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So far, so good

On an idyllic island marooned in the Indian Ocean, Matthew Bell is reduced to incoherent ecstasies. Modern Mauritius is that kind of place, he says

Someone once told me you can't use the word "so" unless it's followed closely by "that". Technically, it's wrong to stand on a creamy white beach, gaze out at the Indian Ocean, and declare: "It's so beautiful!" The correct procedure is to finish up with a consequence, such as "it's so beautiful that I'm going to burst", or dance a little jig, or whatever you do when you're overwrought. These, I'm told, are the rules.

It's just as well, then, that I wasn't with a grammarian when I checked into a new resort called the So Mauritius, on the unspoiled south coast of the island. "So Mauritius that what?", a pedant would have niggled. "Mauritius isn't even an adjective." "Chillax!" I would have snapped as we padded down to the beach and surveyed the huddle of thatched roofs by the lapping water. "It's so awesome!" I might have added, just to cause extra annoyance.

Things would already have got off to a bad start, because even before reaching the hotel I had begun making "hanging declarations", or whatever the correct term is. Mauritius is that kind of place. Located 700 miles east of Madagascar, shaped like a tear-drop the size of Oxfordshire, it's one of those dreamy paradise islands that would reduce even Christopher Hitchens to incoherent ecstasies. The blues are so blue! The food so delicious! The people so friendly! I was beginning to annoy myself. Even the name, Mauritius, is seductive, a hybrid of more-ish and luxurious.

So Mauritius, spread between the woods and the water near the fishing village of Bel Ombre, is the latest venture by the French hotel group Sofitel. They wanted to create a new kind of intimate five-star property (partly drawn up by Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada) on an island that already boasts plenty of traditional resorts, many of which are seriously high-end.

But before I could assess So Mauritius, I needed to find out what being "Mauritius" meant. I knew, as I boarded the plane, that it was popular with honeymooners. And didn't the dodo once live here, before being hunted to extinction? But what else happens on a small independent republic, marooned between Africa and India? I set off.

I started with the capital, Port Louis, a part-colonial former port in the north-west, which the guidebooks like to call bustling. Architecturally, it's not much – a few high-rise banks loom over a grid of tired colonial houses. But wander the back streets and you discover a hotch-potch of cultures: Chinese, Indians, French and Africans have all brought their faiths, clothes and foods. This island has been a stopping off point for sea-travellers for centuries.

The Dutch got here first, in 1598. There was no indigenous population, so colonising was blood-free. Except when it came to the dodo, a flightless pigeon-like bird, which had never met a predator before. The thought of the dodos rushing down to the water to meet their visitors, only to be shot and trussed up for dinner, is one of the saddest stories of imperial history.

All were killed, and only two skeletons survive, part of one having ended up in Oxford, which inspired Lewis Carroll to write the dodo into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. A dodo rampant graces the Mauritian flag.

The Dutch didn't stay long. They had abandoned Mauritius by 1710, although they did introduce sugar cane, which remains the dominant, and rather attractive, crop. The French followed the Dutch in 1715, then the British elbowed them out in 1810, and stayed until 1968, when the island gained independence.

Port Louis is not a happening place after five o'clock, when traders pack up and everyone flees town. In fact, it's as dead as a dodo, so I headed for the east coast, where some of the best sandy beaches are found. The beaches are good everywhere – sandy and sheltered, the sea a calm crystal blue. I drove nearly the whole island and never saw a bad one. That's partly thanks to the reef that surrounds the island, like an amniotic sac, and forms a natural wave break half a mile offshore. Wherever you swim, the water is calm, while only yards away, the Indian Ocean crashes and rages.

You can explore the reef floor by diving or snorkelling, or – as I did at Long Beach, a new resort on the east coast – by seawalking, which lets you walk the seabed without getting your hair wet. This involves putting a glass goldfish bowl over your head, which is pumped full of oxygen. The pipes are attached to a boat, from which you never stray far. You wear a belt of lead weights, to keep yourself from bobbing up to the surface.

Long Beach used to be Coco Beach, a family hotel known for its garish colour scheme and all-night parties. In 2009, it was demolished and now, a sleek resort occupies the same 60-acre site, centred round a piazza of two bars and four restaurants, and flanked by two vast swimming pools. No building is taller than a mature palm tree, of which there are many.

One evening, I ventured out to see the Le Saint Géran, the famously swanky hotel next door. It's straight out of the Seventies, all big cigars and cut-glass tumblers; the kind of place you find Roger Moore and Joan Collins swapping one-liners at the thatched pool bar.

Back on the road, I was reminded of Mauritius's jumble of cultures. Of the four official religions, the easiest to spot are the elaborate Tamil temples, great piles of pink and yellow candy floss, decked out with dancing figurines.

Then there are the Catholic churches, all sombre in black volcanic rock, and the Hindu temples and onion-domed mosques. All sit side by side, apparently tension-free. It was the same story at the Wednesday market, in Centre de Flacq, where traders from India, China, France and Africa jostle to sell their wares.

Black River Gorges National Park is the only national park in the island. It's a lush forest populated by wild boar and monkeys – best seen on horseback, though it's good for hiking, too. But just before you reach it is the Grand Bassin, a sacred Hindu lake where the annual Maha Shivaratri festival takes place in February or March. This is the biggest Hindu celebration outside India.

The story goes that Shiva was flying over, carrying the Ganges River on his head, when a few drops fell out and landed here. Towering over the lake is a 108ft statue of Shiva, the tallest on the island, and many other shrines and temples.

A few miles to the south, the old-fashioned coastal village of Bel Ombre is a tourist-free haven of shady palm trees and fishermen, where life is slow. Drive on round this south-west coast, and you find the best views on the island, the luminous green waters of the lagoon by Le Morne peninsula.

This is where the So Mauritius stands, one of the few resorts on this coast. Every room is a stand-alone single-storey pod, each with its own private garden facing the sea. The centrepiece is a vast thatched barn that houses the restaurant and bar. It's an extraordinary, cathedral-like building, open-sided and surrounded by infinity pools, with billowing white sheets and electric blue lighting. And, best of all, I had the place to myself.

It was only now, mojito in hand, as I gazed at the horizon over the top of my toes, that I could judge the Mauritiusness of Mauritius. I had criss-crossed the island, snorkelled the reef, climbed the highest volcano and nodded at all four altars. I had even picked six losing horses on all six races at the Champ de Mars in Port Louis, the oldest – and most exciting – racetrack south of the equator. Beyond the sunlounger, there was a country thrumming with the half-remembered histories of four cultures. But here on the beach was the Mauritius that most visitors know – a leisurely menu of sea, sand and sundowners.

Does the So Mauritius live up to its name? Well, it takes the best bits of Mauritius and mixes them together: the gastronomy of France – the chef is from Paris – with the efficient service you get in China. The waiters dress like Indian princes, and the scenery is African – raw and wild.

It's a resort of superlatives – the beds are the biggest, the colours the brightest (fine, if you don't mind waking up to a vibrant orange headboard). There are two restaurants and the choice of bathing places includes your own outdoor hot-tub and a pool shaped like a Samurai sword. Perhaps it's no bad thing the So Mauritius is a grammatical travesty – at least there's something to complain about.