Lying 800km east of Madagascar, Mauritius is part of the Mascarene Islands, a volcanic chain extending as far as the Seychelles. Fringed by 160km of sandy beaches and an azure sea, with a backdrop of rugged peaks and shimmering sugar cane, this pear-shaped tropical island is a dream holiday destination. An islander once told Mark Twain that “Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius”.
Thanks to year-round sunshine, the island’s beaches are its key selling point, many lined with world-class hotels, top-notch spas, championship golf courses and gourmet restaurants. But the “pearl of the ocean” is no longer the preserve of the jet set, with an ever-expanding range of accommodation and activities for all tastes and budgets. Watersports are a particular highlight: it’s possible to swim with dolphins in the morning and then go diving, kitesurfing or paddleboarding in the afternoon.
At 45km by 65km, nowhere in the island’s interior is more than 45 minutes’ drive from the sea, and gone are the days when no one ventured more than a mile from their sunlounger. Among the three main mountain ranges surrounding the central plateau – Moka, Black River Chain and Grand Port, the remains of volcanic activity which started thirteen million years ago – there are now numerous outdoor adventures and eco-trails. Then there’s tiny Rodrigues, an eco-paradise scattered with forested ravines, secluded beaches and sandy islands.
Isolated and uninhabited for thousands of years, Mauritius has developed a unique flora and fauna – the most famous of which is the dodo, which helped put this speck in the Indian Ocean on the world map – and it remains one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The island is surrounded by the world’s third largest coral reef, which shelters a rich marine life, some of the rarest birds fly over ebony trees in the forested interior, and endemic species survive on offshore islands. Mauritius’s national flower, Trochetia boutoniana (Boucle d’Oreille) grows just on a single mountaintop, Le Morne Brabant. Tortoises, which once roamed in their thousands before being loaded onto ships by sailors, have also recently been successfully reintroduced onto Rodrigues.
Diversity is found in Mauritius’s cultural landscape too. Almost four centuries of colonization have left the island with a rich multicultural mosaic of Indian, African, Chinese and French heritage. You’ll find this exotic mix expressed in riotous Indian temples, historic colonial mansions and the hip-wiggling séga.
Where to go in MauritiusMauritius may be small but it takes time to travel across the island – worth bearing in mind when choosing where to stay. Each region has its own vibe, landscape and local weather, and a particular set of activities and attractions. Yet even in the most touristed areas of the country, an off-the-beaten-track gem usually lies nearby.
If you’re looking for buzz, nightlife and plenty of excursions, the tourism hub Grand Baie, or little “St Trop”, in the north is likely to be just the ticket. It has the greatest concentration of hotels, beaches, restaurants and entertainment, and activities ranging from diving to parasailing. For a change of pace, look to nearby, quieter Cap Malheureux, the uninhabited northern islands, or head inland for a stroll through the lovely Pamplemousses Gardens.
The island’s bustling capital, Port Louis, is arguably the “real” Mauritius, with historic buildings and the island’s oldest market squeezed in alongside modern shopping complexes and offices. There are just two hotels here, so few visitors stay overnight, but the slew of restaurants and street-food vendors at lunchtime make it an attractive day-trip.
The east coast is traditionally the island’s most glamorous, with arguably the best white-sand beaches near the villages of Belle Mare and Trou d’Eau Douce. To the south, Lion Mountain overlooks historic Vieux Grand Port, where the French and British once battled for control of the island. Today this coast is a mecca for watersports enthusiasts, while outdoor and eco-adventures can be found inland in the Bambous Mountains or along Grande Rivière Sud Est (GRSE).
By contrast, the rustic south gives a taste of times gone by. From the ancient Dutch capital of Mahébourg to the sleepy fishing village of Baie du Cap, this stretch of coastline is Mauritius’s least developed, with a scattering of hip hotels, unusual rock formations and island-hopping trips that compensate for the lack of good swimming beaches. This is also one of the best places to see Mauritian wildlife, either on a snorkeling trip in the pristine Blue Bay Marine Park or on Île aux Aigrettes, where you can encounter giant Aldabra tortoises and the pink pigeon.
Young families tend to enjoy the calm, shallow beaches of the west coast, particularly around Flic en Flac and Wolmar, where there are plenty of activities and sights nearby. This part of the country has a large Creole community, and as you head south you’ll feel a noted Creole presence around Rivière Noire and Le Morne village. On the island’s southwestern tip, the exclusive Le Morne Peninsula is known for its luxurious hotels and perfect kitesurfing conditions – a contrast to the iconic Le Morne Brabant mountain, one of the island’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a poignant reminder of its slave history.
Central Mauritius has a different flavour again. The towns sprawling across the central plateau have little appeal beyond their shops, but explore further and you’ll find hiking opportunities in the lofty Moka Mountains and canyoning at Tamarin Falls. To the southwest is the island’s unmissable nature reserve, Black River Gorges National Park, where hiking trails introduce you to a range of endemic flora and fauna.
Those looking to get away from it all need to head to beautiful Rodrigues, Mauritius’s tiny sister island. Under 20km long and with just one real town, its laidback atmosphere and Creole-style hospitality make for a relaxing break. The island is an off-the-beaten-track paradise for trekkers and the diving is superb, too, with three dive centres offering packages for everyone from beginners to pros.
Top image © leoks/Shutterstock
Fact file• Mauritius is around the world’s seventeenth most densely populated country, with just over 1.3 million inhabitants and a density of 644 people per square kilometre.
• The island is remarkable for its interracial harmony. The mixed population is roughly 68 percent Indo-Mauritian, 27 percent Creole, 3 percent Chinese/Sino-Mauritian and 2 percent Franco-Mauritian.
•Hinduism is practised by 48.5 percent of the population; the remainder are mostly Roman Catholic (26.3 percent), Muslim (17.3 percent) and other Christian denominations (6.4 percent).
• One of the world’s newer political success stories, Mauritius has maintained a stable parliamentary democracy since independence, with free elections by the National Assembly.
• Mauritius has one of the highest average annual incomes in Africa, at US$16,100 per capita. Some 87 percent of Mauritians own their homes and all have access to free education and healthcare. Average life expectancy is 75 years.
• As there is little industry on the island, Mauritius has the second cleanest air on earth according to the global air quality ranking issued by the World Health Organization (WHO).
• Mauritius has the third highest number of extinct species of any country in the world. Less than 20 percent of the island’s forest remains, with only 3.3 percent (6574 hectares) under conservation.
• The Mauritian national emblem is the dodo, which can be seen on the coat of arms, banknotes and postage stamps. It’s one of the few countries in the world whose national animal is extinct, eradicated by hunting in the seventeenth century.