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History, culture and things to do in Mauritius

Kieran Meeke / 21 February 2017

The very name “Mauritius” conjures up images of exotic beaches and sunshine, even if most of us could not find it on a map. If you want to know more, here’s the first of our guides to this tropical paradise.

The island if Mauritius from above
The very name “Mauritius” conjures up images of exotic beaches and sunshine. Here’s our guide to history, culture and things to do in Mauritius.

Where is Mauritius?

Mauritius sits just east of Madagascar in the India Ocean, but much closer to Africa than India. Although officially a small group of islands, the largest is also called Mauritius and is where most visitors stay, so that is usually where we mean when we say “Mauritius”.

The other islands are Rodrigues, Agaléga, Saint Brandon, Tromelin and the Chagos Archipelago, whose ownership is disputed with Britain.

A refreshing blend of different cultures, Mauritius is a warm, inviting island with a heart of gold… discover Mauritius for yourself.

Why go to Mauritius?

Mauritius, which is about the size of Leicestershire, is protected by the world’s third-largest coral reef and has some of Africa’s – if not the world’s – best beaches. Its remote setting and lack of other resources has made tourism an important part of the economy and visitors are warmly welcomed to a large variety of luxury resorts.

Besides guaranteed sunshine, those white-sand beaches and lush tropical interior, it has an attractive blend of African, Asian and European influences that together produce great food and a fascinating culture.

When to go to Mauritius?

A tropical Indian Ocean climate makes Mauritius warm all year round. Being in the southern hemisphere means seasons are inverted from UK, so October to April is the peak time for European visitors chasing winter sun.

Summers, between January and March, are very hot with the risk of cyclones. The local “winter” peaks in July and August, when you might need a light sweater in the evenings.

If there is a best time to visit, it’s from May to September, when temperatures are cooler, mosquitoes fewer and room rates drop.

Where to go in Mauritius?

The best beaches, and hence most popular resorts, are in the north. The quieter east coast has some equally good beaches but offers a more exclusive option.

The west coast is preferred by families for its shallower, calmer waters and is also good for kite surfing and diving.

The wilder southern coast has fewer beaches and its unspoilt character makes it popular with couples wanting a greener experiences such as a quiet spa break.

During the local summer, the north can be overbearingly hot but east coast resorts enjoy cooling trade winds. The north and west coast are good choices during the high winter season when they are more sheltered.

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Mauritian culture, language and religion

Mauritius has three languages in common use, Mauritian Creole, French and English, with many people speaking all three as well as their own ancestral language.

Creole is based on a mix of African and Asia languages, with a French influence. It developed a way for African slaves with differing native languages to communicate with each other as well as their French masters.

It is now a recognised indigenous language, with similarities to that in other neighbouring Indian Ocean islands.

Newspapers and TV, however, are often in French although there are English, Chinese and Hindi papers and magazines. English is the official language of the parliament, and widely spoken in hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations.

Bhojpuri, the language of the Bhojpuri region of northern India, is spoken by many of the island’s Indian majority at home. The dominance of Bollywood films locally also means many people, not just in the Indian community, also understand at least some Hindi.

Slightly over half the population is Hindu, with Roman Catholics making up another quarter. There are also other Christian sects, while other religions include Islam (15 per cent) and a very small number of Buddhists.

The biggest Chinese influence is on Mauritian cuisine. They introduced rice as a staple of the local diet and fried noodles are almost a national dish. There are Chinese restaurants throughout the island, popular for family celebrations.

However, the basis of local food was laid down by the French although it has been heavily modified by the large Indian community and the use of local ingredient.

You can see the fusion in dishes such as fish vindaye, whose roots could be a French bouillabaisse or an Indian vindaloo but is delicious either way.

One strong French influence is on manners. It’s the norm to exchange a “Bonjour” in a shop before doing any business. On leaving, a friendly “Bonne journee” (Have a good day) is also expected.

A brief history of Mauritius

Arab sailors discovered the islands but it was the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to land in the early 16th century.

However, there was no permanent settlement until the Dutch landed in 1598 and named Mauritius after Prince Maurice of Nassau. They introduced sugar cane and the colony survived until 1710, when the Dutch moved to South Africa.

In 1715, the French renamed the island “Isle de France” and established Port Louis, named after King Louis XV. Bringing in slaves from Africa to work the sugar fields, their colony also served as a base to harass British ships on the route to and from India.

The British eventually invaded Mauritius in 1810 but allowed the French settlers to preserve their language and culture. Slavery was abolished in 1835, leading to an influx of around 500,000 indentured Indians to work in the sugar estates.

Mauritius became independent in 1968 under a British parliamentary system with the Queen as head of state. In 1992, it was declared a republic.

Who are the Mauritians?

The present population of the islands is around two-thirds of Indian origin with the other third being Afro-Mauritians, known locally as Creoles. That rough split hides the five per cent of the population who are of Chinese or European (French) origin.

The island’s history established hierarchies that now blur but are still recognisable. Franco-Mauritians, who owned the sugar estates, still dominate business and white-collar jobs.

Creoles, once all field workers, are now teachers or civil servants etc as well but also hold many of the manual jobs outside agriculture, where the South Asians were brought in to replace them after slavery was abolished.

The Chinese first arrived in the late 1700s as skilled labourers but later moved into self-owned businesses. Sino-Mauritians have a near-monopoly on retail shops and many larger firms in the wholesale and import-export trade are also Chinese owned.

However, intermarriage is common and younger Mauritians commonly speak Creole rather than the language of their older relatives.

Sega Dance

The African heritage of Mauritius is apparent in this national dance, which combines drums, songs, colourful costumes and hip-swaying dance.

With origins on Madagascar and the African mainland, European forms such as polka or quadrille have also influenced it. One distinctive key element is that the feet never leave the ground – worth bearing in mind if you have a go yourself.

The music was traditionally percussive – drums and a triangle, for example – but electric guitars and keyboards are often now used. It is also increasingly blended with genres such as reggae (known as “seggae”) and jazz.

Once the music of slaves, and still sung in Creole, sega’s lyrics are often laments about personal life but political issues are also popular.

Most hotels put on a weekly show, as do many restaurants, so you won’t have to go far in Mauritius to see sega.

Going Green

A small island with a large number of tourists is inevitably going to face environmental issues, and Mauritius has responded with a “Maurice Ile Durable” (MID) initiative.

This “green” plan tackles everything from waste management to noise pollution, taking in such things as water resources and electricity consumption.

Rather than recycling, for example, people are encouraged to re-use or not throw out household goods. Less visible are such projects as public works to modernise the sewage system and the development of entire eco-villages.

Flying In

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, which most people call Mauritius Airport for some reason, is in the southeast of Mauritius some 30 miles from the capital Port Louis.

A world-class new terminal opened at the end of 2013 that is capable of handling four times the current annual arrivals of just over a million passengers. In 2015, it was voted “Best Airport in Africa”.

Most hotels have airport shuttles but a number of local taxi companies can be booked online. They also offer tours on the way to the coastal resorts.

Best Beaches in Mauritius

Picking the best beach in Mauritius is a difficult task, given the wide choice. One of the clear favourite is Trou aux Biches on the north coast, whose clear, shallow waters are ideal for swimming and snorkelling. It’s lined with cafés, restaurants and street food stalls.

Flic en Flac on the west coast stands out for its white sands and clear water. It’s a wonderful setting to watch the sunset while sipping a cocktail in one of the many bars.

Belle Mare in the east is another powder-white beach, with lots of water sports and a top golf course behind it.

Travel advice for Mauritius

There is a slight risk of cyclones between November to May but your hotel will warn you of any approaching. Often, they just bring unusually heavy rain.

Some burglars have targeted tourist villas but the risk is low if you take sensible precautions such as locking valuables away.

Ocean currents, trade winds and mountains give the island a climate where it can be raining on one part of the island, yet sunny close by. It’s worth packing some light rain gear and taking it with you on outings.

However the biggest danger in Mauritius is over-exposure to the African sun, particularly at the height of summer.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.