Despite appearances - the men with well-oiled hair, the women in colourful saris and the neatly dressed children - few of the worshippers have ever been to India. The legacy of Mauritian history is a motley assortment of ethnic, religious and cultural influences that, together, make the island much more than just another tropical paradise. Arab and Portuguese sailors were some of the first foreign visitors to the island, although they didn't stop for long. The Dutch came next and stayed long enough to hunt the dodo to extinction before the French arrived (in 1720), with thousands of African slaves, to set to work clearing the forests for sugar-cane plantations.
Following the defeat of Napoleon, the British won ownership of Mauritius and, eventually, abolished slavery. Freed from generations of bondage, the Africans understandably had little enthusiasm for work on the plantations, so the British imported indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent and, in smaller numbers, from China.
By 1968, when Mauritius gained independence, most of the Mauritian population were of Indian origin. They have dominated the democratic government of the island ever since. Their Indian roots have now been obscured, and their languages have developed into a kind of patois Hindi known as Bhojpuri. To a visitor, Mauritius does not appear overwhelmingly Indian.
French Creole is by far the most common language, and churches, as well as mosques, stand beside Hindu temples.
The sega, a sort of Creole salsa, dominates cultural evenings in the island's hotels, and spicy Creole and classical French cuisine dominates their restaurant menus.
Beyond the hotels, however, there is plenty of good Indian and Chinese food to be had, and plenty to see and do. The interior is still dominated by acres of golden sugar cane squeezed in between dark, dramatic mountains and reservoirs surrounded by casuarina trees.
To the south, the island is too mountainous for sugar cane. The Black River Gorges National Park is an untamed landscape of spectacular scenery, with picturesque waterfalls.
Mauritians are big on picnics and the park is another popular picnic destination. People are so friendly towards the relatively few tourists that come up here that we found it hard not to get involved in several full-blown picnics. At Black River Gorges, the families were picking bitter berries to supplement their provisions and ate them with dried chilli flakes and salt - an acquired taste.
On the way back to our hotel we stopped off at Port Louis. The climate here is noticeably hotter than at the casuarina-fringed beaches of the east coast and, in the heat, we regretted making a special detour to the overpriced and rather dull tourist stop that is Eureka House, an old colonial building set on a hill above the town. We drove back via Poste de Flacq, on the other side of the island. As if to prove us wrong, just as we were lamenting the lack of cultural attractions we spotted the offshore Hindu temple, linked to the island by a causeway. The bulbous building was painted pure white and surrounded by deep blue water. Unable to resist a peek inside, we stumbled through the trail of incense to find giant papier- mache Hindu gods blazing out in striking primary colours.
Chris Caldicott paid pounds 954 (Worldwide Journeys, 0171-381 8638) for a return flight on British Airways from London Heathrow to Mauritius via Nairobi, and seven nights' half-board accommodation at La Residence (00 230 401 8888), a new hotel on a fine east-coast beach. Car hire costs from 1,000 rupees (pounds 24) a day from ABC rental (00 230 242 8957)Reuse content