Round-the-world: Port Louis Central Market, Mauritius

Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, buzzes with energy and dilapidated charm. Imposing office buildings, government ministries, and well-maintained colonial architecture bequeath some parts of the central city a prosperous, modern feel. Yet even with its hurried industry, its traffic and businesspeople, there is a sedateness. This is especially the case around palm-lined Place Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, the nerve-center of Port Louis, with its statues and colonial atmosphere. Across the highway from this central business area is Le Caudan Waterfront, a slick shopping center disconnected from the rest of downtown.

The rickety balconies and rough-and-tumble magic of the blocks around the Central Market are the real draw. The feel here is quite French, though more along the lines of New Orleans than Nice. There’s a Bourbon Street, a Chinatown, countless shops, old buildings, and a pleasingly grubby tumult. It’s impossible to stroll through and fail to be impressed by country’s ethos of coexistence across a range of ethnicities and religions. In Port Louis, a Buddhist nun, women in headscarves, churches, and Hindu social organizations all share space on the same block. This dizzyingly plural cultural setting is exciting.The center of the action is the Central Market itself. A highlight of any trip to Port Louis, the Central Market is huge tourist magnet as well as a social and commercial activity hub for locals. Approaching the market along Farquhar Street, to its west, tourists will begin to see the hawkers almost lick their lips at the prospect of new arrivals. “Here is my card. Come with me. Where are you from? What is your country?” goes the spiel. (What follows is an entertaining lesson in the island’s tourism demographics. “Germany? England? South Africa? Australia? Netherlands? Belgium? Spain? Greece? One of the new countries of Europe? Czech Republic? Bulgaria? Romania? New Zealand? Denmark? Norway?” All no. A deeply perplexed question follows: “But my friend, where are you from?”) The hawkers are subdued and easily bypassed.

Inside the Central Market, there are stalls hawking vegetables, meat, textiles, souvenirs (most of which are made not in Mauritius but in China and Madagascar), herbs designed to address various ailments, and prepared food. The environment is hectic though not overwhelming. On the inside of the market at least, most hawkers are fairly relaxed. This is especially the case in the ground floor produce sections where tourists are less commonplace. Some of the most picturesque items for sale include chili peppers, herbs for fighting cellulite and nervousness, blocks of tofu, and long purple eggplants.

Though the Central Market is a great place to get a sense of daily life in Port Louis and pick up something to eat, it’s not necessarily the best place to purchase souvenirs or other gifts. There are other venues in Port Louis and elsewhere in Mauritius for nabbing beautiful souvenirs that cannot be located elsewhere. Unlike tourist-oriented boutiques, however, the Central Market opens a window onto local culture. It should not be missed.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Mauritius & a trip status report

Originally, we’d scheduled five nights in Mauritius and four nights in Réunion. Mauritius would be devoted to the beach and the ramshackle capital of Port Louis, while our time on Réunion would prioritize hiking and the quaint villages of the interior. This, at any rate, was the plan.

Réunion was the one pesky piece of the itinerary that stubbornly resisted advance planning. Every attempt to nail down a gîte or hotel in one of Réunion’s inland calderas failed. My email requests for room availability were either returned with regrets or ignored outright. Our sources (Lonely Planet; the French civil servant and his wife, previously resident on Réunion, who we met in New Caledonia; the French women we met on Mauritius) suggested that we should rely on a tourist office on the ground to make reservations. This prospect seemed fine with me but didn’t exactly thrill Matt.

Our informants also told us that, in light of infrequent bus connections between the airport and the inland calderas and the extortionate taxi fares, we’d probably need a car. (Ordinarily, we would have inquired with our hotel regarding a transfer, though this was not an option in light of our inability to snag a reservation.) The hardy French women we met in Mauritius detailed their exquisite week-long itinerary over breakfast one morning. It involved hiking from gîte to gîte through the mountains. “You see nobody for half the day. It is like you are alone on the earth,” one of them said. That sort of isolation, with a simple bed and a home-cooked meal at the end of every hiking day sounded like a perfect holiday.

We weighed all this information against our existing itinerary. We had a limited amount of time (nine nights) set aside for these Indian Ocean islands, after all, and the thought of more fully exploring Mauritius struck us as more appealing than the alternative. In addition, the idea of returning to Réunion on a later occasion and doing it properly, hiking across the island’s trails and staying in countryside gîtes, seemed preferable to a more rushed visit.

So, after much conversation, we decided to remain on Mauritius for the entire nine nights. Our guest house in Mauritius had room for us for the entire period, and we were able to cancel our refundable Mauritius-Réunion round trip tickets on Air Austral, albeit with a penalty.

Mauritius was full of surprises from the beginning. It was mercifully cheap, for one, a huge relief after the staggering prices in Australia and New Caledonia. Mauritius is a culturally extremely diverse place, with Hindu, Christian, and Muslim adherents in evidence throughout. The majority of the population is of Indian descent, and Mauritius is ethnically diverse across the board, with Creoles of African ancestry and small percentages of Chinese Mauritians and Franco-Mauritians completing the puzzle. It’s not a rich country by North American standards, but it’s relatively well off, typically ranking in the top five or six African countries in terms of per capita GDP.

Mauritius is one of only eight countries that belongs to both the British Commonwealth and the Francophonie, and its first language of Mauritius is French Creole. We found that most Mauritians reached for French before English when interacting with foreign visitors, and most newspapers were in French as well. The French influence saturates many spheres of life on Mauritius. One example is culinary. Although curries are a menu staple, food is generally quite mild.

We spent our time exploring Port Louis, the capital, Pamplemousses Gardens, the southern quarter of the island, and the east coast up to the town of Trou D’Eau Douce. It was a fantastic week and a half. Stay tuned.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Long layover in Johannesburg

A journey from Melbourne to Mauritius on Qantas and its oneworld partners is no straight shot. It requires a very early morning flight to Sydney, a long 14-hour jaunt to Johannesburg, and then a flight on to Mauritius. It’s over 11,000 kilometers (almost 7000 miles) from Sydney to Johannesburg, 14 long hours by plane. During the very long haul flight, cloud cover limits views of the polar regions, though about six hours in the captain mentions that subantarctic ice formations can be seen from the left side of the plane. See above.

We overnight in Johannesburg. We did cursory research and booked a guest house in Sandton, described somewhere as a good place to stay. Further research revealed that Sandton is the richest area in Johannesburg.

The strange thing is that I don’t remember a thing about the research process, how I came up with our $185/night guest house (the priciest of our trip) surrounded by a sweet-smelling garden, morning birdsong, and high walls. Our guest house is quite luxurious, a roomy suite with a fruit plate for breakfast and plush beds.

On the ground, Sandton is sort of shocking. Every abode is hidden behind walls topped with electrified wires. There is security company signage on the walls, some of which promise armed response. Our guest house, the aforementioned and lovely but deserted 6 on Westbrooke, sits in a neighborhood guarded by a security booth. In addition, it has its very own gate and security booth. The guard takes our keys from us when we walk out of the guarded neighborhood for dinner at a friendly if not particularly good restaurant and returns them to us when we get back. We walk along dark roads. Cars race by. There are very few pedestrians.

It’s difficult to square the extreme security measures in Sandtwon with the information we’ve received from locals and frequent visitors to Johannesburg, who claim that the city is actually quite safe. The security apparatus makes me feel terribly unsafe, far more than general precautions or guidebook warnings might. I ask our very friendly cab driver about the security measures. Are they necessary? He tells me that they are, given Sandton’s wealth.

Sometimes long layovers are unavoidable. This was one of those times. But the situation we found ourselves in was not the automatic consequence of a long layover. Frankly, we did not plan well. What we should have done is locate a funkier area with an immediate restaurant district. My one contact in Johannesburg, a journalist, happened to be away during our visit, though this is no excuse.

Even travel writers plan badly. I won’t dwell on this planning mistake, though I will hope that, years from now, after having visited South Africa a few times, I’ll marvel at how easy it is to navigate one’s way around the country.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Why Melbourne is the best city in the world, part two

There are lots of other arguments for Melbourne as the world’s best city: museums, parks, open spaces; good bookstores. Add all these things to the list I began on Sunday, and soon these posts on Melbourne will begin to look like explicit promotional material. As much as I dig the city, this is certainly not my intention. So let me acknowledge that there are downsides to Melbourne. There is a tendency among Melburnians to undervalue their city and, more disturbingly altogether, there is an unhealthy obsession with Australian rules football, a completely inexplicable sport. So there you have it. Not perfect at all.

Missing from my list on Sunday is one of Melbourne’s signature strengths, namely, its culinary scene. Melbourne is a remarkable place to eat at both ends of the budget scale. And while it may not be a cheap place to dine by US big city standards, it is far more wallet-friendly than Sydney.

I’d eaten very well in Melbourne on my last visit, and I made sure to do some pre-visit research. I emailed Melbourne-based chef Tony Tan for restaurant suggestions, and he responded quickly. Many of Tony’s tipped restaurants are pretty high-end: Cumulus Inc, Attica, Cutler & Co., Vue de Monde, among others.

We ended up sampling a few top restaurants: The Press Club, Cutler & Co, and Bistro Vue.

The Press Club’s “symposium degustation” menu is quite strong. Highlights include the starting snack of cold seafood skewers and an incredible rose-focused dessert course (titled “Aphrodite”) with berries, rose petals, and a fragrance component. This was a very good meal in a buzzing location with delightful servers.

At Cutler & Co, the degustation menu is even more extraordinary. Every course is deeply satisfying, though if I had to point to a single favorite course I’d name the crab, abalone and sweet corn soup. The palate-cleansing course of carrot granita includes puffed rice and sheep’s milk yogurt. It is like a heady, deeply considered breakfast. Dessert stars violet ice cream and provides a very pleasant shock to the senses. This meal is seriously amazing, studiously well-considered. It is, all things considered, a decidedly intellectual meal, though it is also fun and spirited.

Our third high-end meal is at Bistro Vue, an offshoot of the popular Vue de Monde. I eat oysters, house-smoked salmon with toast, and the day’s special, a hearty, rustic Toulouse-style cassoulet. It’s solid all the way through. The crowd is very upscale and very well-dressed, which that makes me regret momentarily my choice to wear my New Balances to dinner.

On the cheap side we are also completely pleased. We take advantage of the local Asian cuisine scene. Wandering around Footscray in the late morning, we spot a Vietnamese restaurant, Hung Vuong Saigon, packed at noon. We decided on the spot to eat an early lunch. The clientele is mostly Vietnamese. The offerings (vermicelli noodles for me and pho for Matt) are amazing.

We also visit Victoria Street in Richmond, a strip packed with Asian restaurants, and have a decidedly mediocre Thai meal. We have better luck in search of laksa, which has become a major local food favorite in Melbourne. We have ours at Chinta Blues in St. Kilda. It is delicious, though I note with a mixture of excitement and disappointment that some of Melbourne’s top laksa lists exclude it. Check out the entertaining delaksa for reviews of laksa at restaurants in Victoria, elsewhere in Australia, and beyond.

Tourism Victoria provided media support in the form of three meals in Melbourne. All opinions expressed are my own.

Check out other posts in the round-the-world Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Why Melbourne is the best city in the world, part one

If it is difficult to write about a hometown, it is also difficult to write about a city you wish were your hometown, a city to which you’ve fantasized about relocating. I’ve fantasized about moving to a number of places (Lisbon, Auckland, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Valencia, Chicago) though none of these more than Melbourne.

I first visited Melbourne in 2004. The climate, the restaurants, the city’s scale, the ethnic diversity, the architecture were all incredibly appealing, but what really got me dreaming about uprooting to the other side of the world was something far more intangible, something atmospheric. Melbourne is worldly yet unassuming and people are friendly, frank, and occasionally loud. It achieves its goal of being a world-class city smoothly, effortlessly, and (rare for Australia) across four distinct seasons.

It’s not a surprise that Melbourne ranks so high in world livability surveys. The city is a magnet for foreign and domestic migrants alike. Anecdotal accounts suggest that Melbourne is the sort of city that residents leave only temporarily, with the aim of returning with new energy and ideas.

Suffice it to say that returning to Melbourne was a central priority of this round-the-world jaunt.

Before I get into why I love Melbourne, here are the logistical details: we spent six nights in Melbourne, at an extended stay Quest Apartments flat in St. Kilda. The flat won’t win any design awards, but it was perfectly adequate. It was great to have access to a kitchenette and a washer and dryer in the middle of a five-week trip, and the location, a few blocks from a tram stop and close to the thick of St. Kilda, was convenient.Why is Melbourne the best city in the world? I’ll take a stab at answering with a little list, which I will continue later this week.

1. Laneways. Melbourne’s laneways give the city a hidden grittiness, a secretive interior. The laneways are very appealing social spaces and stand in marked contrast to the modern, shiny architecture throughout the Central Business District. They’re full of cafes and shops and passers-by. Despite the fact that they feel secretive, they are nonetheless buzzing with energy during peak hours.

2. Striking public architecture. The Southern Cross Station, designed by UK-based Grimshaw Architects, is a thrilling marvel of contemporary architecture, with a dramatic undulating roof. Federation Square, with its museums and restaurants and other facilities, is similarly dramatic. Good, challenging architecture–in particular architecture that has a public use–makes cities more exciting.

3. Trams. In general, the public transportation system is good and it’s easy to get around Melbourne. But the tramlines are especially great, as they clatter down streets across the city and make Melbourne’s neighborhoods feel densely connected at the street level.

4. Coffee. You can find bad coffee in Melbourne, though you’ll have to search for it. That several Australian cafes have cropped up in New York and London makes a lot of sense. People take their coffee seriously here, and do a very good job with it. (On the down side, this local expertise will occasionally mean that your single serving of French press coffee will take 20 minutes to arrive and cost 9 Australian dollars.)

5. Footscray. Two different Melburnians, neither shy nor timid, cautioned against a visit to Footscray, claiming that it is a high-crime neighborhood with little in the way of interesting sights. How wrong they were. Crime statistics may tell a different story, but in actual practice Footscray feels to an American visitor at any rate like a middle-class urban neighborhood. It has a very strong immigrant presence, fabulous Vietnamese restaurants, and a cool produce market. It may be scrappy at the edges but danger is the last thing on a visitor’s mind. Footscray is also home to the Footscray Community Arts Centre, an internationally-recognized contemporary arts center with a strong focus on the various immigrant and ethnic communities of Melbourne West. (Travel guide geeks will of course observe that Footscray is also the world headquarters of Lonely Planet.)

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route round-the-world trip series here.