Eureka! I am in Mauritius, shouts Sonia Nazareth walking through a paradise of green and sipping on beach cocktails.
Whenever they ask me what I’d like to see in Mauritius, I find myself steering away from the postcard-trite images of the travel brochure. There is little debate that the beaches on this island, along with much of the water-based adventure sport, are worthy of appreciation if not genuflection, but I travel as much to unwind as to be wound, to relax as to be energised.
Markets, I find, are a good way to start a journey into the heart of a community. They are competent mirrors of the society in which they flourish. Reliable indicators of the groove of a people, the personality of a place. Central Market in the Port Louis area is no exception. In keeping with the laid-back nature of islands, no one is in a hurry for you to buy anything. I spend the better part of an hour choosing from the coconut, aloe and banana fibres that go into the production of brightly-coloured baskets and cane mats. Rather than being asked to speed up my decision, I am offered several cups of tea and a host of island stories, while I deliberate.
The next thing I observe is the island’s longstanding connection with France, China, India and Africa — highlighted through the French furnishing fabrics, Chinese porcelain, garments from India and wooden statuettes from Africa — on sale. Signs of the incredible mélange of people who settled here, whether by choice or coercion, are also evident through the varied architecture and food — contributing to a mute yet eloquent island diary.
More than a mansion!
To get to Eureka, one of the Mauritius’s few remaining colonial mansions, I drive past English villas, French gardens, Islamic embellishments and Chinese helices. Eureka is more than just a mansion of the old order. With its 109 doors that keep the house cool through summer and vaulted roofs that were built with the intent to keep the occupants dry, Eureka is a lyrical ode to tropical construction. It’s also a symbol of what Mauritius aspires to be — a place with an interesting past, but with one foot firmly planted in the present, in spite of or perhaps, because of the more recent move towards the preservation of heritage.
While everyone ooh’s and aah’s over the multicoloured mineral volcanic rock at Chamarel, it’s a Mauritian meal at La Varangue sur Morne that really gets my juices flowing. The restaurant offers food with a view and what a view it is. In the middle distance, past thickets of trees and lush vegetation, the sea twinkles in the sunlight. The head chef explains, as I dig into a feast of diced smoked Marlin gratin and pan fried vacoas fish fillet — a natural choice given the bounty of seafood that the island offers, “Although we have so many diverse culinary influences, in many ways the food here has often been restricted by what’s available. We had to get creative and use local ingredients and adopt variations in the recipes that the rulers and the labourers brought with them from over the seas. This fusion however does not merely imply a random mixing of ingredients, but rather works through a careful consideration of what could go into creating a new dish. An island that depends so much on tourism can’t get away with less than extraordinary food or service.”
Rum is to a land of sugarcane fields what Microsoft is to Seattle. And that’s my next stop. At the relatively new Rhumerie de Chamarel, I see how the base for hundreds of beach cocktails is made. But it’s not the quantity of rum I’ve drunk, nor is it the afterglow of the famous coffee and vanilla liquors that motivate me to write in praise of the museum L’Aventure du Sucre. Of all the museums on the island, this one brings history alive through a conscious kiss of thought from its creators. Through personal narratives, it does more than just tell the story of the cane that transformed the lives of people. It delves deep into a touching and candid quasi-ethnographic account of the existence of both slaves and rulers.
What’s not a museum but has a living museum quality to it are the hand-made model miniature shipbuilding workshops that pepper the island. It began a few decades ago, when a handful of like-minded men crafted made-to-scale copies of classic sailing ships. I visit the Le Port workshop in the zone industrielle and witness that which continues to be most impressive: the attention to detail, with specialist woods from teak to oak to rosewood being used for the base and the superstructure of the miniature ships, perfect recreations of what they were in times past. Look closely enough and you’ll often come across tiny cargo stacked on the lower deck. As each model is hand- crafted, you’re assured of an exclusive piece.
Another interesting counterpoint to the water that is the wallpaper to life on this island is the Pamplemousse Garden. This paradise of green, with more than 800 species of plant life, home to the famed giant water lilies — whose monstrous fibrous leaves are reputedly able to support the weight of a man — look as if they have been imported from an imaginary land in a children’s book.
These are the reasons that make me glad I did what I was told never to do in Mauritius — steer away from the straight-and-narrow path of the golden beach and azure waters.