Whilst talk of the Mascarene islands may have most people reaching for the World Atlas, the mere mention of Mauritius, the largest and most developed of the archipelago, is guaranteed to have most people dreaming of swaying coconut palms and fine coral sands. But if you still think of Mauritius as just another tropical beach haven, it may be time to look again.
Mauritius is in a class of its own, natural and unspoilt enough to be blessed with rugged mountain landscapes and extinct volcanic craters, yet affluent and developed enough to boast championship golf courses and luxury spa accommodation. From the white sand beaches and sugarcane fields of the north to the Ylang Ylang fields and rugged coastal cliffs of the south, the island offers enough diversity to satisfy every type of nature lover. In the South-West, the exotic Black River Gorges National Park tempts walkers with 40 miles of trails through rainforest and heathland and is home to many endangered birds and endemic wildlife. Close by in the foothills of the Savanne Mountain, 35 different colours of volcanic earth make up the Valley of Colours nature park. Through its moist, thickly forested highlands to the drier lowlands of its central plain, Mauritius is an exotic land of casuarina and conifer trees, tumbling waterfalls and deep ravines.
Ironically it`s the outstanding natural beauty of Mauritius that often masks its appeal as a destination of great cultural diversity, with an eclectic blend of ancestral traditions passed down by all the peoples that have set foot upon its shores throughout the centuries. A rich colonial past has seen the island deeply influenced by the Dutch, the French and the British who all left an indelible mark in the architecture of towns such as Mahebourg and St Louis, with ancient fortifications and further colonial houses strewn across the island. The Mauritian people, a diverse mix of nationalities, are renowned for their warmth and friendliness and an eclectic blend of Chinese, French, Indian and African adds spice to the cuisine in their restaurants and roadside snack bars. Across the island, Temples, Cathedrals, Pagodas and Mosques stand side by side in harmony and the air rings out with the music of festivals and processions that colour the social calendar, where dancing, folklore and mesmerising social rituals fascinate anyone lucky enough to witness them.
Visiting the inland towns and villages of Mauritius, with their colonial houses, shopping arcades and local markets, makes for an exciting voyage of discovery for those wishing to experience local life beyond the well-trodden tourist traps. Some of the island`s main attractions include the Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens in the north, famous for their rare tropical plants and gigantic water lilies, as well as the Le Val Nature Park and the Vanilla Crocodile Park in the South. For a taste of culture, venture across to Abercrombie and marvel at the complex of Temples of the South Indian Tamils or visit the Holy lake at Grand Bassin. Alternatively, simply cruise through miles of sugar cane fields, climbing to the breathtaking Rochester Falls and taking in far-reaching views over the Southern Mountain peaks, or head east to Trou d`Eau Douce and take a fishing boat to the tropical paradise of Ile aux Cerfs. Whilst it`s true that Mauritius is the perfect destination for those looking for relaxation, it offers so much more to those with a willingness to explore.
Given its compact size, so many of the island`s hidden gems can be easily reached within a day and by opting for cheap car hire, you can enjoy the freedom of exploring them all at your own pace.