Meeting Reunion – a remarkable island holiday destination

Posted: October 28, 2010 in Travel
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By Lisa Moore

Many avid travellers have heard of exotic tourist destinations such as Mauritius, Zanzibar, and the Seychelles, but few have heard of the little gem that is Reunion Island. Situated off the eastern coast of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean, lies a multicultural society of roughly 770 000, composed of people originally from China, the Comoros,  France, India, Madagascar and Mozambique. Rich in both its unique French culture and history, Reunion Island entices those who are searching for a place in which they can put their feet up for a few days and relax, as well as caters for those who are more after adrenalin-pumping adventure and outdoor activities.             

 

Snow Peak

Reunion is a small island, almost round in shape, with a main road that goes all the way around it, covering over 240 kilometres in length. This island originated out of two volcanoes, so its appearance is that of a mountain rising out of the ocean. The first volcano is said to have occurred 2.5 million years ago. Magma gushing out of the crater spread around and into the ocean, and made up what is now the island’s highest point, “Piton des Neiges” (Snow Peak) at 3 069 metres. Despite its name, snow hardly ever falls on the summit, and this volcano is extinct.                                  

Furnace Peak

The second volcano erupted 380 000 years ago, roughly 30 kilometres to the south eastern region of Reunion. Here, a new volcanic mound formed, and attached itself to the first one, becoming “Piton de la Fournaise” (Furnace Peak), measuring 2 632 metres. This volcano is still active, and regularly erupts, providing a spectacular show of entertainment with its stunning lava flows and fountains, which are safely approachable. It is no wonder that Reunion is a tiny heaven for volcanologists; and there is also a Volcano Museum where more interesting facts can be learned and seen.                                                                                                             

Otherwise known as “La Réunion”, this island is one of the 26 regions of France, and therefore belongs to the European Union. Reunion was uninhabited until the mid-17th century, when it became a stopover on the rapidly increasing trade routes. The island contained an abundance of fresh water, which was available near the coasts, which is why many navigators – Arabic, Portuguese and English – visited Reunion. However, the French were the first to inhabit Reunion, and they used it as a punishing colony (prison) for the unwanted people from Madagascar.  

Reunion is very characteristically French, but despite its historical connection, the citizens continue to be proud of their individual roots. Catholics, Hindus and Muslims alike live beside each other, and religion forms a large part of daily life for these locals. A moving mix of blues music, called “Maloya”, originated from the slaves of the island, while “Sega” music reflects the influences of both Africa and Europe. Here in Reunion, culture is expressed and reflected in its diverse inhabitants, and each person is free to honour and celebrate their respective customs and traditions.                                                                                                            

Lamb Masala

Striking Creole architecture decorates the small towns and also adds a special touch to the delicious cuisine, which combines this with the different tastes of French, Indian, Chinese and even Italian, all with an island twist. Much use is made of the available seafood and locally grown unique fruits, vegetables and spices. The two dishes every visitor to Reunion should taste are “Lamb Masala”, an Indian recipe, and curry, which is the major local speciality. A typical Reunion curry is made of fish, meat or shellfish stew, prepared with cloves, garlic, ginger, onions, turmeric and other local spices. It is served with white rice and “grains” (beans, broad beans or lentils) and is topped with a spicy sauce made from lemon, pistachios and tomatoes, called “rougail”. In the Creole culture, it is vital to eat well. Cooking remains to be an art, and secrets are passed from mother to daughter over the generations. 

Reunion is subjected to a very tropical, humid climate, plentiful rainfall and rocky terrain. All these factors create primary forests, which cover a great deal of the island. Hiking lovers worldwide come here to experience for themselves its firmly established reputation as a naturally beautiful hiking destination. There are also a wide variety of landscapes which are affected by exposure to prevailing winds. Cliffs, black, pebble or coral sand beaches, lava flows –  the coasts also vary dramatically. Flora reigns in breathtaking varieties – bamboo, bougainvillea, hibiscus, orchids and palms are just a few that will attract the attention of botanical fans.                                         

La Reunion National Park

La Reunion National Park

In August 2010, Reunion Island won UNESCO’s World Heritage status within its National Park. The Pitons, cirques and fortifications of the site of Reunion Island overlap with the core zone of La Réunion National Park. This property covers more than 40 percent of this small island.                                                                                            

Chris Gilson, 47, a sales representative from Port Elizabeth, visited Reunion Island in April of 2009. He found out about Reunion Island via the travel web site Unusual Destinations. Chris booked his holiday through this website, which is also a travel agency. “What I could judge was that if you are into outdoor activities, such as surfing, hiking and paragliding, this is their main thrust”, says Chris, “but there are many other things as well, so it is difficult to really say.” According to Chris, there are many ‘touristy’ types of shops that can be explored, as well as an array of sights to be seen – so, essentially, it offers a typical tourist experience in a fresh, new place.            

Over the years, due to increased tourism, craftsmanship has increased in Reunion. You are able to buy typical souvenirs, such as T-shirts, books, food products (vanilla), and CDs and DVDs. However, some items made in Reunion are quite rare, such as tortoise-shell jewellery and items and objects made from fish skin and woven vegetable fibres.                                                                                                  

“I think the best experience for us was observing the live volcano from both angles – from the top as well as from the lava fields at the coast”, shares Chris. “The drive up to Salazie was also great, there were lots of waterfalls, and not to forget the great beer!” Chris thinks that going to Reunion Island is a bit more expensive than normal holiday packages, but the added value is that you do a ‘self-drive’ package, so you are not stuck in one resort for the entire length of your holiday.                               

“Yes, I would say it is affordable, if you don’t splash out on things like helicopter flips, et cetera and don’t eat in fancy restaurants”, he says. Chris suggests rather eating from roadside ‘sandwich bars’ as they are a lot easier on the pocket. In the end, the entire seven nights, including flights from Port Elizabeth for two, cost Chris in the region of R 35 000.  It is important to keep in mind that you still have to get French visas, though, and the price of these will obviously depend on the rand/euro exchange rate.                                                                                                                   

Due to the fact that it is so different, the vegetation and scenery changes constantly, the water is safe to drink and there are no diseases such as malaria or yellow fever. This automatically boosts Reunion’s Island status as a very interesting and attractive tourist destination. According to Chris, there is nearly no crime, there are completely diverse foodstuffs, and “the list is endless”. So, if you are looking for a place to get away and experience something totally new and different, why not meet Reunion Island? It is an island of true contrasts – you surely won’t be disappointed.

Travel Tips for First-Timers Visiting Reunion

When should I go? Any time of the year, except in February, when it is cyclone season.

Do I need a visa? Yes, if you are South African. If you have an American, British or EU passport, you are exempt.

What language is most spoken? French

What currency is used? The Euro. Exchanging money at a bank proves to be very difficult, as well as using traveller’s cheques, so it is strongly advised to travel with either a Master Card or a Visa credit card. 

What is the time difference? GMT + 4 hours

What is the weather like? Along the coast, it is hot, being dry on the west and humid on the east. It is mild in the mountains, becoming cool to very cold at night.

Are there any health hazards I should be aware of? The water is drinkable, and there is no malaria, so no immunisations are needed.

Must-sees and must-dos!

  1. Cilaos

    The three Cirques:

    View from Maido of Mafate

    Cirque de Mafate boasts lush, wild scenery and widespread trails. Accommodation is provided in ‘mountain houses’, for an authentic experience.

    Cirque de Cilaos is drier than Mafate, but hosts the perfect mountain bike challenge, offering a coastal ride for cycling enthusiasts. Visitors can also see the thermal springs and have a taste of the local wine-making industry.   

    At Cirque de Salazie, there is the renowned mountain retreat “Relais des Cimes”, which shows off the most gorgeous scenery.

    At the centre of the island, these enormous basins meet at the highest peak, “Piton des Neiges”.                                                 

  2. La Plaine-des-Palmistes and Bebour-Belouve Forest: This is one of Reunion’s most beautiful towns, and in spring and summer, vibrant flowers can be admired.
  3. Palm Hotel: Situated in the south, and surrounded by 3,5 hectares of a nature park, this also overlooks the island’s most stunning coral beach, “Grand Anse”.
  4. Saint Denis: This is the second town founded in Reunion, after Saint Paul. During the mid-17th century, this site was a natural site where a fort was due to be built, but in 1689, it became a town.
  5. Saint Gilles Les Bains: This is the ideal seaside resort location, with a distinctive French Riviera feel to it, for those wanting a holiday in the sun, sea, sand and surf. Coral reefs provide plenty of ocean life to see and experience whilst swimming in the lagoon, snorkelling or diving. There is a vast array of hotels, restaurants and bars, and provides access to “Boucan Canot”, Reunion’s prettiest white sand beach.

    Boucan Canot

  6. Saint Leu: On the west coast, this is every surfer’s paradise, where international surfing competitions are held. Those who are looking for a pulsating nightlife will definitely find it here!
  7. Piton de la Fournaise: This is probably the most thrilling site, and the fascinating lunar landscape can be viewed by helicopter. Those who are more adventurous at heart can venture along the hiking path from “Pas de Bellecombe”, and watch the lava flows on the east coast, near the tiny settlement of “Tremblet”. Here, along the south east coast, it is wild and unspoilt.

 

Reunion Island… An Adventure Waiting to Happen!           

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Comments
  1. D. Forster says:

    Got the passport – buit too old to climb the vulcanos.
    Well done, Mademoiselle.

  2. Lisa says:

    What a lovely article. Your writing style’s clear and descriptive- a pleasure to read! 🙂 Your hard work paid off.

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