New Yorker Bruce Stutz felt quite at home in Mauritius, where so many cultures co- exist in proximity. He had previously visited the island for a birding story and was eager to return to experience more of the culture. "It"s a very worldly place - many Mauritians speak four languages," he says.
For Stutz, horse racing was the trip highlight - "Everyone is obsessed with horses," he says - and he particularly enjoyed the ambience of the Champs de Mars in Port Louis, the oldest track in the Southern Hemisphere. Negotiating for crafts and linens in local markets is, he adds, a "sport unto itself."
A writer for 25 years, Stutz has been editor in chief of Natural History and features editor at Audubon; his work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly.
Contributing photographer Michael Moore was "blown away" by the ornate architecture and the bright colors of the Tamil temples on Mauritius: "One temple had hundreds of carved figures on the outside, painted in such detail that there were mustaches on the men."
His favorite experience was visiting the tea plantations, where he could walk through tea gardens, watch as tea leaves were harvested by hand, and tour the processing factory. "Afterward, you can sample vanilla- and jasmine-infused teas in the tasting room and take in an incredible view of the rugged south coast," says Moore. This was his first visit to the island.
Moore recommends visiting Pamplemousses to explore the world-renowned Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoo-lam Botanic Garden, established in 1735. The species there include giant water lilies and the talipot palm, which blooms just once before dying, sometimes at the ripe old age of 75. At Grand Bassin, a crater lake, numerous temples and monkey-god statues are set in a peaceful valley with extraordinary views of the mountains. Learn about maritime history and see intricate model ships at the Naval Museum in Mahébourg.
For the Birds
To see endemic plants and birds, hit the trails of Black River Gorges National Park in the southwest, where you can climb to the island"s highest point (2,700 feet). Domaine du Chasseur, near Mahébourg, is home to monkeys, ebony trees, unusual birds, and a great view of the coast. Stutz recommends a day trip to Ile aux Aigrettes, a nature preserve reachable by boat from Mahébourg. At Casela Bird Park near Tamarin, catch a glimpse of the rare Mauritian pink pigeon.
The mountains meet the water on the southern tip of Mauritius, but on the rest of the island, casuarina-fringed white-sand beaches offer shallow lagoons for snorkeling. You can join the locals and food vendors at Grand Baie beach, but Moore preferred Ile aux Benitiers in the southwest, with its beautiful sandy stretches away from the crowds. Stutz recommends the pretty, isolated beaches near Flic en Flac, along the west coast. To find a deserted beach, take roads that lead through sugarcane fields toward the water. The best swimming beaches are in the north; the western beaches around Tamarin are best for surfing.
Snorkeling in the shallow lagoons - from the beach or a boat - is popular. The diving"s not as spectacular as at some other Indian Ocean sites, such as Seychelles and the Maldives, but there are still interesting species and a host of dive operators. The best sites are at Flic en Flac, on the west coast.
What"s to Eat
With no shortage of high-end creations prepared by the French chefs who flock to these shores, street stalls serving curry-filled samosas and dahl puri (lentil pancakes), and everything in between, diners face tough decisions. For haute cuisine, Stutz suggests a meal at Indou-chine at the Beau Rivage hotel, where perfectly prepared food is served in a peaceful, contemporary Asian- style setting. For local Creole food, try La Bonne Marmite, where fishermen bring in their catch. Moore liked the dahl puri at roadside stands, the hot marinated mango and pineapple, and the fresh lychees.
Moore suggests the opulent Oberoi Mauritius, just outside Port Louis; the thatched cottages had marble bathrooms with glass showers that opened onto sunny private gardens (about $600 to $730 per night; tel. 011- 230-204-3600, fax 011-230-204-3625, Web site www.oberoihotels.com/mauritius). At Beau Rivage, on the east coast, Stutz enjoyed the nice beach and landscaping, the excellent service, and the good dive center (about $140 per night, including breakfast and dinner; tel. 011-230-402-2000, Web site www.naiade.com). For a funky beach-town spot with a nice lagoon for swimming and access to nightlife, opt for the Merville Beach Hotel in Grand Baie (about $70 to $105 per night; tel. 011-230-209-2200, fax 011-230-263-8146, Web site www.naiade.com).
On the Road
If you rent a car (about $70 per day), be aware that the roads are poorly marked, driving is on the left, and the traffic is unruly. You can get around easily by bus or taxi, or hire a guide through Mauritours (tel. 011-230-454-1667, fax 011-230-454-1682, Web site www.mauritours.net).
Read It and Leap
For high-seas adventure, read The Mauritius Command, by Patrick O"Brian, a novel about the English attempt to dislodge the French garrisons on Mauritius and Réunion. David Quammen combines travel writing with reporting on lost species and island ecosystems in The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. The best guidebooks are Lonely Planet"s Mauritius, Réunion & Seychelles, by Joseph Bindloss et al; Insight Guides" Mauritius, Réunion and Seychelles, by Emily Hatchwell; and The Dive Sites of Mauritius, by Alan Mountain.
See Mauritius Island On-Line at www. maurinet.com, Lonely Planet at www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/africa/mauritius, and www.mauritiusmagic.com. The Mauritius Scuba Diving Association lists operators at www.mauritius.net/diving/diving-list.html.
Banks and ATMs are available everywhere.
When to Go
The best weather is in winter (June through September). The best diving is from December through March; June through August are the prime surfing months; and the period from October through April is ideal for big-game fishing. Horse races take place on most Saturdays from May through November.