In only 15 seconds my sight shifted from turquoise gradients of the Indian Ocean to deep green forests of Cirque de Mafate. I was taking a helicopter ride above Réunion Island, a 2520 square kilometres French overseas department, and was in disbelief of the beauty it unfolded in front of me.
Sandwiched between Madagascar and Mauritius, apart from being breathtakingly beautiful, Réunion has a significant history and diverse cultural amalgamation. Dating back to 17th century, French colonists were the first settlers who called the island Bourbon, after the royal family of France. Africans and Indians (locally called Malabar) were brought in later for work. However, it was only in 1848 when the name Réunion was declared.
This underrated destination is an idyllic getaway for an average Indian traveller. For enthusiastic young adults, Réunion is buzzing with adventure and nightlife throughout the year. For couples and family with children—leisurely beach experiences, outdoor picnic spots, culinary trails and unique theme parks are all a part of the island. For overworked professionals, the scope of rejuvenating with outdoor therapy and doing nothing is limitless. And for senior and disabled travellers, there is not a path that is not friendly enough for them.
About three million years ago, volcanic eruptions resulted in the birth of Réunion. The now extinct Piton des Neiges (3071 metres high) left behind the calderas or cirques of Mafate, Salazie and Cilaos. These cirques add an element of mystic to the already fascinating geography.
Cirque de Cilaos and Salazie are accessible by road though Cirque de Mafate, spoilt with gorgeously untamed ravines and ridges, is only accessible on foot (and thus a major hub for adventurers.) Together, these three form the heart of the island.
The mountain town of Cilaos challenges its visitors with a sweeping 400 turns through basins and tunnels en route. Once we did arrive at this toy town, I photographed it incessantly. We walked down Rue du Pere Boiteau, where I met intricate Broderie de Cilaos or embroidery of Cilaos. This craft is done on white cotton fabric and geometric patterns of flowers, butterflies, snails and tortoises are stitched on it.
On the extreme east of Réunion is Le Volcan or Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace). This active volcano has erupted several times in history and when it does, the lava flow takes the eastern route to meet the ocean. RN2 or Lava Road, between Sainte-Rosa and Saint-Phillipe, was the trail 2007 eruption’s spews of lava took. My guide, Vincent, helped me spot their age. The dark, solid wrinkles with slim shrubs growing on them were from the older 2001 eruption whereas the woolly, rubbled textured ones from the 2007 eruption.
Réunion’s capital, Saint-Denis in the north, resembles any other capital city. It is where most professionals go to work, where traffic blocks Route du Littoral (Coast Road) and it is the centre of all official work.
As we drove southwest from Saint-Denis, the visuals changed. Saint-Paul, only 28 kilometres away, is where the weekly local market is held every Friday and Saturday. Traffic was overwhelming but I remained focussed on what the beach-facing stalls offered. From comestibles like spices, vanilla pods, vegetables and fruits, to clothes, local crafts and basketwork, everything locally produced finds its way here.
About 60 kilometres southwards, Saint-Pierre has a vibe like no other city on the island. This southernmost city is dotted with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops on one side; snack bars, boutique hotels, a sizeable pier and the coastline on the other—its pulsating energy is attractive. I wasted no time and explored it on the very first evening.
A walk on Boulevard Hubert Delisle introduced me to famous snack bars of Réunion. These food kiosks are available within every few steps and sell their favourite snack, samoussa, among others. Like Indian samosas, these fried nibbles are stuffed with various ingredients though smaller in size. I enthusiastically tried tuna, chicken, crab and cheese samoussas.
There is no dearth of bars in this bustling neighbourhood. I decided to sample a couple of locally made drinks over my dinner at La Pierre in Villa Delisle. White rum (distilled from sugarcane) is the island’s local produce. Charrette, the brand I saw at everywhere, is a clear potent spirit with no distinct flavours. It adds character to its non-alcoholic counterpart or punch. Pineapple punch is perhaps the most favoured, though I did try a currant flavoured alcoholic punch.
Rum is also infused with local ingredients and fruits like jackfruit, ginger mango, dried edible flowers and leaves, combava (local citrus) and others, in large glass tumblers for a period of three months. This infusion reduces the alcohol percentage and blends in flavour of the soaked ingredient. It is consumed as a digestif. Between Isautier’s vanilla cafe and lemon ginger infusions, I have been unable to pick a favourite.
Bourbon breweries in the northern part of the island brews Réunion’s favourite Dodo beer. With the extinct bird as its logo, this golden, slightly cloudy lager is a perfect choice for most months of the year. They have seasonal pints like rousse (red) and radler (lemon), which are available in local bars and supermarkets.
This French department prides its wine produce. Cilaos is the primary wine-growing region and its sweet Isabelle is perhaps the most sought-after wine. Réunionese experiment with their wine—producing varieties with pineapples, peaches—apart regular rosé, white and red.
I initially presumed that nature’s greenery was limited to forests of Mafate. But as we drove into the commune of Salazie, similar hues filled my frame constantly.
First it was the 1000-metre Voile de la Mariée (Veil of the Bride) waterfalls which emerged from thick forests, forming a long lattice like a bride’s veil.
Then it was a quiet walk to Mare à Poule d’Eau (pond of water chicken) which was flanked by bamboo and tropical trees. Surrounded by lush green hills, it is an ideal site to spot the rare Réunionese heron.
Breaking away from nature colours, we drove to the green-hued Creole house in Hell-Bourg. Maison Folio is a Creole-styled villa, built in 19th century. Romantic pavilion with flourishing gardens at the entrance, white cornice crowning the roof of the main house, wood with cane furniture and two outhouses are all traditional architectural elements.
On another day, about 35 kilometres northwards from Salazie, the plains of Sainte-Suzzane unravelled extensive fields of vanilla cultivation. The sprawling La Vanilleraie plantation is in one of the oldest agricultural estates of the island, Grand Hazier. However, it was only in 2009 when it became a vanilla processing unit and now hosts visitors who trace the journey of green vanilla beans to rich aromatic pods.
And when I expected to find stark palm trees by the beach, I was surprised once again. A few metres above the high tide’s waterline, beach grass and vines grew till the tarmac road. By the road, in one of the breezy beach huts, we met chef Jacky of Far Far Kréol, who conducts culinary workshops. Our scheduled picnic at Trou d’eau by Saline Beach introduced me to the soul-warming Creole cuisine.
Our picnic begun with lentil fritters and chicken samoussas. Soon followed a traditional salad, where Jacky mixed palm hearts (local delicacy) with vinaigrette.
The chef lined pans of varying sizes in main course. Zambrocal, yellow rice, is a mix of beans, potato and turmeric. Turmeric is widely used as ‘massale’, which is a blend of cumin, fenugreek, coriander and mustard—not very different from the Indian masala.
Accompanying the rice was a fiery red curry. Rougail, a thick sauce made of onion, garlic, chilli and tomatoes, is usually cooked with pork sausages but we sampled one with chicken sausages. It was flavoursome without overpowering tastes of chilli. And Réunion’s favourite, sweet potato cake was for dessert.
After a long satisfying meal with conversations and exchange of cultures, I walked towards the glistening Indian Ocean. On a Wednesday early evening, there were many adventurers kitesurfing, rowing and children learning to sail. And beyond, crystal blue waters met the saturated azure skies.
Again, I stood in disbelief of this paradise.
–Getting there: Air Austral flies twice a week (Wednesday and Saturday) from Chennai International Airport to Roland Garros Airport in Réunion. Flight time is six hours.
–Getting around: Local transport is unreliable and hiring a taxi (and a guide) is the best way to see around.
–Where to stay: Villa Delisle, Hotel and Spa in Saint-Pierre (hotel-villadelisle.com; +262262707708; email@example.com) is a boutique mid-range hotel in the south.
LUX* in Saint-Gilles (luxresorts.com/en/hotel-reunion/luxsaintgilles; +262262700000) is an upscale hotel with a private beach on the east coast.
-Réunion is visa-on-arrival for Indians. Go here for details.
-French is widely spoken, with a very small percentage of people speaking English.
-Euro is the official currency.
-Vegetarians are spoilt for choice on the island.
-Food souvenirs like vanilla extracts, pickles or a bottle of Charrette are most recommended. Embroidered cloths, woven baskets or jewellery handmade of volcanic stone come a close second.
Do you think you’d pick Réunion for your next island holiday?
An edited version of this story appeared in New Indian Express Indulge Magazine. You can read it here.
Note: I was invited by Ile de la Réunion Tourism on this media trip.