When I told friends that my husband and I were jetting off to Réunion in May, their stock response was, “Oh, whose reunion?” Many South Africans haven’t fully come to know this idyllic destination, an even shorter flight than well-trodden Mauritius. But for people like me who cannot sit still on a beach for very long, it’s the perfect little island getaway.
Réunion may lack the all-inclusive package deals of Mauritius, but more than makes up for it in adventure; offering canyoning, deep-sea fishing and even an active volcano to explore. Throw in mouth-watering goodies at the island’s assortment of boulangeries and pâtisseries, and you have an enchanting mix of French and Creole culture that makes any visitor never want to leave.
We fly directly from Johannesburg to the island’s capital of Saint-Denis with Air Austral in just under four hours – enough time to take in a French movie, eat a surprisingly tasty mile-high dinner and try the popular ‘ti punch (short for ‘petit punch’), which the cabin crew aptly describes as “Réunion in a bottle”. Upon arrival, we are met by transfer company Connections DMC and are soon humming along an impressive highway towards Saint-Gilles on Réunion’s west coast and our stayover, Hotel le Recif.
Réunion is a “department” of France, and so naturally French is the predominant language spoken by the population of less than one million. Its other tongue, Creole includes French words but also borrows from Malagasy, Hindi and Portuguese. Thankfully, the hotel staff all speaks workable English, although that doesn’t stop me from rattling off my unpracticed, rusty French.
Having dumped our bags, we walk the hotel property to orientate ourselves, but not before stopping at the bar for our first rhum arrange (macerated flavoured rum). Every place on the island has their own “house blend” and our hotel’s chilli, ginger, pineapple and vanilla gets us off to a good start. I’d been nursing a nasty cold and this tasty concoction puts me right.
We make a lazy start to the next day. Our guide Loïc is scheduled to meet us at the hotel to help with car rental and arrange a helicopter flight over the volcano, which we are thrilled to discover is still active. The sun’s out after breakfast and we enjoy a leisurely stroll along the pristine beach fronting the hotel. The water is invitingly warm and while take a dip, groups of people are snorkeling in the shallows. This feels like a holiday.
We check out the hotel’s two swimming pools before making our way to reception to meet Loïc. A traffic jam has delayed him and so we walk to the boulevard in L’Ermitage-Les-Bains to see what’s on offer. We find a delightful spot called Métis Café, where we enjoy lunch over a Dodo (locally-produced beer) and sample an irresistible local delicacy of swordfish tartare.
The following morning we spend a blissful hour snorkeling. The variety of marine life we discover in the impossibly blue water is extraordinary given we only go down about a metre deep.
At a beach restaurant that evening for dinner we try our first local curry. I order rougail saucisse (spicy sausage dish) while my husband opts for massalé coq (masala chicken dish). I prefer his. He prefers mine. We swap. This is what marriage is about. For dessert, there are 40 flavours of ice cream to choose from and we are delighted with our selection of rose, cardamom and coconut, liquorice and crème brûlée.
The next day we collect our car – a left-hand drive Peugeot that’s very low to the ground and has the abused clutch I’ve come to expect from rentals. I dub him ‘Philippe’ because every time we corner (on the “wrong” side of the road), I feel my stomach do a Philippe-flop.
We get lost twice on the way to our cooking course with Chef Jacky at Far Far Kréol in Sainte-Suzanne. Thankfully, she and the rest of the class are unfazed that we’re late – we surmise it must be an islander thing. The animated chef juggles fourteen of us – all French expats, except my husband and I – as he demonstrates how to make an exhaustive list of traditional Réunionese dishes. These include bonbons piment (fritters made from spiced bean paste), swordfish cari, calabash gratin and pumpkin cooked in vanilla tea, among other delights.
Chef Jacky kindly translates each step of the recipe for us two Saffers, as I furiously scribble down recipes, excited to take some of these wonderful tastes and smells back to my kitchen at home. Long after the session has wrapped up, we’re all still sitting around the long table, sampling Jacky’s rhum arrangé and discussing in broken French, English and Google Translate the politics – and traffic problems – of Réunion.
The following day we drive to Piton de la Fournaise. The entire island is only 67km across, but takes a surprisingly long time to get around because of its hilly geography. Three collapsed volcanic calderas at the island’s centre include steep mountains and plunging gorges, which means the roads are very narrow with many hairpin bends.
Sadly, the volcano is covered in thick mist at the time of our visit. It’s also about 10 degrees colder here than in Saint-Gilles, which can be explained by Réunion’s 110 microclimates which create highly variable weather conditions, and is also why I spend the week putting on and taking off my jacket at 15-minute intervals.
On the day of our helicopter flight we are grateful the weather does play along, and from up above it’s hard not to appreciate Réunion’s 2500km2 of diverse terrain. Coral reefs, black volcanic sand beaches, rainforests, waterfalls, a Mars-like desert and a bubbling cauldron of molten lava – we marvel at this all from the chopper. I’ve already began making a mental list of sites to see next time we visit.
Later that day, we visit a vanilla farm and learn how this plant (an orchid – who knew?) is cultivated here and the ways in which Bourbon vanilla (Réunion was formerly Bourbon Island) can be differentiated from the beans of other regions.
We learn that while Mexico’s vanilla has a whiff of chocolate and Madagascar’s recalls tobacco, Réunion’s special variety hints at plum and liquorice.
Having indulged that evening in cabri massalé (goat curry), croissants and (of course) rum, it’s about time we had an active day to work off some of those calories. My husband scuba dives, while I hike into Mafate, a part of the island only accessible by foot or helicopter. My guide, Nicholas, shares with me some of the island’s history and culture as we make the 1050m descent from Maïdo to Roche Plate. It’s only a total of 5km on foot, but sections of the path are near vertical and I’m glad for the trekking poles he’s kindly supplied.
Our final day before departure my husband and I both spend with Nicholas, who escorts us to the Saint-Philippe weekend market, where we wish the exchange rate was more favourable. We also explore the lava tunnels, stopping regularly to touch the interesting textures of cooled lava – some like bubbly Aero chocolate, some like scrunched-up tin foil and other parts where the lava has set mid-drip. On the way back to our hotel, we stop at the southern coast village of Manapany and see the critically-endangered Manapany gecko, which is endemic to Réunion.
Our island holiday concludes with a fabulous meal at a Créole restaurant in Saint-Gilles called Ti Coq. The vanilla duck is sublime and the passion fruit rhum arrangé is hands-down the best we’ve tried on the island. I fall asleep in a state of blissful content with my taste buds sending a message to my brain to say that a return trip is definitely on the cards.
Getting your feet wet in Reunion
Volcanoes: The Piton de la Fournaise shield volcano on the eastern side of Réunion is the most visited attraction on the island and one of the most active volcanoes in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site forms part of the Réunion National Park, which is a hiker’s paradise with incredible biodiversity.
Canyoning: Enjoy this activity all year round in Réunion, from Cilaos to Salazie. Whether beginner or advanced, you can enjoy rappels, ziplines, jumps and slides as part of your canyoning experience under the guidance of experienced professionals.
Helicopter flights: From volcanoes and coral reefs, to rainforests and epic waterfalls, a helicopter flight over Réunion offers the perfect perspective to fully appreciate the immense beauty of the island’s terrain.
Story by Tamara Oberholster