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There are moments on the horse trails of La Vieille Cheminée, on Mauritius, when it feels like you’re riding through a thick, green tunnel. All kinds of wondrous and strange things thrive in the volcanic soil of this Indian Ocean island, 700 miles east of Madagascar. Many can only be found there, like the tambalacoque, a leafy tree whose seeds, it is said, must be eaten and excreted by a specific bird before they can germinate. For millennia, that bird was the dodo—so you can understand why the tambalacoque itself came close to extinction. Just in time, Mauritians discovered that imported wild turkeys could do the job just as well.
I am a shaky horseman at best, and worried that the aggressive foliage might just sweep me from the saddle. My companions didn’t flinch. The sisters Alicia and Harriet Rountree and their friend Robert de Spéville, whose father owns La Vieille Cheminée, come from old Mauritian families. This background, I discovered, entails spending large chunks of your youth on horseback, so all three are seasoned riders. “Gallop?” suggested Robert. Harriet answered by flicking her horse’s rump with her riding crop, and off they went, racing through the vines at a furious clip.
Alicia and I caught up with them ten minutes later, in a clearing high on a hill. Spéville brings a lot of people to this spot, and for good reason: From it, you can see across the forested Black River valley, all the way to the jagged peaks of the island’s southwestern coast. To the left you can just make out Le Morne, an otherworldly hump of volcanic basalt jutting out into a clear blue lagoon. It is a breathtaking sight, and the four of us paused for a few moments and just gaped.
The Indian Ocean is known for the extraordinary rocks that popped up millions of years ago, hundreds of miles from anywhere else. The Seychelles, for one, has become a solid fixture on the American itinerary of fabulous, hard-to-reach places. Mauritius, not so much. The French visit more than anyone else—they used to run the place and still dominate it socially and, to an extent, culturally—as do Germans and the British. But Americans are thin on the ground among the island’s 1.4 million yearly visitors.
That’s a shame. Mauritius, or l’Île Maurice, to give it the French name its residents still use, is an overlooked jewel. The island’s natural bounty has helped it become well-off and stable (economists sometimes refer to the “Mauritius Miracle”). Moreover, its varied and harmonious peoples, some originally brought there against their will, others attracted by the island’s good fortune, have made today’s Mauritius an advertisement for diversity that works. It’s a welcome message in times like these. I wrote not long ago about a grand Paris hotel that had imported a Mauritian general manager. He had been recruited, he told me, because Mauritians are known to be generally sweet-tempered—which is not something many people say about Parisians. As I explored the island last winter—it was balmy summer there—I found telltale signs that niceness is actively cultivated. I mean the part about signs literally. Driving back to the One&Only Le Saint Géran hotel, where I was staying, placards with inspirational messages printed on them kept popping up at random along the winding roads. SPEAK KINDLY & GENTLY, advised one. HELP EVER, HURT NEVER, said another. While it is easy to doubt the practical effect of these oversized Hallmark cards, they do tell you something about what counts around here.
One&Only Le Saint Géran holds down a prime spot on the Belle Mare coast, in the northeast of the island. From the spit of land jutting into the sea, beachgoers can gaze in two directions: out over the tall palms toward the blue-glass ocean or, should that get tedious, over the lagoon toward the mountains. A brightly colored Hindu temple glitters from across a small inlet. There’s close to a mile of white sand available, and even with the hotel in full swing, it never comes close to filling up. The story goes that Sol Kerzner, One&Only’s developer, was making an island flyover in his helicopter when he noticed this spot, pointed down, and said, “There.” When I visited, the hotel had just been thoroughly renovated. Rooms had been enlarged and more suites created; many overlook the beach just outside the big picture windows, which almost makes the sumptuous landscape part of the decor.
The island’s broadest and calmest beaches are found along its eastern coast, and not surprisingly, so are many of its prime hotels. Unlike Le Saint Géran, the Four Seasons Resort Mauritius at Anahita—an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property—feels like a quiet seaside village, with 136 private villas spread across 64 acres—including, as of this year, an adjacent island reached by a long wooden bridge. Instead of expansive views, what you get is the solitude of a nature preserve, with fruit bats dipping in and out of the mangroves at dusk. (Do not be alarmed: Fruit bats are graceful, lovely things and not remotely creepy.)
If you have a hankering for a big beach, Four Seasons recently developed one a short hop away by speedboat on the Île aux Cerfs, or Deer Island, which has the pristine white sand that’s missing from the mangrove wetlands across the lagoon. It’s a hike from one part of the hotel to the other, but the staff is happy to ferry you on the aforementioned boat or come fetch you in an electric buggy. Summon it if you like, but it’s much more fun to get around by bicycle. The hotel’s four restaurants are clustered around a small lagoon, and with the evening lights lit and the moon up, it’s a pretty dreamy spot.
To extract the full flavor of the island’s melting pot, you’ve got to drive to the western coast and its capital city of Port Louis. This is where the tribes that have arrived during the past 400 years mingle most intimately. The unpopulated island was discovered around a.d. 900 by the Arabs and again in 1498 by the Portuguese, but neither group stuck around. The Dutch were the first settlers to put down roots. They took possession in 1598, gave the island its name, and in 1638 sent settlers who introduced sugarcane from their colony on Java, in what is now Indonesia. They also introduced rats, pigs, and monkeys, who ended up eating all the dodo eggs, among other awful things. When the Dutch all moved to Cape Town in 1710, they left Mauritius worse off than it was when they found it.
The French, who claimed the island in 1715, arrived in 1721 and stayed, mostly to counter British ambitions in India. It’s why the local Creole language is a kind of French hybrid (a snail, in Creole, is a kourpa—from the French court-pas, or “doesn’t run”). Next came slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique to work the sugarcane fields that by then blanketed the island.
In 1810, the French, facing more numerous British forces in the region, surrendered the island—this despite notching one of France’s rare victories over the British at sea. But if the British ran the administration until Mauritian independence in 1968, the local French aristocracy still controlled pretty much everything else. The island’s Indian population arrived as contract laborers to work the cane fields after England abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1835. Muslim Indian and Chinese merchants followed them, and these communities still dominate commerce on the island.
Descendants of these far-flung peoples all cluster in the narrow streets of Port Louis, which today has the feeling of a peaceable kingdom of faiths. A mosque built by Tamil stonecutters in the style of a Hindu temple sits a few blocks from a shrine to Kwanthi, the Taoist deity of merchants. The religious festivals that fill the streets are boisterous, varied, and frequent, and the Mauritian calendar is overstocked with national holidays.
As with faith, so with snacking. Port Louis is one of the world’s great streetfood cities. It makes for a wonderful walking tour, especially around lunchtime. I toured the streets with Yianna Amodine, a young Mauritian woman who writes novels and children’s books and who is devoted to promoting Mauritian culture through her work as a guide with an outfitter called My Moris.
We started with a dhol puri, the ubiquitous Mauritian snack. It’s a pancake made of yellow split peas and filled with a bean curry. We moved on to gateaux piments, another staple: deep-fried balls made of yellow split peas, now mixed with onion, turmeric, and chili. For dessert, we stopped at a Chinese bakery for bean cakes—the Mauritian version is made of black lentils.
Along the way, we stopped at a traditional Indian grocery, which happened to be owned and run by Amodine’s father. He pressed more delicacies on us than we could reasonably carry. “I wanted to take over the grocery and modernize it,” she told me. “My father said no, he didn’t want to change a thing.”
And yet change looms over the island nonetheless. Sugarcane remains the lifeblood of Mauritius—I could smell its sticky, molasses-infused smoke as I drove by the big Omnicane processing plant near Mahebourg, on the southeastern coast. If the island remains sparsely developed and the tourist footprint relatively light, it is because much of it is still given over to sugarcane and the people who cultivate it.
No one can say precisely when this will end, but end it will, and everybody on the island knows it. In 2017, the European Union ended its sugarcane quotas, which had helped keep prices high. It has become impossible for this small island to compete against powerhouses like Brazil and Thailand. “Sugar cane here is dead,” said Javed Vayid, a nightlife impresario who organizes big, don’t-miss parties at the island’s fancier hotels (google his name to find out if he’s throwing one when you go). “Everybody’s looking for other ways to invest. Fortunately, tourism is one of them.”
In the early 1990s, Robert de Spéville’s father, also named Robert, bought the land he’d showed me around on horseback. For ten years, the Spévilles tried to cultivate sugarcane on it. “We had to give up—the prices weren’t high enough,” Robert the younger told me. Instead, the family expanded its personal riding stable into a cluster of cottages. “We began taking other Mauritians on rides to cover our expenses. Then a few people started asking if they could stay over, so we built six guest cottages. In the past year or two we’ve had a lot of visitors, people who want to leave the beaten path. Now we’re working to add more cottages.”
While the Spévilles’ plantations are relatively small, the Rountrees are real sugarcane aristocracy here, with big holdings on the southern end of the island. Alicia Rountree drove me to Bel Air, the family’s plantation manor, built in 1825 in the local French-colonial style with a wide veranda out front flanked by two gables. Alicia’s brother Michael runs the family operation now, and he was kind enough to let me ride around the plantation on the big John Deere cane cutter, with its multiple whirring blades for stripping off the leaves and channeling the stalks into a kind of internal wood chipper.
But even the Rountrees are looking toward a future beyond sugarcane. Down the road is a fairytale cottage their great-grandfather built on the cliffs overlooking the island’s wildest surf. The family is planning to make this a rental property for tourists. Demand will not be a problem: It is simply one of the most romantic spots on earth. The house is made from the island’s black basalt, which is almost never done anymore—the basalt is too hard to work. It sits among a series of lily ponds and a spring-fed swimming pool, with a tangly jungle at its back. Work on the cottage just started, with a view to welcoming guests in 2021. I have already informed the Rountrees that I’m claiming pole position as the first one.
The Rountrees’ cottage is just up the coast from the energy vortex of Riambel, one of several such places around the world where, it is said, magnetic energy swirls in a kind of crazy spiral. Let me be clear: I have no idea what any of what I just said means. But there are people—many people, in fact— who believe that the energy released on this spot can clear your spiritual sinuses and generally make you right as rain. The vortex itself isn’t much to look at—a circle of stones marking the spot, and a handful of meditation huts. “I’m calm, are you calm?” Alicia asked me after our 20-minute meditation session. “Yep, I’m calm,” I said. And I was, too. Calmer than I would have been after a hot bath? Tough call.
It’s a short drive from the vortex to Le Morne, which I had already admired from afar. This 1,824-foot-high basalt monolith is a unesco World Heritage site and carries great symbolic weight for Mauritian people. Runaway slaves took refuge there in the early 19th century; upon the emancipation of 1835, troops were sent by the island’s British administrators to inform them that they were officially free. Before they could deliver the good news, it is said, hundreds of slaves, fearing recapture, had already leaped to their deaths from the summit.
But Le Morne doesn’t need a backstory for its beauty to stick in your memory. The whole area around the mountain is, to my mind, the most striking place on the island. I had a privileged viewing spot the second time I saw it: just above Agathe Desvaux de Marigny’s hunting lodge (the original Dutch settlers also brought deer to the island from Java, and hunting remains a Mauritian passion).
Agathe Desvaux inherited much of what I could see upon her father’s death, but hunting’s not her thing; she’d much rather turn her inheritance into a showcase for Mauritian culture. On August 23, 2018 (the date celebrates the abolition of the slave trade), she organized her first music festival in a geodesic bandshell she had built near the foot of Le Morne. The Nou Le Morne Festival is now a yearly fixture.
The festival brings global musicians to join forces with masters of the local music tradition, known as Sega. African slaves devised Sega’s lilting 6/8 rhythms, but like so much else on Mauritius, Sega has commingled joyfully with everything else in its path—polkas, waltzes, reggae, ragas, you name it. “I want the spirit of the village to express itself,” Desvaux told me.
Desvaux has yet bigger plans for her land. She has joined forces with Nomadic Resorts, an ecotourism specialist that has built cocoon-like tents on Sri Lanka and organic gardens in the Maldives. The plan for Nou, Le Morne, as Desvaux’s development is called, will include luxury tree houses and private villas but, above all, an ongoing engagement with the neighboring villages. That seems only right for this history-filled island. Lately, history has been picking up speed. Now is a good time to catch it on the wing.