A volcanic island with dazzling beaches and turquoise waters, Mauritius is a dream holiday destination with a fascinating past. In 1968, the island became independent from Britain and its first prime minister - Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam - was elected.
2018 marks the 50th year since it gained independence and, to celebrate, I took a closer look at what makes it so unique.
More than meets the eye
Mauritius is famous for its luxury hotels and resorts but there's so much more to discover here, from its multi-ethnic population and world-class windsurfing to safe lagoons and creative cuisine. Here are ten things that make this sun-drenched island so special:
Uninhabited until 1598, Mauritius developed some of the world's rarest plants and animals, like the dodo. The Dutch arrived in the 1500s and introduced sugar cane, which was developed into a thriving industry by the French, who settled here in the 1700s and took slaves from Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique. The British conquered Mauritius in 1810 and abolished slavery in 1835. Indian labourers arrived to fill the work gap, followed by Chinese traders.
Mauritius gained independence in 1968 and, after 15 years of hard work, achieved economic and political stability. To reduce dependency on sugar cane exports, they diversified into textiles, banking, business outsourcing and luxury tourism. A huge success story, Mauritius now has one of the most competitive economies in Africa.
Today, you can see everything from dodo bones to the island's earliest maps at the National History Museum, or visit colonial plantations like St Aubin and learn about exploration and settlement at the Blue Penny Museum. The capital, Port Louis, has historic buildings and an ancient market; Lion Mountain in the southeast overlooks Vieux Grand Port where the British and French once battled; and Le Morne Brabant mountain in the southwest was a former refuge for runaway slaves.
Centuries of settlement, slavery and migrant workers have created the island's diverse African, Indian, Chinese and French heritage. You'll notice this multi-ethnic mix in everything from language and religion to architecture and music.
Spice markets burst with exotic fragrances, eclectic music plays throughout the island, and crumbling colonial buildings sit next to colourful Hindu temples. English is the official language but most Mauritians are multilingual, speaking French, Mauritian Creole, Chinese and other Asian languages like Hindi, Bhojpuri and Urdu. Hinduism is the most popular religion, followed by Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.
The island's diversity is also reflected in its cuisine, which you can taste in gourmet restaurants and five-star hotels, as well as beachside shacks and street-food stalls. From "crème brûlee" to Creole barbecues, the nation's dishes have been inspired by centuries-worth of settlers.
Fresh seafood is a forte, with daily catches hauled-in from the Indian Ocean. Local favourites like marlin, parrot fish and octopus are used in everything from Mauritian salads and Indian curries, to Creole "rougaille" (spicy tomato stew), Chinese dim sum and fish "vindaye" (Mauritian curried fish).
Street food stalls let you taste lots of flavours without breaking the bank. "Dhal puri" (split peas, pickled vegetables and bean curry in flatbread) and "roti chaud" (flatbread with curry sauce and meat or fish fillings) are absolute musts, along with taro root fritters and "gateaux piments" (deep-fried lentil and chilli balls).
Smooth and sweet, Mauritian rum is the island's top tipple, and can be enjoyed neat, with a mixer, or blended with local pineapple and coconut in a pina colada. The Rum Shed at Shanti Maurice Resort has more than 180 types, or you could visit the Rhumerie de Chamarel in the southwest for a distillery tour.
Soft sands and safe swimming
The island's powdery sands are an obvious attraction for holidaymakers. Many beaches have the added advantage of calm lagoons for safe swimming and snorkelling, thanks to the protective reef that surrounds Mauritius.
The north coast has the biggest variety of beaches, with lots of activities and amenities – you could spend your days windsurfing, fishing or parasailing, and your evenings in trendy beach bars or shore-side restaurants. Trou aux Biches (great for snorkelling), Mont Choisy (quieter on weekdays), Pereybere (tasty food stalls) and Grand Bay (good for watersports) are among the most popular.
The less developed east coast has some of the most glamorous beaches, with whiter sands, wilder backdrops and fewer crowds. Sought-after spots include Blue Bay (crystal clear waters), Belle Mare (one of the island's longest) and the beaches of Ile aux Cerfs (a popular island with talcum-white sands).
The southern coast has tall cliffs and dramatic waves, with top beach spots like St Felix (beautiful colours), Riviere des Galets (stunning views) and Gris Gris (crashing waves), while Le Morne on the southwest tip is a world-class kitesurf spot.
The golden west coast beaches are best for sunset. Flic en Flac is one of the most popular, with its family-friendly lagoon, while Tamarin can be good for surfing and bodyboarding.
While you could visit Mauritius on any budget, the island is best known for its high-end hotels and resorts. Infinity pools, fine-dining restaurants and impeccable service are the norm, while top-notch escapes offer on-site watersports, world-class spas and cutting-edge design.
Stunning hotels and resorts are found throughout the island but the northern tip has the widest range. Here, Hotel 20 degrees Sud in Grand Baie includes the option of gourmet dinner cruises and private suppers on the abandoned island of Île Plate.
There are lots of options on the west coast too, like the award-winning Oberoi in Turtle Bay Marine Park, which boasts four national monuments and has access to six hundred metres of white sand. The Angsana Balaclava Mauritius is another west coast favourite, with its "romance concierge" and one of the best spas in Mauritius.
The south and east coasts are more peaceful, with super-luxury resorts but fewer amenities beyond them. Shangri-La's Le Touessrok Resort and Spa in the east has access to four beaches and a private island, Ilot Mangenie, that's reserved for guests only. In the south, SO Sofitel Mauritius is the ultimate hideaway with a moated restaurant and exceptional spa.
World-class wind sports
Mauritius has some of the world's best conditions for kitesurfing and windsurfing. Le Morne in the southwest in the number one spot. Here, you can kite or windsurf in a safe, flat-water lagoon, play on the waves or set sail on a downwinder, all from the same beach. For experienced wave sailors, Manawa and One Eye await. The main wind season is June to September, when the breeze blows 18 to 35 knots every day.
On no-wind days, there's a full range of other watersports to get involved in, from stand-up paddle-boarding and swimming with dolphins, to deep sea fishing (October-April), surfing (June-August), jet skiing, parasailing and more.
Surrounded by coral reef
Mauritius is surrounded by one of the world's largest coral reefs – the Saya Del Malha. This makes it one of the best places on the planet for scuba diving and snorkelling, with shipwrecks, shark safaris, coral gardens and drop offs.
You can choose between more than 100 dive sites, with depths that range from 7 meters to 45. Blue Bay Marine Park on the south coast has incredible corals and swarming fish; the island's wrecks are home to eels and rays; and drift divers at La Passe Saint Jacques are in with a chance of seeing bull shark and barracuda. For the clearest, calmest waters, visit between November and May.
Panoramic mountain hikes
A volcanic landmass with mountainous terrain, the island-wide hiking trails and climbs give panoramic views. In the southwest, Black River Gorges National Park has some of the best, with mapped routes that lead past endemic ebony trees, colourful birdlife and Mauritian flying foxes. Nearby, you could climb Le Morne mountain for breathtaking vistas.
In central Mauritius, the Moka Mountains are home to two of the highest peaks: Pieter Both (820m) and Le Pouce (812m), which Charles Darwin once climbed. Further south is the island's highest mountain, Little Black River Peak (828m), which has both easier and more challenging routes to the top. For the best trekking weather, visit between June and September.
Once roamed by the dodo, the island's unique flora and fauna helped put Mauritius on the map. While several species are now extinct, the island still boasts endemic wildlife and around 700 species of indigenous plants. The national flower, Trochetia boutoniana, only grows on Le Morne Brabant, and Mauritius claims to have saved more bird species from near extinction than any other country.
The south is the best place to see Mauritian wildlife, particularly on Île aux Aigrettes – an island reserve off the southeast coast. Here, the forests, wild orchids, giant tortoises and pink pigeons are reminiscent of what Mauritius was once like.
A short hop from the mainland lies a scattering of off-shore islets. Île aux Cerfs on the east coast is both a popular holiday base and a daytrip destination, with sandy beaches and a beautiful lagoon, along with five-star hotels, top-notch restaurants and an 18-hole golf course. Further north, Îlot Gabriel and Flat Island have glittering sands and great snorkelling, while Amber Island in the northeast has wild mangroves, deserted beaches and hidden ruins.
If you're feeling more adventurous, the tiny island of Rodrigues is a 90-minute flight from Mauritius. A complete contrast to the mainland, this eco-paradise has lush forests, giant tortoises and secluded beaches. With one main town and an African-Creole vibe, it's the ultimate escape from everyday life. The scuba diving is excellent too.
A glittering island in the Indian Ocean, there really is nowhere else quite like Mauritius. Multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual and multicultural, it's inspiring how peaceful and successful it's become. Whether you're here for the food and beaches or the watersports and wildlife, Mauritius delivers it all with impeccable service. Here's to the next 50 years of independence!