Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius is every bit as charming as you would expect from such a pretty little tropical island.
Port Louis is quaint, just historic enough, but yet also small enough for you to wander around on foot, soaking up the hustle and bustle - but not too much hustle and bustle. This is a holiday island, after all.
Port Louis sits between the peak known as Signal Hill and the sea, and as good a place as any to begin exploring is at Le Caudan Waterfront. When the waterfront opened in the late 1990s, it was a source of much amazement, containing as it did possibly the first escalator in the country. People from small villages in the interior of Mauritius came just to have a look at the escalator.
Now it has become a popular and well-established social, shopping and business, hub with its mix of cafes, shops, galleries, office space , a top-class five-star hotel and the impressive Blue Penny Museum. This is far and away the island’s most up-to-date and interactive museum, featuring the iconic stamp that has made Mauritius so famous in the world of philately.
Leaving the waterfront and the Indian Ocean behind you, turn round and take in the view of Port Louis. It really is spectacular. An avenue of old palm trees leads up Intendance to Government House, where Queen Victoria gazes out over the orderly traffic, neat gardens and the solid 19th-century colonial era buildings built out of the island’s trademark volcanic rock.
Turn right out of Intendance, and walk the short distance to the Mauritius Institute, a charming completely old-fashioned national museum - in the way (sadly) very few museums still are these days. Slightly dusty displays of shells and fish and coral, all displayed in reassuringly solid-looking wooden display cabinets and, best of all, the star of the Museum and the emblem of the island, a dodo.
The last time I visited the museum I was told very politely that I couldn’t take picture of the dodo. When I asked why, the man smiled and said he had no idea, it was just a rather silly regulation and why didn’t I go ahead and take a picture all the same.
It’s that kind of place.
Next door to the Mauritius Institute are the Company Gardens, a haven of peace and cool greenery in the capital city. Banyan trees with their long, trailing tendrils, the colonial era bandstand, and statues of serious looking British dignitaries, all give these pretty little gardens a delightfully timeless feeling.
From the Company Gardens, walk a few streets further away from the sea, towards the hills and you will come to the city’s St Louis Cathedral, surrounded by some elegant surviving colonial bungalows.
Cross back across Intendance (ask if you get lost, you couldn’t meet friendlier people than Mauritians) and visit the iconic Central Market. Wander through remarkably clean cobbled alley-ways, between stalls selling a huge variety of fruit and vegetables, some familiar and some completely unfamiliar – the delightful varieties that are found only on the island.
One of the main arteries of the city is Route Royale, or Royal Street. The architecture of this street is typical of the old-fashioned heart of Port Louis, with strong wooden doors leading into the cool, dark, cavernous shops, the street bordered by deep storm drains, to handle the rain that lashes the country during cyclones. Potter in and out of these slightly sleepy looking shops, that sell an eclectic variety of merchandise – marbles, silks, electronic goods, knitting wool, padlocks – you name it, these old-fashioned emporia will have it. All along the streets there are vendors selling clothes, food, fruit, and during office lunch hours the streets in the city centre are abuzz with workers eating and shopping.
Walking along Route Royale gives you a flavour of the cultural diversity that makes this country so charming. Next to the impressive white and pistachio green Jummah mosque is an archway announcing the beginning of Chinatown. This is the part of town to head for if you want good, reasonably priced authentic Chinese food.
If you are in Port Louis during the winter horseracing season, you are in for a treat. Head to the charming little racecourse called Champ de Mars, and witness a country completely obsessed with horses and racing. Surrounded by hills on one side and a bustling Chinese temple on the other, and with a view of the Indian Ocean beyond, you couldn’t wish for a more picturesque setting in which to have a flutter. The city comes to a standstill, everybody heads for the racecourse, food stalls are set up and an afternoon of fun and good-natured shouting and cheering ensues.