Clearly I was dreaming.
I’d drifted to sleep somewhere between Port Louis, the shabby but atmospheric capital of this remote island in the Indian Ocean, and the Grand Bassin lake, rocked into a pleasant slumber as my taxi wove its way down serpentine roads fringed by sugar cane fields. Without warning, the line between reverie and reality blurred as my eyes snapped open to behold a 108-foot statue of Lord Shiva gazing down benevolently at my drowsy figure.
I closed my eyes. I opened them again. Nope. Definitely awake.
My cabdriver, Roshan, led me past an entrance guarded indomitably by Shiva and his colossal trident to approach Ganga Talao, Mauritius’ answer to India’s sacred Ganges River. The late-afternoon sun glinted off a lake flanked by statues of Hanuman, Lakshmi and Vishnu while services were underway at the temple. This is the holiest site in Mauritius for the nation’s Hindu majority; every year during the Mahashivratri festival, Roshan told me, he walks here barefoot, three hours from his home in Rose Hill, alongside a half-million other devotees from across the island.
Somewhere not far from where I stood in Shiva’s shadow, people were living the tropical cliché immortalized on office desktops across the globe. Not even a dozen miles away, revelers reclined on the sand, sipping languidly from straws piercing coconuts while they meditated on the color of the ocean. Is it azure? Turquoise? Cerulean? It’s a Socratic dialogue that could take a whole day to resolve. Most tourists come to Mauritius for worship of a different sort than I found at Ganga Talao, a pilgrimage to the altar of the sun gods.
After his visit to the Indian Ocean outpost in 1896, Mark Twain wrote, “From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.”
This prototype for paradise first entered my consciousness in the 1990s, when Mauritius became a preferred Bollywood dream-song setting. To wit: the hirsute heartthrob Akshay Kumar and the lissome Shilpa Shetty aggressively thrusting their pelvises incongruously to the lilting melody of “Churake Dil Mera” in the 1994 caper “Main Khiladi Tu Anari.” My limited impressions of the island were similar to those of the millions who converge on its all-inclusive resorts, only extricating themselves from beach chairs for the occasional constitutional toward the pool.
As a freshman at Boston College, I befriended my first Mauritian over a shared love of Bollywood films. Santosh became a source of endless fascination: I thought he was Indian, but he spoke English with a French accent, chatted with his parents in Creole and said he was from Africa. Where in the world could so many cultures meet?
“We’re a bit like a puzzle,” said Santosh, when we reunited on his turf over 15 years later. “There are very distinct pieces. People have held onto their own identities but found a way to make it work, so it fits into a picture of its own.”
In the end, it’s that compelling mosaic that lured me to Mauritius’ shores. Scouring social media would lead a prospective visitor to believe that the island ends where the resorts do. I was eager to explore what lay beyond plunge pools and bath butlers.
The volcanic isle was first discovered by the Arabs in A.D. 975; but when the Dutch landed on Mauritius in 1598, it was uninhabited — aside from wildlife like the dodo, a bird famously rendered extinct by Europeans but still resplendent on Mauritian rupee notes today. The French came in the 1700s, followed by the British. With the 1835 abolition of slavery, migrants flooded in from the east: Indian indentured laborers and Chinese shopkeepers. The Indians’ struggles are chronicled in Port Louis’ poignant Aapravasi Ghat museum, at the immigration depot turned UNESCO World Heritage site where they first came ashore.
Layers of migration have left an indelible imprint; today, nearly 70 percent of Mauritius’ 1.3 million citizens are of Indian descent, with Creoles, Sino-Mauritians and Franco-Mauritians rounding out the mix. Emerging from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport on a humid evening, I followed signs that read “EXIT” in English, French, Hindi and Chinese.
“Ultimately, the uniqueness of the place is in its people,” Santosh said. “We’ve evolved our own breed — fairly distinct from the origins each one of us came from. You have people who are sort of Indian but not really Indian, sort of African but not really African.”
Today’s Mauritius could be a role model for racial harmony (in these troubled times, the rest of the world might want to pay attention), but the country’s cultures mingle most effortlessly in the food. Disparate culinary traditions have collided here for centuries, and the result is a cuisine simmering with Indian, French, Chinese and Creole flavors. The next morning, I left Santosh’s sea-facing apartment on Trou-aux-Biches to explore Mauritius’ cultural synergy with my taste buds.
At the covered market in Quatre Borne, a hilly burg cradled by mountains that look Photoshopped into the background, I tried my first gâteau piment, a deep-fried fritter made of ground chickpea flour studded with chilies. “For breakfast, many people have bread, cheese and gâteaux piments,” my driver Raju explained, as he helped select four perfectly plump morsels for 10 rupees, about 30 cents.
With his limited English, my kindergarten French, and some Hindi thrown in, Raju and I were able to cobble together a reasonable facsimile of a conversation. We ambled through the food court, where stalls hawk everything from riz frit (fried rice) to curry agneau (lamb curry) to puri chaud (fried flatbreads); next, Raju took me to a residential street in Rose Hill, where I joined the lunch rush at the no-frills Dewa and Sons. I was there to try the national street food, dholl puri — what the banh mi is to Vietnam, what a doner kebab is to Turkey, this messy lentil-potato mix slapped onto a soft puri is to Mauritius. It’s as delicious as it is sloppy, spicy but not so strong as to overpower nuanced flavors redolent in turmeric and cumin.
Later that night I joined an American expat couple for a food crawl around Rue Desforges in Port Louis, gorging on poulet roti (roast chicken), mine frite (noodles) and crepes draped in Nutella and condensed milk and dusted with fresh coconut. On Gris-Gris beach the next day, I ordered a piping-hot farata (flatbread) with chicken and cheese from the Hungry Angry Girl Cabana.
For more refined fare, Santosh and his wife, Deepti, took me to Gymkhana, a members-only golf course with a restaurant serving local classics: octopus curry, dim sum and millionaire’s salad, an expensive local delicacy of hearts of palm paired with smoked marlin. At the elegantly appointed La Clef des Champs in Floreal, the revered chef Jacqueline Dalais serves haute-Mauritian food — “La cuisine Française qui parle Creole,” she describes it, French cuisine with a Creole accent. “Here in Mauritius, it’s a cuisine with a lot of spice. Not a lot of chili, but a lot of taste.”
Santosh and Deepti also took me along to a Mauritian Muslim wedding, where beef, chicken and vegetarian variants of the local Mauritian biryani were on the menu. The festive and pleasantly disorderly setting reminded me of India, where an extra head — or 20 — is always welcome.
My culinary anthropology saw me crisscrossing the island, bisecting its interior from all angles and touching down fleetingly on its sandy fringes. The beaches are undoubtedly some of the most spectacular I’ve seen, and the water stretched my understanding of what shades of blue can be plausibly found in nature, but I was more intrigued by Mauritius’ dense, rugged core — a verdant tableau rife with visual synonyms for the color green.
A 10-minute drive unfolds more like a cinematic montage than topography: corrugated tin shacks giving way to gleaming high-rises; children cycling against the backdrop of sugar cane fields; mountains in jagged shapes seemingly culled from the mind of Picasso; a procession of hot pink and cobalt blue bungalows popping against the never-ending emerald expanse. The weather vacillates as regularly as the scenery. We’d spend two minutes barreling through a rain cloud before emerging to a glorious stretch of sunshine; thickly humid air dissipated within minutes into a crisp autumnal chill.
The lush setting brought to mind Costa Rica, save for the Bollywood blaring on the radio. In fact, Mauritius comes across as a cleaner replica of India. You momentarily forget where you are as you pass buses emblazoned with “Hey Ram,” candy-colored South Indian-style temples, and signs for Khoobsurat Beauty Parlour or Indira Gandhi Road. But all it takes is a glimpse of a Dodo Supermarket, Bijouterie Oomar or Trois-Bras Pooja Shop, or eavesdropping on a snatch of conversation from a sari-clad auntie speaking English with a Gallic accent, to reorient yourself.
Mauritius’ hills are also flecked with graceful colonial manors in various stages of disrepair. The alluringly ramshackle Maison Eureka is a 175-year-old Victorian-era home replete with uneven doors, a sagging roof and broad chunks of shingles absent like gap teeth. I explored a warren of rooms filled with family antiques before retiring to a veranda lined with wicker loungers for coffee. On another afternoon I explored Château de Labourdonnais, an immaculately preserved pile where I feasted on fish salad, Creole rougaille, and crème brûlée laced with local vanilla. In the former capital of Mahébourg, the National History Museum has crammed a 1772-built French country house with everything from antique beds to nautical wreckage to a dodo display. Like many museums in small countries, it strives to fit every last vestige under one roof, making for a sense of disheveled urgency as you navigate the rooms.
But really, what of those beaches? There’s good reason tourists throng Long Beach, Grand Baie, Belle Mare and Le Morne, but the ways the locals experience the ocean is quite different from foreign sunseekers. On a secluded stretch of the beach Flic en Flac, on the island’s western coast, I bought hunks of pineapple drizzled in tamarind and chili salt and enjoyed my snack in near solitude. I expected more tourists at Blue Bay in the east, but instead was surrounded by a flock of women singing and dancing to Bhojpuri songs. I struck up a conversation in Hindi with a few ladies swaying shyly at the periphery. “It’s a day off from the husbands, kids and responsibility,” one of them told me of their monthly picnics. And every Saturday evening, on public beaches across Mauritius, locals pitch tents and host barbecues filled with biryani and booze. If only more visitors got off their loungers and lobbied for an invite.
Curious about how different Mauritius looked from those loungers, I decided to check into a hotel for my last two nights. I chose a Lux resort in the shadow of Le Morne mountain, an imposing UNESCO World Heritage site where escaped slaves once sought refuge in caves. The Mauritius I’d come to know now lay firmly on the other side of the monolith. Instead, I marveled at the plush suites with their indoor and outdoor showers, the daily crepe happy hour, the preternaturally blue water, the cut-and-paste model of a tropical idyll. It was easy to be beguiled into a trance, to convince myself that nothing that existed beyond the peripheral vision from my daybed merited further thought. The rest of Mauritius, its chaos and kineticism, now felt like a hazy dream.
But then I’d always have Shiva to remind me it wasn’t.
If You Go
WHERE TO STAY
20 Degres, Sud Coastal Road, Pointe Malartic, Grand Baie; 20degressud.com.
Lux Le Morne, Le Morne Plage; luxresorts.com/luxlemorne.
WHERE TO EAT
Lambic Restaurant and Bar, 4 St. Georges St., Port Louis.
La Clef de Champs, Queen Mary Avenue, Floreal; laclefdeschamps.mu.
Domaine de Labourdonnais, Mapou; domainedelabourdonnais.com.
Maison Eureka, Moka; maison-eureka.restaurant.mu.
WHAT TO DO
My Moris Walking tours, mymoris.mu.
Apravasi Ghat World Heritage Site, 1 Quay St., Port Louis; aapravasighat.org.
L’Aventure de Sucre Sugar museum, Beau Plan, B18, Pamplemousses; aventuredusucre.com.
National History Museum, Royal Road, Mahébourg.
Champs de Mars, the world’s second-oldest racecourse, Pope Hennessy Street, Port Louis.
St. Aubin, Rivière des Anguilles; rhumsaintaubin.com.