Text and photo:
Source: Croatian Traveller
Reunion is a little bit of Europe in the tropical belt. This volcanic island between Madagascar and Mauritius started developing its tourism only twenty years ago, so it is not surprising if you have never heard of it. Reunion has been under the French protectorate in the past sixty years. The population is proud of this because this status makes the island in many ways different from the African standards.
Reunion is different from the usual clichés of tropical islands with long sandy beaches and coconut trees. It is not like there are no magnificent golden beaches and palms, but there are also numerous other riches: and impressive history, folklore, funny stories, and what’s most important, plethora of protected plant and animal species and intact natural phenomena. The main and only access to the island is the Roland Garros airport. You guessed it, the famous aviator was born in Reunion.
If you take a walk around the capital of Saint-Denis, you will realize that you are looking at the mixture of all possible styles of construction, fashion, lifestyle. Only a few meters from the city market there is a Buddhist temple, and a shopping center that slightly resembles those in Europe (but without the famous brands). There is also architecture in the unusual neo-classicistic style with verandas, windows and brightly painted doors. Almost all doors close between noon and 2 pm, when it is time for lunch or siesta. That is how the majority of 150,000 inhabitants of this town lives. Although the island is an 11-hour flight away from Paris, the living standard and the prices are rather “European”.
Life in Reunion is very expensive. But the offer is diverse, just like in France. This is confirmed by Dominique Cerveaux, who explains that a typical inhabitant of Reunion has an Indian mother and Chinese father. In other words, many inhabitants of this island are the descendents of early settlers and slaves from Madagascar, India and China. Official languages are French and Creole. Majority of money on Reunion comes from tourism, sugar cane and rum production, and fishing. Salaries are somewhat higher than the French minimum, which is 1,100 euro. Our tourist guide tells us that this is barely enough to cover the basic living costs: “We have high taxes and the transportation is expensive. There are many luxury products being transported, and the taxes on them are high.”
The currency used here is euro. It has been like that ever since its introduction. This island first started using euro in 2002, because of the time difference. Two hours later it started flowing through European cash registers. This is an island of high contrasts. Its exotic side is most pronounced on the west coast. Especially in the town of Saint Gilles de Baines, some sort of Beverly Hills of the island. There is no illegal construction or tourist apartment buildings. The area is protected by high prices, so a square meter of land costs up to a thousand euro! This is a fertile ground for building luxury vacation homes and branching of hotel chains. The previous year took away more than it brought. An owner of a four star hotel tells us that she is fighting a decrease in the number of reservations: “We are promoting last minute offers, mostly on our web page. We collaborate with both agents and travel agents, and together we promote offers where you pay three nights and stay five and things like that.”
The lagoon is 22 kilometers long, and is protected from the ocean waves by a coral reef. A diving mask is a must on the island, because it will enable you to swim among the corals, octopuses and exotic fish completely used to the presence of people only a few meters away from the sandy coast. Diving masks can be found everywhere; you will find them in almost any store for the price of 5 euro, and the hotels will rent them to you for free. Be careful with the corals – it is illegal to take them off the island, and if the customs catch you in a violation, you will be prosecuted. The corals are still an important part of the underwater ecosystem.
There are only two seasons on Reunion – the draught and the monsoon period. The dry period is currently underway. The peak of the season is December and January, when ocean temperatures become similar to air temperature and exceed 30 degrees Celsius. It is important that you don’t go over the coral reef. It is the area ruled by sharks, whales, sea turtles and dolphins. That is why boat excursions are so popular. For a price of 30 euro, we set sail at dusk, looking for whales and sea turtles. For the first half an hour you are fascinated by the beauty of intact nature, and apart from an occasional dolphin jumping out of the water, you see no other sea monster.
After a long search, several nautical miles away from the land, it is a priceless feeling seeing a whale on the open sea. It is as if it knows it is the star of the island, emerging slowly and elegantly, followed by sighs of tourists armed with camera lenses of all sizes. After a while spent moving about on the sea, two whales headed towards our boat, occasionally diving out of the water. The tourists were hysterical, having in mind that the 18-meter long monsters, up to 50 tons in weight, can overturn our boat just like that, if they want to. But the encounter was all about elegant dives out of the ocean. And as we were able to watch up close the expression on whales’ faces, they slowly dived below the boat and disappeared into the deep, much to everyone’s disbelief. Only a few days later did I realize just what I have witnessed. It was a sight the islanders told me one has to wait for months.
Reunion is not about only the sun and the sea. Because of mountain peaks higher than 3,000 meters, hidden valleys and numerous waterfalls, the island offers unlimited sports adventures. It used to be inhabited by giant parrots, turtles and the popular dodo bird, an extinct species of a big bird that wasn’t able to fly. It was probably also very tasty, because the first settlers drove it to extinction simply by eating it.
You can’t deny Reunion’s magnificent richness of the plant world. On this volcanic soil, you can still see the prehistoric types of ferns, forests of palm trees and tamarind, and even exotic but poisonous shrubs like the “yellow flower”. The island is rich in flowers, tropical fruits and spices. It is also full of breathtaking sights, created by volcanic activity. More than three thousand meters above sea level (and a three hours’ drive away from the civilization) you will find one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world that is still active - Piton de la Fortunaise. However, due to dense clouds, its peak is often not visible. Unfortunately, it was the case this time as well. The last kilometers en route to the mouth of the volcano look like nothing else on this earth. It is exactly why the motion picture “Planet of the Apes” was filmed here.
There are several extinct volcanoes on the island. Some ten thousand years ago, they formed mountain ranges and cliffs that are more than two thousand meters high. The former mouths of the volcano are now occupied by towns. We enter one of them, Cilaos (roughly translated from Creole as “the town one never leaves”). It got its name from being the hiding place of black people running away from enslavement. Towns like Cilaos were inhabited for many centuries by both Africans, Asians and Europeans. Today, it is the mixture of all possible styles, Creole, exotic food and vegetation, sleepy island mentality, and an unusual combination of French and Creole language. Tourism is expanding: private hotels are being built, famous hotel chains are being expanded.
“People who come to this tropical island wish to meet Creole culture and gastronomy, and it is quite diverse in Reunion”, says one hotel owner.
Although it seems isolated from the world, the villages in the mouths of the volcanoes are well connected to the rest of the island. In case of emergency, there are helicopters ready for transport at any time of day. Entire Reunion is networked by modern toll-free highways. In a land of 800,000 people, there is one car per 2.5 inhabitant. The demographics are also interesting. There are seven times more women than men. Namely, many islanders went to school in France and never returned. On the other hand, especially among the Europeans who never had the chance to experience intact nature and true tropical paradise, Reunion is becoming an ever more popular sanctuary in cold winter days. Perhaps there is something in the saying often found in tourist guides: “If New Zealand is too far away for you, visit Reunion”.