Text Graham Wood Photographs Patrick Toselli It’s the sensory impressions that lodge in the mind. My most vivid memory of my trip to Mauritius isn’t the white beach and the turquoise sea. It isn’t even an image. It’s a scent. The leaves of the cinnamon tree, when crushed, smell like cloves. It’s a scent that fills the air at intervals all over the island. I remember driving though an avenue of these trees along one of the narrow, winding roads with the car windows open. Suddenly, my head was filled with the scent of cloves and the contradictory knowledge that it came from cinnamon trees. Certain sensory impressions become exaggerated on the Indian Ocean island, like the intensity of the colours – especially of the subtropical flowers, the emerald fields of sugar cane, the elaborate decorations of the Tamil temples. Others seem to sneak in unnoticed: the rustling and clacking of the wind in the palm trees, the drone of mopeds, the way that the coral washed up on the beaches clinks underfoot like porcelain, the texture of Mauritius’ black, porous volcanic rock. Some are more like casual observations: the faded billboards in the small villages, the flat concrete roofs of the houses (to resist cyclones), the black-gloved traffic cops and the skinny, Anubis-faced dogs. Everywhere I went I found myself trying to name the island’s subtropical plants: frangipani, yellow-trumpeted allamanda, bougainvillea, hibiscus, red flamboyants, Crinum mauritianum… Mauritius is about more than impressions, though. It has a fascinating history and unique character. It was an important stop on the trade route between East and West before the Suez Canal was built. Over the centuries the island was colonised by the Dutch, taken over by the French,and eventually lost to the English in the Napoleonic wars. It remained an English colony until its independence in 1968. Slaves, labourers and immigrants came from India, China, Africa, France and England. The people are a rainbow mixture – a model of how various cultures can live together peacefully, blending their languages into a French-based Creole while maintaining important cultural differences. An islander is reported to have said to Mark Twain in 1896: ‘Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.’ Sometimes it seems like more of earth should be copied from it. I took every opportunity to explore the diverse sights and sounds of the island. I shuffled through the labyrinthine market of Mauritius’ biggest city ,Port Louis, taking in the array of spices, vanilla pods, coconut milk, pineapple and green mango salad… and strange-looking fruit like christophene and jackfruit from Madagascar. Inland, I visited the last of the preserved natural vegetation on the mountaintops at Domaine de L’Etoile nature reserve (cieletnature. com). I saw the restored Victorian manor house of a sugar baron, the Chateau de Labourdonnais (unchateaudanslanature. com),where I tasted vanilla rum and strolled through the private orchards. Air Mauritius flew me by helicopter over the fields, through the mountains and along the coastline, where we could see the coral ree fthat circles the island and shelters the beaches. And I spent hours in the botanical gardens – the oldest in the southern hemisphere. Its calming acres are the perfect place for a quiet escape. The famous giant water lilies are covered in coins; flip one onto a leaf and make a wish. There are all sorts of statistical and scientific reasons to visit, but its lush tropical beauty and manicured grounds are all the excuse you need. Don’t leave without splashing the strangely water-repellent leaves of the lotus plant, sacred to the Buddhists – water slides off them like quicksilver. I brought almost nothing back in the way of mementoes from Mauritius ,but find myself revisiting moments startlingly often. Whenever I see pineapples – the island’s ubiquitous l’ananas – I remember my morning at Grand Baie, the Saint Tropez of Mauritius, on the beach, eating pineapples that had been carved into spirals and rolled in pimento spice. I have no doubt that if I were to return to Mauritius a decade from now, it wouldbe impossible to leave without trying another of the spiced l’ananas. And of course, I’ll confuse cloves and cinnamon forever.
HL flew to Mauritius courtesy of Air Mauritius, which flies daily direct from Joburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, and twice weekly from Cape Town and Durban’s King Shaka International Airports. HL’s helicopter flip was also courtesy of Air Mauritius. Visit airmauritius.com. This article was originally featured in the December 2011 issue of House and Leisure.