As I nip up to Fort Adelaide, perched on Petite Montagne in Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital city, a chiaroscuro of landscapes open out before me. To my left sprawls the Caudan waterfront, brimming with elegant white cruisers moored on the Indian Ocean. To my right loom the brooding Moka mountains containing two of the island’s highest peaks: the bare-faced Pieter Both, and the knuckle-shaped Le Pouce whose forested foothills shield the rare screw pine.
The fort — now designated a national monument — was once the lookout point for all sea vessels coming into the island, while its secret tunnel helped the Mauritian army vanquish intruding enemies. “The fort was built by Indian and African slaves and is named after King William II’s wife,” the guide tells me as I perambulate its stony ramparts, accented by Moorish horseshoe arches and knobby surfaces blackened with time. An extensive renovation has infused new life into the building, making it a popular venue for concerts and plays.
Tour over, I quickly go down a mildly steep gradient, and I’m swallowed up by the hubbub of downtown Port Louis. Pronounced “Porlwee”, the city invites you to roam, and I heed its call. An intriguing mix of old and new, modern and medieval, the metropolis defies compartmentalisation. A jumble of French colonial buildings, mosques, temples, Chinese pagodas, cathedrals and skyscrapers peppers its landscape like confetti and the city remains a hymn to pluralism. Colonisation by the Dutch, French and British has resulted in a happy embrace of diverse cultures by its 1,50,000 residents. Dutch settlers, the first to arrive in 1638, named the city’s harbour Noordwester haven (Northwestern harbour). The French promptly named the entire city after King Louis XV in 1722. Commercial activity at the harbour intensified with the arrival of the French East India Company. Governor Bertrand-François Mahé de la Bourdonnais designated Port Louis as Mauritius’s capital in 1735 and developed it assiduously. However, during the latter half of the 18th century, the city fell into disrepute with a proliferation of opium dens and brothels. The dynamics changed with the arrival of the British in 1810, who transformed Port Louis into a global hub.
Today, Port Louis is a city with a personality. It is also Mauritius’ economic and political powerhouse, its most populous city as well as its wining and dining playground. Atmospheric eateries, Unesco World Heritage Sites and the world’s oldest horseracing track — the Champ de Mars Racecourse — add to its allure.
The vibrant Caudan Waterfront is the axis around which Port Louis spins. Glitzy boutiques, restaurants, cafes, bars, as well as breathtaking views over the harbour coalesce into one salubrious landscape. The commercialism is leavened somewhat by the presence of sculptors, painters, lamp makers, milliners at work in their studios, with curious passersby stopping for a purchase or to watch a creation-in-the-making.
Mauritius also has an entrenched tea drinking culture that goes back to its British days. Shops and tea boutiques are ubiquitous, selling mindboggling varieties of teas and infusions. Tea N Spices, a charming boutique, is an Alibaba’s cave of aromatic teas, seasonings, herbs and spice blends. Mauritian teas are increasingly finding their way into global chefs’ kitchens. Spurred by my enthusiasm, the manager shares the recipe of ‘black tea tiger prawns’; a bisque made with tea, finely chopped onions, butter and parsley, all simmered in fresh cream and drizzled over perfectly grilled prawns!
For lunch, I gravitate towards Le Courtyard restaurant, in the heart of Port Louis. The eatery serves French fare with a Mauritian twist. There’s perch grilled with tandoori spices, salmon and scallop carpaccio, and foie gras with crème de cassis reduction and an avocado salsa, teamed with a selection of excellent wines. Lunch over, I pop into the quirky Blue Penny Museum, another Port Louis landmark, which showcases rare historical stamps dating back to 1847. Antique marine maps, paintings, sculptures, engravings, and stamps are all a part of the museum’s smorgasbord.
However, nothing defines Port Louis as much as the World Heritage site of Apravasi Ghat. Located on the scenic Trou Fanfaron Bay, it is the city’s most significant landmark, housing the remains of an immigration depot from where modern indentured labour diaspora emerged in the 19th century. With its stellar role in the island’s social history, almost 70 per cent of Mauritians can trace their roots back to the ghat.
The exquisite Jummah Mosque lies just across the Ghat. Silhouetted against a burnished copper evening sky, it is resonating with the muezzin’s full-throated call to prayer when I get there. Mauritius’s most important Muslim shrine, it dates back to the 1850s and also houses the remains of Jamal Shah, a seer from Kutch in India, in a marble tomb. A fusion of Indian, Creole and Islamic architectures, the mosque is, perhaps, the most potent symbol of an inclusive country where people celebrate each others’ differences and draw strength from that uniqueness.
Horses and tea rooms
The world’s oldest horseracing track — the Champ de Mars Racecourse — is in Port Louis.
Mauritius has a very active tea-drinking culture. At Tea N Spices, a charming boutique, you’ll even come across recipes such as black tea tiger prawns — made with tea, finely chopped onions, butter and parsley.