The island changes colour three times a year. No, I don't mean it in a mystical way; the endless plantations of sugarcane have painted the interiors of the island an elegant green, and the harvest season is just starting, now in September. Once all the crops are cut, the island will be stroked by shades of light brown, and come December, the new crop will start to flower with a magical red glow. I have been wheeling around the island on my two-wheeler, watching the sugarcane fields sway in the wind against the backdrop of a very blue sky. Time and again, I have been surprised by the sudden appearance of mountains in my rear view mirror, though glimpses of turquoise blue watersare gentle reminders that I’m still in Mauritius.
One week ago, when I caught my first glimpse of the deep blue ocean enveloping Mauritius from the flight window, I was convinced that luxury travel magazines were justified in flaunting “beautiful Mauritius” as a honeymooning paradise. I didn’t know then that the span of just half an hour could take me from a chic seaside resort, along the sugarcane-sprinkled interiors, to the wilderness of majestic mountains abruptly rising from the sea.
My quest to unearth the best kept secrets of the island starts at Vallee Des Pretres, once an active volcano submerged under the sea; an eruption sprouted out a panoramic range of mountains, with an opening towards the reunion of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, with the Indian Ocean. In this predominantly Hindu region, I hike along trails that take me past small streams among fields of chilli, chance upon a local devi worshipping ceremony, and find my way to the base of the namesake peaks of The Window and Priest. When ominous clouds drench me with a light shower, I seek shelter under a small canopy formed by wild shrubs, and witness the return of the sun with a most majestic rainbow that appears to unite the sea with the mountains. Here I find myself at the doorstep of Mon Choix Lodge, run by an eccentric French couple, who describe the valley as one of the last remaining eco-tourism pockets of Mauritius. We have an elaborate breakfast in the veranda of their French villa, feasting as much on the freshly baked breads as on the magnificent view of the mountains and the greens, constantly stroked by a gentle breeze.
On their recommendation, I drive into the sugarcane belt of the country as far as Mapou, home to vast expanses of sugarcane fields in the backdrop of endless hills, stopping by to talk to plantation workers and trace the journey of the crop. I taste seven types of raw sugar derived from the crop at the sugarcane factory-turned-museum of L’Adventure Du Sucre, sample cocktails concocted with local Mauritian Rum and sugarcane juice in the island’s party district of Grand Bay, and pamper myself with a Sugar Rituals spa treatment at Explore Spa in Le Meridien Ile Maurice, the only one of its kind on the island that uses local sugars in a body scrub and massage.
I soon find myself grappling to understand the potpourri of cultures on the island, and to experience this, I shake a leg in a traditional Sega dance performance, and revel in the Creole music that clubs African beats with popular culture; this form of recreation arrived on the island to give expression to the stories of the earliest immigrants on the island. Along the east coast of Mauritius, I stop for a sumptuous vegetarian Creole meal accompanied by indigenously crafted chutneys at Chez Tino, which combines Indian, African and Mauritian cooking with French breads, and offers uninterrupted views of the coast beyond.
On an island that is inadvertently advertised with the backdrop of luxurious five star resorts, it can feel as though the best stretches of the coast are cordoned off for the wealthiest. At the lesser known Blue Bay, a protected lagoon with a public beach, I realize otherwise; I snorkel in the crystal blue waters right from its sparkling white shore, into aquarium-like patches of the bay, filled with colourful schools of fish and vibrant corals at less than an arm’s distance from me! While taking off from Mauritius, I notice more than just its coastline from the flight window and marvel at the host of geographic, cultural, agricultural and culinary experiences it packs within its compact boundaries. I put the magazines back in the seat pocket, convinced that paradise needs to be rediscovered.
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