Learning > Travel

Isle of sun, sand and sugar

The Straits Times on 01 Oct 2017


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2,000km off the southeastern coast of Africa


While there are plenty of activities to keep water babies happy - the island boasts fantastic coral reefs for snorkelling and diving, fishing, surfing, dolphin swimming and some of the world's best kite-surfing spots - my brief trip to Mauritius earlier this year proved much less salty than, well, sweet.


For more than 300 years, sugar has played an inextricable role in the history, culture and economy of Mauritius, and almost every Mauritian on the island today can trace his ancestry to the people who were brought across the Indian Ocean, via slavery or indentured servitude, to work in the sugarcane fields.


To understand this history, visitors need only look inland.


From the tour bus, you can see fields of sugarcane, tall green stalks planted from the mountains to the sea.


There is no better place to learn about the country's bittersweet history of sugar than in L'Aventure du Sucre (www.aventuredusucre.com/en), a museum located in the old factory of the Beau Plan Sugar Estate, a former sugar mill that closed its doors in 1998 after 177 years of sugar production.


Using videos, photographs, interactive exhibits and antique machines, the museum shows how sugar is made, from harvesting to milling and refining, the cultural impact sugar had on the island and the history of the worldwide sugar trade.


It also hosts a rotating gallery of local art, such as an exhibition of photographs and watercolours of Mauritian scenes - fishermen pushing their boats out to sea, a triptych of a temple in Chinatown - which I enjoyed while I was there.


I was also deeply moved by a poignant gallery dedicated to the people who worked in the sugarcane fields. In the 18th century, the French hauled thousands of slaves from Africa and Madagascar to work.


After the British took over in 1810 and abolished slavery in 1835, plantation owners looked elsewhere, and over 450,000 men and women arrived as indentured servants from India and Pakistan by the end of the century.


Yellowed photographs of their faces were displayed next to passports or identification cards, and after learning about the intense process of sugar harvesting, it wasn't hard to imagine how difficult their lives would have been.


Today, their Indo-Mauritian descendants account for almost 70 per cent of the country's population.


At the end of the tour, visitors can savour a free tasting of more than 30 products in the museum's boutique, including oak barrel-aged rums from the New Grove House rummery, tropical fruit jams (the pineapple and banana jams are particularly delicious), chilli honey from nearby Rodrigues Island, known for its spicy chilli, and 12 types of unrefined sugar.


Mauritius produces some of the best demerara, muscovado and raw sugars in the world, and it exports more than 120,000 tonnes of the stuff to 40-odd destinations worldwide.


Forgoing the bowls of white and golden crystals, I went straight for the row of muscovado, which are caramel, cinnamon and chocolate coloured grains clumped fine and sticky like moist sand. Richer than gula melaka but lighter than molasses, the dark muscovado was spiced with a hint of bitterness and absolutely divine.


Visitors can also sample some of the sugars at Le Fangourin, the restaurant adjacent to the museum's boutique. Order a coffee and take a seat along the veranda, with views of the lush countryside and the Pieter Both Mountain in the distance.


After lunch, we explore the Mauritian landscape, which mostly comprises weathered peaks, river valleys and plateaus lined with excellent hiking trails.


One of the easiest trails is a 6km-return hike up Le Morne Brabant, a 556m basaltic monolith south-west of the island.


It is a legendary site, a symbol of resistance against slavery since the early 19th century when a group of escaped slaves are believed to have jumped to their deaths when they saw a group of soldiers making their way up the mountain. They chose suicide rather than return to slavery. What they did not know was that the soldiers were on their way to inform the community that slavery had ended.


A Unesco World Heritage Site since 2006, it is one of the most well-preserved mountains on the island. The forests along the trail are alive with bird song - the ever-present lilt and chatter of birds remains one of my favourite features of the country - and the habitat hosts a variety of endemic species, which our guide, Stephano Duc, 28, from Le Morne Heritage Trust Fund (www.lemorneheritage.org) points out along the way.


Though steep in places, the trail is wide and well marked. Most visitors can ascend to the main lookout point two-thirds of the way up the mountain within 11/2hours.


The last third of the climb along sheer rock face to the summit is more difficult, requiring all four limbs on the rock and holding onto iron guards in some places, and is best tackled with a guide.


But the views are spectacular, even from the lower lookout point. There, you are rewarded with a vista spanning across coral reefs, valleys and mountain sides.


Take enough water with you and do not forget to breathe deeply, absorbing what is arguably the country's best resource: fresh air. Thanks to its sugarcane fields, which make a fantastic carbon sink, Mauritian air is so clean that it has attracted the attention of Chinese businessmen, who have come and set up tea plantations and factories such as Kuan Fu Tea, which is known for its high-polyphenol and low-caffeine green, black and oolong tea.


The Chinese are not new arrivals to Mauritius. They immigrated by the thousands in the 1780s to work as blacksmiths, carpenters and tailors and formed a small Chinatown in Port Louis, the capital. Teeming with restaurants and shops, the colonial-era buildings are filthy with decades of grime and exhaust, yet remain somehow charismatic, cinematic even.


Street signs are in French and Chinese characters and, beneath a sign for Dr Sun Yat Sen Street, a noble black-and-white mosaic of the leader adorns the wall.


Is it an homage? A political statement? Either way, I find it charming.


In the nearby Central Market, one can see the influence of mixed cultures in full force. Asian produce, such as coriander, fresh noodles, taro leaves, coconut and bok choy, are complemented by stalls selling crusty baguettes and the Mauritians' favourite street food, dhal and roti puri, in the next.


For 12 rupees (50 Singapore cents), I pick up a dhal puri, a thin pancake made of ground lentils which is filled with vegetable chutney, dhal and curry then rolled into a log. Roti puris are often the same, except that the pancake is made of wheat. Both are delicious.


I follow the longest line to a stall just outside the market's main food hall, adjacent to the money-changer, which sells dhal puri with a delectably flaky pancake. I could see bits of dhal between the layers, the sauces were sharp with tang and spice, and the curry rich and flavourful.


Do as the locals do and wash it down with alouda, a lassi-like drink. It is made of milk, condensed milk, ice, vanilla ice cream and basil seeds.


But the Mauritians' drink of choice is rum, so no trip to the island would be complete without a visit to a local rummery. There are two kinds of rum, traditional rum which is distilled from molasses, and agricultural rum, a higher quality rum distilled from pure sugarcane juice.


La Rhumerie de Chamarel (www.rhumeriedechamarel.com) is one of the best of five agricultural rum distilleries on the island. Located in the mountains, it takes about 10 to 20 minutes to drive there.


Along the way, you can see purple orchids growing wild almost 1m tall by the roadside.


Be sure to stop at Chamarel's other highlights - the scenic Seven Cascades Waterfalls, and the famous Seven Coloured Earths, rainbow-coloured sand dunes naturally striped in shades of red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow - along the way.


Surrounded by glowing bougainvillea and emerald fields of sugarcane, the villa-style buildings of La Rhumerie de Chamarel appear in the mist-covered valley like a scene from a tropical romance.


It is one of the rare distilleries that grows its own sugarcane and harvests the cane by hand. Visitors can take a tour of the grounds to learn how rum is produced and view the stainless-steel and copper vats where the rum is distilled. Then take a seat in the courtyard and sample some of the excellent barrel-aged golden and white rums, as well as rums infused with local flavours such as vanilla, passion fruit, coconut and mandarin.


Clean, aromatic and dry, with nuanced tones of honey and spice, the premium and single-barrel aged rums are perfect for sipping on ice.


On my way home, I buy a bottle of Chamarel's gold rum, not ready to let go of those island flavours, the cool mountain air and the sweet taste of Mauritius.


• This trip was co-sponsored by Air Mauritius and Atout France.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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