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Mauritius, Worth the Trip

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First reports of the island had come from an Indian friend in Bombay. A Malabar Hill aristocrat of a certain age, Rashida vacations every year in Mauritius, or "Maurice," as she prefers to call it in her Hindi-inflected French. Adrift in the Indian Ocean, 1,250 miles east of Africa, Mauritius has long been a getaway for wealthy Indians, Europeans, and South Africans, and it's famous among the jet set for its absurdly luxurious resorts. One of them has even lured Alain Ducasse—he of the eight Michelin stars—to open his first island restaurant. Yet the resorts were, for me, only half the draw. From Rashida I'd also heard about the island's curious mosaic of Indian, French, African, British, Arab, and Chinese cultures, the result of four centuries of colonial experiment. My mind was filled with images of grass skirts and saris; of African bands pumping out Bollywood pop tunes; of Hindu temples abutting Chinese pagodas; of boulangeries hawking baguettes and chapatis; of cafés serving curries, bouillabaisse, and Creole stew. It sounded like the perfect alternative to, say, the Caribbean, where so many islands have little to offer in the way of local flavor. Here, it seemed, was a bona fide cultural hothouse, a tropical isle with soul.

The newest over-the-top resort on Mauritius, the Oberoi, opened in late 2000 on a secluded headland on the northwestern coast. Most of the competition is on the eastern side; this corner of the island is less developed. Spread across 20 verdant acres, sloping gently toward a placid lagoon, it's a lovely and tranquil site—you wonder why no one claimed it before. Then you learn that all this was blasted and carved out of a boulder-strewn wasteland. Not that you'd guess it from the lush surroundings. In every direction are yellow and milky-white frangipani, scarlet flame trees, flowering allamanda—and seemingly hundreds of varieties of tropical birds. (They're a bit less appealing at breakfast, when they dive-bomb your bread basket and perch on your pitcher of mango juice.) The meandering paths and undulating lawns are a refreshing change from the over-manicured look of most tropical resorts. Here and there you come across funky statuary that alludes to everyplace from Zimbabwe to Easter Island—"Oberoian art," I guess.

Scattered around the property are 76 low-lying, rust-colored villas that blend well with the terrain and are smartly arranged for maximum privacy. Indeed, privacy is the Oberoi's main selling point. You could spend all your time in one of the 16 villas set in its own enclosed garden with a 20-foot pool, taking meals in your gazebo, skinny-dipping, counting birds—and never see another soul. Earth-toned interiors have a tropical-colonial theme, furnished in teak, rattan, and all-natural cottons and linens. Sunlight pours in throughout: one whole wall of the bathroom is glass, overlooking a private garden, so you can bathe in your sunken marble tub under the gaze of curious mynah birds.

There are sailboats at the beach club, but hardly anyone uses them; the Oberoi's guests seem more committed to hard-core lounging, and after a 12-hour overnight flight from Paris, my girlfriend and I were happy to join them. The beach is handsome and peaceful, though with its jagged rocky bottom not ideal for swimming (as we later discovered, the best beaches in Mauritius are actually the public ones). Guests tend to congregate by the two beachside swimming pools, sipping Mauritian rum drinks, nibbling on spicy samosas. There's also an expansive spa, whose assertive masseuses seem genuinely interested in curing your aches, not just rubbing your back for an hour.

The week of our visit, only a third of the villas were occupied, and most of the time—except at meals or poolside—it seemed we had the resort to ourselves. I imagine it would feel much the same even when the hotel is full, so pervasive is the sense of intimacy and calm. Just across a reflecting pool, lined with shimmering torches at night, a jazz band (an actual jazz band!) plays tunes from Porgy & Bess. At dinner in the open-air restaurant, couples seem to float in isolated pools of candlelight.

Not everyone was so entranced. In the lobby one evening we overheard a couple from Frankfurt complaining loudly to the desk staff. Apparently the maid had strewn frangipani petals all over their bed—could someone please clean them up immediately?The blossoms were aggravating their allergies. I guess luxury means different things to different people. When we retired to our villa we found the same welcome: blossoms sprinkled on our pillows and floating in the bath—which, judging by the lukewarm water, had been drawn a few hours earlier. Still, the thought was nice.

After a few days of the convalescent life we grew restless, so we rented a Suzuki 4 x 4 and set off to explore the island. Beyond the main highway, gas stations gave way to bougainvillea bushes in a thousand shades of saffron, violet, and pink, and then to groves of coconut palms, receding up the wet-green slopes of the Moka mountains, whose twisting spires resemble Moorish turrets, and then, finally, to acre upon acre of sugarcane. Swaths of dried cane were ablaze after the harvest, and the balmy air was thick with the smell of molasses.

Those geometric rows of sugarcane were a reminder that Mauritius is essentially a man-made paradise. After all, no one lived here 400 years ago: besides the occasional Portuguese explorer or waylaid pirate crew, the island was uninhabited until Dutch settlers arrived in 1638. They introduced deer, wild boar, bananas, tobacco, and, in 1639, sugarcane from Indonesia; in short order they also managed to kill off the dodo bird and a few dozen other native species. (Settlers enjoyed hunting the flightless dodo with clubs.) Slaves were brought in from East Africa and Madagascar to work the cane fields. When the Dutch abandoned their settlement in 1710, Mauritius was inherited by the French, whose influence is still felt today, not least in the Franco-Creole dialect spoken by almost all Mauritians. In 1814, after a series of naval battles, the island was ceded to Britain. Twenty years later slavery was nominally abolished, and the British turned to India and China as sources of new (indentured) labor. After nearly four centuries as a colonial trading card, Mauritius finally achieved independence in 1968.

If ever there was a microcosm of European imperial history, Mauritius is it. Practically everything that defines this island is the work of foreign hands—from the coconut palms and sugarcane to the patchwork population itself. Hindus are now the majority in a population that includes Chinese, Africans, mixed-race Creoles, and white Europeans. More than 1.2 million people are packed onto a pear-shaped island only 28 miles across, making Mauritius one of the world's most densely populated countries, with some 1,600 people per square mile. Yet the question we had as we drove through the somnolent coastal villages was, Where are they?

In Flic-en-Flac, described by our concierge as a lively beach town, the dusty main street was empty, save for a few sari-clad women waiting for a bus. The pastel-colored one-story buildings were shuttered and quiet. Was there a cyclone brewing?Some sort of federal holiday?No, said a fisherman we passed, this was the usual scene.

Still, we persevered. Over three long afternoons we crisscrossed the island to see its noteworthy sights. There were the stunning botanical gardens in the northern town of Pamplemousses, 62 acres containing 500 species of exotic trees and plants (nearly all of them imported) and absolutely no people. No, wait, we did see eight Austrians near the exit. There was the equally deserted Bois Chéri tea plantation, where we got a tour of the processing plant and a pot of delicious vanilla tea. We drove up and down precariously switchbacked roads to gaze out over waterfalls and gorges and misty volcanic peaks. We passed sizable Hindu temples and smaller mosques and even smaller Chinese pagodas, yet in all of these little towns and fishing villages, we found few signs of life: no bustling main squares, no visible café culture, and few non-touristy restaurants serving Creole cuisine. For that we'd have to go to Port Louis, the capital.

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