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A Little Piece of Paradise, Half a World Away : Off Africa, the Island of Mauritius Blends Many Cultures and Lush, Simple Beauty

April 04, 1993|JACK GOLDFARB | Goldfarb is a New York free-lance writer.

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius — I am jogging barefoot along the crescent of a golden beach on the tropical island of Mauritius. Not a soul is in sight for miles. Early morning sunbeams dance on the radiant, crystal-blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Feathery casuarina trees ruffle in the daybreak breeze. On the horizon, craggy green-mantled mountains plunge abruptly into the sea.

In a waterside grove of lofty palms I stop and listen to the breathless silence intruded on only by the muted roll of the surf surging against the outlying reef. Emerging again onto the sweeping curve of sandy shore, I look up to see two misty iridescent arcs--a double rainbow--bridging sea and sky. I am all but overwhelmed by the idyllic beauty of the scene. It remains an indelible memory.

My love of Mauritius, a coral-ringed island 1,200 miles east of the African continent, 2,300 miles southwest of India and nearly 4,000 miles west of Australia, puts me in good company. Such questing travelers as Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and Charles Baudelaire had visions of Eden here. Darwin, who visited many of the world's most exotic locales, expressed it this way: "How pleasant it would be to pass one's life in such quiet abodes."

Off well-worn tourist routes and rarely in the news, Mauritius is so little-known that international postal services often misdirect its mail to the sun-baked post boxes of Mauritania, in the wilds of the Sahara.

Though most travelers reach Mauritius from Europe or the Far East, our roundabout route took us from New York via the Ivory Coast down to South Africa. There, where we visited my wife's family, Mauritius' charms have long been known, the island being a popular escape destination, easily accessible from Johannesburg. To Adam, our 8-year-old son, the prospect of going to a tiny, hard-to-pronouce dot in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean was exciting enough.

The four-hour flight from Johannesburg on South African Airways landed us in Mauritius after dark, so the lush beauty of the landscape had to wait for discovery until morning. At our hotel, La Pirogue (booked in New York), in the western coastal area of Flic-en-Flac (marvelous name!), a jovial porter with a flashlight led us through the humid darkness to our rustic palm-thatched cottage, a cowrie shell's toss from the shore.

Though some visitors to Mauritius prefer switching accommodations to enjoy more of the diverse terrain, we spent our entire week based at La Pirogue; its laid-back friendliness, uncrowded beach and gratifying menus amply suited our style. For the more gregarious, the hotel offered nightly dancing and even a casino, a redoubt successfully breached by Adam, who came up with modest one-armed bandit winnings before the management discovered his youthful presence.

We tailored our own tours, informally viewing the island's attractions by rented car, avoiding hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus rides. On our drives past the lagoons and creeks of the north coast, long stretches of white sand on the eastern side, and criss-crossing the 720-square-mile island, we never felt this was just another picturesque tropical paradise. Here, we encountered a remarkable mosaic of peoples of an ethnic mix that reflected the kaleidoscopic pattern of Mauritian history. The melange of Indian, Chinese, African and European ancestry has flowered into a population of striking physical beauty.

Although Arab and Swahili voyagers of ancient times are said to have discovered Mauritius, when Portuguese explorers waded ashore in 1510 they found no natives to embrace or chase them. Far more interested in reaching the opulent spice lands of the East, the Portuguese went on their way, leaving no mark except a pinpoint on their sailing charts that they called Cirne--for swan. With no such birds on the island, the choice of name remains a mystery.

Ninety years later, when the Dutch showed up, the island was still uninhabited except for vast flocks of plumpish, clumsy birds that couldn't fly or run away fast enough to escape the barbecue-minded sailors. The Hollanders called the birds doudo , meaning "stupid," and feasted on the hap- less fowl so voraciously that within 50 years, the dodo bird, as it came to be known, became extinct.

The Dutch named the islands in honor of their sovereign, Prince Maurits of Nassau, and entrenched themselves for two centuries, lucratively exporting shiploads of ebony and sugar cane. When the ravaged ebony forests finally vanished, the Dutch hoisted anchor and sailed away. Aside from the island's name, the Hollanders left one most important legacy. Sugar cane, which they originally brought from Java and planted here, is Mauritius' most vital crop today and its major foreign exchange earner.

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