And so we turned in our Suzuki, hired a driver (in a white Mercedes, thank you very much), and decided to hit the beach. Just after eight on a brilliant blue morning, we pulled up at Trou aux Biches, a two-mile-long stretch of scalloped white powder on the northwest coast. We lay there on the sand enjoying the silence—until suddenly, out of nowhere, all of Mauritius showed up.
Within minutes, the beach was virtually transformed into a carnival: giant tents were erected, with families of 15 or 20 laughing and cavorting underneath; ice cream trucks arrived, bells jangling; mothers hiked up their saris and splashed about with their kids; barbecue pits were ignited; soccer balls sailed through the air; Hindi show tunes played from portable radios.
We asked an Indian grandma what the occasion was. "Samedi!" she cried. Saturday! Her son explained: in Mauritius, families spend whole weekends at the beach. His extended clan had come up from Port Louis and would stay until Sunday night, sleeping under the tarp he'd stretched between three casuarina trees. They'd brought enough food to feed a village—they probably were a village. As we spoke, the elders were busy stirring cauldrons of curry. A truck puttered up, its back piled high with coconuts and sticky stalks of sugarcane. The vendor looked like a Bollywood film star and, naturally, spoke pidgin French. "Mamzelle!" he called out to my girlfriend, flashing a flirtatious grin. "Dileau! Dileau!" (In Creole, coconut is dileau en pendant, "hanging water"; sugarcane is dileau diboute, "water standing up.")
We bought two of each. "I think I'm beginning to love this place," I said, gulping down the milk of a very fresh coconut.
Since Mauritius is in the Southern Hemisphere, it's a bit hotter and more humid during the summer months (November through April), but really, any time of year is pleasant. Diving is said to be optimal from March to May and September to November, when the seas are clearest. The best way to get there is via Europe; Air Mauritius (800/537-1182; www.airmauritius.com), Air France, and British Airways all fly nonstop to the island from Paris or London (an 11- to 12-hour flight).
Where to Stay
The Oberoi, Mauritius Baie aux Tortues, Pointe aux Piments; 800/562-3764 or 011-230/204-3600, fax 011-230/204-3625; www.oberoihotels.com; doubles from $588 (including breakfast), pool villas from $980. Pool villas offer maximum privacy.
Le Prince Maurice Choisy Rd., Poste de Flacq; 011-230/413-9100, fax 011-230/413-9129; www.princemaurice.com; junior suites from $263 (including breakfast), senior suites from $555. If you don't want to splurge on a senior suite (worth it for the private pool), ask for one of the single-story villas, ideally at the far end of the property (Nos. 86 to 89 are good). Bungalows over the lagoon may look tempting, but views and breezes are better in the seaward rooms.
Le Saint Géran Hotel, Spa & Golf Club Belle Mare; 800/233-6800 or 011-230/401-1688, fax 011-230/401-1668; www.saintgeran.com; suites from $699, including breakfast and dinner. A world unto itself, as the name implies—if you need a casino, here's where you'll find one. A good choice for families, actually, since it's a bit more lively than many other Mauritian properties.
Where to Eat
Spoon des Îles Le Saint Géran; 011-230/401-1551; www.spoondesiles.com; dinner for two $150. Alain Ducasse's first venture outside Europe opened in 1999, and it's one of the treats of the island, mixing Creole, Asian, and French elements. Don't miss the amazing sacréchien or the Mauritian snapper, if available.
Le Domino Case Noyale, Le Morne (on the southwestern coast); 011-230/551-0206; lunch for two $30. This modern, whitewashed building on a lonely mountaintop looks like Blofeld's hideout, but inside is a friendly, casual place serving terrific (and very spicy) Creole dishes such as prawn curry and grilled wild boar. There are lovely views of the sea.
Palais de Chine Rte. Royale, Grand Baie (north coast); 011-230/263-7120; dinner for two $50. The touristy beach town of Grand Baie has a number of Chinese restaurants, and this is one of the best. The rather gaudy but very comfortable dining room faces the bay. You'll find great Cantonese and Szechwan seafood dishes as well as Creole curries, all in large family-style portions.
Carri Poulé Duke of Edinburgh Ave., Port Louis; 011-230/212-1295; lunch for two $16. The best Indian restaurant on the island. It's a bare-bones joint with little to no ambience, in downtown Port Louis, but note the crowd of businessmen and families waiting for carri (curry) and tandoori dishes—the food's the thing here.
What to See and Do
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden Pamplemousses; 011-230/243-3531. A veritable Eden spread across 62 acres, highlighted by the giant Victoria water lilies (which can grow to 41/2 feet across); immense gnarled banyan trees; and a few dozen varieties of palm, including the talipot palm, which can grow 80 feet tall and flowers just once before promptly dying. Tour guides can (and should) be hired near the main gate for just a few dollars.
Central Market Between Farquhar and Queen Sts., Port Louis; open daily. Indian, Chinese, Muslim, and Creole merchants sell all manner of spices, vegetables, meats, fish, and strange herbal medicines in a few busy blocks, from dawn to dusk.
Champs de Mars Port Louis; 011-230/208-6047 for schedules and tickets. Horse racing, held here May through November, is a must-see, especially for the crowd. The Saturday races are the most popular.
What to Take Home
A case of Bois Chéri vanilla or coconut tea, available at the Bois Chéri Tea Factory (Grand Bois; 011-230/627-4516).