Mauritius' azure lagoons, flying-fox haunted rainforests, tall tumbling waterfalls and mountain peaks rising from the oceanic waters of deepest Africa must have seemed like a lost "Garden of Eden" to the first explorers, and the island has been stirring the hearts of travellers ever since.
Following his visit in 1896, legendary American writer Mark Twain effused:
"Mauritius was made first and then heaven, heaven being copied after Mauritius."
Half a century since it became independent from the UK, the remote Indian Ocean island has capitalised on its incredible natural bounty and moulded itself into one of the world's most alluring holiday spots. Its natural treasures remain blissfully intact, though they are now more accessible to travellers than ever before thanks to an abundance of local resorts and adventure activity specialists offering everything from guided hikes and scuba-diving to zip-lining and electric bike tours.
What better way to celebrate 50 years of independence than with a visit to the island's seemingly-timeless beauty spots and natural attractions?
Life's a beach
Mauritius is encircled by more than 100 miles of white sandy beaches from wide slices of sand offering a variety of watersports in the north to wilder cliff-backed beaches in the south. Palm-tufted d casuarina shaded Trou-aux-Biches in the north-west district of Pamplemousses is one of the most idyllic beaches on the island, while Le Morne, Flic en Flac, Belle Mare and Blue Bay are also lauded for their beauty. In the east beaches gently shelve into swirling blue reef-protected lagoons, while the popular sun-baked beaches of the west obviously offer the best vantage point for sunset sipping on a freshly-opened coconut and a soothing swim at the end of the day.
A giant natural playground spanning 40 miles long and 30 miles wide, Mauritius is perfect if you're an outdoorsy adventurous type. One of its chief attractions is Chamarel Waterfall in the hilly hamlet of Black River or "Riviere Noire" to the southwest of the island. No mere trickle, this is a dramatic single-drop cascade with water tumbling over a precipitous plateau to a plunge pool 100 metres below and accessed via a stunning tropical ravine.
Not far from the falls, a geologic anomaly has created a natural wonder not-to-be-missed on the Chamarel plains. The Seven Coloured Earths, "Terres de Sept Couleurs," is a group of rainbow-streaked hills that appear to have been painted in stripes. Made from seven different vivid-hued sands that have been pressed together, the unique landscape is enclosed by verdant forests, and visitors who venture this way have the added bonus of meeting the Aldabra tortoises that congregate in the area.
Emerging from the ocean in volcanic cataclysm more than 8 million years ago, Mauritius rises in a broken ring of blackened peaks half-clothed in forest, that appear like the spikes of a fossilized stegosaurus with moss creeping up its flanks and deep dark ravines between its resting limbs.
Once a direct portal into earth's firey heart, today life thrives where lava once bubbled and the centre of the volcano has moved away beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. One of the best ways to see the resulting paradise is from the top, and probably the best way to get there is under your own steam on a guided trek. Le Rampart is one of the island's most impressive peaks, while Pieter Both Mountain is topped by a massive boulder that resembles a human head.
In the south-western reaches of the island, Le Morne Peninsula is crowned by Le Morne Brabant mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that makes for an invigorating climb accessible to tourists. For a climactic experience, get an extra dose of adrenalin by hitting the zip-line across a precipitous canyon. If you want to scale Mauritius' celestial heights without a steep hike, you can book a helicopter tour with Air Mauritius to see the island's amazing topography from the sky.
Appearing from above like a shimmering jewel dropped into a swirling palette of blues, Mauritius is just as beautiful below the surface of the water. Its steep slopes give way to turquoise lagoons sheltered by the world's third largest reef with coral heads, reef walls, sea grass fields and shallow sand banks attracting myriad marine life including giant turtles and rays. All this makes Mauritius a world-class diving spot where you can get turtle-y immersed in a natural work of art including indigo fanning corals, electric-coloured fish and even, if you're lucky, a manta ray ballet.
Freak or unique
Sitting in splendid isolation off the coast of east Africa, Mauritius' remoteness has led to the evolution of a unique ecosystem and endemic wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Among its strange inhabitants was the world-famous and now-extinct Dodo, a giant flightless bird that evolved in the absence of big land-based predators but did not survive the island's colonial conquests.
Giant tortoises and flying foxes still haunt the grounds and canopies of the island's native forests in Black River Gorges National Park, in deep pockets of the Bambous Mountain Range and around remote mountain peaks such as Le Morne Brabant. A microcosm of its exotic fauna can be seen at the historic Pamplemousse Botanical Garden.
Jam and toast
With so many enchanting places and natural marvels not-to-be-missed, it's little wonder Mauritius has a reputation for winning traveller's hearts. Leaving the island can feel like being cast out of Eden. Before you go, soften the blow by raising a glass to 50 years of independence at the island's most scenic spots.
Trou-aux-Biches in the north-west may be one of the best places in the world for a scenic sunset cocktail, and it's also the birthplace of tourism on the island where the first major resort was built in 1971 after Mauritius gained independence in 1968. Alternatively, the hamlet of Black River has won fans for its high-quality rum, good food and charming authentic vibe where you can chill with locals away from the swanky resorts.