“Incredible!” You are from New York?!” boomed Willy Van Damme, a friendly Belgian restauranteur and former soldier of fortune who lived in the sleepy resort town of Péreybere. “Very rare! We get almost no Americans—only French, South Africans, some Germans, English, and the odd Italian.” At a snap of Willy’s fingers, an Indian waiter with a smart Nehru jacket and an ingratiating smile darted over and poured my Phoenix beer. Sitar music twanged mystically in the background. With a cavalier wave of the hand, Willy added, “Perhaps then you’ve heard of my half brother?” A dramatic pause followed. “Mr. Jean-Claude Van Damme!”
What was this place? I wondered. Bollywood?
In Following the Equator (1897), Mark Twain wrote, “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then Heaven; and that Heaven was copied after Mauritius.” If so then the blueprints for paradise lie east of Eden, west of Waikiki, and about 500 miles off the coast of Madagascar—on a harmonious multiethnic “paradise lost” many Americans probably can’t find on a map.
One of the most densely populated areas in the world, but with the highest standard of living in Africa, the 720-square-mile reef-fringed island in the Indian Ocean hosts a bevy of beaches and a cultural mélange of Indians, Chinese, Africans, Europeans, and Creoles. Despite its proverbial Babel of imported tongues, English is the official language, while the everyday lingua franca is Mauricyen (a patois of French Creole similar to Haitian).
Mauritius (“Maurice” in French) was known to 10th-century Arab traders as Dinarobin before the arrival of the Portuguese (1510), Dutch (1598), French (1715), and British (1810). In 1968, the Mauritian “George Washington,” Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam, helped Mauritius gain its independence.
It was the Dutch who named the island for their Prince Maurice of Nassau. They also introduced the sugarcane that covers 90 percent of arable land. Nowadays, sugar is one of the country’s leading exports, with manufacturing and tourism rounding out the economy. When I first arrived at the airport, I thought I’d landed in one gigantic sugarcane plantation. But the memories inspired by sugar here are more bitter than sweet. After the abolition of slavery in 1835, conscript laborers from India arrived, and today they make up nearly two-thirds of the population of a little over a million. Periodically I’d bus past cairns of lava boulders looking like mini Mayan pyramids and interrupting the cane fields—testimony to the backbreaking labor responsible for clearing the plantations. Cane is still machete-hacked by hand.
Deciding on digs is a spectator sport. Where would I stay? There was the ultra-exclusive resort Le Touessrok, whose architect Maurice Giraud succeeded in building his “Playground of the Gods”—a safe haven for the affluent, complete with a mock Bridge of Sighs, Venetian-style footbridges, and its own private isle. Across from Le Touessrok, the idyllic Ile aux Cerfs (Island of the Deer) offered herds of wild Java deer and deserted coves ideal for nude sunbathing.
Strapped for cash, though, I found the budget mecca of Péyrebere to be a good runner-up.
In the lazy days that followed, I bused it all over the island (the best and cheapest way to get around), taking in the white sand beaches, amber waves of cane, and mocha-colored mountains.
Most nights I hung out at Péyrebere’s popular Indian bar, where a band of dreadlocked Hindus played Michael Jackson and UB40 covers note for note. Here Ranjan, a deep-sea fisherman, told me of Diwali (Festival of Lights), the upcoming holiday “You will enjoy Diwali. Don’t miss it.” Added an expatriate Brit married to a local Tamil woman, “Mauritius is unique: People of different religions celebrate each other’s holidays.”