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Mauritius, Worth the Trip

Port Louis won't win anyone over on looks. With its KFC billboards and mirrored-glass office towers, it resembles any other overgrown metropolis on any other continent. But there are pockets of color and charm: in the outdoor market, where a fine dust of powdered spices fills the air; along the refurbished waterfront, where a Western-style shopping mall has sprung up; and, best of all, at the Champs de Mars racecourse, where we spent a thrilling Saturday afternoon.

Horse racing is the national pastime in Mauritius, and the Champs de Mars is its Churchill Downs. The vast hippodrome sits on a hill above Port Louis, cradled by mountains; from the balconies you can see clear to the sea. But the place to be is down among the revelers, beside the track. Looking up into the stands we see a vivid cross section of Mauritian society. On the lowest levels, the working class, virtually all men, African and Indian, smoking and drinking alouda (milk flavored with vanilla and seaweed jelly—inexplicably appealing, for about three sips). Above them, the middle-class Indian and Chinese families in their yellow polo shirts and tangerine saris and closed-toe shoes. And in the upper boxes, the Franco-Mauritian sugar barons and textile magnates, who own the horses and everything else on the island. With their pinstripes and blue hair, hurling insults at their jockeys, they remind you of Statler and Waldorf, the fat-cat hecklers from the Muppet Show.

Of the two dozen couples at the Oberoi that weekend, we were apparently the only ones to leave the premises, unless you count those who signed up for the snorkeling trip to a nearby cove. Otherwise, the guests stayed put. (We were told that the actor Joseph Fiennes, of Shakespeare in Love, had been at the Oberoi the previous week, and hardly left the property either.) So, did the backdrop even matter?Perhaps. "The culture just sounded so exotic," one woman told me, though she and her husband had yet to venture beyond the tennis courts. Then again, did they even need to?The Indian and Creole dishes at the resort were outstanding (tangy chutneys, hearty stews, and fresh fish grilled or fired in the tandoor). The folk-art statuary was charming, albeit of questionable provenance. And for local flavor, there was the weekly séga soirée on the beach. Séga is a frenzied, erotically charged dance developed by African slaves and now pretty much confined to dinner shows. When I first heard about it, visions of luaus at Waikiki Sheratons came to mind, but the Oberoi's séga night was good fun. Any preoccupations with authenticity soon melted away: the bonfire on the beach was real enough, the goatskin drums produced a convincing beat, and the swiveling, sarong-clad hips of the dancers were, as far as I could tell, the genuine article. Even the frangipani-loathing Frankfurters seemed to enjoy themselves.

No séga dancers were performing during our stay at Le Prince Maurice, the newest luxury property on the island's east coast. But then, the clientele here didn't seem to have much interest in hip-swiveling; they were too busy being French. The Prince Maurice, which opened in late 1998, is a decidedly Gallic retreat: here the staff addresses you first en français, and continues to even after you respond in English. That said, the service is suave and precise, and the French dames lounging in their Gaultier one-pieces look as if their every need has been met—no small feat.

Though it has only 88 suites, the Prince Maurice feels like a much more substantial resort, thanks to the dramatic scale of the public spaces—not least the gawk-worthy main pavilion, with its soaring beamed ceilings and roof of sugarcane thatch. The design throughout is of the aggressively soothing style you might call International Zen, all glowing teak and trickling fountains and quasi-native objets. Every element would be equally at home in Thailand or Bora-Bora, though that hardly diminishes the effect—particularly after dark, when the resort seems to materialize from spellbinding halos of light. You feel you should be wearing ice skates as you glide across the lobby: the marble floors appear to flow straight into the glossy expanse of an infinity pool. All day the water's surface is so pristine that no one seems inclined to break it. Instead guests linger at the beach, a strip of glittering white sand facing a sheltered bay as limpid and tranquil as the pool.

Clusters of one- and two-story cottages line the palm-specked lawns just up from the beach. (There are also bungalows suspended on stilts above a quiet lagoon, but those lack the open vistas and cooling breezes of the oceanfront rooms.) The best of the beachside cottages lie around the curve of the thumb-shaped promontory that juts into the bay. Our room, No. 88, was at the very end of the beach, with a dead-on view of a rocky headland and the sparkling sea. You don't come to the Prince Maurice for seclusion; nearly all rooms share outdoor space or have overlapping sight lines. Our patio abutted that of another couple, with only wicker blinds to maintain the illusion of privacy. So we retreated inside, where dark woods, ocher walls, and luscious golden lighting gave the impression of a constant sunset. The bath area was nearly as large as the bedroom, with his-and-her teakwood vanities and an immense stone-and-marble tub. And in our stereo we found—no joke—a Serge Gainsbourg CD.

As at the Oberoi, most guests stay close to the resort, and between the Guerlain spa, the nearby golf course (where greens fees are waived for hotel guests), and the full gamut of aquatic distractions, we found plenty to entertain us. In the evening the action shifts to the sultry poolside bar, where every couple sips Pernod. There are two restaurants on the premises, but the savvy guests slip away for dinner at Le Saint Géran, just across the bay.

Thanks to its top-to-bottom renovation in 1999, the 27-year-old Saint Géran is once again the most popular of the island's ultra-high-end resorts. The predominantly British crowd—there's always a crowd—gathers nightly on the terrace beside the pool; by sunset all the wicker armchairs are filled with what looks like the cast of Gosford Park (but the women are in heels).

With its exuberant dance band, buffet restaurant, and proliferation of chintz curtains in the guest rooms, Le Saint Géran was a bit cruise-shippish for my tastes, but there is an impeccable beach (you expect a Zamboni to emerge from the boathouse now and then to smooth the sand), and a Givenchy spa so plush you feel restored just standing at reception. Le Saint Géran's trump card, however, is Spoon des ëles, the marvelous dining room created by Alain Ducasse. This has to be the only Ducasse restaurant you can walk into at 9 p.m. on a Thursday and find not one, not two, but six tables available; during our visit, everyone else was at the buffet restaurant. Let them eat crab cakes, we said, as we blissfully surrendered to a seven-course tasting menu that made the most of Mauritius's renowned seafood: grilled, Creole-spiced sacréchien (a delicate white fish); piquant daurade steamed in banana leaves; a perfectly baked, saffron-scented red snapper.

After dinner we joined the Brits at the terrace bar. A bejeweled woman wearing an immense hat sat down beside us. I asked her how she liked Mauritius. "Oh, we've been coming for years," she cooed. Were there any other places we absolutely had to see?"Why yes," she said. "Have you been to the spa?"

It was then that I realized why Rashida and her Bombay friends escape to Mauritius. I'd been expecting an island version of India, where the street life is pungent and "culture" pounds you over the head. But most of Mauritius is the opposite of India—taciturn, concealed, sleepy. That there's nothing much to do is precisely the point. Whereas in India il dolce far niente does not exist, in Mauritius, it is a veritable mandate.

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