La Réunion: Into the Cauldron
"Saint-Denis, with its 140,000 inhabitants, was first settled in 1668 by Étienne Regnault, the island’s first governor, who named the settlement after a ship that ran aground here."
The sleepy tropical island lies dark and tranquil beneath the majestic coconut palms that stand side by side like tall, watchful sentries. Lines of our fresh footprints lie embedded in the sand, down the gentle slope of the beach and into the oily smooth water.
A black-headed heron stands motionless in the shallows, its graceful, curved neck poised in the classic stalking position as it patiently waits for some unwary prey to venture too close. The only activity in the stillness of the new dawn is our movement on board the dark shape of the fishing boat as we prepare to leave the harbour at St-Gilles-les-Bains for a day out to sea.
The warm tropical waters off the coast of La Réunion are rich in marine life, and it isn’t long before the rods are bending and shaking in their holders as three small bonito hit the feathered lures being trolled behind the boat. These feisty little fish are quickly hauled into the boat and deposited in the fish wells as the skipper swings the helm around to cover the same patch of water. Beyond the horizon, the towering peaks of this remote Indian Ocean island’s lush and verdant interior cast their shadows across the shimmering lagoon.
Historically, the French have kept the secret of this beautiful island firmly to themselves. But news of La Réunion’s dramatic natural wonders, its world-class hiking trails, a plethora of adventure sports and its intriguing cultural heritage is beginning to seep out.
La Réunion is the largest of the Mascarene Islands, which include the neighbouring Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues. The name Mascarenes comes from Conquistador Admiral Pedro de Mascarenhas – the Portuguese adventurer who discovered the island group during his epic voyages of discovery in the 1500s. The distant islands and reefs found within and around the Mozambique Channel – Bassas da India, Île Europa, Juan de Nova and the Îles Glorieuses – are dependent territories of La Réunion. Tromelin, located 560 kilometres to the north, is also a dependent territory.
The island of La Réunion was first discovered by Arab navigators from Malagasy (Madagascar) who used to call the island ‘Adna Al Maghribain’ (Western Island). The Portuguese, having pioneered a route around the Cape of Good Hope, were the first Europeans to visit the island in 1513; comrades of the great navigator Vasco da Gama, they named it ‘Santa Apollonia’. On the maritime route to India, the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French used to call at the island to replenish their food supplies. In 1638, the French ship ‘Saint-Alexis’ landed on the island and its captain François Cauche took possession in the name of Louis XIII, King of France, and the French decided to settle there.
The first view the air traveller has of La Réunion is of an emerald-green island set in the deep blue of the vast Indian Ocean. Situated just north of the Tropic of Capricorn east of Madagascar, La Réunion is about 200 kilometres southwest of Mauritius, the nearest island. The capital, Saint- Denis, has an abundance of historical monuments that stand as a testimony of the splendour of the times, from the colonial days of the East India Company to the Creole charm of the 1900s.
After clearing customs at La Réunion’s Roland Garros Airport we collected our hire car and drove the 10 kilometres to Saint-Denis. Our tour of the island began in front of the stately former East India Company offices, now the seat of the island’s Préfecture.
Saint-Denis, with its 140,000 inhabitants, was first settled in 1668 by Étienne Regnault, the island’s first governor, who named the settlement after a ship that ran aground here. But Saint-Denis didn’t really start to develop until the governor Mahé de La Bourdonnais moved the capital here from Saint-Paul in 1738: the harbour was in general more sheltered and easier to defend, and water more abundant, though attempts at constructing a port at Le Barachois were foiled by a succession of cyclones.
The Avenue de la Victoire and the Rue de Paris lead to the Jardin de l’État botanical gardens and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) where we simply had to stop. The old centre of the capital contains a number of splendid buildings including the Tuscan-style Cathédrale de Saint- Denis. From here we decided to walk to the shopping street of Rue Maréchal Leclerc and the Grand Marché, an exquisite market dedicated to Indian Ocean handicrafts, and the Petit Marché, with its thousand scents of fruits and spices.
From Saint-Denis, heading westwards beyond the great northern cliffs above the town of La Possession, you reach Le Port, whose name speaks for itself. This dynamic town is La Réunion’s maritime port, with an attractive flower market and a particularly animated commercial centre. Beyond the Rivière des Galets stretches the island’s largest natural harbour, the vast expanse of Saint-Paul bay, where the island was first settled. A maritime cemetery built in the era of the East India Company is to be found here, which contains some very old tombs. Here too, you will find the Grotte des Premiers Français (cave of the first French settlers).
The administrative district of Saint-Paul extends over a wide area, stretching up to the rim of the Cirque de Mafate. The summit of Piton Le Maïdo affords one of the most impressive viewpoints in La Réunion and is well worth a visit. On the way down the mountain we stopped off at the Begue family’s L’Alambic still in Petite France to see a traditional distillery producing essential oils from geranium, cryptomeria and vetiver leaves. Saint-Paul is the island’s second largest ‘commune’ after Saint-Denis and home to an impressive street market. After Saint-Paul, you reach the main holiday resorts on the west coast: Boucan Canot, L’Hermitage, Saint-Gilles-les-Bains, the lagoon and the beaches which follow in succession along the shore. Along the way be sure to take a look at the Aquarium and Le Jardin d’Eden botanical gardens.
The next stage of our tour took us across the western slopes of Trois-Bassins, which has wonderful views over the coast from its heights. From here we head downhill towards Saint- Leu along the Colimaçons road, passing the Conservatoire Botanique National des Mascarins – an unusual Creole mansion built by the Marquis de Chateauvieux in the 1850s. Reaching the coast, the road brings you to the famed Kélonia Sea Turtles Observatory – a centre dedicated to the protection and study of five different species of turtle found in the waters around the island. The seafront promenade in Saint-Leu has a smattering of attractive stone buildings dating from the French-colonial era and is a Mecca for adventure sports. It is a veritable paradise for paragliding, mountain biking and surfing. The nearby Stella Matutina Agricultural and Industrial Museum at Point Saint-Leu, is dedicated to the island’s agricultural and industrial history and is housed in a former sugar mill.
The south coast of La Réunion sits in the shadow of the Piton de la Fournaise active volcano and is known as ‘le sud sauvage’, (the wild south). The tortured landscape here is the result of thousands of years of volcanic activity, great tongues of black lava slice through the forest and even reach the ocean at several points. Not surprisingly, very few Réunionese tempt providence by living in the path of the lava flow!
Therefore the southeast coast is sparsely populated, save perhaps for the settlements of Saint-Louis, Saint-Pierre and Saint-Joseph – the gateway to the wild south.
On 7 April 2007, in one of the most violent eruptions in recent years, the lava unusually flowed south of Le Grande Brûlé to reach the sea between Pointe du Tremblet and Pointe de la Table, literally cutting off the main highway between Saint- Joseph and Sainte-Rose – a town which lives in symbiosis with the volcano which dominates it.
As a result of this lava flow our route from here would take us across the island and onto the high plateau of the central plains linking Le Tampon and Saint-Benoît. The road that links these two towns is far more than a mere south-to-north crossing as it leads the visitor little by little further into another world. The road climbs abruptly and gives way to a humid tropical rainforest – the extraordinary jungle of Bebóur. Collectively known as Les Hautes Plaines (the High Plains), the two plains of the Plaine-des-Palmistes and the Plaine-des-Cafres actually form the saddle that separates the central massif of the three cirques from the volcano.
The Plaine-des-Cafres, once a refuge for runaway slaves from the coast, is the natural access route to the Piton de la Fournaise – a smouldering volcano that is probably La Réunion’s most renowned feature. The walk to the summit can get very busy, but the fascinating tortured landscape here more than makes up for the crowds of visitors. Early morning is the best time to climb the volcano, as you stand a better chance of clear views, but this is when everyone else decides to visit the crater. The path from the ridge across the lava field can resemble a trail of ants, with hundreds of walkers all heading for the peak at the same time. The most interesting place on the Plaine-des-Cafres from a visitor’s perspective is Bourg-Murat – home to the world famous Maison du Volcan (Volcano House) museum.
Like the leaves of a three-leaf clover, the cirques of Cilaos, Salazie and Mafate dominate the interior of the island. These sheer-walled canyons filled with convoluted peaks and verdant valleys are the remnants of an ancient caldera – a large volcanic depression that surrounded Piton des Neiges, the highest point on the island at 3,070 metres. The largest settlement in any of the cirques is Cilaos, high in the cirque of the same name, which developed as a spa resort in 1819. This beautiful alpine village is dominated by the white bell tower of The Church of Our Lady of the Snows. There is still a spa in Cilaos, but today most people come here for the hiking trails or to climb Piton des Neiges. Cilaos is also the only place on the island with vineyards yielding a distinctive red or rosé wine.
The Cirque de Salazie, accessed by road from Saint-André on the northeast coast, is a natural Eden watered by a thousand waterfalls, including the spectacular Voile de la Mariée (Bride’s Veil). At the bottom of the cirque, the village of Hell-Bourg is considered to be one of the most beautiful on French territory. The remote Cirque de Mafate is only accessible on foot or by helicopter. A large number of Indian agricultural workers came to settle on the fertile soil of Saint-André. Tamil culture is deeply rooted here, fine examples of which, the magnificent Temple du Colosse and the new Kalikambal Temple, offer guided tours for the public. Other attractions include the Sucrerie de Bois-Rouge sugar factory and the Maison de la Vanille vanilla plantation.
The warmth and friendliness of the Réunionese is genuine. It is all the more so precious since it took a lot of perseverance and courage to build this Métis multicultural society which welcomes the visitor today. La Réunion’s cuisine also reflects the island’s cultural diversity. Even the finest of gourmets will be delighted with the variety offered by this island. Raffia fruit-curcuma-scented terrines, vanilla duck, beef and cabbage tree stew and ‘cari’, the traditional dish, can all be sampled in the island’s many hotels and restaurants.
This green jewel in the Indian Ocean is a modern and authentic island that combines Europe’s advantages with the charm of a tropical idyll.
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Les Villas du Lagon
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