48 Hours In: Mauritius
Port Louis, the capital of this Indian Ocean island, is well worth a couple of days away from the honeymoon hotels - or as an unusual stopover, says Simon Calder
Saturday 30 July 2005
WHY GO NOW?
August is winter in Mauritius - an excellent time to visit this jewel of an island. It lies just inside the Tropic of Capricorn, which means you are unlikely to feel the cold; the temperature averages 22C in August on the coast, and a few degrees lower in the high interior. At any time of year, you can enjoy a fusion of Asia, Africa, France and Britain on one of the Indian Ocean's most beautiful islands.
You can fly non-stop from London Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or Air Mauritius (020-7434 4375; www.airmauritius.com) - which also offers onward flights to Australia. Or fly from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow via Dubai on Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com).
Mauritius airport, officially known as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport but more commonly as Plaisance, is about 30 miles south-east of the capital, Port Louis. A taxi to the city will cost at least 1,200 rupees (£24), but plenty of buses pass the roundabout outside and will take you across the island for around Rs50 (£1). The journey takes anything from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on traffic. For information before you leave, contact the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (020-7584 3666; www.mauritius.net).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Luxury resorts are clustered around the west, north and east coasts of the island; the south coast is more rugged. The capital, Port Louis, is located on the shore in the north-west, diametrically opposite the island's airport.
The hub of Port Louis is Government House (1), a handsome colonial building fronted with a stern statue of Queen Victoria. She faces the Place d'Armes and, beyond it (and the motorway) the harbour.
Most of the island's good hotels are located on the beaches. In Port Louis, the exception is the Labourdonnais (2), named after the first French governor of the island (00 230 202 4000; www.labourdonnais.com). It overlooks the harbour on the rejuvenated Caudan Waterfront. As with most hotels on the island, rates depend on demand; "rack rates" for a double room in August are around Rs12,000 (£240), excluding breakfast, but special deals are often available.
TAKE A VIEW
Fort Adelaide Citadel (3), on a hill east of the city, is ugly on the outside and a shambles inside, but it presents an excellent panorama of the city and the surrounding hills. The most notable sight is the Champs de Mars racecourse, created nearly two centuries ago.
TAKE A HIKE
From the fort (3), walk down Jummah Mosque Street, which provides a cross-section through the city: you pass homes and schools, shops and workshops, occupied by a mix of creeds and cultures. Cross Royal Street, the main commercial thoroughfare: on your right is the imposing arch marking the entrance to Port Louis's modest Chinatown. Pass the large, elegant mosque (4) then turn left along Queen Street - ideally, clutching a Rs200 note, which bears a picture of the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the central market (5) between Queen and Farquhar streets.
The market (5) is the closest Mauritius gets to "frenetic". You can buy herbs claiming to cure gout, constipation or cellulite; yards of textiles; and mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables. The market keeps long hours: 5.30am-5.30pm daily (until 11.30am on Sundays), but standard shopping hours in Port Louis are not especially generous: 9.30am-5pm from Monday to Friday and 9am-noon on Saturdays. Stores aimed at tourists - particularly those on the Caudan Waterfront - tend to keep longer hours. Mauritius has a thriving clothing industry, and tailors in the city can create a suit overnight for around Rs5,000 (£100). Try Mahmood Affejee at 8 Eugene Laurent Street (00 230 208 0421).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
The food court of the market (5) is an excellent place to eat: you can choose from Chinese, Tamil or Creole cuisines; the easiest takeaway snack is bhel puree, a spicy chick-pea pancake. For something more substantial, La Bonne Marmite (6) on Sir William Newton Street (00 230 212 2403) offers a mélange of cuisines.
The Natural History Museum (7) occupies a beautiful colonial building on Chaussee Street (00 230 212 0639). Inside, the displays are somewhat fusty and old-fashioned - but fascinating, given the island's unique animal life. A stuffed dodo is all that remains of the overgrown, flightless pigeon that thrived on the island until man (and his eternal companion, the rat) arrived in Mauritius. Upstairs, a much more sophisticated exhibition tells the story of the diverse peoples who live in Mauritius. The museum opens at 9am daily except Wednesday, and closes at noon at weekends and 4pm on other days. Admission is free.
WRITE A POSTCARD
Mauritius was, amazingly, the fifth country in the world to issue postage stamps. Some of the earliest specimens comprise the rarest stamps in the world. You can find out the value of a spelling error ("Mauritus") at the Blue Penny Museum (00 230 210 8176), adjacent to the Labourdonnais Hotel (2) on Caudan Waterfront. It opens 10am-5pm daily, admission Rs80 (£1.60). For a 21st-century stamp for your postcard home, though, head for the main post office (8) on Sir William Newton Street.
The Caudan Waterfront is ideally located for watching the sun set over the ocean. Among the al-fresco bars is the Keg & Marlin (00 230 211 6821) (9), one of the world's more appealing "British" pubs.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
The Chinese community makes up only three per cent of the population of Mauritius, but it has a strong influence. The leading Chinese restaurant is Lai Min (00 230 208 3528) (10) on Royal Street.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Port Louis's places of worship range from mosques and Buddhist temples to the striking mock-Gothic St Louis cathedral (11), where Sunday Mass is a rousing affair.
TAKE A RIDE
The bus service all over the island is excellent, with frequent departures and low fares. Port Louis has two bus stations: the Gare du Nord (12) - no relation to the Parisian railway station - and Victoria Square (13). From the latter, catch one of the frequent buses going the short distance inland to Moka. Ask to be dropped off at the end of the lane to Eureka, an 1836 plantation house which calls itself "La maison Créole" (00 230 433 8477; www.maisoneureka.com). The house is a miraculous recreation of 19th-century life for the wealthy Franco-Mauritian upper classes. It opens 9am-5pm daily except Sunday, admission Rs200 (£4). You can also stay in the cottages on the estate, in which case you have free access.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Eureka is set amid well-manicured gardens, and a trail leads to its sister restaurant - La Ravin - overlooking a gorge where whitewater tumbles over volcanic rock. You can, er, gorge on Creole food here, then follow the path further along the ravine to an impressive waterfall.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Back in the city, there is nothing corporate about the Company Gardens (14), a profusion of shady tropical trees with a bandstand, statues of the great and good and vendors selling pain tika poulet - chicken tikka sandwiches.
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