France, Indian Ocean Style
One of the first things you will learn when you arrive in Réunion – a small volcanic island south-west of Mauritius – is that although you may be close to 10,000 km from France, this little Indian Ocean island has decided that location really is of minor concern when it comes to being a part of Europe. To highlight this, our guide very quickly quashed our attempts to differentiate between the island and mainland France. “Bienvenue to France,” he said, “Because that’s where you are!”
It takes a little while to get your head wrapped around this because, contrary to most trips to Europe, this one takes about a third of the time (the flight is approximately four hours) and doesn’t necessitate a lengthy and costly visa application process – in fact, as South Africans, you can basically just rock up!
France in the Middle of the Indian Ocean Categorised as an overseas department of France, Réunion is grouped with all of the other French regions and shares the same rights. So, when it’s time to vote for a new French president, the Réunionese head to the polls just as the mainlanders do. When the mainlanders celebrate Bastille Day – or any other French public holiday – you will find the Réunionese doing the same. Although, we discovered, the islanders like to spend their holidays picnicking and feasting on “road chicken”, rotisserie chickens which are sold from little stands on the side of the main roads. I doubt you’ll find the usual Parisian doing this.
Réunion is governed by exactly the same laws as the rest of France, and they drive on the same side of the road as the rest of the Europe. As a South African driver, this can take a little getting used to, especially when having to navigate a two-lane traffic circle. Unfortunately, there are many of these on the island, so you may end up going around some of them several times before figuring out the right exit. But then, that also gives you a chance to learn some choice French words from the locals!
Speaking of the locals, they also – in time honoured French tradition – love a good revolution, or these days, a strike. There was one shortly after we arrived and it certainly put many a South African strike to shame thanks to its blockade of tractors.
Réunion is part of the Eurozone, and as such, the euro is the official currency. This does, unfortunately, mean that you’ll have to shell out a fair bit of rand to get your holiday spending money, but you’ll be so glad you did.
This corner of France is an epicurean wonderland. French cheeses and champagne abound on menus in restaurants – and even in the local supermarkets – and there is a boulangerie
(bakery) on almost every street corner. The one downside of this is that it makes following directions a little difficult (“Oh, it’s easy to find – it’s right next to the boulangerie”), but this small irritation is soon forgotten the moment you sink your teeth into a freshly baked baguette – like only a true Frenchman can make.
Many of the boulangeries also make delicious quiches and sandwiches, perfect to pop in your backpack on your way to the beach. The volcanic black sand beaches are particularly picturesque, while others are reminiscent of those of the South of France, complete with stripy umbrellas and lounge cushions. Head up the winding road leading to the pinnacle of Piton de la Fournaise – the active one of the island’s two volcanoes – and you will feel a nip in the air and will pass by lush green pastures dotted with lowing cows. Blink and you could almost be in the French Alps.
A Different Kind of Landscape
That’s pretty much where the typographical similarities end though. The summit of Piton de la Fournaise is a barren lunar landscape, its one side black
with past lava flows which you can explore up close if you take the curvy coastal road to the “Wild South” of the island. The volcano is also responsible for some beautiful rivers and dramatic scenery – perfect for hiking, mountain-biking, horse-riding, and canyoning.
Head north where the now extinct summit of Piton des Neiges dominates the skyline, and you will find the volcano’s three cirques
or calderas, each with its own distinct character. Salazie is home to lush vegetation, and more waterfalls than you can aim your selfie stick at, as well as Hell-bourg, regularly voted France’s prettiest village. Cilaos is famous for its soaring cliffs and majestic scenery, while the smallest, Mafate, is a hiker’s paradise. Even if it wasn’t so incredibly green and full of flora and fauna, it would still have to be, as the only way in is on foot!
This is perhaps the best example of what makes Réunion such a fascinating destination. It has all the elements of a wild tropical island and yet all the refinement of Europe.
French Sophistication, Island Charm
Nowhere is this more evident than at the island’s only five-star beach resort, LUX* Saint Gilles, where traditional French colonial architecture combines with dramatic views of Piton des Neiges behind it and the lagoon of L’hermitage beach in front.
For a real taste of France, you’ll find at least a dozen different types of bread at the breakfast buffet, not to mention crêpes and pastries of every description. The hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, Orangine, is the perfect place to sample French haute cuisine, mixed with the island’s distinctive Creole flavours which smack of Indian and Chinese influences.
During balmy evenings the scent of vanilla from the hotel’s garden mixes with the smell of salt and pine trees, and as you dip your toes in the water, jaunty tropical cocktails or glasses of champagne are ordered from the white starched waiters in an eclectic mix of languages from French, English, and Spanish, to Creole.
This is Réunion – the youngest in the French family, wearing a little black dress from Chanel but with flowers and dreadlocks in its hair.
For more information on Réunion, visit the Réunion Island Tourism Board’s blog at blog.welcometoreunionisland. com. You can also find them on Facebook @Gotoreunionsa.
LUX* Saint Gilles
Part of the LUX* Resorts & Hotels group of resorts which first made its mark with five beautiful hotels in Mauritius, LUX* Saint Gilles boasts 174 rooms and suites, three restaurants, a bar and a café, as well as a host of leisure activities on one of the prettiest stretches of coastline on the island. For more information, visit www.luxresorts.com or email email@example.com.