Mauritius defies its rugged history
There's something particularly shaming about being invited by a great-grandmother to shake my booty and being found wanting.
Even when she places her gnarled hands on my hips and energetically wiggles them for me, I can't manage the fluid movements that seem to come so naturally to her old joints.
It seems best to back stiffly out of the circle and return to watching – she's having enough fun for the both of us.
So she should: she and her friends are picnicking under trees alongside a beautiful beach, out on one of the regular jaunts that we are told are provided free for the senior citizens of Mauritius.
Clearly, this island is a good place to be old – or any age at all, judging by the happy children we see, and the friendly smiles of everyone else. National cheerfulness is just one of the things that make it such a rewarding destination.
Located on the far side of the Indian Ocean, relatively close to Madagascar, Mauritius is perfectly placed for a relaxing and fascinating halfway stop-off to Europe, or a short-cut to South Africa.
This prime position on the trading routes is the reason for its lively history, which also has a dark side. The laboriously built pyramids of volcanic stones scattered through the sugar-cane fields are inescapable reminders of the slavery that underpinned the island's economy for many years.
So, too, is the sheer-sided basalt outcrop towering over the dancing ladies which, thanks to a tragic misunderstanding in 1835, is a symbol of resistance to the descendants of slaves.
Refreshingly, there's no lingering resentment. Quite possibly, this is because there's no-one left to point the finger at: generations of intermarriage between the African, European, Indian and Chinese immigrants have resulted in a blended population that is not only remarkably good-looking, but a shining example to the rest of the world of tolerance and harmony.
Hindu temples face churches next to mosques. People wear everything from saris to miniskirts. The calendar is full of holidays and festivals enjoyed by everyone.
"It's because of the sugar that we're so sweet," laughs our guide, and certainly it's hard to avoid. The cane fields lie like a chequered cloth over the island, punctuated by a scattering of steep volcanic peaks.
About five metres high, the canes make tunnels of the narrow roads, the white plumes of their flowers bright against the vivid green leaves. There are still many small holdings, where the harvest is done by hand, and we see teams of women busily wielding big machetes, cutting and trimming, while the men carry away large bundles on their heads.
We come across a similarly primitive sight at the next river we cross, where women with scrubbing brushes are bent over rocks doing their laundry, which they spread to dry on the grassy bank behind them.
It's an unexpected contrast with the sophistication of city life in the capital of Port Louis, where a live jazz band plays in an elegant waterfront shopping centre.
Just 62 kilometres long and 48km wide, Mauritius is full of surprises.
Although it was British for 150 years until independence, the language of choice is French. Pukeko walk on the leaves of giant Amazonian water lilies in the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden; in a small, scruffy town is a workshop where detailed model ships are built from the original plans, including Endeavour and Alinghi.
We have an Indiana Jones adventure at Rochester Falls, wading across the top of the cascade, clinging to a cable as our feet slip on the rocks.
We watch kite-surfers catch air as we wait for the ferry to Ile des Cerfs, where European tourists loll in the turquoise water of the lagoon.
An unusually wide and straight road leads to a towering statue of Shiva, and we're told that half a million pilgrims come here for an annual festival that is the biggest outside India.
Swathed in blue smoke, we watch as fragrant ylang ylang flowers are distilled into oil for Chanel in France.
We admire a beautiful old tea planter's homestead, long and low with a row of dormer windows.
"Built with slave labour," says our guide without rancour. A mongoose slips across the road in front of us, and big fruit bats lumber overhead at a tall waterfall in the rugged Black River Gorges National Park.
A week in Mauritius passes effortlessly. The scenery is strikingly beautiful; the Creole food, a fusion of French, Indian and African, using the spices and vegetables that grow so readily in the fertile volcanic soil, is delicious; we can go tramping, bird-watching, snorkelling, diving, shopping or laze.
But what we most enjoy is the people: friendly and welcoming, lovely inside and out.The writer was hosted by Air Mauritius and Naiade resorts.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Despite the many attractions of Mauritius, it's the absence of one of them that most people associate with the island: the dodo.
Now a universal shorthand for something that Is lost forever, this metre-high flightless member of the pigeon family was once abundant here.
With no indigenous people and no serious predators, Mauritius was like an Indian Ocean Galapagos, with a number of endemic species that showed no fear when the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century.
Fat, curious and slow to learn, the dodos were doomed. Many were eaten, even though the meat was apparently irredeemably tough; but it was when the Dutch arrived later with pigs, deer and rats that they were done for.
In less than 100 years, their habitat destroyed and their eggs continually eaten, the dodo was extinct, officially the first species to become so as a result of human interference.
For a creature that was so numerous, it's sad how little is left: in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, the Dodo Gallery contains two reconstructed skeletons, a scattering of swamp-stained bones and a feathered model. he height of irony must be its presence on the country's coat of arms – flanked by one of the deer that helped to annihilate it.
Reunion and Mauritius – just saying these names evokes images of a tropical paradise. Not only is the island of Mauritius full of history, culture and almost limitless attractions, it is most famous for its electric-blue waters and white sandy beaches. Discover this luxurious destination and the extreme bragging rights that come with it.
Flight Centre has Reunion and Mauritius holidays, including return airfares, three nights' accommodation with buffet breakfast in Reunion and five nights' accommodation with breakfast and dinner daily in Mauritius from $3599 ex Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, per person, twin share.
Phone Flight Centre, 0800427555, or see flightcentre.co.nz before Saturday for travel between June 14 and September 30.
The Dominion Post