Port Louis, Mauritius - As we drive into Port Louis, it seems that Mauritius - in the Indian Ocean, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, east of Africa and Madagascar - is a land of contradictions.
The Toys R Us, KFC, McDonald's, strip malls, traffic jams, honking horns and Le Caudan Waterfront complex with its large modern indoor craft market, casino, cinemas and restaurants are dragging the city into a 21st-century North American mould.
On the other hand, the Port Louis market has a more local flavour. Here we find anything from fruit to clothing to souvenirs. Marijuana incense catches my eye, but I'm assured that it's only a name. This is the place to practise your bargaining skills.
On earlier treks we've already taken in some of Mauritius's fabulous wildlife.
Discovered by the Arabs in 975, by the Portuguese in the early 1,500s and settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, Mauritius was finally taken over by the French in the early 18th century. Britain took over in 1810 (hence the statue of Queen Victoria in Port Louis).
Before human settlement, it was home to more than 700 plants, less than half of which are found here today.
Concerned about this loss, the Mauritian government has established many preserves including Black River Gorges National Park. Endangered specimens preserved in extensive flora laboratories have been carefully reintroduced into their correct habitats.
Using old documents for reference, Mauritian Wildlife Foundation specialists have restored large areas of forest, and this has led to the return of birds on the verge of extinction and to our only opportunity to see monkeys.
The Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens (named after the 1968 independence leader) ranks third in the world. Established in 1735, it is the legacy of many horticulturalists.
I had seen gigantic baobab trees and avenues of hollow bottle palms before. But the Talipot, a pineapple-like plant that blooms after 60 years, then dies, the 200-year-old Buddha tree and the Monkey Puzzle, whose prickles make it unclimbable, are new to me.
Cinnamon and sandalwood add their fragrance for our pleasure. Ponds are filled with giant water lilies imported from Africa. Like huge flan dishes, they float while anchored by their hollow tubes, the occasional white bloom peeking through. It is said that one lily pad is strong enough to support a human baby. In other ponds, white lotus stand tall and proud, facing the sun.
In Port Louis, we visit the Natural History Museum. It's like stepping into the past. Ancient specimens, each carefully hand labelled, fill old wooden and glass cases. Whales and other oversize specimens hang from ceilings. A full-size skeleton and stuffed replica are the sole reminders of the extinct Dodo bird. Turtles, fish, butterflies, birds and hundreds of varieties of seashells are all carefully labelled and laid out. It takes more than a day to see it all.
From La Citadelle on top of a hill, we have a bird's eye view of Port Louis and can see how mountainous this volcanic island is. Disappointingly, Trou aux Cerfs, the extinct volcano, is just a hard-to-see dent in the earth.
Le Morne Brabant is compared to the Rock of Gibraltar. When the British arrived, many slaves, not realizing that they were going to be freed, fled here and jumped from the top.
Fields of sugar cane, coconut palms, banana and pineapple grow as far as the eye can see. Rich red soil offers a sharp contrast to the vivid green lettuce in the vegetable farming area of Terre Rouge.
Further along the narrow winding road, we admire the Chamarel waterfalls. Weathered volcanic rocks turned blue, green and other colours form the surreal Seven Coloured Earth site.
Beside the Swagatam temple at the sacred lake I receive my third eye and the blessing: "Illumination, enlightenment, prosperity, happiness and all blessings."