Mauritius: unexceptional, in a good way

On our first visit to the island country of Mauritius in 2011, we just hung out at a beach resort while we recovered from the epic jetlag of flying to pretty much the exact opposite spot on the globe from Seattle. Mauritius “is known for its beaches” as Google says, so that was a fine first date but this time we wanted to get to know the country better, exploring its capital and countryside.

Like its closest neighbors Reunion and the Seychelles, Mauritius is a melting pot of cultures but with the strongest influence from the descendants of Indians who came to work the sugar cane fields 100-200 years ago. Colorful Hindu temples dot the island. One we visited was popular with a troop of photogenic monkeys who made-off with the offerings of fruit that worshipers left on the altars.

The sugar fields are still active and we spent a few hours at an interesting museum dedicated to sugar production and its big role in the history of the country. But Mauritius is now branching out economically well beyond sugar and the sugar-white beaches. It has a history of good governance that has made it a financial, logistical and corporate hub for Africa and the Indian Ocean counties. Modern (or in some cases ultra-modern) highrise bank headquarters have sprung up around the capital of Port Louis, mixing with the old colonial-era buildings and modest lowrise shops. Though there is a glitzy new shopping area on the waterfront (where the store clerks outnumber the sparse customers 4-to-1), Port Louis mostly has the feel of a true middle-ground between a rich western country and a poor country in Africa or South Asia. It is a little grimy and rundown, but also bustling and seems like the rising tide is helping the many, not just the few. It even has safe drinking water! Or so we heard, though Laurel might have gotten a mild stomach bug from eating the local street-food delicacy Dholl Puri, which was OK but definitely not tasty enough to be worth the trouble. Click here of a video of a busy street scene near the farmers market, in one of the less modern parts of downtown.

We visited a few art galleries around the island and enjoyed the work, especially the bold tropical visions of a successful local painter named Vaco who had a pet giant Aldabra tortoise named George. The most common motif seen in Mauritian art, culture and commerce is the flightless dodo bird, adopted as a symbol of the island despite it’s sad claim to fame as one of the most visible man-made extinctions.

One of the headline attractions on the interior of the island is a place called The Seven Colored Earth. In guide book photos, you see rolling hills of various shades of brown, purple, red and orange. When we arrived, the whole thing was much smaller than our expectations, a patch of bare eroded mud that you can circumnavigate on foot in two minutes. Charitably, it was maybe four shades of reddish brown. Without the build-up (and the hour long drive) we probably would have come away thinking “that was kind of interesting and pretty.” Instead it was a bit of a letdown but you can definitely take some nice photos of it from the right angle. Hopefully no one sees a pretty picture like the one below and decides they have to visit Mauritius to see this eighth wonder of the world.

Overall we enjoyed our explorations and found Mauritius a pleasant place. Easy to get around, safe, no hassles, decent infrastructure (except for the traffic jams), and pretty scenery. Maybe it didn’t have the WOW views of Reunion or the more unique cultural and wildlife experiences we had on Madagascar and Aldabra, but overall it was a perfectly serviceable tropical paradise. :-)

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