Idyllic Beaches and Rocky Crags
10.15.2009 - 10.17.2009 77 °F
When we sailed into Port Louis, we were all eager for calm white beaches and rocky mountain crags. Caroline and I knew we were going to exhaust everyone if we didn't slow down for a few days, and this proudly independent but once Dutch, then French, then British island was just the place to land.
Most of the people we met were, like most Mauritians, of Indian descent, their ancestors indentured servants imported by the British to work the sugar cane fields. After a century of French colonial rule ended during the Napoleonic Wars, the British had more than a century and a half to put their imprint on the island. But how strange that French and French patois remain the language of daily life today, English merely the official language of government and education. If you wanted to talk with your cab driver or ask directions or order food, French was a more comfortable language for most islanders to speak. Caroline and I kept remarking on the close resemblances to the French-speaking but English-educating island of Saint Lucia, except that Mauritius is more like Trinidad in having more people of Indian than African descent.
The kids insisted: this stop's one and only theme was to be the beach. However interesting to mom and dad might be the Hindu-Muslim-Christian mingling and tolerance, the Indian-African-Chinese-European mix in food and language and architecture, however friendly and safe and intriguing the towns and cities, this wasn't the place not for cultural enrichment, let alone museums or mosques or churches. Sand and sun and water. So our first day we took a water taxi (i.e., a seemingly-about-to-sink-but-overpriced-boat) to the harbor, and from there another taxi up the northwest coast to Mont Choisy, a gorgeous spot. It's the stuff that dreams and screen savers are made of: a crescent shaped-beach lined with casuarina trees and lapped by turquoise water.
The boys swam and played football and "worked" on their fantasy football leagues all day, while Caroline and I swam and read in the shade. Just a short way out to sea, along the coral reef that rings the island, I was able, my goggles strapped on, to follow rainbow coalitions of fish. There were no hotels, no stores, no restaurants. But we survived. We ate whole pineapples, small enough to be peeled and carved on the spot, as well as Indian food sold from a bicycle-mounted food stall. In the afternoon the boys slurped up ice cream cones. Doesn't Cy look miserable?
I'd been planning a hike for our second day. I thought the boys would love the views and the challenge. We were to make our way up Le Pouce, a mountain that looks just like a thumbs up--appropriately enough, given the island's pleasures. But, alas, fate intervened. Eli bruised his heel on the beech the day before, maybe stepping hard on a rock or a piece of coral, and was ambivalent about taking the hike. So very reluctantly, papa was prevailed upon to give up on communing with the mountains and wood nymphs. Instead, we directed the taxi to the botanical gardens and the sugar museum.
Why should there be a sugar museum? In the last century, the island was almost completely covered in sugar cane, and still today, most of its arable land is in cane.
The museum was stuffed, in all candor, with boringly excessive detail, though the sugar tasting at the end was intriguing--boy heaven, the many varieties of sugar, from fine dessert sugar to molasses. That said, the botanical gardens were delightful, especially for the varieties of palm tree on display--squat ones and pineapplish ones and fanlike ones and, of course, the tall ones known as royal palms.
The water lilies are astoundingly large, their leaves looking like saucers or trays that grow up to 2 meters wide. Cy was tempted to float away on one.
Our beloved indoor allamanda plant at home has island cousins that thrive outdoors in all seasons.
The gangly-rooted rubber trees made us laugh.
And we got to see a massive tortoise taking a deep drink of water as we left.
After lunch in a fabulous Chinese restaurant, we spent a few hours in the town's central market. The frenzy of people buying and selling Hindu candles was intense, because the next day would see Divali, a major festival of lights. The market was so crowded that I failed to squeeze my camera out of my bag for a single picture of the city. Sorry.
Since our abortive hike day was a disappointment, it was all the more welcome that our third and last day was exhilarating. We took a taxi all the way from one end of the island to the other so that we could snorkel in a special protected area, Blue Bay. Here's the spot we claimed at the secluded end the beach.
The snorkeling was stupendous. Almost as surprising as the underwater treasures was Cy's heroic overcoming of his face-in-water phobia.
Lured by the sight of thousands of fish seemingly of all colors and shapes, Cy kept going back for more. He and Eli called "the forest" the vast expanses of coral teeming with fish that they kept exploring. To me it looked more like deer antlers stacked by the hundreds. An elated Eli did the most snorkeling of us all.
I took the older boys out to where we floated over massive brain coral and fan coral, valleys and mountains of sea life. Caroline and I also took a couple of deep water swims. We saw blue black fish with bottle noses, massive schools of intensely yellow fish with black stripes, fish trailing long comical cords over their heads. You'd follow a school squirming below you and then suddenly realize you were inside a cloud of blue-striped fish, some nibbling at your toes. As if the dazzling underwater sights weren't enough, when you came up, you could scarcely believe the beauty of the ocean with the strip of breakers way out, an island across the bay, some puffy clouds ballooning in the sky.
The rocks strewn on the sand seemed so freshly volcanic that you could almost imagine the lava cooling the day before.
Twain quoted someone as saying that first Mauritius was made, and then heaven was made in its image. You can see why.
Having patiently waited for us all day, our taxi driver, Gaetan, returned us safely back to the ship with a last cross-island drive, all of us in high spirits.
During dinner in the ship's aft, we kept gazing at the tooth-like peaks and crags and valleys behind Port Louis, trying to take it all in one last time.
With nightfall, we set sail, sad to be leaving just as we were becoming acquainted with this lovely island, bracing ourselves for the next day's teaching. We were full of plans for a return trip, if we should ever be fortunate enough to land again on this idyllic isle with its welcoming multiculture, dazzling underwater reefs, and thrusting volcanic peaks.