Batsirai had just skirted past Réunion Island the day before. “Vous avez de la chance,” they told us. “You’re lucky.” Lucky to have missed a cyclone, larger than the size of France, that had left thirty thousand without power and confined the Réunionnais indoors for two sleepless nights. We could count our blessings. Of all the months to visit, we had picked the most tempestuous—February.
A spurt of caterpillar rain greeted us at Roland Garros Airport. Outside, the morning sky was gray and tired, worn from days of crying. On the road to the capital, Saint-Denis, hints of the aftermath speckled the landscape. Fallen branches piled on street curbs, while urban sweepers tended to sprawling graveyards of nascent leaves. By the coastal promenade of Le Barachois, the ocean still frothed with agitation, as if threatening to wash away all our plans for the coming days in a single white wave. Yet the islanders seemed nonchalant, going about their Sunday routines without the slightest hint of inquietude. “On y est habitué. We’re used to it,” explained a wiry Orange salesman as he swapped our SIM cards for local numbers. Situated off the southeast coast of Africa, the Mascarene island of La Réunion has, on average, two close encounters with tropical cyclones per year. Such is life during the wet season on l’Île Intense—the Intense Isle.
The North: Saint-Denis
Like its Indian Ocean neighbors, Madagascar and Mauritius, there’s a piece of France to be found on La Réunion. But unlike them, that is still literally the case. Throughout its 400-year history, Réunion has never been independent. As a département d’outre-mer, or French overseas department, it is both the southernmost and easternmost part of the European Union. Nowhere is this more evident than on the city’s main axis of Rue de Paris, where, in front of the neoclassic yellow façade of Saint-Denis’ former city hall, the flag of Europe streams among an orderly row of French tricolors.
Although considered an integral part of the French Republic on equal footing with other regions of Metropolitan France, the département developed vastly different characteristics than its mainland counterparts. Exotic plants like the Red Latan Palm, found nowhere else, thrive by the oceanfront. And in place of popular cheese and charcuterie boards are the tapas péï, beloved local appetizers that represent well the island’s mixed heritage. We tucked into bouchons, meat-filled dumplings introduced by Réunion’s first Chinese immigrants; sarcives, honey-glazed pork which take their roots in Cantonese char siu; and the perennial favorite samoussas, brought to the Mascarenes by Tamil laborers from the Malabar Coast. Further down the Rue de Paris, a colorful array of Creole manors gave us a glimpse of the island’s past life as an important stop on the shipping route between Africa, Asia, and Europe. A few steps away on the pedestrian street of Maréchal Leclerc stood the gleaming minaret of the Noor-e-Islam Mosque. Financed by Gujarati merchants and completed in 1905, it is one of the oldest mosques on French territory.
The Vanilla Plantation of Sainte-Suzanne
Like many other colonies, Réunion’s temperate climate made it suitable for cash crops, and it was on the vanilla vine that the island made its name. An orchid native to Mexico, vanilla had climbed its way into European courts by the 18th century as a highly sought flavoring for sweets and ice cream. The French brought the plant to the island in 1819, but it remained an unfruitful investment, since the Mayan bees responsible for pollinating vanilla did not exist in the Mascarenes. When, in 1841, a 12-year old slave from Sainte-Suzanne named Edmond Albius stumbled upon the secret to fertilizing the orchid by hand, the discovery propelled Réunion to become the world’s leading producer of the aromatic bean by the end of the 19th century.
Standing under the shade of a sea of tarpaulin, we traced the history and painstaking process behind the world’s second-most expensive spice (after saffron). Despite its ubiquity, vanilla is deceptive. It lends its name generously to everything from candles and candy to shower gel. But almost all of it is flavored with synthetic vanillin, cheaply produced in copious amounts. Real vanilla is still grown using Albius’ hand-pollination method and must be gently scraped from their slender, waxy pods of cocoa brown. Each pod is the fruit of a single flower, which blooms for only a day and must be fertilized during the short window of time. How ironic that a fragrance so elusive and expensive has become associated with the mundane. Next to the heavily perfumed drying racks of La Vanilleraie, I realized that all my life, I had been smelling imitations. Warm, androgynously sensual, with hints of chocolate and prune, real vanilla is anything but ordinary.
The East: Saint-Benoît
Resembling slices of a hastily carved pie, Réunion is divided into four arrondissements: Saint-Denis to the north, Saint-Benoît to the east, Saint-Pierre to the south, and Saint-Paul to the west. With the exception of the capital area, each arrondissement extends into the mountainous interior, hemming in one of the island’s three breathtaking cirques—crater-like valleys hollowed by glacial erosion. Upon resetting our internal clocks from the 11-hour red-eye from Paris, we rolled out of Saint-Denis towards our first cirque, Salazie, but not before making a few short stops.
The Hindu Temples of Saint-André
Of the 800,000 people living on the island, a quarter are descendants of indentured workers from India. The Réunionnais of Indian origin form two of the island’s ethnic groups: the Malbars, or Tamil people from southeast India; and the Zarabes, Sunni Muslims from Gujarat on India’s western coast. While the Zarabes introduced mosques, the Hindu-practicing Malbars constructed temples.
Small architectural wonders found mostly on the island’s east near former sugar estates, the Hindu temples of Réunion burst with spiritual iridescence. Constructed in the Dravidian architectural style of South India, many are enclosed by an ornate entrance tower, or a gopuram. Figures from Hindu mythology richly decorate every tier, and a plush bolster-shaped roof caps the design. To stand beneath one of these gateways is to experience color again for the very first time.
Hell-Bourg and the Cirque of Salazie
The Cirque of Salazie is the wettest, moodiest, and most accessible of Réunion’s three cirques. A lone road from Saint-André leads up to its misty cauldron. Here, in the center of a grandiose valley where waterfalls hang their transparent veils, brightly painted Creole houses trimmed with peregrine lambrequin lure with a wondrous romanticism. A former spa town, Hell-Bourg—christened after Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell, Réunion’s one-time governor of Alsatian descent—is officially indexed as one of France‘s most beautiful villages, and is the only one located overseas.
At Le P’ti Blanc des “O,” our rural guesthouse surrounded by bamboo forests on the hills of Hell-Bourg, we were met by Marcellino, a talkative and jovial proprietor with light eyes, sunbaked skin, and leathered hands. A farmer whose ancestors arrived on Réunion from Brittany generations ago, he is one of the island’s Petits Blancs des Hauts, literally, “Small Whites from the Heights” of Réunion.
“It’s not America, you see, we say it like it is,” he smiled bashfully and launched into an explanation as I felt tiny striped tiger mosquitos descend upon my arms and legs. Contrary to the Gros Blancs, or “Big Whites” who held large properties on which they made their fortune in sugarcane, the Petits Blancs were landless and often poor. In order to survive, they settled on the heights of Réunion, which, until the 19th century, had been considered inaccessible and left to fugitive slaves. Over dinner, Claudine, Marcellino’s stern-voiced but hospitable wife, souped up our knowledge of the local land over servings of her homemade Creole platters: beignets de bringelles, eggplant fritters; quiche aux chouchous, chayote quiche; and a dessert of delectable coconut cream.
The Natural Pools and Lush Valleys of Saint-Benoît
Our two-week itinerary left us little choice but to press on after two nights in Hell-Bourg. Continuing clockwise along Saint-Benoît, small pocketfuls of sunshine kept us company. Past a large sugarcane field near the village of Bras-Panon, we took our first hike. It was an easy forest path through thickets of fern and morning glory. On occasion, we crossed others. Most were small groups of Zoreilles, mainland-born French relocated to Réunion. Once, following an exchange of greetings, a Cafre—a local Réunionnais of Malagasy origins—pulled out two strange fruits from his pocket and offered them to us. “Zembrosade,” he said in Creole, and then repeated in French. “Jamrosade. They smell and taste like rose.” And they did. Biting into one, the champagne-colored flesh gave in with a slight crunch, and the familiar bouquet of roses grew more intense with every chew.
About an hour later, we reached our destination, Bassin la Mer, one of Réunion’s abundant natural plunge pools. Dressed by black basalt organs formed out of volcanic eruptions, the windswept basin is fed by not one, but two waterfalls. We had been cautioned by Claudine the night before of the flash floods that frequently came on the heel of cyclones, but we couldn’t resist a quick dive. When the last morning rays disappeared behind the clouds, we understood that it was time to go.
The weather, grim as it looked, held for the most part. Climbing the Valley of Takamaka, we ascended higher than the clouds. From the top, we peered down into a lush and verdant valley laced with ribbons of plummeting water. It was an ephemeral moment, an apparition gone no sooner than it had revealed itself. As the clouds spilled down the steep sides of the valley, we found ourselves enveloped in a thick haze. Rain fell over the countryside of Saint-Benoît.
The Lava Routes of Sainte-Rose
At Sainte-Rose, we traded water for fire. In this corner of the island is one of the most active volcanoes on earth. Several times per year, the Piton de la Fournaise rumbles to life and sets the skies alight with technicolor displays of molten red and gold, a scene so emblematic that it’s emblazoned on Réunion’s kaleidoscopic flag, Lö Mahavéli. Along the lower slopes of the littoral, we traced lava flows across time, from the church of Notre Dame des Laves—miraculously spared during an eruption in 1977—to the coal plains of the “Great Burn,” Grand Brûlé. Not everything is scorched though. Near where the hardened magma joins the sea, at the easternmost tip of the European Union, forest has reclaimed the land. The tiny bay of Anse des Cascades is a miniature Eden, resplendent with coconut groves and crystal waterfalls that link nature’s extraordinary green with the ocean’s deep blue.
The South: Saint-Pierre
Waves the size of several men rammed against the sheer black cliffs. By the water’s edge at Cap Méchant, the force of the wind is torrential, strong enough to take a seat on in plain midair. It’s hard to believe that just a couple of miles away, along the very same coastline, rows of slender palms sway gently to the rhythm of a lapping coral lagoon. The beach, Grande Anse, is among the island’s most beautiful and an idyllic place to watch the sun trade places with the moon. As the largest of Réunion’s four arrondissements, the landscape of Saint-Pierre is a rich tapestry of sugarcane plains, lunar dunes, rumbling falls, bucolic riversides, and remote plateaus of hidden hamlets.
The Cascade de Grand Galet, also known as Langevin Falls, is one of the area’s main attractions—a 17th-century Flemish landscape painting brought to life on a tropical island. Countless cords of silver and silk drop from all directions and send up spiraling columns of mist which bathe everything in a translucent aura. On most days, adrenaline-seekers can be found abseiling, sliding and rafting through the crevices of this wet wonderland. Downstream, the grassy banks of the coursing Langevin River are beloved by locals. Weekends are particularly special, when families gather to spend a day picnicking by one of the river’s numerous stream pools such as Bassin Dinan over good food, music, and company. Those who didn’t bring their own food line up outside Chez Jim, a lively restaurant serving authentic snacks and dishes such as bonbons piments, fritters made from butter beans and lentils; codfish rougail, a piquant tomato-based stew; and vanilla duck.
The Cirque of Cilaos
There are more than 400 winding turns on the lone road leading to the town of Cilaos, situated in the center of its eponymous cirque. “Klaxonne, klaxonne. Honk, honk,” guided my backseat driver as we climbed the heights at a steady pace of 15 kilometers per hour. The road to Hell-Bourg felt like a highway in comparison. A parade of islet villages drew our eyes to their simple halcyon charm, from Petit Serré, deep in the cleft of the valley, to lofty Îlet à Cordes, named after the ropes used by runaway slaves as pathways to evade detection.
Surrounded completely by the caldera, Cilaos is an island within an island—a pocket of pure harmony where sacred sources flow. It is home to the only thermal baths in this part of the Indian Ocean. The curative water, ferruginous in color and naturally carbonated, comes from the underbelly of Réunion’s volcanic mass. The holiest water, however, isn’t in Cilaos’ centrum, but in La Chapelle, an ancient magma chamber hidden in the mountain massifs behind a set of emerald pools. As sunlight spills into the canyon and shines upon the smooth, crystallized walls, it floods the chapel with an ethereal glow. From the depths of the cave emanates a soft and eternal breeze. There, in place of a reredos, an impenetrable wall of water gushes from the rockface, and the melody of the falls flows seamlessly into the stream below. Entering meant swimming. I found a dry boulder on the portico of the chapel and reluctantly left my camera, my backpack, and phone behind. Life’s most beautiful moments weren’t made to be captured anyway, I assuaged myself, only felt. And as I paddled towards the aquatic altar, I felt it all. No amount of words can befit the beauty found inside La Chapelle. It is a place that touched my soul.
Piton des Neiges: On the Throne of the Indian Ocean
We came to Cilaos with a mission: to scale the roof of Réunion. At over 3,000 meters or 10,000 feet, the Piton des Neiges, or Snow Peak, is the highest point in the entire Indian Ocean. Awakening from the Earth’s mantel more than two million years ago, the volcano dragged Réunion out of the water. But for the last 20,000 years, the mountain has lain dormant, asleep on its throne at the confluence of the three cirques: Salazie, Cilaos, and Mafate.
We woke up shortly past midnight. The three hours of sleep we got was hardly enough, but it was the most we could ration ourselves if we wanted to see a sunrise from the summit—a rite of passage for any visiting hiker worth half his salt. On the terrace of our villa guesthouse, we were met by a velvet, moonlit sky. The stars abounded. Every twinkle was a wave, a tiny celestial promise that the weather was on our side. In the still of the smallest hour, I drove us to Le Bloc, a roadside gravel parking area next to a dense, wooded thicket. We flicked on our headlamps and stepped into the forest. The ascent was grueling, one that elevated endlessly and mocked us with Sisyphean sadism. At the end of every turn, on the top of every col, another one—further, steeper—took its place. We were barely halfway when the sun broke over the ridge of the cirque, but we stopped for a while, letting our bloodshot eyes close momentarily to the warmth of dawn.
The West: Saint-Paul
It is in the west that human history on Réunion began. Like Mauritius, the island had no indigenous population. Until 1663, it was merely a stop on the way to or from India. The first settlers anchored in the bay around present-day Saint-Paul, where, on Fridays and Saturday mornings, a vibrant seaside market brings back memories of a time when the town was still Réunion’s capital and main port. We strolled through stalls of hand-picked vanilla, brightly dyed sarongs, pink-fleshed pitaya, and an assortment of fresh and familiar foods.
At the edge of the arrondissement, in the hills above the town of Saint-Leu, is the Maison du Coco. A luxuriant estate dedicated to the coconut, its gardens and grounds evoke the spirit of the Polynesian sea. Between sips of chilled piña colada, artisanal ice cream, and freshly cracked juice, we discovered the secrets of the “tree of life” and its virtuous fruit in all its various avatars: water, oil, milk, meat, and sugar.
In the village of Dos d’Âne, I tried a second time to descend into the Cirque of Mafate. On our first attempt near Hell-Bourg, a sectioned-off road leading to the trailhead of Col des Bœufs forced us to abandon our itinerary. Surrounded on all sides by tree-covered ramparts, Mafate is the most inaccessible of Réunion’s three cirques. Reachable only on foot or by helicopter, the valley was initially home to Maroons—descendants of runaway slaves—before eventually also being settled by the Petits Blancs. It is said that some of the Mafatais have never seen the ocean. A peculiarity for an islander, but a very possible one, as we found out. In the wake of the cyclone, Mafate was left impassable, completely sealed off from the rest of the world by mesas of uprooted trunks and displaced slabs of rock and damp rubble. From the canopy of Cap Noir, I could only gaze inwardly at the remote settlements—Aurère, Cayenne, La Nouvelle—burrowed between the green claws of the earth and left to their isolation.
The Seaside Resorts around Saint-Gilles
We turned our backs on the mountains and drove towards Boucan Canot, our balmy residence for our final few precious days. After ten days on the road and the trail, it was time for some sweet idling. The string of coral beaches below the Bay of Saint-Paul forms one long resort area which begins in Boucan Canot and extends down to Saint-Leu. Near and in between is an ocean of activities on offer: snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, and of course, sunbathing.
By the port of Saint-Gilles-les-Bains, dive shops lead daily trips out to the reefs where fire gobies, giant clams, and shy octopi make their homes. Tiger and bull sharks too, although they pose a greater danger to swimmers than divers. The Intense Isle, true to its name in every respect, discreetly holds a world title in the number of fatal shark attacks. In recent years, shark-proof nets and magnetic barriers have been strung below the surface of some beaches, but still signs all around the island warn of the perils of swimming in open, unprotected water. We played it safe. In the tidal lagoon of Cap La Houssaye, we evened our tans and admired the big and forbidden blue. On the slopes below Saint-Gilles-les-Hauts, we showered under the refreshing spout of Bassin des Aigrettes and indulged in cari bichiques, a classic curry dish made of alevin so minuscule that they resemble krill. From boho-chic beach clubs near the sabulous promenade of Plage de l’Hermitage, we watched the sun dip below photogenic plates of tuna tataki and tangy fish rillettes cured in combava—locally grown kaffir lime. On our last morning, in a champagne rock pool next to the gentle curve of Boucan’s bright white sand, we soaked in an ultimate moment of relaxation before kissing the genius loci of the seaside goodbye and completing our loop around the island.