Reunion close up and personal

REUNION – THE INDIAN OCEAN’S LITTLE KNOWN ‘WILD CARD DESTINATION

(Posted 24th September 2013)

(Reunion seen through the eyes of a local artist – at the Seaside market of St. Paul)

A week on La Reunion – a French island in the deep of the Indian Ocean, located between Madagascar and Mauritius – sounds like a dream come true and it was. The main reason for the visit, to cover the birth of the Vanilla Island Organization and the UNWTO Conference on Sustainable Tourism in Small Islands, while dominating the first few days, was almost relegated to a side show. I say that with the highest respect for the quality of those conferences, no quarrel there with speakers and panelists but simply because my hosts pulled out all the stops to make me forget those events – yes I blame them tongue in cheek – by laying on a programme of sightseeing and exploring the island which left out literally nothing and what was only a result of bad weather, but more about that particular trip later.

Already on the first day I was able to visit the Marsouin River, not far from St. Benoit, known for its white water rafting for those seeking to boost their adrenaline flow, but equally renowned for the setting of some cozy riverside restaurants, like the Les Letchis, which served genuine French food as one would expect to find it in the deep of rural France, in addition to which they specialized in plenty of drinks based on the rum which is produced on the island. The joke was making the round, to bring a tall bottle and 6 straws, leaving the waiters bewildered and our group of five scribes plus ‘super trooper guide Sully’ in stitches. Rum of course has a history on this island, where sugar cane still largely dominates agricultural production, and like on other tropical islands where sugar cane is grown, the production of rum has been going on since cane was first grown. If any item on my itinerary was in fact missing, it was a visit to a distillery or the ‘Saga du Rhum’ centre in St. Pierre, about which I had read up and where I had hoped for some sustained ‘rum tasting’ but evidently I was needed sober as were my colleagues, leaving this tasty morsel to discover at a future visit.

While at the Les Letchis, three helicopter landings took place, bringing groups of tourists to the restaurant for either rafting or for a meal, a sign how hugely popular and renowned the spot is – no one for sure would imagine taking a heli ride to a McDonalds nor would anyone in his true mind come to such an exotic tropical island to eat mundane fast food when the restaurants, bistros, cafés and eateries offer genuine French food with that unique blend and fusion of Creole spices and local recipes. A splendid outing it was for our group of people, Austin from Lagos, Christian from the City of Angels, Bea the wanderer between Canada and Palm Springs and Juergen from distant Hawai, who probably felt almost at home on an island with an active volcano. We enjoyed a mouth watering lunch at a scenic river side location and their lime juice concoction was, sine alcohol I should point out, refreshing both palate and mind.

On subsequent days, more of the island was shown to me, including a visit to and private tour of La Vanilleraie near St. Suzanne – you will have noticed that literally every town and village seems to be named after a proper Saint – which truly was an eye opener. Here a tradition of nearly 200 years of vanilla growing and processing has been maintained, grown ‘lovingly’ with each flower pollinated by hand using a little wooden peck, and once harvested processed and processed some more for over a year before sending the very highest quality vanilla to markets around the world.

(The stages of vanilla, from pollinating to harvest over processing to a very pricey commodity ready for shipment)

Little wonder then that across the island are items on sale, oils and spirits, pastries and even chocolate, flavoured with vanilla and by my own experience liberally used in cooking fine meals or as an ingredient to fuse in rum or other drinks. And there goes the explanation too, why the newly launched inter island cooperation has been named ‘Vanilla Island Organization’ for vanilla is grown not just on Reunion but also on Madagascar and several of the other member islands.

(Shop display at the La Vanilleraie in Sainte Suzanne, Reunion)

And then, travelling a well maintained but nevertheless narrow winding road, the journey led into the interior, driving from the bottom of steep rock faces to their top or near top before descending again into the next gorge followed by climbing up once more, ears popping like in an aircraft. Gushing water falls from the rock faces made for spectacular scenery, combined with the tropical vegetation, and yet, the moment a little village came into sight, I felt like teleported back into France, were it not for the pleasant climate and the tropical flowers in the gardens or the back drop of steep mountain peaks covered in vegetation unique to this Indian Ocean island. Hell-Bourg was, literally, the end of the road up to that part of the island, with more or less only hiking trails leading further into the interior and up the surrounding peaks.

The village could have been one of alpine France, down to the smallest details of architecture, but greatly enriched by the Creole fusion, the colours, building and roof shapes and of course the gardens with a symphony of colours nearly blinding the eyes. Like in France there were the shops, the post office, the pharmacy and the bistros where locals sat reading La Monde, blowing smoke rings into the air and drinking their favourite lunch time poison. A walk across the village, named after a former governor of the island who had himself a residence built up in the cool mountain air, built up some good appetite for lunch – a delicious spread of local dishes inspired by Creole recipes, and then making way for more strolls helping to digest after another case of overeating. The option of going canyoning however I passed for the moment, as full stomachs are perhaps not the best preparation for abseiling and racing down canyons, though it was well noted that this adventure sport too was available on the island besides of course paragliding and the famous rides by helicopter up the volcanoes rim or flying over the rugged breathtaking land- and canyon-scapes of the island’s interior. And then there is of course an entire range of water sports and ocean based activities, but more of that later.

(Visitors can get around the entire island, to literally every inhabited spot, by public bus transport, a way to explore the island’s shore lines and interior independently, and that includes major ‘adventure sport’ spots as seen above)

The conferences over, so was the stay at the centrally located Mercure Creolia Hotel, from where sweeping views across St. Denis, the mountain slopes and the open ocean were giving that dream vista every morning and even more spectacular at night with the lights blazing across the city. That morning though, the weather had turned rainy and gusty and the helicopter company was prompt to call in and cancel the flight up to the Piton de La Fournaise, where I was to land on the crater rim with my colleagues, enjoy the sight of live volcano before then making the way by the waiting bus towards the shores again.

Instead did Sully, our superb guide, think on the quick and rearranged the day, arranging a road trip by coach to our new abode across the island at the LUX Ile de Reunion Hotel.

A first stop in the morning was at St. Paul’s seaside market, which had just opened and was starting to fill up with the clients coming for fresh produce, flowers, bread and in fact literally anything else on a shopping list, this being an open air equivalent of Carrefour, just more colourful, more authentic and full of the scent of flowers and spices with a tangy twist of ocean air. The morning scenes, the sky blue and bright overhead by now – but too late to do the heli ride – enticed to walk, stroll, linger and take it all in, to be sure that the images remained firmly in my mind, allowing me to write the story with the passion I felt on side and the passion needed to make readers want to come and see this for themselves.

In fact, the images taken will speak louder than I could myself and will probably tell the story of Reunion as only a local could tell it …

The impressions from the market, the potpourri of colours, sounds and scents – the smell of freshly brewed coffee drifted across the stalls, mixing with the smell of flowers, spices, rum from a broken bottle which has fallen from a crate and the ocean air made for an experience one simply should not miss, and whether explored as part of an organized tour or on one’s own using the islands efficient public transport system, St. Paul is a must see place.

But it was not just the market but also the display of the island’s past, which I found in the early morning empty of tourists, with the locals hardly looking up at the statues or taking a glance at the battery of canons pointing to the open ocean, a reminder how the islanders were ever ready to defend their own.

The mix of the contemporary with the distant history, the blend between that typical way of French life with the Creole influence on the island and the back drop of high volcanic mountains covered with lush tropical vegetation is bound to leave a mark on a visitor. Highways as perfect as if teleported from France’s Mediterranean seaside run around much of the island and where the highways end perfectly good roads span the distance, allowing one to drive from St. Denis to the opposite side of the island at St. Pierre, where Reunion’s second airport, Pierrefonds, is located. From there it is easy to complete the circle around the island along the ocean side or else traverse the interior to St. Benoit and take another highway back to the capital.

(Map courtesy of www.reunion.fr – The Reunion Tourism Board)

On our journey of discovery went, stopping at the picturesque little town of St. Leu, where we could observe the paragliders come down from the surrounding mountain tops, surfers testing their skills, where we would explore the historic heart of town and for those who fancied it taste a cup of espresso French style, served with water and a biscuit, sitting on a road side café.

It was a perfect morning for a stroll in the park, literally, as much of the town’s ocean front was in fact a pedestrian zone and the locals would make use of it, sitting on park benches for a chat with a friend or walking more purposefully along the ocean front, dressed up with suits crossing paths with those in shorts and t-shirts.

Our ‘ad hoc’ road trip then took us for lunch to the luxurious ‘Palm Hotel and Spa’ at Petite Ile, perched on top of a high cliff overlooking the ocean, a five star resort France’s who is who reportedly had stayed at before and certainly one place I would have wanted to check in and enjoy the splendor of the resort’s villas instead of ‘just having lunch’.

Lunch though was a lavish affair and the curry prawns and the tuna fillet, just seared on both sides to make it perfect, gave me reason to ponder what a longer stay here would be like, enjoying the Spa, the extensive gardens and more of that mouthwatering food, served with the brightest and widest smiles of a service team going out of their way to please, even though it was ‘just for lunch’.

But as is the nature of such trips, there is always more to explore, another place to see and so it was a warm ‘au revoir’ from the General Manager and his staff, though of course I am hoping to turn this into the Kiswahili version of ‘Kwaheri Ya Kuonana’ with the expectation and hope to come back for a proper sampling sometime in the future.

On the journey went to St. Gilles, where the LUX Ile de La Reunion was to be the base for more adventures the following day. Cocktails at sunset made way for a dinner at the beachside, allowing tales to be told and new acquaintances to be made as many of the conference delegates too had opted to extend their stay for a few days to sample the island’s hospitality and experience the thrill of helicopter rides or watching whales and dolphins swim literally in tandem.

A bright morning made sure we would finally get airborne, after missing the trip to the ‘Piton de la Fournaisse’ the previous morning due to bad weather. Corail Helicopteres www.corail-helicopteres.com) was to take us up into the skies over Reunion for a flight into the interior of the island and it was even better than all the literature had promised it to be. Our hosts were giving us the full monty, the full tour, the best of the best, the tour of all tours by air which opened up the interior of the island. Mountain tops, covered with vegetation, some rising up like the teeth of the monster laying in deep slumber below, volcanoes long gone dormant, leaving their reminder on the surface that they might yet return one day, but hopefully not too soon of course. The inside of those canyons and gorges are in part inhabited now, and fertile as the many farms seen from the air showed. Roads hugging steep mountain sides were seen from above snaking their way in and out of the valleys, connecting people by road, but those canyons uninhabited up to today can only be reached by foot, and keen hikers are often taken by guides deep into those parts of the island, cut off from the rest of the world, exploring nature untouched by man’s hands.

Waterfalls galore, white water rivers, little lakes and rock faces a thousand and more feet steep give the taste to actually go down there and explore the core of the island on foot, after going by car as far as is possible before then disappearing into the foliage in search of exotic plants, shrubs, trees and birds.

Adrenalin junkies will definitely love Reunion and what is on offer there, from paragliding to flying in a micro light or a conventional light aircraft, the helis making their way right into the deep of the canyons, almost in touching distance to the rock face and yet keeping a safe respectful distance, white water rafting or the adventures of the open ocean, which awaited us next.

From the helipad we went straight down the long slopes of the mountain to the ocean side, to spend the rest of the day on the open ocean on a large catamaran, in search of dolphins and whales, regularly seen off the island’s shores.

Now a larger group of journalists, the cat nevertheless was spacious enough to find a private spot, look into the azure blue waters and almost become a philosopher, except, there were things to see and to capture, on film, not with the hooks of the fishing gear which too was at the ready.

It turned out to be a fairy tale ending of my last day on Reunion, as before dawn the next morning my return journey was to start, from Roland Garros International Airport in Reunion back to Entebbe. The images of whales and their young ones frolicking about, of dolphins staying always just a few yards ahead of the two bows of the catamaran as if daring us to catch them, the day out on sea with the volcanoes of Reunion always visible in the distance, the fellowship of equally well travelled other writers with the opportunity to talk shop for a while though never losing sight of the spectacle going on around us, was the icing on the cake. Reunion Tourism had truly outdone themselves, not just pulled out all the stops but done so in a way that everyone on this trip was to become their tourism ambassador.

The personal presence on many occasions, though not on board the catamaran, of Didier Robert, President of the Region of Reunion, and the top brass of their tourism board starting from CEO Pascale Viroleau, made it clear that they knew how to work the travel media and showcase their destination. With over 80 percent of the island’s visitors presently coming from mainland France, it is the declared intention of the island’s government to widen that scope and become more widely known around the world, their unique attractions talked about and the planes of Air Austral getting full with individuals who wish to find that quintessential bit of France in the deep of the Indian Ocean but at the same time experience the blend of Creole life which has left a mark on everything to a greater or lesser extent. Reunion, the ‘Wild Card’ as I put it before, certainly has what it takes to fulfill a tourist’s dream of a holiday on a tropical island, where the beaches are in contrast to many others often made of black sand, the resorts luxurious, the food distinctly French including the original baguettes and where in addition a range of adventure activities lure even the laziest beach bum off the sun chair to go out and explore.

The birth of the Vanilla Island Organization will add further spotlight on Reunion as part of a group of 7 islands, all located in the Indian Ocean but all so very different from each others. The biggest challenge for now is to increase connectivity by air but progress was already made during the meetings in Reunion and the tourism and transport ministers of the 7 will meet again in late October on the Comores where this issue in particular will be discussed and the way forward mapped out. Air Austral, Reunion’s own airline, connects South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mayotte and the Comoros and from early next year direct to the Seychelles too, besides long haul flights to Paris, Chennai, Bangkok and Perth in code share with Air Mauritius.

Visit www.reunion.fr for more information on the island and www.air-austral.com for details on connectivity out of the airline’s destinations.

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