Mauritius is drenched in mysticism and mystique. Once a hangout for swashbuckling pirates, a magnet for fortune seekers and a haven for zoological oddities, it's still a place of hidden treasures, where legends and beliefs intertwine.
Many of the first settlers were sugar cane famers and the tradition of distilling rum lives on. Blessed with an abundance of exotic ingredients and a multicultural population who know exactly what to do with them, this is also an island where you dine exceedingly well. How do I know this? Leaving the delicious fare at my hotel behind, I sampled a few of the best inland bistros, rum distillery restaurants and street food stalls.
Island of pirates and parrots
The pirates and tall ships disappeared from the shores of Mauritius many years ago, but there are stashes of treasure to be found in the island's museums. As I wandered the wild beaches of the south, I got a strong sense that there might still be silver rupees cached among the rocks.
The giant tortoises with long necks and bald-headed, heavy-beaked dodos are long gone, too, but in recent years Mauritius has become a nature conservation hotspot. Hiking through the forested mountains of Black River Gorges National Park in the southwest, I caught glimpses of echo parakeets, birds which came close to going the way of the dodo, but were saved by a whisker. Their champion, Professor Carl Jones of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, recently won the 2016 Indianapolis Prize, sometimes dubbed the Nobel Prize of conservation.
A holy mountain and a sprinkling of candy-coloured temples
Legends linger on. Early one morning, I joined a guided hike up Le Morne Brabant, the distinctive mountain that perches at the island's southwestern tip like a ball on a soccer player's foot. It's said that in the 18th and 19th centuries, African slaves on the run from the sugar plantations used to take refuge in its caves.
On one fateful day, 1 February 1835, the resident runaways saw a party of police approaching. Terrified of being captured, they hurled themselves off the cliff. Tragically, however, the police weren't coming to punish them, but to declare that slavery had been abolished, and they were free. The mountain remains sacred to Mauritian Creoles to this day.
As you explore the island, you can't miss its Tamil temples, encrusted with effigies painted pink, blue, yellow and green. Mauritius has a higher proportion of Hindus than any other African country, and the highest percentage in the world after Nepal and India. I visited the island's most sacred site, Ganga Talao Lake at Grand Bassin, in the run-up to Maha Shivaratri, a time of pilgrimage and fasting. Under the gaze of a massive monument to Shiva, barefoot devotees scurried through the rain, carrying offerings of fruit, flowers and water into the temple to place at the feet of its holy statues.
The story of sugar
Sugar cane fields have been part of the landscape of Mauritius for centuries. The Dutch introduced the first plants from Java in the 1600s, and commercial rum distilleries opened in mid-1800s.
To learn how sugar is produced, I visited L'Aventure du Sucre, a lively museum where sounds, scents, and impressive arrays of equipment explain the refining process. Later, to learn more about rum, I made for La Rhumerie de Chamarel, one of the classiest distilleries.
Mauritius is one of the few countries to produce both traditional rum, made from molasses, and agricultural rum, made by distilling fresh, fermented sugar cane juice. At Chamarel, the cane is harvested by hand and the Master Blender selects the best of the crop to make uniquely aromatic rums.
In Mauritius, every distillery tour ends with a tasting featuring several blends, vintages, liqueurs and samples of rum arrangé (rum infused with fruit or spices). I quickly developed a taste for vanilla and tamarind.
Mauritians don't have a tradition of eating out - they prefer to entertain at home - but they love street food. In every town and at all the busiest beaches, I saw locals buying hot rotis and dhal puri (spicy stuffed wraps) from stalls. Thanks to tourism, the island also has some excellent restaurants - I had outstanding lunches at La Clef des Champs in Floreal and Yuzu in Port Louis.
Like the best wineries in Australia and California, several Mauritian sugar estates have become dining destinations, too, offering fine food created from local ingredients. I loved L'Alchimiste, the restaurant at La Rhumerie de Chamarel, for taking its mission seriously. Deciding to push the boat out, I chose a rum-inspired dish for every course, ending, naturally, with a rum baba. It was a triumph.