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BEACH lovers will do well to consider a holiday in the island-nation of Mauritius, which is famed for its clear, turquoise waters, 160km of powdery white sand beaches and what some say are among the world's best coral reefs, encircling the island close to shore.
The ocean around the island supports a rich diversity of marine life, from fish and corals to dolphins and turtles, making snorkelling and scuba diving here spectacular.
To enjoy Mauritius' sun, sea and sand, you could opt for a stay at one of the many beach resorts lining the island's coasts - some of them are as luxurious as they come.
Or you could hop onto a boat for a day out at private island Ile des Deux Cocos (www.iledesdeuxcocos.com), which is best described as castaway-meets-luxury.
The island, which sits in marine park Blue Bay, is owned by the Lux Hotel Group, but is open to day trippers for a fee. There is a cap on the number of visitors to the island each day to avoid overcrowding, so a reservation is a must.
But once you gain access to the casuarina-fringed paradise, you can spend a relaxing day swimming or snorkelling in the crystal clear waters or lying on hammocks strung along the beach, which, by the way, has sand so fine and powdery, you wouldn't mind getting sand in your shoes for once. Guests are also offered a ride in a glass-bottomed boat.
Sea breeze does make people hungry and thirsty, and a generous buffet lunch plus a bar offering rum tasting, cocktails and juices will keep you comfortable.
And while not all of us can be VIPs in real life, the hospitality shown by the service staff on the island can certainly make you feel like one.
Day-trippers are shooed off the island at 3.30 pm though. So if you feel you haven't had enough of sipping rum cocktails while digging your toes into the sand, you could book an overnight stay at the island's only lodging, a two-bedroom Moroccan-styled villa, with a pool, a rooftop terrace and a bath big enough for four.
But while Mauritius has rightly gained a reputation for its shores, there is more to the island than just its beaches.
The Western part of Mauritius is, for instance, where you find the Black River Gorges National Park (www.tourism-mauritius.mu/en-int/discover/the-west-south-west.html), the country's biggest and best national reserve and a favourite with adventurous hikers. A spread-out expanse of dramatic peaks, forests and waterfalls, the reserve is also a sanctuary for endangered birds, macaque monkeys, deer and giant fruit bats and 300 species of flowering plants.
And if you want to see a geological curiosity, drop by the Seven Coloured Earths (www.tourism-mauritius.mu/ en-int/7-the-7-coloured-earth- chamarel), which is in the same region.
A patch of rolling sand dunes streaked with seven distinct colours - red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow - this formation is intriguing for the fact that the colours never get washed away despite the torrential rains that the country receives in the wet season. Also, even if the different colours of the soil are mixed up, they will settle back into their respective colours.
And for those who need freshening up after visiting Seven Coloured Earths, a rum distillery, the Rhumerie de Chamarel (www.rhumeriedechamarel.com) is just a few minutes' drive away. The popular attraction set in beautifully landscaped gardens can be visited on a guided tour, which culminates with what most visitors say is their favourite part: a tasting of cocktails and the distillery's premium rums.
The distillery also houses an elegant upscale restaurant, L'Alchimiste, which specialises in cuisine prepared with local products sourced from the estate itself.
But no tour of a country is complete without exploring its culture and its people. And a good place to get your finger on the pulse of Mauritius is in the city of Port Louis, the capital and the country's heart of trade, commerce, politics and culture.
The city's diverse, vibrant culture is reflected in its historical and colonial buildings, its many shops, eateries, warehouses, businesses and places of worship squeezed side by side with one another. Do not miss its prime attraction: the lively Central Market, where you can find stalls selling fresh fruit, produce, meat, seafood, cooked food and handicrafts.
You can also find a clutch of museums in the city such as the Blue Penny Museum, which showcases the history and art of the island through displays of antique marine maps, paintings, sculptures, engravings and rare stamps.
A good way to familiarise yourself with Port Louis would be taking a walking tour of the area, one of which is conducted by tour company My Moris (mymoris.mu/en). Its Discover Port Louis tour will take you through the streets and alleys of the city, stopping at the workshops of tradesmen and artisans like a silversmith, a tinsmith and one of the last remaining old-school barbers in the area. Visitors also get to pop into a sugar warehouse.
Or, to get to know the place through its food, go on a walking food tour with Taste Buddies (www.tastebuddies.mu), whose guide will not only give you the lowdown on the country's favourite snacks, he will also show you secret food nooks and crannies that only locals know about, such as the bakery hidden behind a crumbling wall, and the hole-in-the-wall shop selling dholl puri, Indian crepes made with ground split peas and rolled-up with a vegetable curry.