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The capital of the island of Mauritius is a town full of character and slightly faded elegance, set prettily within an amphitheatre of mountains at the midpoint of the western coastline. Port Louis is a noisy, bustling town with a charm all of its own.
Reminiscent of its multi-faceted colonial history, the city boasts some fine French buildings dating from the 18th century, both an Anglican and a Catholic cathedral, a mosque, and a fortified citadel, known as Fort Adelaide. The fort is the best place from which to enjoy a panoramic view of the town, harbour, and famous racecourse (which was once a French military parade ground, and became the first racecourse in the southern hemisphere).
It may be the capital, but Port Louis is not home to the vast majority of Mauritians; the main residential areas are in the cooler, wetter highlands inland. However, Port Louis is the gateway to the prime beaches and resorts of the Mauritian coast, including Flic en Flac and Grand Baie. Although the reason most people visit Mauritius is for sun and sea, the capital city has some interesting museums and entertaining excursions to offer for those who choose to make it their base for exploring the rest of the island.
The diversity of the Mauritian population is never more obvious than during a visit to the lively, bustling and colourful Central Market in Port Louis, accessed from Farquhar Street, near the harbour. When you enter take note of the intricate ironwork on the gates, erected in 1844, and dedicated to Queen Victoria. Inside the market you will find a whirl of Muslim traders, swarthy Indian touts, Chinese and Creoles, all demanding attention as they offer their wares. You can buy almost anything in the market including fresh produce, clothes, crafts, art and souvenirs. Textiles, carved wooden figurines, essential oils and spices are all good buys. It is advisable to visit the market early, before the heat of the day descends (it opens at 6am every day including Sundays), and be prepared to have your senses assailed with a variety of odours from the fruit, herbs, spices, potions, lotions and various other goods offered for sale. Visitors will be expected to haggle and should be firm but friendly; as many of the stalls sell the same merchandise it is always a good idea to compare prices before settling. Tourists are generally charged far more than locals and having a local friend along is a big asset.
The lively Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis features the Blue Penny Museum, which is primarily devoted to Mauritian art and history, but whose place of pride is given to two of the rarest stamps in the world: the Mauritian 1847 'Post Office' Penny Red and Twopence Blue, estimated to be worth more than US$1 million apiece. Mauritius was the fifth country in the world to begin issuing postage stamps, back in 1847, and some of the few remaining early island stamps are now highly valued around the world. The museum is run by the Mauritius Commercial Bank, which formed a consortium of local companies to purchase the stamps at an auction in Switzerland in 1993, and bring them home for posterity. The originals are housed in the museum but are not always on display; for preservation purposes the Blue Penny Museum also displays replicas. There is a gift shop at the museum which sells all sorts of souvenirs - the shop has some wonderful merchandise but it is relatively expensive. Tours of the museum are available and take between 30 and 90 minutes. It is a small museum and is not interactive or particularly exciting but it is well-organised and has some fascinating exhibits for visitors interested in artefacts of this sort.
About seven miles (11km) northeast of Port Louis, and easily reached by regular buses, lies one of the island's premier tourist attractions, the Pamplemousses Gardens (now officially called the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens, in honour of the late Prime Minister, but still colloquially referred to by their original name). The gardens are enclosed by beautiful wrought iron railings which are today in disrepair but when first manufactured in 1862 won a prize at an international exhibition at Crystal Palace in London. The gardens were first laid out in 1735 around a mansion house called Mon Plaisir as a vegetable garden to supply ships calling at Port Louis. Later the house was bought by horticulturalist Pierre Poivre, who introduced plant species from around the world interspersed with indigenous species.
The garden is redolent with the perfume of fruit and spice trees, and the 24 hectares (60 acres) also sport a collection of stately palms, ebony, mahogony, latania and pandanus. A great attraction is a pond full of the Giant Amazon water lily. There are some animals in the gardens, including giant tortoises. There are usually guides available to give informative tours of the gardens for those who are interested, but it is also just a charming place to stroll or picnic, particularly on hot days when the shade and greenery is refreshing.
Port Louis boasts some fantastic attractions to keep tourists off the beaches, offering lots to see and do away from the sand and sea.
One of the most popular spots to visit is the Champs de Mars racecourse, which is one of the oldest in the world, having celebrated its first race in 1812. A day at the horse races is wonderful fun when staying in Port Louis.
The Blue Penny Museum is the cultural and historical highlight of the Caudan Waterfront and contains two of the oldest and rarest postage stamps in the world; this attraction will only be of interest to serious culture vultures, but it is a well-organised and interesting attraction.
The town also offers a plethora of shopping opportunities, including malls, street-side shops, and vendors, as well as bustling markets. Within the crush of the busy Port Louis Central Market, visitors can buy all sorts of treasures, making it a definite win for shopaholics.
A stroll and picnic in the Royal Botanical Gardens of Pamplemousses is also something to do in town, and there are some worthwhile inland excursions from the city, like a trip to the old sugar cane estate of Domaine Les Pailles.
And then, of course, there are the beaches. The tourist hubs of Grand Baie and Flic en Flac, with their long white beaches, calm waters, and coral reefs are close to Port Louis and are a great favourite with visitors.
Travellers in Port Louis will find themselves getting around a lot of the town by foot, as none of the distances are too great. Taxis are readily available and efficient, and are easily recognisable by their yellow signs. Car rental agencies such as Hertz can be found throughout the town for visitors wanting to explore the island themselves.
The beaches of Mauritius are close to perfect, with fine white sand and clear water running to heavenly shades of blue. Some of the island's best beaches, on the west coast, are easily reached from Port Louis. Flic en Flac is the longest beach in Mauritius and features a beautiful lagoon. Grand Baie, 12 miles (20km) to the north of the capital, is a major tourist centre, offering watersports, shops, nightlife, and restaurants to complement its splendid beach and deep sheltered bay. Also on the north coast road is Pereybere, one of the island's favoured swimming spots. Close to Pereybere visitors can find the gorgeous little beach, La Cuvette, which is a weekend favourite with locals. The Baie du Tamarin is at the mouth of the Tamarin River, in a beautiful setting, and is popular for surfing, with Indian Ocean rollers washing the beach all year round. In the southwest is Le Morne Brabant, characterised by a basaltic outcrop and beaches shaded by casuarinas and coconut trees. Snorkellers enjoy Trou-aux-Biches which has shallow waters and coral reefs. On the peaceful east coast of the island you'll find Constance Belle Mare Plage, a long stretch of beach which is ideal for watching sunrises and sunsets. Another east coast favourite is Roche Noires, named for the dramatic black volcanic rocks that line the water. The east coast is great for sailing.
A short taxi ride to the south of Port Louis is the Domaine Les Pailles cultural centre and nature park, covering more than 1,500 hectares (3,707 acres) in the foothills of the Moka Mountains and offering plenty of entertainment for visitors. The centre was once a sugar cane estate and some of the 18th-century features can still be seen. Activities include horse-drawn carriage and train rides, viewing a working replica of an ox-powered sugar mill, a rum distillery museum, exploring a herb garden and natural spring, and adventure safaris into the mountains in 4x4 vehicles. There is also an onsite horse riding centre, several restaurants, a jazz club and a casino. The centre is a wonderful excursion for families travelling in Mauritius with children; the perfect place to enjoy a long, drawn-out meal while the children scamper all over the lovely grounds. Visitors should note, however, that Domaine Les Pailles doesn't always offer all the tours and activities listed above, especially outside of the peak tourist season. It is best to phone ahead to find out what's on offer at any given time, and to see which of the four restaurants are open, to avoid disappointment. The drive from Port Louis to the estate takes only ten minutes.
The small island of Ile aux Cerfs (Stag Island), off the east coast of Mauritius, is one of the country's most popular tourist destinations, managed by the adjacent Touessrok Hotel, but open to the public. The island, featuring splendid tropical vegetation and encircled by magnificent sandy beaches, can be reached by boat from the small fishing village of Trou d'eau Douce. The boat trip only takes about 15 minutes. The island is equipped with a number of bars, restaurant, and shops, as well as watersports facilities including parasailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, and glass bottomed boat trips. There is also a coral reef and lagoon which are perfect for snorkelling. The recent, and somewhat controversial, development on the island is an 18-hole Bernhard Langer designed championship golf course, which affords a sea view from each hole and promises the novelty of hitting a tee-shot over a natural sea inlet onto the fairway. Although there are many activities on offer, it is also possible to just wander along the idyllic beaches and enjoy sunbathing, swimming, and picnicking. The beach near the landing jetty is usually quite crowded but a short stroll will reveal more secluded slices of paradise.
Situated in the southwest of the island, the Black River Gorges National Park is a popular spot for picnics, hiking and scenic drives. The park encompasses thick pine forests, gorges and rugged mountains and is a sanctuary for local flora and fauna. In fact, the park protects much of the island's remaining rainforest and some of Mauritius's endemic species, including the Mauritian flying fox. Bird-watchers will love the park and should look out for the Mauritius kestrel, the green echo parakeet and the Mauritius cuckoo shrike. The park's Chamarel Waterfalls are the highest in Mauritius at 83m (270ft) and are best seen after heavy rains. The best viewpoints are at the Alexandria Falls or the Black River Gorges viewpoint. Cars cannot enter much of the park, which has been designed primarily for walkers, with 37 miles (60km) of hiking trails. Cars can be safely left in the car park though. Trails vary in length and difficulty and there are two visitor centres where tourists can get maps and advice. There are usually souvenir and snack stands at the popular viewing points, but the best way to enjoy the park is to come prepared with a packed picnic and enjoy one of the lovely picnic spots.
La Vanille Reserve des Mascareigne is a nature reserve in the unspoilt south of Mauritius, best known for its thousands of crocodiles and giant tortoises, which they are helping reintroduce to the island of Rodrigues. Reptiles in the park include Nile crocodiles, iguanas, caimans, geckos, chameleons, and tortoises, and there are also monkeys, bats, mongooses, wild boars, and some domestic farm animals for children to meet. The park boasts a huge population of butterflies and an insectarium as well. Many of the animals are kept in enclosures and cages, making it more of a zoo than a nature reserve, but the animals seem well cared for and the breeding programmes are for conservation purposes. The enormous tortoises, which roam freely, are a highlight, and kids can ride and feed them. The vegetation in the park is lush and there is some interesting flora to investigate, and plenty of shade. Guides are available to show visitors around and give information on the various animals. There is a children's playground area, a shop selling souvenirs (including crocodile skin products), and a restaurant which serves crocodile steak, among other things. La Vanille Reserve des Mascareigne is a wonderful attraction for families visiting Mauritius.
The small seaside resort of Souillac is situated along the rugged coast in the southern Savanne district. The appeal of Souillac lies in its scenery, as it is not a bathing spot. In striking contrast to the soft curves of the northern coastline, the high cliffs here drop abruptly to the sea to face the bracing winds of the Indian Ocean, which seem to blows all year round. The dramatic Gris-Gris cliffs are constantly smashed by waves (they are called the weeping cliffs - Roche qui Pleure - as a result) and tourists flock to the area to enjoy the rugged coastline. Souillac developed around, and was named after, the port built by the French, which gave the area strategic importance. Later, the English also relied heavily upon the port for the transport of trade goods, but after the introduction of railways to the island, in about 1877, the port gradually went into decline. Places of interest in Souillac for tourists include the Telfair Garden, which is wonderful for picnics, the old port area, the Gris-Gris cliffs, and the beautiful Rochester Falls. There are some great restaurants in the town and good accommodation for visitors. Souillac is special because it allows visitors to experience a different, wilder side of Mauritius.
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