plaza a band plays jazz, families stroll and lick icecreams, young trendy folk eye each other and dressed-to-impress ladies window-shop for diamonds and pearls.

My day ends like all good holiday days should. Back at Legends I have an aperitif in the spa bath followed by a long, slow, spicy dinner. The moon is bright above the palm trees, tiny waves slosh on the beach, the occasional fish jumps and it's just cool enough to need a shawl. It does, I concede to local legend, feel like a holiday in heaven.

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