Meet Réunion Island
Words Franki Black
Victor Frankl equated the passing of time with the accumulation of memories. He believed that memories are like treasures owned by the bearer forever and therefore, the older you are, the richer you become. What a wonderful way of looking at life! On the way back from a recent trip to Réunion Island, it occurred to me that I had just added a marvellous treasure to my memory bank.
This Indian Ocean Island - situated east of Madagascar and four hours by plane from Johannesburg - surprised me from all angles. As a French territory, Réunion allows visitors to submerge themselves in easily accessible European culture. The island is 63 kilometres long and 45 kilometres wide, but despite being so small it boasts the highest GDP of all the Indian Ocean Islands. For decades it’s been a favourite holiday (and studying) destination for French people hailing from the mainland and it offers the same medical, educational and infrastructural standards as France. Visitors can expect an island filled with remarkable natural wonders, fast-flowing rum and ridiculously good-looking people.
Nicolas Cyprien, our guide, has blue eyes, a tanned skin and a Master’s degree in anthropology. He welcomes us in Saint Denis - Réunion’s administrative capital -and we file onto a bus, west-coast bound. “There are hundreds of micro-worlds in Réunion,” says Nicolas. “If you take a road trip through the island, you’ll find a completely different landscape and experience every half an hour.” As we drive, I am struck by how developed the island is and how far removed it seems from Africa. Nicolas shares a few facts: 850 000 people inhabit the island, French and Creole are the local languages spoken and 40% of Réunion is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Saint Denis is bustling and half-perched on a mountainside. We drive past 19th Century Creole mansions, chic French boutiques, pastry shops and a promenade filled with active locals. Nicolas points to a pair of humpback whales breaching just off the coast. Réunion is one of the best places in the world for humpback-whale watching and up to 130 new whales arrive off its coast every year. We check into the LUX Resort & Hotel and get ready for action.
Hikes and Volcanoes
Réunion can confidently claim first prize for being adventure capital of the Indian Ocean Islands. For starters, it is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes and to three gigantic calderas (amphitheatre-like valleys). Over 1000 kilometres of hiking paths crisscross the island, allowing hikers to take on multi-day treks with stay-overs at traditional mountain guesthouses.
Our adventure starts with a 4-hour hike through the Mafate Caldera, a vast terrain that is only accessible by foot or by helicopter. The landscape looks like the set of Jurassic Park – green mountains tower around us, a river lined with black stones flows past us and indigenous plants seem better proportioned to dinosaurs than humans. The path leads us to higher and more isolated territory. 20% of Réunion’s people live in the mountains and according to Nicolas, the only way to deliver post and remove rubbish in these mountain villages is by helicopter. We stop at the first mountain village for a traditional Creole lunch of homegrown chicken and rice. Bob Marley’s voice softly wails from a loudspeaker, while curious children observe our every move. For a few fleeting moments, the serene mountain life turns into an action flick as six helicopters arrive in perfect succession to scoop us back to the beach. Our female pilot points out a few isolated villages as she whizzes past cliff faces, ravines and summits.
In Réunion you can lie on a tropical beach, shop in a European city and hike through a misty forest all on the same day. Our next expedition takes us from the beach into higher and cooler terrain and entails a walk along Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active, safest and best-monitored volcanoes in the world. “Close your eyes for 30 seconds,” advises our taxi driver. We follow his instructions and when we open our eyes the land looks like mars. Stretched out before us, lies a flat, orange-dusted plain intersected by a lonely road leading to the volcano. Spontaneously, we jump and moonwalk. My friend smiles at me and says, “Réunion has a way of making people feel freer – you do things that you never thought you’d do.” We reach the lookout point and regard the volcano. There are traces of hardened, black lava and a few big craters around the main mound. Far in the distance, I spot two hikers making their way to the top of the volcano.
Waterfalls and Vanilla
Réunion’s west coast is known for sandy beaches and dive-friendly tropical waters, while its east coast forms the bulk of the island’s World Heritage site.
The latter is lush, it offers spectacular routes for river rafting and hiking and it is home to litchi, sugarcane and vanilla plantations. We head east and arrive at a balmy jungle. Our guide - clad in a wetsuit and helmet - gives us two options, “You can choose the six or two- metre jump,” he says. I timidly go for two metres and wallow in the water as my petrified friends succumb to the plunge of a lifetime. We form a 24-person train and float down a crystal-clear river, before separating for jumps over waterfalls and gullies. Fuelled with adrenaline, our aquatic hike ends the Réunion way, with pineapple-and-banana-flavored rum.
Alongside Madagascar, Réunion is one of the world’s top producers of vanilla and no visit to the island is complete without a stopover at a vanilla plantation. Bertrand Come, the director of the regional vanilla cooperative, welcomes us at a French-style villa. He leads the way to his crops and tells us that patience is the name of the vanilla-growing game. Vanilla plants grow fast and need to be wrapped around poles on a regular basis. They are mostly pollinated by hand and once harvested; pods are washed, wrapped in blankets like babies and dried in various shapes and forms over several months. While drying, the pods are regularly checked for fungus. Bertrand says that all this effort pays off, as 80 kilograms of vanilla can fetch up to 40 000 Euro!
A Blend of Réunion
Réunion is a melting pot of European, African and Asian cultures, and according to Nicolas, everyone lives in harmony. “If you like the French lifestyle, but dislike its politics, come to Réunion,” he jokes. A visit to the Saint-Paul market will give you a delicious taste of the island’s diverse spices, exotic fruits, and local dishes like samosas, dumplings and cari. A drive through Saint Denis will give you a glimpse into Réunion’s funky street art scene and if music is your thing, Maloya – the island’s traditional music and dance – can be heard and seen at local beach bars and restaurants.
My island adventure ends with dinner at a family-owned creole eatery and a Maloya dance-off. First we watch as beautiful, amber-skinned women grace the stage in twirling floral skirts. Within a few minutes, I’m feeling the sensual mood of Maloya and I’m ready to slip on my skirt. The lead guitarist sets the tone for us and our hips casually start to roll. The beat speeds up and before long I’m spinning around like a swirling dervish and laughing out loud.
In just a few days, Réunion turned me into an exotic dancer, a conqueror of volcanoes, a canyon adventurer, a co-pilot and, on occasion, a rum-sipping beach bum. Life is good in Réunion.
Source: Travel Ideas