Pronounced “Por Loowee” or “Port Lewis” by the locals, Mauritius’s bustling port capital PORT LOUIS, encircled by the moody Moka Mountains on the northwest coast, is an intriguing mix of old and new. Graceful colonial buildings lie cheek-by-jowl with modern towers in the centre, while a swanky waterfront complex holds the island’s best shopping. The city is the busiest port in the Indian Ocean, with around a hundred thousand people, a colourful cross-section of Mauritians, flooding into its 45-square-kilometre area daily. There are a few interesting museums and religious sites, but Port Louis is really a place to wander, taking in the legacy of three centuries of colonialism and the influence of India and China. It may be tempting to bypass the hot, sticky city for the beach, but it’s a must for an insight into the real Mauritius. Visit on a weekday morning when it’s at its liveliest.
The early Dutch settlers were the first arrivals, naming the natural harbour Noordwester haven (Northwestern harbour). It was titled Port Louis by the French, who claimed it in the name of King Louis XV in 1722. Spotting the potential of the sheltered harbour, the French East India Company made Port Louis a trading post before it became the capital in 1735 under the governor Bertrand-François Mahé de la Bourdonnais, who developed the city using French workmen, Indian artisans from Pondicherry and African slaves. The latter half of the eighteenth century saw Port Louis fall into disrepute, with opium dens and brothels popular with French corsairs.
Briefly renamed Port Napoleon in 1806, the city reverted to Port Louis when the British took over governance in 1810, and it became host to high society balls and concerts. Natural and human disasters, however, from the great fire in 1816 to malaria and cyclones, sent the population packing to the cooler, healthier central plateau, where many still live today. Port Louis was born again in the 1980s, post-independence, when the skyline and street names dramatically changed. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen Port Louis rise as a free port and capital of one of the most successful economies in Africa.