You can enjoy a fusion of Asia, Africa, France and Britain on one of the Indian Ocean's most beautiful islands.
Unsurprisingly, Mauritius is prime territory for honeymooners and the jet-set, with palm-fringed beaches, crystal clear water, coral reef-sheltered aquamarine lagoons – plus a luxury hotel for nearly every week of the year.
The stunning coast rings a less-explored but spectacular interior: tall swaying grasses of seemingly endless sugar-cane plantations, forested ridges and gorges, bright tropical flowers and palm trees, meadows and arable land, all interspersed with emerald-green jagged peaks that soar skywards from this fertile isle.
Arab traders came to Mauritius as early as the 10th century, followed later by the Portuguese, but neither settled. That was left to the Dutch, who arrived in the late 16th century, in turn passing the island over to the French and British rule. As a result, the island is saturated with their legacies – from the introduction of crops, wildlife and colonial architecture, to the establishment of a thriving trade port and the dark days of the slave trade and imported immigrants.
Independence finally came in 1968. Today there remains a seductive mix of culture and history. One of the most tangible colonial remnants is the plantation architecture that is scattered across the island, much of which is still private. However, in the village of Moka you can visit Euréka (00 230 433 8477; maisoneureka.com), an 1836 plantation house which calls itself "La maison Créole".
Built entirely of wood, the house is a miraculous recreation of 19th-century life for the wealthy Franco-Mauritian upper classes, whose original owners had 17 children. Today it is filled with furniture imported via the French East India Company, including a marble bath, ebony chairs, Pleyel pianos, family portraits and porcelain from Japan and China. Euréka is set amid well-manicured gardens, which back on to a path that leads along a ravine to an impressive waterfall.
The house opens 9am-5pm daily and until 3.30pm Sunday, admission Rs200 (£4). You can also stay in the former servants' cottages on the estate (costing Rs3,450/£69 per double with breakfast), in which case you have free access. If you don't stay the night, linger for lunch, which is served on the veranda. Three courses – for example smoked marlin salad, followed by curry with chutneys and vanilla ice-cream with coconut – will set you back Rs660 (£13.20) per person, excluding drinks.
Another fine colonial example is Château de Mon Plaisir, in Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens (gov.mu/portal/site/ssrbg) in Pamplemousses. The garden bursts with spice plants and palm trees. There is a lake filled with giant lilies, while the house has a photo exhibition. Open daily, 8.30am- 5.30pm (house closed Monday), admission to both free.
The beach – and beyond?
Mauritius's main appeal lies in its 177km of coastline, the majority of which is a dazzling palette of peacock hues. The outlying coral reef means that much of the shoreline is protected by translucent, calm lagoons, with the opportunity for snorkelling, diving and watersports out by the reef.
Hotels are clustered on the west, north and east coasts; the south is quieter and more windswept but is seeing steady development.
Perhaps one of the most romantic spots is the peninsula of Le Morne, on the south-west corner. The hotels here sit under the imposing Le Morne Brabant, a single basalt peak given its poignant name by slaves who jumped from its summit in 1835 when they believed that the soldiers dispatched to free them were approaching with the intent to capture them. There are few more striking sights than the rock bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun.
But you don't have to be a beach bum to appreciate the island. The southern interior rises sharply to the island's highest peak, Mount Piton (828m), via some fabulous detours, such as Chamarel, a village surrounded by lush coffee and pineapple plantations. The town is best known for its Martian landscape of seven different colours of earth atop a valley (00 230 483 8298), thought to be created by the uneven cooling of volcanic rock. There are four Seychellois tortoises on site, as well as a dramatic waterfall that plunges over 100m into a ravine. The site opens daily 7am-5.30pm, admission Rs100 (£2).
Due east is the Black River Gorges National Park (00 230 258 0057; tiny.cc/Lpzh4), where the Black River waterfall thrusts into a gorge of steep forested inclines that fold into the distance – on a clear day you can see as far as Tamarin beach on the west coast. Walking trails weave through the protected habitats of endangered birds, rare plant species and monkeys.
Adjoining the park is Valriche (00 230 623 56 15; domainedebelombre.mu), a private nature reserve with more structured tours of the plains and forests, by quad bike.
A similar set-up is the Vallée de Ferney (00 230 433 1050; cieletnature.com) on the east coast.
From nature to culture – over half of the population is Hindu and the devotees' most holy site is the lake of Grand Bassin, also known as Ganga Talao in the south-west highlands. They believe the lake was created by Shiva spilling Ganges water into a crater here; hundreds of thousands of people from around the island make the annual Maha Shivaratri pilgrimage in February or March, but visitors can come at any time to see the statues and temples.
Any city life?
Yes. The thriving capital, Port Louis, is where you'll find the most compact mix of Mauritian culture, with Hindu temples, mosques, Chinese pagodas and Catholic churches. The city is a spread of low-rise concrete buildings and a small high-rise business district that eventually gives way to the harbour. The hub of the capital is Government House, a handsome colonial building fronted with a statue of Queen Victoria. She faces the Place d'Armes and, beyond it (and a busy highway), the harbour.
Fort Adelaide Citadel, on a hill east of the city, is ugly and shambolic, but it presents an excellent panorama of the city and hills. The most notable sight is the Champs de Mars racecourse (00 230 211 2147; mauritiusturfclub. com); created nearly two centuries ago, it is the oldest in the southern hemisphere.
From the fort, walk down Jummah Mosque Street: you pass homes and schools, shops and workshops, occupied by people from a mix of cultures. Cross Royal Street, the main commercial thoroughfare: on your right is the imposing arch marking the entrance to Port Louis' Chinatown. Pass the big, elegant mosque 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 between Queen and Farquhar Streets.
Mauritius is famed for being the only habitat of the dodo, the overgrown, flightless relation of the dove that was hunted to extinction by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. Port Louis's Natural History Museum occupies a beautiful colonial building on Chaussee Street (00 230 212 0639; open 9am daily except Weds, to noon at weekends, 4pm on other days, admission free). Inside, the displays – somewhat fusty and old-fashioned – include a stuffed example of the bird. Nevertheless, they are fascinating, given the island's unique animal life.
There's life to be found in the wild, too – try fruit bats, monkeys, pink pigeons, Mauritius kestrels (there were only four left in the world in 1974; today there are more than 800 and numbers are rising), Echo parakeets and native songbirds for a start.
For an intense snapshot of Mauritian nature, head to the Ile aux Aigrettes (00 230 697 6097; mauritian-wildlife.org), a conservation project set up by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (of which Gerald Durrell was a pioneer) on an uninhabited island off the south-east coast. The project aims to turn back the clock 400 years on the reserve's endemic coastal vegetation, birds and reptiles and has reintroduced giant Aldabran tortoises to the island.
Offshore, everything from whales, dolphins and sharks to grouper, snapper, scorpionfish and moray eels can be spotted. The most impressive sealife can be found off Rodrigues island, which is ringed by virgin reefs, but itV C is over an hour away on often pricey flights (020-7434 4375; airmauritius.com) from the main island. The west coast offers the most sheltered conditions, while sharks and whales are often sighted off the wind-buffeted east coast. Blue Bay marine park off the south-east coast is an excellent spot for snorkelling. For information on dive centres, contact the Mauritius Scuba Diving Association (00 230 454 0011; msda-cmas. org). Most hotels hire out snorkels and fins and offer boat trips to the reefs.
Is Mauritius delicious?
Absolutely. The island's blend of immigrant communities has engendered a mouth-watering fusion cuisine that's part Indian, part Creole, part Chinese and part French.
Most hotels offer superb food, but for a more local flavour, head to the market in Port Louis. This is the closest Mauritius gets to "frenetic" – you're hit by scents of coriander and fruit and the yelling of the vendors the moment you venture inside. The food court is an excellent place to eat: choose from Chinese, Tamil or Creole dishes; a good takeaway snack is bhel puri, a spicy chick-pea pancake. In addition, you can buy herbs claiming to cure gout, constipation or cellulite; yards of textiles; and mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables. It opens 8.30am-5.30pm daily (until noon on Sundays).
For something more substantial, La Bonne Marmite on Sir William Newton Street (00 230 212 2403) offers a mélange of cuisines. The Chinese community makes up only 3 per cent of the population of Mauritius, but it has a strong gastronomic influence. The leading Chinese restaurant in Port Louis is Lai Min (00 230 208 3528) on Royal Street.
In Port Louis' Company Gardens, you can find a profusion of shady tropical trees with a bandstand, statues of the great and good and vendors selling pain tika poulet – chicken tikka sandwiches.
Mauritius has a thriving textiles industry, and tailors in Port Louis can create a suit overnight for around Rs5,000 (£100). Try Mahmood Affejee at 8 Eugene Laurent Street (00 230 208 0421). Otherwise, the central city of Curepipe is the hub of factory shops, with outlets galore just outside in Floréal. Expect to buy designer brands for half the usual price, although most of the best stuff is shipped abroad. What remains are mostly Ralph Lauren polo shirts, Abercrombie & Fitch sweaters and cashmere jumpers. Curepipe is also the centre of model ship-making, with specialist shops such as Voiliers de l'Océan on Sir Winston Churchill Street (00 230 676 6986). On the outskirts of the city is Trou aux Cerfs, the bowl-shaped crater of a dormant volcano, said to counterbalance an active volcano on Réunion island; when Réunion stops, Trou aux Cerfs will become active once again.
In Port Louis' market, you can stock up on vanilla pods, sugar, spices and tea. The latter is produced in the southern highlands, where you can tour a factory at the Bois Chéri estate (00 230 507 0216; saintaubin.mu). It opens Monday-Friday 8.30am-4.30pm, until 2.30pm Saturday, closed Sunday; Rs230 (£4.60).
Additional research by Simon Calder
Travel survival kit
When to go
Mauritius lies just inside the Tropic of Capricorn, which means you are unlikely to feel the cold at any time of the year. In winter (roughly May to November) the temperature averages 2C on the coast, and a few degrees lower in the high interior. Summer – from December to April – brings high temperatures of around 30C, and humidity. Cyclones can hit at any point during this time, but are most likely in January and February. The most comfortable time, with warm temperatures and the lowest rainfall, is from September to December.
Mauritius airport, officially known as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport but more commonly as Plaisance, is on the south-east coast and is around 50km from Port Louis. Air Mauritius (020-7434 4375; airmauritius. com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) both fly there direct from Heathrow. Regional departures are available with Air France (0870 142 4343; airfrance.co.uk) via Paris. Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) operates seasonal flights between October and March.
A taxi from the airport 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.
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 and Victoria Square.
Most of the island's good hotels are on the beaches. The busiest beach resorts are Grand Baie in the north, Flic en Flac on the west coast and up-market Belle Mare on the east. One of the most privileged positions is held by Les Pavillons (00 230 401 4000; naiade.com), a newly renovated colonial-contemporary resort of pavilion-style villas that sits directly under Le Morne Brabant, on a near-perfect strip of beach. Doubles start at €486, half board.
Rates at five-star landmark resorts such as Le Touessrok (00 230 402 7400; letouessrokresort.com) and Le Prince Maurice (00 230 402 3636; princemaurice. com) regularly nudge the €1,000 a night mark. However, there are more modest options available too.
In the southern coastal town of Bel Ombre is Tamassa (00 230 603 7300; naiade.com), a new affordable contemporary beach resort aimed at a younger crowd. Doubles start at €292 half board, but better deals are often available with travel agents such as Luxury Holidays Direct (020-8774 7290; luxuryholidaysdirect. com), which is currently offering seven nights with Emirates flights via Dubai from £1,165 per person, all-inclusive. It is also has seven nights at Les Pavillons from £1,160 half board, with flights.
There are a decent number of affordable lodgings in the south-eastern fishing town of Mahébourg. Auberge Aquarella (00 230 631 2767; aquarellamu.com) is a collection of bungalows by the seafront where b&b starts at a very reasonable €75.
Away from the beaches, Mon Choix (00 230 760 0836; ecomauritius.com) is a chambre d'hôtes set inland from Port Louis. Rooms have valley views and b&b starts at €62. Down in Port Louis, Labourdonnais (00 230 202 4000; labourdonnais.com) was named after the island's first French governor. It overlooks the harbour on the rejuvenated Caudan Waterfront. Doubles start at Rs8,900 (£178), room only.
In the mountains overlooking the east coast, Domaine de l'Anse Jonchée (00 230 634 5097; tropicscope.com) is a collection of thatched huts with no telephones, TVs or mobile reception. Rates start at €125, half board.
Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, 32 Elvaston Place, London SW7 5NW (020-7584 3666; mauritius.net).
Feel the beat
If you stay at a beach resort on the island, the chances are that the entertainment programme will include Sega. This traditional dance is particular to the Mascarene islands (Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues) and came from the subjugated population, who used the dance as a means of expression. It's passionate and emotional, and performers don't lift their feet from the ground (reputedly because originally they would have been shackled), using their hips and upper body to great effect. The lolloping rhythms are beaten out on percussive instruments. Hotel performances tend to be formulaic, but if you head to a public beach over a holiday weekend, you might be lucky enough to catch spontaneous performances around bonfires.