L'ÎLE DE LA RÉUNION
The miniature "Hawaii" of the Indian Ocean north-east of Madagascar
> 1 month in Reunión, a territory of France <
There are not many easily accessible islands in the cold waters between the Southern continents and Antarctica. However, there’s one small volcanic island lying southeast of Madagascar and Africa’s tip. One small island, which few people have ever heard of, unless one grew up in France, bumped into the island by accident in Google Earth, or think that name-dropping geographically isolated islands is great fun. We tend to be part of the last group of people, but actually, we got interested in Indian Ocean travel opportunities early on and while expanding our interest this island quickly stood out as a very special place: La Réunion in French tongue, Reunion Island in English, in all cases pronounced “Ree-yon”.
Among the many isles and islands in the Indian Ocean, Reunion Island is really different. It’s not a typical white-sand beach island with swaying palms and a flat landscape or with soft rolling hills; it’s a wildly mountainous, black-beach island with craggy, high peaks, small white villages build Mediterranean-style, and a big active volcano with a Moon-like desert. And then there’s the so-called cirques: Large mountain valleys enclosed by impossibly steep peaks and penetrated with darkish-green deep gorges and hundreds of waterfalls. They are actually the remaining calderas of once collapsed volcanoes. The only way to visit the cirques are by a few winding roads or by trekking on foot.
It’s a French possession, like Martinique in the Caribbean and New Caledonia in the Pacific, to name a two others. And France must have made some efforts to keep this special place unknown outside their own borders, given that few we’ve met seem to have heard about it. A wise tactic as Reunion is not too touristy. As we arrived, we did, as every other French visitor seemed to do: Rented a car and drove around the island, from coast to coast and from valley to valley, and enjoyed the thrilling nature and great Creole cuisine. Sunbathing would be a long way down the to-do-list: It’s one of the rainiest places in the southern hemisphere, but that should be appreciated as the aorta which keeps the otherworldly green valleys and many waterfalls nourished all year round.
Lying southeast of Madagascar and Africa’s tip, we would think this island is a typically Indian Ocean island, but the entire experience was quite different.
...it was easy to see its volcanic origin. The formidable Piton-des-Neiges, the highest mountain in the Indian Ocean standing 3.069m high, was penetrating the sky. On top of this view, we could easily see the islands three natural amphitheatres known as 'cirques': Cilaos cirque, Mafate cirque, and Salazie cirque. These three vast canyons give Reunion its wildly dramatic appearance, as well as many hilking trails, waterfalls and gorges. We could not wait to land on the island!
The islanders are very proud of the islands inhospitable interior. Not many postcards show pictures of white sandy beaches, because there are almost none of these. Instead, the dramatic landscape is at the centre of everyhing.
We rented a small car during the two-week stay, so we could swiftly get around the entire island. Driving down the west coast we would follow the mountaneous spine of the island, revealing views towards several waterfalls along the way. Also, during this stretch we saw some of the islands only black- and white-sand beaches.
...from Piton Maïdo at 2.190m. Following the RF8 route from St-Gilles-les-Hauts we drove through thick rain forest, pine forest and tamarind forest until we penetrated the clouds to reach the mountaineous rim of Cirque de Mafate. There are no roads into the valley, so the only way to explore is by trekking on foot for several days
Driving down from Piton Maïdo we came through Village Artisanal de L-Eperon where local handicrafts and arts are on sale. A good place to have a cup of coffee and stroll around.
This valley can only be reached by foot. A mysterious place which has to be explored for two or even three days. The villages below are Roche Plate, La Nouvelle and Ilet des Orangers, whose combined inhabitants number some 600. It is a mind-boggling sight. A miniature world of isolated communities cupped in a deep crater, untained by electricity, roads and large buildings.
During our whole stay we based ourselves at a BNB rental in La Saline-les-Bains on the west coast. It was located close to general stores and we could easily reach the south, central and northern parts during half-day or day-trips. It also has the arguably best beach on the entire island of Reunion. The beach is protected by a long lagoon with clear, shallow waters.
The canons of Barachois on the coastal promenade of Saint Denis. The chique and very French capital of Reunion
We would sometimes go to island-capital St Denis to buy stuff or simpky driving through to reach the attratice east coast of the island. St Denis is very pretty with lots of old colonial buildings, markets, cathedrals, a mosque and a nice hindu temple.There are numerous street food vendures selling Indian snacks, yummy.
The history of La Réunion island, from its first settlements to the colonial era is best seen in St Denis which is full of old buildings from the past. It became a stop on the route to India for the French East India Company. From 1710 slaves started to cultivate coffee. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the sugar cane became the first industry in the island. In 1848, the island was finally called La Réunion and slavery was abolished.
Down the coast from St-Leu, when the sea is rough, the blowhole at Le Souffleur is spectaular. Nearby at a good black sand beaches where we would hang a hammock and read a book. Offshore these wild waters are some of the best coral reefs on the island with lots of colours and life.
Between St-Joseph and St-Pierre we found the turning towards Grande Anse, a stunning bay surrounded by densly wooded slopes with a wonderful white-sand beach. In town, we would a great street market selling all kinds of exotic things.
To us, the interior of Reunion was the real highlight with its three natural amphitheatres - the cirues of Mafate, Salazie and Cilaos - as well as one of out planets most active volcanoes, the monstrous 2.631m Piton-de-la-Fournaise. One day, we drove from St-Pierre to Bourg-Mourat and onto the Mars-like, otherworldly Plaine des Sables leading the the volcano. Several layers of lava has created this eerily lunar landscape.
One of the world's largest and most impressive shield volcanoes, it is also one of the world's most active, having erupted several times in recent years. We drove to Pas de Bellecompe, on the rim of the caldera, parked the car and walked onto the rim of the caldera following a steep path. The hike took us 7 hours.
...is also one of the few white-sand beaches on the island. Good for hammock times and swimming as well as relaxing the muscles after hiking in the interiors.
...penetrating the interiors from St-Pierre in west to Ste-Rose in east, this time to spend a full day exploring the east coast. Here looking at pastoral landscapes and the mountains bordering Cirque Cilaos from Plaine des Palmistes
Close to Cirque des Salazie. We had lunch here, brought from the local supermarché: French bread, mustard, ham, tomatoes and cheese
...on the way towards the east coast. Much of this about 2.000m above sea level. Driving from here the road took us lower and lower away from the rather desolate expanses of the Plaine-des-Cafres featuring harsh, scrubby vegetation and grasslands down to the woody Plaine-des-Palmistes.
...in the permanently humid uplands high above St-Benoît, halfway between St-Pierre and St-Rose. This was a good place to break the long drive towards the east coast of the island and simply walk around and explore this little florferous village. We could hear the Biberaon waterfall tumbling 240m down the sheer mountainside close to the village. In town a re several dairy and vegetable farms, quite reminiscent of Switzerland or France.
Finally at the east coast, we reach St-Benoit, a city originally built almost entirely of wood. There were some pleasant walks here and small lunch restaurants serving creole food.
Driving north we reach St-André, the centre of Réunion's Tamil community
A popular surfers spot, where we stayed a couple of times to ride the waves. But take care! The beaches are often closed due to shark alarms as Reunion Island have had many incidences over the years. Around the south beaches there is a high numbers of sharks that are known the frequent the area, often the aggresive bull shark. Reunion is the most dangeorous place in the world for shark attacks.
...as the thunder clouds roll in. We visited the island during August and July when the weather is very unpredictably, but also very charming.
Build in1743, one of the first land marks on the developing island, close to the head quarters of the French East India Company which was basd on Reunion
La Buse ("The Buzzard") was a famous pirate who sailed the Indian Ocean at the beginning of the 18th century. He posessed all archetypical traits of a real pirate: he stole pearls, diamonds, gold and silver, made encrypted messages, hided in caves on mysterious islands, stole ships and made maps with hideouts. He hid a treasure estimated at 4.5 billion Euros somewhere in the Eastern Indian Ocean and it has not been found yet. In the end he was capturred and hanged on Reunion Island...
The pirate La Buse, also named Olivier Levasseur, still must be laughing from his grave as the great treasure he hid has never been found - here 280 years after. A skull and crossbones motif is carved into the stone cross at his grave - a sign of the recklessness of La Buse. The sign became associated with piracy in the 16th century and prides several pirate graves, often refering to the sentence "Memento mori" - "remember that you have to die".
Volcanic black sand beach at St Paul. Outside the barrier reef around St Gilles all beaches are volcanic black. Reminded us a bit of Bali i Indonesia, all though much less crowded