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Mauritius - Attractions


Where the palm trees meet the mountains

Port Louis

Backed by mountains at the north-western end of the island, the burgeoning capital of Port Louis is a large city (in proportion to the size of Mauritius), though it contains a relatively small percentage of the country's total population. During the day, it bustles with big-city commercial activity - snarling traffic, honking horns and all. By night, in contrast, all is quiet - dare we say 'dead'? - except for the swish new Le Caudan Waterfront, where you'll find a casino, cinemas, shops, bars and restaurants. There's a distinct Muslim area around Muammar El Khadafi Square (appropriately enough at the opposite end of the city from the local hat-tip to the Yanks, John F Kennedy St) and a Chinatown around Royal St. The city centre is easily covered on foot.

A good place to get a feel for city life is the Port Louis Market, near the water in the heart of downtown. With sections devoted to fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, souvenirs, crafts, clothing and spices, be ready to practise some hard bargaining. While in the neighbourhood, most visitors drop by the Natural History Museum to see a stuffed replica of that 'abnormal member of a group of pigeons', the dodo, which has been extinct since the late 17th century. The museum also houses stuffed representations of several other extinct birds as well as specimens of animals and fish that are still with us. The only other regular exhibitor in the city is the Mauritius Postal Museum, featuring a collection of Mauritian stamps and assorted philately.

If you're interested in Islamic architecture, stop by Port Louis' oddly located Jummah Mosque, built in the 1850s in the middle of Chinatown, and Fort Adelaide, which so closely resembles a Moorish fortress that locals call it the Citadel. Fort Adelaide is the only one of Port Louis' four British forts that's still accessible and not in ruins; the views from its hilltop, harbourside location are ace.

The Lourdes of the Indian Ocean, Père Laval's Shrine is just north-east of the town centre at Ste-Croix. Père Laval - who is said to have converted more than 67,000 people during his 23 years on Mauritius - is remembered with a colourful plaster statue atop his tomb. Pilgrims swear by the statue's healing powers and come in droves to touch it.

Curepipe

The town of Curepipe owes its size and prominence to the malaria epidemic of 1867, during which thousands of people fled mosquito infested Port Louis for healthier, higher ground. The bulk of Franco-Mauritians live in outlying communities and come into Curepipe mainly to shop. With the flavour of an English market town, Curepipe is the centre of the island's tea and model-ship building industries and the best place to scatter your money. Unless these are of particular interest to you, the town itself may be worth a quick visit at most. The surrounding countryside has a more universal appeal.

Curepipe's main street of historical interest is Elizabeth Ave. There, the recently renovated colonial-style Hôtel de Ville (1902) functions as the town hall. In its gardens, you'll find a statue of the fictitious lovers Paul and Virginie from Bernadin de St Pierre's 1788 novel of the same name. West of the town centre, Curepipe's botanical gardens are not as spectacular as those of Pamplemousses, but they are well kept and informal, with nature trails branching off of the main paths. Just north of the gardens, Trou aux Cerfs crater is the town's biggest natural attraction. It's been extinct for ages, and the crater floor is now heavily wooded, but a tarred road leads up to and around the rim to rest stops with beautiful views.

A few kilometres south-west of town, Tamarind Falls are awkward to reach without your own transportation and good hiking boots, but the rewards are worth the hassle. At the bottom of the series of seven falls, you can enjoy a dip in the deep waters, and the parkland around the falls is perfect for hikes.

Curepipe is in the south-central highlands of Mauritius and is well linked by bus to Port Louis, about 20km (12mi) to the north, and to other towns and villages.

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens

In the village of Pamplemousses, these gardens (also known as the Royal Botanic Gardens) were started in 1735 by Governor Mahé de La Bourdonnais as a vegetable garden for his Mon Plaisir Château. The grounds were gussied up by French horticulturalist Pierre Poivre in 1768 in his bid to introduce spices, but afterwards lay neglected until 1849, when a British horticulturalist, James Duncan, took over. His legacy is seen today in the garden's array of palms.

These modest but well kept gardens are a highlight of a visit to Mauritius. Though there are few flowers inside, one key attraction is the park's giant Victoria regia water lilies, native to the Amazon. From the centre of a huge pad, the lily's flower opens white one day and closes red the next. Other attractions include golden bamboo, chewing gum trees, fish poison trees, a 200-year-old Buddha tree and - for Christians - a cross tree with leaves shaped like crucifixes. The fragrant flora of the garden - ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, camphor and sandalwood - is another high point, as are glimpses of Mauritian wildlife that are all but unavailable elsewhere on the island. Look for enclosures of Java deer and giant tortoises. There's also an art gallery and a cemetery, whichever way your tastes run. Pamplemousses is 11km (7mi) north-east of Port Louis, and there are regular buses between the two.

South of Port Louis

A scant 12km (7mi) south of Port Louis, the town of Moka - in terms of ambience - is a world apart from the capital. Not only is it the island's centre of academia, it's also blessed with sylvan landscapes, towering mountains and a number of impressive manor houses. Here, the University of Mauritius shares the bulk of the island's scholars with the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, founded to preserve and promote Mauritian Indian culture. The Gandhi Institute's Folk Museum of Indian Immigration houses around 2000 volumes of Indian archives dating from 1842 to 1910 as well as a small collection of artefacts, such as jewellery worn by early Indian immigrants, traditional musical instruments, books and assorted household knick-knacks.

Also of historical interest is Le Réduit (the Refuge), a former governor's mansion built in 1874 that is now used by the military. Though the building itself is open to the public only two days per year (in March and October), guard-escorted walks through the gardens are well worth a visit anytime. Another biggie, Eureka House, was restored and opened to the public as a museum in 1986. It was built in the 1830s and, like Le Réduit, has terrific views across the valley. The museum inside has areas dedicated to music, art, antique maps, Chinese and Indian housewares and quirky contraptions like a colonial-era shower. Leave yourself time for a ramble round the stone cottages and gardens out back. Both houses are about a kilometre outside of Moka - Eureka to the north, Le Réduit to the south - and are best reached by a combination of bus and foot, unless you can convince a local to rent you a bicycle.

Closer to Port Louis, Domaine Les Pailles is an elaborate cultural centre that includes facilities for horse-drawn carriage and train rides, plus a working replica of an ox-powered sugar mill, a rum distillery, an herb garden, a natural spring and a children's play area. An onsite riding centre, Les Écuries du Domaine, has horses for dressage and jumping and Welsh ponies for the wee ones. Continuing in the spirit of providence, the centre also has a handful of ethnic restaurants and its own jazz club and casino. Domaine Les Pailles is a 10 minute taxi ride from either Port Louis or Moka, or you can take a bus between the two and walk half an hour from the main road.

Moka Town is almost midway between Port Louis and Curepipe, just east of the M2. Buses ply between the cities daily, or you can take a taxi.



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