Pronounced “Por Loowee” or “Port Lewis” by the locals, Mauritius’s bustling port capital PORT LOUIS, encircled by the moody Moka Mountains on the northwest coast, is an intriguing mix of old and new. Graceful colonial buildings lie cheek-by-jowl with modern towers in the centre, while a swanky waterfront complex holds the island’s best shopping. The city is the busiest port in the Indian Ocean, with around a hundred thousand people, a colourful cross-section of Mauritians, flooding into its 45-square-kilometre area daily. There are a few interesting museums and religious sites, but Port Louis is really a place to wander, taking in the legacy of three centuries of colonialism and the influence of India and China. It may be tempting to bypass the hot, sticky city for the beach, but it’s a must for an insight into the real Mauritius. Visit on a weekday morning when it’s at its liveliest.
The early Dutch settlers were the first arrivals, naming the natural harbour Noordwester haven (Northwestern harbour). It was titled Port Louis by the French, who claimed it in the name of King Louis XV in 1722. Spotting the potential of the sheltered harbour, the French East India Company made Port Louis a trading post before it became the capital in 1735 under the governor Bertrand-François Mahé de la Bourdonnais, who developed the city using French workmen, Indian artisans from Pondicherry and African slaves. The latter half of the eighteenth century saw Port Louis fall into disrepute, with opium dens and brothels popular with French corsairs.
Briefly renamed Port Napoleon in 1806, the city reverted to Port Louis when the British took over governance in 1810, and it became host to high society balls and concerts. Natural and human disasters, however, from the great fire in 1816 to malaria and cyclones, sent the population packing to the cooler, healthier central plateau, where many still live today. Port Louis was born again in the 1980s, post-independence, when the skyline and street names dramatically changed. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen Port Louis rise as a free port and capital of one of the most successful economies in Africa.
Top image © Karl Ahnee/Shutterstock
The main reason to head out of the centre is to get an overview of the city from the citadel perched on a hill below the foothills of the Moka Mountains. This is the area to appreciate multi-faith Mauritius and you won’t find this concentration of religious sites anywhere else on the island.
The sturdy, basalt Fort Adelaide Citadel, a renovated two-storey fort perched on a hill near the Champ de Mars racecourse, offers great views over the capital. Building was started by the French, but continued by the British in 1835: the fort is named after William IV’s wife, Queen Adelaide. As well as external threats, it was poised to deal with a French rebellion following the abolition of slavery. The only action ever seen here, however, is the occasional concert and souvenir shopping in the old barracks.
Twenty-eight miniature wind-sculpted mountains – the remnants of an ancient volcano – form the backdrop to beaches in Mauritius and offer spectacular views. A guide is recommended for most climbs as trails can be poorly marked and slippery; they can also explain endemic flora and fauna, and weave in history, myths and legend.
“The thumb” of Le Pouce (812m) protrudes from the 20km-long Moka Mountains which cradle Port Louis. The popular and easy three-hour hike signposted from Le Dauget Village, near Eureka, gives the best views of the capital. With a precarious boulder balanced on top, nearby Pieter Both (820m), named after the first Dutch governor of the East Indies shipwrecked in Mauritius in the seventeenth century, with sheer drops at the summit, is a long technical climb but worth it for the views.
Looming over the central plateau, Corps de Garde (780m), whose name comes from a French military post which captured runaway slaves, is a spectacular yet moderate three-hour return climb, with views over the west coast. Mauritius’s highest mountain, Piton de la Petite Rivière/Black River Peak (828m), is also a surprisingly easy three-hour return hike along forested paths from a start point on Plaine Champagne (744m).
For great views over the historic southeast, Lion Mountain (480m), in the shape of a reclining feline, is a rewarding two-hour return climb. Across on Mauritius’s southwestern tip, slaves once flung themselves to their deaths trying to escape capture from the bare-faced Le Morne Brabant (556m); the moderate three-hour guided climb here, on private property, is one of the island’s best, with views over the forest and coral gardens.
Nestled against the mountains, the colourful nineteenth-century Tamil Kaylasson temple represents a reclining body, with the thousand-petalled lotus flower the crown of the head and the entrance arch its feet. An example of Dravidian architecture, its domes are covered in sacred figures from Hindu mythology.
Mauritius’s relative isolation led to the development of a number of unusual endemic plants and animals, including the dodo, whose unmistakeable image has become synonymous with the island. The 1m-tall flightless bird belonged to the pigeon family, and is thought to have been named by Portuguese sailors in 1507 after the sound it made as it cooed. Eyewitness accounts described the waddling birds as lumpish and flightless, grey or grey-brown in colour, with black quills for wings and a tail of coloured plumes. Contrary to popular myth the dodo wasn’t plump (these accounts may have been based on birds transported to Europe in a confined space and fed on ships’ biscuits) – they could run fast.
It is thought that the dodo’s flightlessness developed over millions of years of evolution. With no predators before man arrived, it was able to feed on fruits, berries, leaves and bulbous roots found on or near the ground. But when the Dutch occupied Mauritius in 1638, its fate changed forever. Ebony forests were chopped down and replaced with imported crops such as sugar cane and tobacco, and the fearless dodo was an easy target, clubbed to death by hunters despite the fact that the meat was reported to be nauseating. The dodo’s nests, built about 40cm above the ground and with a single egg, were also vulnerable to destruction by pigs, and the rats and monkeys which escaped from ships. By the end of the seventeenth century, less than a hundred years after man arrived, the dodo was extinct. It wasn’t until 1865 that the first bones were found in the marsh of Mare Aux Songes, proving that the dodo was not just a legend.
Today, the phrase “dead as a dodo” might abound, but as Mauritius’s national emblem, the dodo is everywhere, emblazoned on everything from teacups to T-shirts. You can find out more in the Dodo Gallery in Port Louis’ Natural History Museum.
Once a collection of disused warehouses, the swish Le Caudan Waterfront complex, which stretches along Port Louis’ 1.5km-long harbour, houses everything from hotels, restaurants and shops to a museum, cinema and casino. There’s an information kiosk on Barkly Wharf where you can pick up a map.
Named after the rare and valuable blue one-penny and red two-penny colonial stamps in its collection, the Blue Penny Museum is the city’s most modern and interactive museum. It’s well laid out with interesting exhibitions on the island’s history, from ancient mariners’ maps to a section on Port Louis past and present. The story behind the stamps themselves is one of a curious error. They were mistakenly issued in 1847, printed with the words “Post Office” rather than “Post Paid”, and before the error was discovered they had been used to send invitations to the British Governor’s annual ball. This unused pair cost US$2.2 million, and it’s the only place the public can see them.
Built in 1849, Aapravasi Ghat is an early reminder of one of the most significant migrations in world history and it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. The stone steps on the dock where indentured labourers or “coolies” walked up to the immigration depot – and into what Mauritian poet Khal Torabully coined as “coolitude” – are the most evocative remains of the site. It also includes sheds for housing new arrivals, an altar for prayers, old privies and a hospital. In Hindi, aapravasi means immigrant and ghat is a place where land meets water.
With the abolition of slavery in 1834, the British Government needed a new workforce. Mauritius was the first site chosen for “the great experiment”: the use of “free” labour to replace slaves. Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million indentured labourers from India and other countries arrived at Aapravasi Ghat to work in the island’s sugar plantations, or to be transferred elsewhere. The “great experiment” ended with World War I, in 1918, but not before it had changed the shape of the country. Indians comprised less than four percent of Mauritius’s population in 1835, but as two-thirds of those who arrived settled, today 68 percent of Mauritians have Indian ancestry.
The grandeur of Port Louis’ colonial past is felt in the stately avenue of royal palms that flank Place S Bissoondoyal opposite the harbour. Named after a Mauritian independence leader, it’s still known by its old name, Place d’Armes, which reflects its origins as an army parade ground. The avenue stretches from a statue of the city’s founder, Mahé de La Bourdonnais, up to the oldest building on the island, the beautifully restored grey Government House (not open to the public), where a bust of Queen Victoria peers sternly through the railings. Nearby, offering a respite from the heat, the pretty Jardins de la Compagnie (Company Gardens) are where the first French settlers once lived in primitive, thatched mud huts.
Adjacent to Place S Bissoondoyal, Victorian wrought-iron gates lead into the island’s oldest, largest and most vibrant market, Central Market. A couple of blocks further north is Chinatown, created by Chinese traders at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In a peculiarly multicultural Mauritian twist, its main attraction is the impressive Jummah Mosque, with its white domes and ornate teak doors inlaid with ivory.
Heading towards the hills, a vestige of Port Louis’ heyday can be seen in the pretty colonnaded frontage of the Grand Theatre. Opened in 1822, it’s the oldest theatre in the southern hemisphere, although these days séga shows have replaced opera. Opposite lies the atmospheric, cobbled Rue de Vieux Conseil (Old Council Street).
From lowly beginnings as the son of poor Hindu parents, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (1900–1985) became the “Father of the Nation”. His ideas were shaped by the Fabians and Indian patriots, including Gandhi, during medical training in London and on his return to Mauritius in 1935 he became leader of the newly-formed socialist Mauritius Labour Party (MLP). In 1968 they went on to gain independence. The island’s first prime minister, he promoted tolerance among races and religions, and championed the causes of the underclass. Several civic buildings bear his name and his picture is often seen in Mauritian homes. His son, Navin Ramgloolam, has been prime minister of Mauritius since 2005.
Each January or February Indians of Tamil origin parade through the streets with their tongues and cheeks pierced with spears or skewers in the devout and spectacular annual festival, Thaipoosam Cavadee. As a vow of devotion, or as penitence, participants also hang needles and hooks from their chests and backs, and carry a “cavadee” (burden) on their shoulders, typically a carved wooden canopy decorated with flowers, fruits and photographs of saints, with a pot of purifying milk hung from each end. Despite the heat at this time of year, the milk must not be curdled when it arrives at the temple to be offered to Lord Muruga, the main Tamil god. Throngs of women and children accompany the men, dressed in bright pink and also bearing pots of milk. If any blood is spilled during the piercing, or the milk is sour, it means that the ten days of fasting, celibacy and prayers have not been done properly. Cavadee can be seen at temples island-wide, though the best place to see it is at Port Louis’ Kaylasson temple.