French? Mais Oui !!!
Vous etes ici, bien sur. You are here, certainly. France. But truly the very southern south of France far from Provence, further still from Paris. You’re on the island of Reunion, once known as the Isle Bourbon, 500 miles due east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. And though tropical in every sense, you’ll still stumble across tiny bistros serving island food with a French flair, hear French spoken across the island, and even be able to spend those Euros left over from your last visit to the continent. But, the joy is in the mélange of cultures here including descendents of the Chinese, Indians, Africans, Madagascans, and others who passed by over time. So, allons-y.
A Little Background
As most travelers have yet to find their way here, it’s best to cover the basics straight away. Reunion is 970 square miles, making it the largest of the Mascarene Islands. Two volcanic systems give it not only its distinctive profile but also a range of climates offering everything from tropical humidity to something almost Mediterranean. Nearly 800,000 people live here and they are a mixed group, indeed. Each group carries a descriptive name that refers to its ethnic origin. Creole covers those of mixed parentage with the identifier blanc meaning white landowners or petits meaning poorer whites inhabiting the highlands. Others include: Z’arabes (from northern India), Tamouls (southern India), Comores (the Comores), Malagaches (Madagascar), Chinois (China), Cafres (those of African descent), and Z’oreilles who were born on the French mainland. There’s no mention of folks from Cincinnati. Anyway, acceptance is a way of life here and residents enjoy a harmonious existence.
It Wasn’t Always That Way
Along with Mauritius, Reunion was “discovered” by Admiral de Mascarenhas of Portugal on his 1507-1512 voyage. He named Reunion Santa Apolonia. In 1638, a French ship landed here and change the name to Mascarin. That also changed in 1649 when the King claimed rights to the island and it became known as Bourbon. When mariners discovered this island in the early days of the 16th century, there was nothing but a tropical paradise free from human habitation. So, the French packed off a 14 mutineering convicts to serve their three-year sentences here in a cave near St-Paul. Ultimately, the French declared control over the island and little else occurred until 1665. It was then that the French East India Company transported a band of hearty settlers, twenty in total, to make the island viable by establishing plantations. Within 50 years, tilled fields were producing crops of several spices and fine island coffee. In time, sugarcane became the preferred commodity even though field hands were needed by the score. So, boatloads arrived from nearby Madagascar and the African nation of Mozambique. All this went on undisturbed until 1848 when slavery was abolished forever. Replacing the slaves were teams of indentured workers who filled in the demographic complement you see on the island today.
What’s To See On The Island Today?
Lots. So, let’s begin at the beginning. St-Denis is where you begin. It’s not only the largest town on the island but it’s also the business hub since 1738. Among its many highlights are the Natural History Museum, which once served as the General Consul’s residence; the bustling marketplace with local handicrafts and island produce; brightly-painted Creole style homes; and a vibrant seaside esplanade. Hindu temples speak to the multi-cultural, multi-faith flavor of Reunion though the dominant religion is Roman Catholicism.
Many visitors flock to the beaches along the island’s western shore. St Gilles les Bain offers long stretches of golden sand, in contrast to the black sand beaches, and tranquil lagoons. Many resort hotels provide dining options or a swinging hammock under a leafy palm. Surfers all go to St Leu, also important for its history associated with the slave trade.
Hellbourg is renowned for its well-deserved “most beautiful French village” award and its location on the edge of the Cirque de Salazie. It was here at the Hotel des Thermes where guests came for the curative waters bubbling from neighboring thermal springs. Today, most visitors choose Cilaos to take the cure.
Piton de la Fournaise (Furnace Peak) is 2,631 meters tall, is among the world’s most active volcanoes, and has erupted 175 times since recordkeeping began in 1640. Scientists believe the volcano is 530,000 years old. Piton de Neige (Snow Peak) is 3,069 meters high and it’s been said that slaves used to have to scale the peak to retrieve ice for their masters.
Cirques are what we call calderas, really collapsed volcanoes or mountain amphitheatres. Whatever you call them, know that Reunion has three and each one provides spectacular viewing. Cirque of Mafate stands 6,800 feet above sea level with extraordinary views and a few overnight cabins for trekkers.
The options are many, so time is precious. But do remember to enjoy a café au lait in a seaside eatery before you bid “adieu” to Reunion