The island’s heart, central Mauritius has the coolest weather and more rainfall than anywhere else. It’s not top of the list for sun, sea and sand seekers, but some cultural highlights and impressive natural attractions make it worth exploring. The lure of shopping in the congested towns of the central plateau might inspire only a few people to leave their sunlounger, but nearby is the stunning Eureka mansion, a reminder of the island’s colonial past set against the pretty backdrop of the Moka Mountains. Outdoor activities range from the easy climb to the top of the distinctive mountain, Le Pouce, which affords some of the best views of the capital, to one of the island’s most beautiful hikes and canyoning opportunities at Tamarin Falls. To the southwest, the lush, green Black River Gorges is Mauritius’s only mainland National Park, sheltering all nine of the island’s rare and endangered endemic birds among ebony trees, waterfalls and mountains. Crisscrossed with walking trails, it gives a sense of what Mauritius’s landscapes would have looked like four hundred years ago. Nearby is the sacred crater lake of Grand Bassin, which according to legend was created from drops of the River Ganges.
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Covering 6574 hectares, over three percent of the island, Black River Gorges National Park is a must for nature lovers. Established in 1994, it’s named after the black stones found in the river running through it. Today the streams here are clean enough to drink from and the ebony trees that once covered the whole island are a refuge for Mauritius’s rare and endangered birds: the pink pigeon, Mauritius kestrel and echo parakeet. Landscapes range from upland forest of Macchabée, Mare Longue and Plaine Champagne to heath and pandanus marshes, and cloud forest at Mount Cocotte. Although the park is home to three hundred species of native flowering plants, as it has been invaded by introduced species, mainly guava and privet, it’s not always easy to spot them.
The most popular spot to visit is Black River Peak viewpoint, where a path lined with hawkers selling handicrafts leads to one of the island’s best views over the forest canopy stretching towards the sparkling southern sea. To the west lies Black River Peak (828m), Mauritius’s highest mountain, to the east there are views of a waterfall across a canyon. The lucky may see the elegant white bird paille-en-queue (straw in the tail), Mauritian fruit bat and Mauritian kestrel soaring over the lush landscape. Although you can hear the water from a pretty clearing reached along a wooded path, don’t expect to see Alexandra Falls. Unfortunately, despite the existence of a viewing tower, they’re usually hidden by the overgrown privet and guava.
Sometimes known as Ganga Talao, the crater lake of Grand Bassin is the island’s largest natural lake. Surrounded by lush greenery, it was a favourite hunting ground in colonial times, and is now the most sacred site on the island for Mauritian Hindus. An impressive 10m-high statue of Shiva guards the entrance to candy coloured temples, while surrounding the lake are small concrete altars that are lit with burning incense and draped with offerings of flowers, fruit and coconut at weekends and religious celebrations. A multilane highway has now been built to accommodate the throngs of traditionally dressed worshippers who gather here for festivals, and a second gaudily impressive statue is due to be unveiled in 2015. The largest festival, Maha Shivaratree, is the most important Hindu festival outside India. Try to time your visit during a festival if you can, or take the peaceful one-hour stroll around the lake and climb the steps to the Hanumanji temple for a great view.
There’s plenty of scope for hiking in Black River Gorges National Park. The pretty Plaine Champagne Road, which teems with guava pickers in season, divides some 120km of trails in the more popular western gorges and 50km of trails in the eastern gorges. A basic hiking map is available from the Petrin Information Centre, while for more challenging treks you’ll need to go with a guide and/or pick up a copy of Philip LaHouse’s Mountains and Trails – Trails in the Black River Gorges which details fifteen of the best in the area. Treks typically either start or end in the south or west of the park, where the Black River Gorges Visitors Centre also provides maps and information. They’re best undertaken in the cooler and drier winter months, June to September, when there are fewer mosquitoes; in summer, paths can be slippery, so take shoes with a good grip, plenty of water and insect repellent.
Legend has it that when Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati travelled over the lands created by Brahma on a flying vessel made of flowers, they were captivated by the beauty of Mauritius. As they landed on the then deserted island, a few drops of the River Ganges that Shiva kept in the locks of his hair are said to have fallen into the crater of Grand Bassin, which immediately filled up into a lake. Lord Shiva promised that one day people from the banks of the Ganges would settle in Mauritius and make an annual pilgrimage to take its waters. Thousands of years later, his prophecy came true and each February or March around half the population of Mauritius travel to the crater lake for the festival of Maha Shivaratree. Hindu devotees walk from all over the island dressed in white to leave offerings of food and flowers during this four-day celebration which translates as “the great night of Shiva”. It’s believed that those who fast and offer prayers bring good luck into their life. Devotees end the celebration by carrying water back to pour on the Shiva lingam, a symbolic representation of the deity, at their local temple.
The nineteenth century saw an exodus from the coastal areas to the cooler central plateau as people sought to escape natural and human disasters – from malaria and cholera epidemics to devastating cyclones. Small villages began to flourish and develop into the busy towns you see today, which now house around a third of the island’s population. The heavily populated Plaines Wilhelms district is not terribly inspiring unless you’ve got time to poke around and get under the area’s skin; the towns are mainly visited as shopping stops on island tours. Although a few speciality shops are worth a look if you’re passing through, more sophisticated and accessible shopping can be found elsewhere. Curepipe is where most locals recommend, while the bustling town of Quatre Bornes is famous for its market, one of the island’s best for clothes and handicrafts, held on a Thursday and Sunday along the main St Jean Road. Curepipe’s wealthy and elegant suburb of Floreal is where you should look for textiles and Phoenix is a popular stop to see artisans hand-blowing glass.
Two membership clubs on the central plateau, set up in colonial times, are still going strong today. Mauritius Gymkhana Club (Suffolk Close, Vacoas; daily 9am–11pm; 696 1404, mgc.mu) was founded as a service club for British officers between 1834 and 1849, and holds the oldest golf club in the southern hemisphere, as well as tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool, squash court and snooker. It once had a strict dress code – the bar was men-only until 8pm and children played outside in all weathers until 1960 – and even today men need long trousers and a jacket if dining and women tend to wear at least smart casual. It became a civilian club in 1976 and is now open to everyone regardless of background, creed or colour – traditions include a Burns’ Night blowout with haggis flown in by British Airways. The Franco-Mauritians’ answer to the Gymkhana Club was Le Dodo Club (Le Casernes, Curepipe; daily 9am–11pm; 5499 1823, email@example.com) set up on a 24-acre site in 1928 by a group of rugby enthusiasts. Today it has around 2500 members, and offers fourteen sports including a nine-hole golf course. It still has a strong French flavour, with dark wood panelling inside, and good-quality French dishes along with Mauritian specialities and Chinese plates in the lovely little bistro, Le Dodo Gourmand, overlooking the golf course.
Non-residents can visit either club for a spot of golf, a well-priced meal or a sundowner. See their respective websites for more details.
The French adapted their building style to the wet, hot tropics, creating a distinctive colonial style. Homes were traditionally built out of hardwood, with rain-resistant shingles made from tamarind wood hung on a vaulted roof with windows to help cool the air and combat dampness. Walls were whitewashed with local lime – created by burning coral over wood in the lime kilns which can still be seen scattered on the east coast – and roofs, windows and doors were decorated with lacy wooden or metal fringes, known as lambrequins. A wide, long verangue (veranda) often surrounded the house, with raffia blinds to filter the harsh rays of the sun. To protect against cyclones, houses had doors instead of windows, with small panes to strengthen them, and typically no corridors so the breeze could circulate through the rooms.
This style eventually became the blueprint for simple local homes, and although many were destroyed by Cyclone Carol in the 1960s, some can still be seen, predominantly in Mahébourg, and Rodrigues. The houses are now preserved by a National Heritage Fund set up in 2003 and a few surviving eighteenth- and nineteenth-century plantation mansions have been converted into museums and restaurants and are open to the public. These include Eureka, Château Labourdonnais, Domaine des Aubineaux, Le Saint Aubin and Demeure de Saint Antoine.
The Moka mountain range, remnants of once immense volcanoes, is one of Mauritius’s most distinctive and contains two of the island’s highest peaks: the bare-faced Pieter Both, with its gigantic boulder precariously balanced on top, and the equally unmistakeable thumb-shaped Le Pouce, beneath which forested foothills shelter the rare screwpine. Charles Darwin was one of the earliest visitors to climb the latter summit, recording his sense of awe in The Voyage of the Beagle.
The district of Moka itself is a mecca for Mauritians who live on the central plateau for one reason only: Bagatelle, the island’s most popular shopping mall, which has a food court, bars and entertainment. If you want to join the locals, it’s heaving at weekends.
If you can only visit one colonial building in Mauritius, it should be the striking Eureka mansion, where you can also eat and overnight. The building is a feat of engineering, with 109 doors, a wood-roofed wraparound veranda and pretty, turreted rooftop windows designed for tropical living. It was built in 1836 by one of the richest sugar barons on the island, and his family’s travels are reflected in the fourteen rooms. Highlights include original pieces crafted from cinnamon wood, mahogany and ebony, the Chinese living room (fashionable at the time), a marble standalone bathtub and a Pleyel piano from Europe. There’s also a display of nineteenth-century utensils and Creole cookery demonstrations in the outdoor stone kitchen.
In the 38 acres of grounds, a nature trail leads through mini botanical gardens, with some rare and endemic plants, including black ebony trees. You can also take your swimsuit for the hour-long walk to cool off in a swimming hole and jacuzzi beneath a waterfall in the valley.
Mauritius’s highest falls at 293m, Tamarin Falls tumble down a canyon towards Tamarin Bay. They are often referred to as the “seven cascades”, as although there’s a series of eleven waterfalls in total, the seven larger falls are the best known and most easily accessible. You can get a glimpse of the first three falls from a viewpoint behind the Henrietta bus station but the only way to see them all is on a beautifully unspoiled guided hike or a canyoning trip – this is the island’s canyoning hotspot, with abseils, jumps and bathing pools among the highlights. Local guides hang around the start point, but the slippery trails and technical climbs in parts mean it’s advisable to book with a recommended, qualified guide.
At 500m, CUREPIPE is the island’s highest town and receives over 3m of rain per year – it was described as “the wettest and rainiest place in the world” to Mark Twain in the 1900s. Thankfully, most of the town’s attractions are indoors, but it’s wise to carry an umbrella. Attractive colonial buildings include the town hall, Curimjee arcade and St Thérèse church, and in the suburb of Forest Side, on the outskirts, the pretty turquoise-shuttered colonial mansion, Domaine des Aubineaux, the first stop on the Tea Route. The other main reasons to come here are to shop and take the view from the natural crater of Trou aux Cerfs.
The romantic story behind Curepipe’s name is that it derives from “pipe cleaner”; it is said that the town was the spot where soldiers travelling from Port Louis would refill their pipes. Another theory is that the name comes from an eighteenth-century landowner’s native village in southwest France. Whatever the truth, with 65,000 residents, it is now one of the largest towns on the island.