Known as Ile de Maurice in French, francophones may well feel more at home in Mauritius than English speakers. Although a British colony until 1968, Mauritius has a presence of French supermarket brands with large selections of cheese and baguettes, and shop assistants will talk to you in French. French has co-official status with English, and the widely spoken (but unofficial) creole is French based. Television shows are also in French, though curiously, most roadside ads are in English.
The Mauritian people are a mix of descendants of African slaves, Indian indentured servants (brought in to replace the slave labour on sugar plantations), and descendants of French and English settlers. Fun fact: Mauritius was actually initially settled by the Dutch and was named after Prince Maurice of Orange.
This means the island has a vibrant and diverse cultural scene, including the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, where you are likely to see such interesting sights as young men demonstrating their devotion to the cause by piercing hooks through their skin, lying on beds of nails, or sticking spikes through their cheeks (or for the particularly pious, all of these at once.)
The biggest party of the year though is when all Mauritians come together for their national day on 12 March . In the lead up to the event and on the day, you will see the national flag everywhere. In fact in our experience Mauritians may be among the most flag-happy people in the world (second only to the Americans).
Anywhere that was colonized by the French was bequeathed a tradition of excellent bread, and Mauritius is no exception. When this bread is combined with the Indian influenced flavours you inevitably some great sandwich combinations. A small stand at the Central Market in Port Louis dishes up a delicious spiced chicken on a fresh crusty baguette. Our first one is probably the best sandwich we have ever had, but on our return visit it wasn’t quite as good (or perhaps we had built it up too much in our minds).
Grabbing a delicious takeaway curry and eating it while lying on a tropical beach is also a memorable culinary experience.
We split our time in Mauritius between active pursuits (the steep terrain means Mauritius boasts some excellent hiking) and the somewhat less active (sitting in our villa’s private pool smashing cans of Phoenix, the excellent local beer).
Le Morne, in the southwest corner of the island, is the most challenging but still doable hike. Despite what you might read online, you don’t need a guide and although there are a few spots of scrambling or climbing up rocks, you aren’t at risk of imminent death if you lose your footing. However it is quite physically challenging and there is a nice sense of achievement once you get to the top and enjoy the views.
Although a sight of amazing natural beauty, Le Morne is actually a world heritage site for cultural reasons. Escaped slaves living on the mountain hurled themselves to their deaths in 1835 rather than be recaptured by approaching British troops. Sadly, the troops were actually there to deliver them the good news that they were free, slavery having been abolished in the British empire.
We also climb Le Pouce, with amazing views across the interior of the island. There is a little bit of climbing near the summit but is much less physically demanding than Le Morne.
A hire car is pretty much obligatory to explore the island, and although the distances on the island aren’t huge, be prepared for a lot of traffic which can make travelling around slow going. A train line is currently being built by an Indian company, and will be the first train to operate on Mauritius since the 1960s. It will be interesting to return when it is operational to see what difference it makes.