Mauritius – Once a French Colony

Mauritius – Once a French Colony
Everybody knows that the best place to buy a baguette is France, and the second best place is one of her colonial outposts. But have you been to a former French colony where you can get a really good croissant – and a really good cup of tea? Welcome to Mauritius! This small island in the Indian Ocean has such a checkered past that its ethnic mix is like nowhere else in the world. Once known as Ile de France, Mauritius remains so Francophile that the preferred language of everyday conversation is French. However, the island, which gained independence in 1968, is part of the British Commonwealth. They grow tea here, and imbibing the brew is a legacy of English occupation. It also has been a Dutch colony and, before that, a stopover for Arab and Portuguese sailors. In addition, there are the descendants of African slaves and indentured servants from India. All combine with the handfuls of European expats to create a nation of 1.2 million that’s unusually exotic. I was continually startled when dark-eyed women in brightly colored saris would greet me with a musical bonjour! The island does have one big claim to fame. Remember the dodo bird? This is where it was driven into extinction – not so much by the European settlers, but by the housecats they brought with them (what carnivore could resist pouncing on a bird that didn’t fly away?). Although centuries of sailors (and pirates) had made note of the island, it seems there was no indigenous human population at the time of the Dutch arrival in 1598. True royalists, they named it for the Prince of Orange, their own Maurice of Nassau. The Dutch harvested ebony wood, but lost interest in the island in 1710. Five years later, the French arrived. The island was under the supervision of the Compagnie des Indes from 1715 to 1764. While nearby Ile de Réunion flourished as a coffee plantation, development on Ile de France languished until the arrival of François Mahé de la Bourdonnais as governor in 1735. He laid out the town of Port Louis and created the island’s first sugar estates. The French ceded the island to England in 1810, and sugar production continued to increase. By 1858, there were 259 factories in operation. The French had imported slaves from East Africa and Madagascar to work the sugar plantations they established on Mauritius, but the British outlawed slavery in the 1830s. They imported their labor in the form of indentured servants from India until 1909. When Mauritius gained independence in 1968, it remained with the British Commonwealth. Although English is the official language, most everyday conversation is in French (albeit with a Creole lilt). One terrific reason to visit Mauritius is the opportunity to step out of the ordinary. Instead of deadlines and traffic, there’s leisure and tranquility. The warm breezes carry the scent of flowers. Tropical birds flit among the palms, and frogs fill the twilight with their deep-throated croaks. The Oberoi Mauritius is all about retreating from reality. I was lucky enough to stay at this luxurious resort on the Baie aux Tortues. Just three years old, the resort is on the un-touristy northwest corner of the island. Spread across its 20 acres, there are 76 separate villas – sort of like guesthouses in a private paradise on the beach. Guests with a yen for complete seclusion can claim one of the villas with its own swimming pool enclosed in a walled garden, order room service and never venture out to mingle with the hoi polloi. I relished sampling the varied and inventive cuisine drawn from all the cultures of Mauritius served in its open-air restaurant overlooking the ocean. A fire at a neighboring resort spread to some of the resort’s rooftops last December, but the damage has been repaired and everything’s back to normal (although everything at the Oberoi Mauritius remains far above ordinary). When I was there, I chose the option of breakfast in my room, or, rather, on my private patio. The island abounds with brightly colored birds I’d never seen before, but they’re obviously used to visitors. Each morning, I had to defend my breadbasket from a couple of red, black and white feathered would-be thieves. Flowers are everywhere: frangipani, bougainvillea, jacaranda, orchids, hibiscus, anthurium. Every time I returned to my room, the maid had rearranged the towels and folded the clothing I’d discarded on the rattan couch – then carefully placed fresh flower blossoms in the folds. The large marble bathroom, freshly flower-strewn each day, has a sunken tub and a shower. The tub has a clear glass wall separating it from a personal garden, but the shower has a separate door so you can step outside – or back into the bathroom. If you can rouse yourself to leave the resort, expeditions around the island are many and varied. I enjoyed an afternoon at Pamplemousses gardens, had lunch barbecued by my captain on a boat trip to a picturesque cove, drove a bit along the Tea Route, visited a former sugar plantation and took an underwater trip on a mini submarine. The island is volcanic, so the topography is varied. There are steep jagged peaks inland with waterfalls plummeting off cliffs into deep rocky valleys. At Black River Gorge National Park, the resident monkeys begged treats from visitors. I marveled at the seven-colored earth of Chamarel – if I could only remember my geology classes I’d know what caused the colors of the rainbow-hued volcanic dunes. The 62 acres of the Jardins de Pamplemousses were first laid out in the 1700s by de la Bourdonnais, who built his house there. Later, Pierre Poivre, a French noble determined to grow spices on the island, bought the land. In a quest to figure out what grew best, he collected specimens for the gardens from around the world: laurel from the Caribbean, camphor from China, breadroot from the Philippines and litchi from Indochina. After he returned to France, Nicolas Céré, a botanist, continued its development. These days, the gardens are an outstanding collection of exotic plants and trees — including a Talipot Palm that flowers just once every 60 years (but not while I was there). I picked up an inexpensive self-guided tour booklet (in English) when I entered the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden (its official name since 1988), and…
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