When the plane began its descent into the small volcanic island of Rodrigues the first time I visited, I was convinced that something was wrong. Down below, the Indian Ocean stretched unbroken to the impossibly far horizon. There was no sign of land, let alone a runway large enough to safely put down a 737 aeroplane. Where did the pilot imagine we would land?
I looked around the cabin. No-one was panicking. The locals slept through it, or unconcernedly bounced children on their laps. There was no announcement from the captain, other than to politely ask passengers to fasten their seatbelts and the cabin crew to ready the cabin for landing. Breathe. It was 10, perhaps 15 long minutes before something, anything, interrupted the monotony down below: an arc of white waves, kilometres long, broke not upon land but upon the ocean itself. Then, finally, Rodrigues, and its sleepy little airport at the western end of the island, came into view.
Nothing can prepare you for the first time you arrive in Rodrigues. Marooned 600km north-east of Mauritius, to whom it belongs, and close to no other landform, Rodrigues is a world unto itself. It is also one of the world's most remote inhabited islands.
When seen from above on the western approach, Rodrigues is a strange and beautiful place of tightening, then widening, concentric circles of ocean, lagoon and land. The waves mark Rodrigues' outer limits, encircling a lagoon of near-perfect aquamarine. In turn, the lagoon encircles the main island, a long spine of green fringed with beaches and shadowed by smaller islands. The island rises to its eastern summit before sinking back into the lagoon. Then the waves once again announce the resumption of the eternal horizon.
The tiny volcanic island is encircled by an aquamarine lagoon, where locals fish for octopus (Credit: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images)
If Rodrigues were a prison, it would be impossible to escape. But isolation has always been Rodrigues' friend, protecting it from the world and its noise.
Rodrigues entered recorded human history in 1528 when the first ships arrived. No-one lived on the island back then and if the crew of any passing ships had come ashore here prior to this date, they left no record of their passing. Rodrigues lay too far south and too far east of the busy trade routes and trade winds that connected East Africa with Arabia and Asia. Even when Portuguese, Dutch and French ships, blown way off course, sheltered on Rodrigues intermittently through the 16th Century, they stayed only long enough to replenish their food supplies. Most often, this meant giant tortoises and the solitaire, a fatally plump bird that sailors quickly drove to extinction, just as they had the dodo on Mauritius.
In 1691, Frenchman François Leguat arrived on the island with seven Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution by France's Catholic government. In his account of his arrival, Leguat wrote that Rodrigues had so many giant tortoises that "one can take more than 100 steps on their shell without touching the ground". Leguat and his exiles planned the first colony on Rodrigues, but the remote location (and lack of women) was too much for them: after two years, unable to bear the isolation any longer, they built a boat from driftwood and fled the island, never to return.
These days, Rodrigues' distance from the rest of the world is central to its charm. In pre-Covid times, nearly 1.5 million tourists visited Mauritius every year. Barely 90,000 of these (less than 6%) travelled to Rodrigues. Those that did come found an island that carries echoes of Mauritius before tourists began arriving.
There are no traffic jams on the island. Nothing happens in a hurry. Crime is almost non-existent.
The sleepy town of Port Mathurin is one of the smallest capitals in the world (Credit: Yann Guichaoua-Photos/Getty Images)
"Rodrigues is a very safe place," said Françoise Baptiste, one of Mauritius' best-known chefs, who has lived on Rodrigues for 54 years. "Whenever it's warm, which is often, we sleep with our doors open."
Part of that sense of safety and security comes from the quiet familiarity of the place. Rodrigues has a population of fewer than 45,000 people. Unlike the melting pot demographics of Mauritius' main island, Rodrigues is 90% Creole, its inhabitants carrying in their past a mosaic of traces from African slaves and European settlers. "We inherited sega dancing from Africa, afternoon tea and bacon from the English and pastries from the French," said Baptiste.
"Rodrigues is a village," added Laval Baptiste, businessman and Françoise's husband. "Everybody knows everybody." And while they often have to travel to the main island of Mauritius, Françoise and Laval always long for the languid lifestyle of their home island. "We are always very happy to come back after a few days of rushing around," Laval said.
We inherited sega dancing from Africa, afternoon tea and bacon from the English and pastries from the French
Even Rodrigues' capital, Port Mathurin, rouses into life only occasionally – a five-minute rush hour; a flurry of minor activity whenever a ship arrives in port; the Saturday market that is all but deserted by 10:00.
Across the island, Rodrigues is a place of quiet pleasures.
From Port Mathurin, the road meanders along the north coast, heading nowhere in particular, past the tiny settlement of Anse aux Anglais, offering up still waters and sunset views like the Earth's calm exhalation at the end of a perfect day.
A common sight on the island is octopus drying in the sun (Credit: Anthony Ham)
In the island's west, an ambitious project at François Leguat Reserve aims to restore a stretch of the island that slopes gently down to the lagoon's shore. Over the centuries, settlers and visiting sailors drove the island's tortoises to extinction and cut down most of the trees. In recent years, those running the reserve have set the ambitious target of restoring this corner of the island to resemble, as closely as possible, how Rodrigues appeared in the 17th Century, before Leguat and his Huguenot friends arrived. To this end, they have brought in giant tortoises from elsewhere in the Indian Ocean and planted more than 100,000 trees indigenous to Rodrigues.
Along the west coast, close to the promontory known as Pointe du Diable, wooden frames often line the narrow roadside, from which ghostly white octopus limbs sway in the ocean breeze. Octopus is a centrepiece of Rodrigues culture and a staple of the Rodrigues table, to the extent that, said Laval, "Each Rodriguan will eat octopus two or three times a week."
Fishing for octopus is "mostly practiced by women who are unemployed", Françoise added. "They do it early in the morning. This way they have time to do house duties afterwards and contribute to the family budget at the same time."
Caught with a harpoon at low tide in the coral shallows of Rodrigues' lagoon, octopus is something of an island obsession, so much so that the island's authorities have felt compelled to secure the future of their national dish, a fragrant octopus curry, by putting measures in place to prevent overfishing. No-one may fish for octopus from February-March or September-October. During these months, said Laval, octopus fishers are paid by the local authorities not to fish by doing other work, including cleaning local beaches.
Rodrigues is one of the most remote inhabited islands on the planet (Credit: Ricardo Stephan/Getty Images)
At the opposite end of the island, in the tiny hamlet of St François, is Chez Robert et Solange. In this ramshackle beach shack with ramshackle Rodrigues charm, they serve up octopus every which way – grilled octopus, octopus curry, octopus and papaya salad – as well as lobster and other fresh seafood.
Every time I visit Rodrigues and go to Chez Robert, I pretend to study the menu. I ask what's fresh. And I spend long moments, as if lost in thought, staring out to sea through the palm trees. Then, in what feels like a Rodrigues rite of passage, I order the octopus. Each time I do so, I feel like I've arrived on Rodrigues for the very first time.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.