TROU D'EAU DOUCE, Mauritius — There it was, a single bare footprint on a beach of white sand--and it was mine!
I was alone, wandering along this deserted beach through carpets of pine needles and piles of broken coral while the rest of the world seemed a million miles away.
I didn't need to look for Man Friday, because there wasn't one. Instead, around the next bay, stood--could it be possible?--a brown-skinned chef in a gleaming white apron and stovepipe hat, awaiting us by a barbecue set up under the sheltering palms.
It's at times like this that you know you're either hallucinating or you've come pretty close to perfection. Luckily it was the second option . . . and just another surprise in a whole list of delightful oddities that make Mauritius different from your normal get-away-from-it-all holiday.
Our leader strummed his guitar and sang catchy Creole songs to get us in the mood while the chef with his two assistants worked behind a table groaning with chicken, salads, fresh crayfish and tiny rock oysters.
With our picnic came wine, beer and a special island cocktail laced with enough rum to make one see double.
Mauritius islanders live for today, for now. They're a heady but peaceful mix of Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, African and European, and their native tongue doesn't conjugate anything in the future or the past.
On this classic coral island, the palms are alive with yellow cardinal canaries, red-tufted weavers and noisy Indian mynahs.
If you travel on a package with Sun International, the water sports will be free. Which means you can hire mask and flippers for nothing, and will be taken out to the reef in a glass-bottom boat to spend lazy hours exploring the maze of undersea coral formations peopled by brilliantly colored fish. Or you can try water skiing and windsurfing, with free lessons from instructors determined to get you up, up and away.
During two weeks we didn't see a newspaper, listen to a radio or watch TV. All that belonged to another world far away in another hemisphere.
Hotels such as Le Touessrok, the Saint Geran and La Pirogue have their own private beaches patrolled by guards, where the high spot of the day is lunch under tiny thatched roofs.
Mauritius boasts a fleet of model ships. Hundreds of them. It's one of the major industries on the island (along with sugar cane and tourism) and famous worldwide.
The galleons, hand-carved out of teak and camphor wood, are works of art, exquisite reproductions of 16th- and 17th-Century tall ships that sailed by here on their way south.
At the Comajora Workshop in the town of Curepipe, 150 skilled craftsmen and women work full time on models varying from 18 inches to five feet, each taking at least 450 hours to make.
Vacationers are impressed by the enormous variety of treasures yielded by the sea: pink shells, conches, shark's teeth and turtle shells. Made into necklaces and bracelets, they're in souvenir shops on every corner of the capital, Port Louis, and the tourist attraction of Curepipe in the center of the island.
Blowfish make do as spiky lamp shades. Other handicrafts include baskets, embroidered tablecloths, blouses and saris. The current fashion rage is a cotton sarong.
Mark Twain, who left his own literary footprint on Mauritius, said that "God modeled heaven on Mauritius . . ." and who am I to argue with that?
Mauritius is a tropical island, so arrive prepared. The basic list should include anti-mosquito coils or repellents. Band-Aids, antiseptic cream and anti-histamine tablets for reaction to stings or bites. Also include strong barrier sun creams.
One recommended extra: plastic sandals for wading out to and on the reef. The coral is rough, and sea urchins have taken a liking to these faraway beaches, too.