Nico Cyprien continued exclaiming animatedly long after he was out of sight- and very likely when out of earshot- as he rappelled down the waterfall on the Fleur Jaune in Cilaos, high up on Réunion Island which lies between Madagascar and Mauritius.
It says a lot about an island only 51km at its widest and 72km long that someone who has been enthusiastically guiding visitors for over a decade is still discovering new pleasures. And it’s easy to see why this French expatriate settled here after living on five continents and traversing most of the globe. If you’re considering a trip of a lifetime, consider Réunion. If you have a French or E.U. passport marry me and let’s relocate!
My Favourite Things
The famous song from The Sound of Music does not mention countries, but Réunion Island incorporates so many of mine.
Your country, my country- as long as we’re not playing cricket against the Aussies (insert country of choice), it doesn’t matter to me. I do however love my home country, South Africa, and never considered relocating. That was until I visited Réunion- a couple of times.
Although it’s been a couple of years since my last visit, I’ve kept in touch. Nico and I are more than Facebook friends. And I’ve sent others, who affirmed that I wasn’t overstating my case in my role as unofficial island Public Relations Officer. My mate Sophie traverses continents and sails across oceans- and she sails with Rob who does nothing but sail, all over the world. After a week or so she was as enthused as me (Réunion shares top spot with Iceland) and Rob has the island in his top five.
This beautiful little French province is a fantastically diverse mix of cultures and geography. The melting pot of islanders is mostly a Creole mix. Sugar, rum, vanilla, essential oils and seafood are synonymous with Reunion and over 40% of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The land rises swiftly from the shores to high plains and mountain heights and the climate ranges from humid to dry tropical to Mediterranean. There are hundreds of microclimates- a good thing if you like food, because it means that tropical foods flourish along with those from colder climes- strawberries and watermelon for example.
The combination of first world structure and island life suits most Réunionnais. The French government promotes Réunion as a tourist destination and has innovative green projects in place. Most homes have solar power and there are wind farms and fields of solar panels. There is a separatist movement but the headquarters were deserted and listlessly dilapidated when I had a looksee. Why? Well, the first inhabitant were French with free Malagasy people and more than one islander commented on the plus of enjoying the perks of France’s infrastructure, while being far removed from “homeland” politics. Things cost a little more, but there are tax breaks. The rich are very much so while the poor among the population of about 866 000 rely a lot on social welfare, but there is an ineffable quality of life money can’t buy.
How’s the weather?
Your guess may be as good as anyone’s. Nico and his Czech born wife Libuse have guided final year Czechoslovakian meteorological students. This is because the weather on Réunion, with an estimated 200 microclimates, is so hard to predict. Unlike other Indian Ocean islands, Réunion is a huge, dimply, high pimple rising steeply out of the ocean, causing disruption to wind and ocean flow, plus it lies above-and was formed by- one of the planet’s major hot spots.
Drive 15-20 minutes and you can find yourself in a completely different ecosystem, something Nico clearly gets a kick out of. “I’m going to take you to some savannah” he once announced and, sure enough, a while later I felt as if I was back in the African bush. The many definite changes of scenery, vegetation and perspective are some of the things that delight me most about the island. Hard to get bored if you can experience a different “country” more than once a day.
The island is essentially formed by two volcanoes: the inactive Piton des Neiges (Peaks of Snow)- which tops out at 3070m and sees snow once every 7/8 years- and Piton de la Fournaise (The Furnace Peak), one of the most active- and safest- volcanoes in the world. Réunion has three beautiful, distinctly different calderas or cirques- huge, steep, bowl-shaped valleys resulting from the older volcano’s collapse and water erosion. Salazie is wet, with waterfalls and rainforests, Cilaos is similar to South Africa’s Western Cape mountains and Mafate- somewhere between the two- is a rugged wilderness accessible only by foot or air.
Flying in, one touches down outside the subtropical capital city of St Denis. The town has a mix of French colonial buildings and fortifications built with incredibly durable blocks hewn from volcanic rock, wooden Creole-style and some typically European buildings, with a lack (thankfully) of high- rise towers. The island architecture is charming- symmetrically laid out wooden sided buildings with verandahs (varanque) and floral motif fretwork under the eaves and tin or wood- tiled roofs. Colours are fresh and bright, with complete and careful restoration of dilapidated buildings an ongoing project.
From St Denis, many visitors head along the coast to Saint Andre and up into Salazie. I recall that on my first visit a light misty drizzle set in, creating beautiful atmospheric effects and causing the myriad of waterfalls on this, the wettest part of the island, to turn to seething torrents after a few hours. Neither words nor camera can do justice to the breathtaking views. Through staggeringly beautiful, narrow valleys and up steeply climbing roads, one passes roadside shrines. These dot the island and reflect the mix of predominantly Catholic belief mingled with Hindu, Tamil and Islam.
The highland village of Hell Bourg with its ruined thermal baths (a volcanic eruption diverted the spring system) is a delightful glimpse of yesteryear- charming Creole houses with gardens ablaze with beautiful flowers and herbs, several endemic to Réunion. On the subject of endemic, Réunion has no poisonous spiders, no snakes and the main predator is its only bird of prey, the Papanque. Le Relais des Cimes provided a fine lunch, much of which we saw on our journey. Chou chou/ chayote/ sju sju vines cover trees and hillsides and were served au gratin.
The food on Réunion- a mix of French cuisine and Creole delights – is as wonderful as the scenery. Be adventurous. Seafood abounds, the caris are delicious as is gratin palmiste, smoky sausage is great and carne cabris massale an unexpected highlight. Vegetarians will not be disappointed as the islanders pride themselves on their lentils and legumes whilst chou-chou grows incredibly profusely. Meals are typically accompanied with locally produced rum punch (buy your own rhum arrangé “starter pack”) or aperitif, wine, and the pleasant, relatively inexpensive Réunion Bière Bourbon, also known as La Dodo. (Legend has it that the extinct Dodo existed on Reunion). I was happy to see that fast food joints do not thrive, but patisseries/ boulangeries do.
Cilaos is the sunniest and driest of the three calderas and is overlooked by Piton des Neiges. “The road with 420 bends” takes you through tunnels and along cliff faces into a different world. Cilaos- from a Malagasy word meaning “the place you never leave”- is aptly named. The majestic alpine setting is a paradise for sporty adrenaline junkies, nature lovers and those simply there to relax with a glass of local wine in a thermal spring.
With so much to see and do you probably won’t relax long. Canyoning beckons – and what a treat! Wide- eyed, crazily grinning faces are the order of the day on the way down cliffs and waterfalls into crystal clear mountain pools.
A highlight for me was a Creole picnic with the lovely Raymonda Gontier and charming husband Mikael. It began with the ubiquitous rhum arrangé (a potent rum liqueur). This couple have some 80 varieties, infusing rum with a delicious variety of herbs, fruit, flowers and spices. Our lunch consisted of pork and chicken dumplings for starters wrapped in rice ‘pastry’. We progressed to quiche with Cilaos lentils and dark, smoked homemade sausage, Marlin with endemic “mango” ginger, chicken in Cilaos wine with fish sauce from the potjie. Food on Réunion is always accompanied by rougail – interesting side dishes/condiments with, for example, tomato, peanut butter, and almost always an aubergine version. We topped off with corn cake and gâteau maison and vanilla rum, plus home roasted, vanilla flavoured coffee sweetened with honey from their apiary.
Raymonda runs cooking courses and Mikael grumbled about the weight he’s gained since they opened their guest house in the stunning mountain hamlet of Ilet a Cordes.
I was also thoroughly entertained by Noe Noe Dijoux, who owns the charming Hotel Tsilaosa where I stayed. In his downstairs cellar he regaled us with the history of wine in the area, plying us with various vintages and varietals, accompanied by excellent Piton Maido, one of 17 local cheeses, and salami.
Cilaos produces naturally sparkling mineral water (there are four water companies on Réunion) and the spa is popular with local and overseas visitors. Before leaving we shopped for rhum arrange kits, settling on Faham (wild orchid) with vanilla and cinnamon.
Another spectacular drive up from the coast- to the volcano this time- encompasses pastoral farmland, panoramic views toward the high peaks and down to the sea. En route we dined at Auberge du Volcan, where gratin palmiste (palm hearts) and carne cabris massale, two typical Reunion dishes, stole the show. Who knew goat could be so tender and succulent?
The drive climbs above forests to fynbos and the otherworldly expanse of volcanic grit, Plaine des Sables, en route to the view over the lava landscape created by previous eruptions of Piton de la Fournaise. It’s reassuring to know that the volcano is one of the safest and most studied in the world. It’s a “red” volcano and doesn’t spew ash, is not on a fault line and when it does erupt the caldera of high cliffs it created ensures the lava flows toward the ocean.
On the way back, after a bracing hike up and down the cliff face of the volcano’s caldera and onto the magma moonscape, I’d recommend Ti Resto Lontan, facing the Volcano Museum, where they cook on wooden fires.
The caldera of Mafate is a wilderness accessible only by foot or helicopter and like much of the island is a hiker’s paradise with over 140km of footpaths in varied landscapes among 10 peaks.
My knees are buggered so I can’t hike that far, but a helicopter provided amazing sights of little clifftop settlements, ravines, sweeping forested canyons and valleys. Cloud covered the two peaks that day so unfortunately I did not get a bird’s eye view of the volcano or Cilaos.
The coastline of Réunion is as dramatically varied as the interior. In the north- at St Denis- black polished rocks below sheer cliffs form the shoreline. Moving south the road crosses the lava field, steaming under a downpour. The road was rebuilt after lava flows some 60m thick in ’07 and vents on the roadside are still hot enough to scald, Here there are narrow sandy coves between steep headlands and the humidity gives way to drier, savannah-like areas. Some beaches are golden, others black- and they become longer and are protected by coral reefs heading west. The west coast is where almost all the snorkelling, surfing and other water activities take place. It has the biggest selection of hotels and is a popular base from which to explore on self-drive day trips. Five star Palm Hotel, about six kilometres from St. Pierre in the other direction toward St. Joseph was, for me, the most charming spot, though the sprawling five star Lux Hotel in Saint Gilles probably has the most to offer, with a beautiful coral reef and calm, still waters on its doorstep. L’Orangine, the fine restaurant, is superb.
Here I dined on Toothfish and potatoes in a champagne sauce, with the champagne clearly evident and marrying perfectly with the white fish. Tuna and beef, roasted potatoes with a coffee sauce and foie gras topping were simply heavenly.
Réunionnais like to party. One visit coincided with the annual carnival in the coastal town of Saint Gilles Les Bains and, after an elegant dinner at Boucan Canot Hotel’s Le Cap restaurant, we joined the crowds still thronging late on a Sunday evening- around 50 000 attended. What a fun atmosphere! Everyone was chilled- if that’s possible while partying up a storm. Among the painted faces, elaborate hairdo’s and fancy costumes were mums pushing prams through the jam-packed streets past dj’s, pumping music and light and smoke shows.
Expect to give way on the mountain twisties if driving. Thank goodness for the islanders’ attitudes! They are polite, patient and reserved. It is safe to cross at pedestrian crossings- even at peak times. When Nico flagged an oncoming car to ask advice we South Africans hunkered down as traffic backed up while the two drivers chatted for several minutes in the middle of the road but nobody hooted, nor flashed lights or rude signs. There are lessons to be learned from this rainbow nation not far from ours.
Hitchhiking hikers are commonplace, getting from one hiking trail or hut to another. Pick them up. You’ll hear some interesting stories.
Adventure seekers, the list is extensive- paragliding, all forms of mountaineering, spelunking, exploring lava “tube”: tunnels, white water rafting, surfing, diving, fishing, hiking. Canyoning is highly recommended. There is plenty of culture to soak up- Musée Léon Dierx in St Denis for example has a renowned collection of international and local artists. Buy award winning vanilla products from family industries. Essential oils likewise won’t tax your baggage limit. Volcanic pebbles won’t cost a cent. An ultralight flip is highly recommended. If you can afford another 100e each, take a chopper.
Getting there from South Africa: Air Austral (www.air-austral.com- excellent service, excellent food) flies between Johannesburg and Saint Denis every Thursday and Sunday. South Africa passport holders do not need a visa.