Exploring Reunion Island: a South African traveller's dream
“I think I see a fish … or a whale …” It’s just after 8am and I am in a microlight, mere metres above the turquoise blue waves of the Indian Ocean.
To my left lies an expanse of the most beautiful blue I’ve ever seen, as far as the eye can see; to my right, the mountains of Reunion Island.
In my excited and slightly panicked state at being in such a tiny vessel above the endless deep, I seem to have forgotten the basics of depth perception. Of course, there is no way I could be seeing a fish at this height, and the pilot laughs as he shouts over the roar of the engines and the whistle of the wind. “They are three dolphins!” his French accent crackles through my snug headphones.
Below me, the water changes from deep, deep blue to bright turquoise as we fly over the island’s lagoon. Tiny white boats (and I thought I’d seen a fish!) bob and roll on the waves, and slender kayaks slice through the blue. My pilot sticks out both his arms like wings and encourages me to do the same. I laugh nervously and slightly hysterically as we dip low over a stunning waterfall, plummeting down a rocky ravine.
When we land, my eyes are teary. Both from the stinging wind, and the sheer excitement and exhilaration of the experience. My pilot turns to me, seated behind him, and with a twinkle in his eye says, “That was my first time. Good, no?” We sit down to strong coffee and delicious sweet bread at the Felix ULM headquarters as I catch my breath.
My colleague, Roy Barford, and I are on the French island of Reunion, just 200km south-west of Mauritius, part of the Vanilla Islands that lie like jewels in the sparkling Indian Ocean. I have been given an assignment: explore everything Reunion Island has to offer and report back. Not the worst job I’ve ever had. (That was handing out pamphlets for engine lubricants at a petrol station, if you’re wondering.)
It’s our second day on the island, having spent the first 24 hours marvelling at the crystal clear waters of the lagoon at L'Ermitage – the island’s leisure hotspot located on the west of the island, in the seaside village of Saint-Gilles, sampling the local food and catching some local music at a beach bar.
After travelling from Cape Town (Air Austral flies direct from Johannesburg twice a week) and an early first night, we woke early in our excitement on Friday morning. Following a quintessentially French breakfast of warm croissants, creamy President butter and fresh orange juice, with a side of black coffee, we took a stroll down to the beach to see what we could find.
We were met by tanned locals running, cycling and swimming in the cool of the early morning – popular pastimes for the healthy and fit French inhabitants. The warm, sparkling water providing too much temptation to resist, within minutes we were submerged in the stillness of the lagoon. All around us the village was waking up; there were snorkellers floating on their bellies, kids splashing and a group of yogis practising the downward dog as we marvelled at the beauty of it all.
Reunion Island is a place of huge contrasts. To the west, an island paradise complete with palm trees, white sand and a veritable natural aquarium; to the east, a desolate landscape of lava rocks, still cooling down after the last eruption in 2007 and in the middle of it all, three towns or cirques, completely unique in their climate and landscape.
Home to around 800 000 people, with a melting-pot French/Creole community of Indian, Asian and African descent, Reunion Island is so much more than your typical beach destination. In fact, we only spent one day of our six-day trip soaking up the sun.
Between seeing the island from above on our microlight flight, visiting the villages of Cilaos and Salazie (two of the cirques), a trip to the fascinating vanilla farm and a visit to the Piton de la Fournaise – the volcano itself, there was never a dull moment.
In Cilaos we tasted the only locally made wine, a fun experience and one I recommend. The drive to Salazie was as scenic as the village itself, with endless white waterfalls cascading down the mountains at every turn.
The third cirque, Mafat, is famous in that it cannot be reached by car. If you’re interested in a visit, you’ll have to hike five hours. We didn’t have the time, but this is something that I would love to attempt on a future visit.
Of course, if a beach holiday is what you’re after, you need look no further, as the warm Indian Ocean lagoon on the west is perfection year-round.
For hiking, you are spoilt for choice, with over 1 000km of hiking trails. From short day hikes to longer, seven-day treks, the trails crisscross the island, encompassing all the beauty it has to offer.
If kissing on top of an active volcano and spotting sea turtles from the sky is your idea of romance, you’ll have a field day on the island. Sipping on a bottle of the local Dodo beer and walking hand-in-hand into the sunset with your loved one, I’m sure you’ll find as hard as I did to leave this diverse island.