La Réunion: A touch of France in the Indian Ocean
There is an English saying, “you can’t see the forest of the trees”. It means, you’re so caught up in the details that you can’t see the big picture. With La Réunion, it’s actually the opposite. The landscapes are so lush and green that you don’t realize that the green mountains actually consist of thousands of trees until you’re walking in the forest itself.
La Réunion is a part of the French Republic; therefore, the prices are very similar to the Métropole (as Les Réunionnais call the mainland). It was very interesting to visit Reunion Island just after Madagascar. The contrast in living standards was extreme. As my tour guide said, the wealth and infrastructure of La Réunion is purely due to French money flowing in. Without it, they would be Madagascar. Instead, they have the most expensive stretch of highway in France and a relatively high standard of living.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it was really challenging to plan out my itinerary. Thankfully, I was able to find a tour guide to help me through 6 days of hiking. The downside (or upside) is that he spoke no English and so I had to speak French with him and my tourmate the entire trip.
I started in St. Dénis. There is not a lot to do there and since I arrived on a Sunday, nothing was open. I had to eat some chips from the gas station for food. Surprisingly, Musée Léon-Dierx was open and for 2 euros, it was an excellent value.
I was picked up by my tour guide the next day. Jean-Yves Hervet was awesome, energetic, eccentric. An oreille (what they call mainlanders there), he had lived in Reunion Island for decades and was a keen outdoorsmen, spry, good-humoured and agile.
Reunion Island is seriously a hiker’s dream. There are various routes, well-marked throughout the entire island. The temperatures range from tropical to sub-tropical to downright chilly.
We did one route every day and stayed in a cabin dormitory (gîte) each night. The cabins provided delicious food, even at Piton des Neiges where the food mostly consisted of pre-frozen food due to logistics. The créole food of Reunion Island is really tasty, especially their lentils and curries.
Over the six days, we did:
* A half-day hike just between St. Denis and Hellbourg. This hike was very humid since it was at low altitude; I got eaten alive by mosquitoes and almost slipped at every step walking on the wet roots. I worried what I got myself into since I had six days left but luckily this was the only bug-infested day.
* A misty hike to le Haut Mafate. This cirque does not have any roads and most items are delivered to this small community by helicopter. A quiet day and fairly easy hike amongst some very majestic trees.
* A warm sunny day walking to le cirque des Cilaos. The views were fairly magnificent along this route.
* The longest ascent of the trip, approx 1300m, towards a cabin near Piton des Neiges, a dormant volcano and the highest peak in the Indian Ocean. Sunset was magnificent.
* 4am wake-up call for a walk to the peak. I was warned that the previous day would be the most difficult day but I found this day to be the most challenging, descending 1700m. Walking up seems so much easier than walking down.
* A walk around the edge of Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano. Seismologists were predicting an imminent eruption so sadly, we could not walk to the peak. I hoped that the volcano would erupt while I was on La Réunion but it never happened.
I spent the last 4 days of my trip in Boucan Canot, a cute beach town near Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains, the most popular beach area. I was just exhausted from the travel in Madagascar and the hiking, so I spent the first couple of days catching up on sleep.
I didn’t swim very much but sat on the beaches for some relaxation time. I learned that La Reunion has the most shark attacks per capita and many parts are off-limits for swimming, especially where the shore is deep and murky since bull sharks like those areas.
There is no such thing as discounted lodging in La Réunion. I stayed at La Villa du Soleil which seemed to be the most affordable lodging near a supermarket and bus. The staff were fairly friendly and the place was tidy. Another bonus was that it is right by a major Car Jaune stop, La Réunion’s bus service which goes around the entire island and stops at the airport.
In conclusion, La Réunion is amazing. If you just want to lounge on a beach then this is not the place for you since there are much better beaches in our countries. But if you are an avid hiker this would be a wonderful place for you to experience France in the Indian Ocean.