The North Coast
Situated at the northern tip of the island, Saint-Denis lies majestically on the surrounding mountain slopes. The town is a pleasant introduction to Réunion’s myriad of colours and flavours. The administrative, social and political capital of Reunion since 1738, Saint-Denis is the largest French overseas city, with 120,000 inhabitants.
A city tour will begin with a pleasant walk along the seafront, whose name “Barachois” is a reminder of the tiny port, which was once located there, and of the bygone era of sailing ships, symbolised by the old, now silent guns. Facing the ocean and overlooking a garden with centenary trees, stands the Prefecture (French administration offices), a former warehouse of the India Company, which has been extended and renovated several times throughout the years. All over Saint-Denis, a pleasant mix of old and modern architectural styles can be found. Amongst the very old houses along Rue de Paris, you will find the birthplace of Leon Dierx (a writer and artist christened “the Prince of Poets” by his peers in 1898 after Mailarme’s death), now housing the Cabinet of the General Council; the former “Maison Mas,” now a modern arts exhibition centre; the Leon Dierx Museum; the Bishop’s residence and the Museum of Natural History nestled in the heart of jardin de I’Etat (state gardens).
In this young, dynamic and action-packed city, high fashion boutiques can be found alongside the more modest stalls of the fruit and vegetable “small” market and of the local craft “big” market (situated close to a theatre). For the night owls, Saint-Denis offers a variety of cinemas, theatres, fashionable bars and nightclubs to satisfy all tastes. Saint-Denis is also an important religious city with its cathedral (which Pope John Paul 11 visited in 1989), its brightly coloured Chinese and Tamil temples and two mosques whose decorated minarets are silhouetted against the blue sky, near the many shops where Indian Muslims or “z’Arabes” will try to sell you their heavily scented fabrics.
Once a tiny quarter of well-aligned streets, Saint-Denis has over the past three decades considerably outgrown the slopes and fields, which were once its boundaries. A trip to the heights of Saint-Denis is the best and most pleasant way to get a bird’s eye view of the city, and a few minutes’ drive along the steep and narrow roads will take you to the elegant and flowery residential suburbs of Le Brule, Saint Francois or La Montagne. The city’s upper reaches are also a sanctuary for nature lovers, where peace and tranquillity, fresh air, forests and waterfalls await the visitor.
The Wild South
Saint-Pierre, the capital of the south, is both a charming seaside resort and a colourful and vibrant city. Saint-Pierre is also the gateway to the Wild South: a region with a very special character.
A multitude of yachts anchored in the old harbour, several kilometres of white sandy beach and a small lagoon: for Réunion’s Southerners, Saint-Pierre has all it takes. In Saint-Pierre, one cannot simply “go” somewhere: you must either go “up” or “down”! A random stroll will take you through a beautiful park in front of the town hall, which used to be an India Company coffee warehouse.
You will wonder at the sight of the ornaments decorating the island’s largest mosque and, weather permitting, anxiously await the fishermen’s return in the picturesque village of Terre-Sainte. At Grand-Anse, where old lime kilns have been carefully renovated, a tiny path will lead you up a filao-tree covered “piton” (peak), from which you will enjoy a clear view of the rocky coast. From this point, it is possible to see the only (small!) island to be found off Réunion’s shores.
The district of Petite-ile, near Saint-Pierre, was named after that huge, ocean-beaten rock. Petite-ile is a cosy flower garden with several highly picturesque roads passing through sugar cane, garlic and onion fields to eventually end up in the heights. Now the main road becomes more winding and narrow: this is the beginning of the Wild South… Along the coast, the waves come crashing against blocks of black, hardened volcanic lava and the sprawling rain forest gets nearer the coastline. Saint-Joseph will be the last “real” city you drive through.
From the ruins of an old sugarhouse in the harbour of Langevin, a magnificent road winds its way up the valley, running alongside attractive waterfalls. The road later becomes a splendid hiking trail, which will take keen hikers up the volcano’s unforgettable moonlike scenery. Those who don’t go much for strenuous exercise can indulge in more peaceful trout fishing in “Grand-Galet”. Along the Mare-Longue botanical path in Saint-Philippe, you will discover Réunion’s last mysterious “bois de couleurs” (coloured wood), and in the Spice and Fragrance Garden, the lush and humid undergrowth where such tropical plants and spices as vanilla, clove, pepper, cinnamon and cardamon grow.
Further up, look for the spicy flavour and distinctive yellow colour of the local saffron or turmeric (“curcuma”) at Plaine-des-Gregues. Higher still, the hamlet of Roche Plate, only accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles, leads to the heart of the lush and spellbinding mountains of the south.
As you leave Saint-Philippe, be sure to go and see the solidified lava platform, the now mute, impressive remains of a major eruption in 1986, which increased the island’s surface by 30 hectares as it flowed into the ocean. Then, with the road as your only link with modern civilisation, you will enter the region known as “pays brule,” which means “burnt country”. For several miles there is nothing but the forest and bare stretches of black hardened lava. High in the clouds, the awe-inspiring volcano towers above the road, and piles of lagged scoria remind you of the volcano’s violent awakenings. In this overwhelming decor, the only sounds you will hear are the roaring of the sea and the singing of birds.
From hard-working Saint-Pierre to quiet Saint-Philippe, the last gateway to the deserted forest, the road will take you along rich plantations, past worm-eaten carts, and a number of scenes and scents. The thrill of adventure awaits you at every corner in the south.
The West Coast
Stretches of white sandy beaches and crystal clear lagoons are the first images that come to mind when one thinks about Réunion’s west coast. Apart from its scenic seaside, the west has a multitude of treasures in store for all to see.
It all began when a sailing ship dropped anchor in the large Bay of Saint-Paul (for many years called the “Bay of the best Anchorage”). Saint-Paul, the capital of the island until 1738, has not kept many traces of the first settlers, except for a square structure of old stones, which might have been the foundation of a “case” (traditional Creole house).
The former capital is still well worth a visit, particularly for the luxuriant canyon of Bernica, eloquently praised by the famous French poet Lucent de Lisle, who is now buried in the seaside cemetery. Opposite the cemetery, one can pay an emotional visit to the deep excavations at the foot of the cliff, which are said to have been the settlers’ first shelter. Saint-Paul is also well known for its pond and the picturesque road of “Tour des Roches” around it.
A fresh sea-smelling breeze welcomes the visitor as he reaches Saint-Gilles, Reunion’s main seaside resort. Further along the road, after Saline-les-Bains, the white sand is replaced by impressive black cliffs below which the buffeting ocean gives birth to white foam geysers resembling a whale’s spout. At Saint-Leu (one of the most beautiful surf spots in the world) the sand is grey and black on the beach of Etang-Sale (“Salt Pond”).
A few kilometres down south, in Saint Louis, sugar cane fields stretch along the sea. Among them stand the chimney towers of the west’s only sugar factory. Beyond lies the south…
There is more to the west than just miles of sandy beaches and cliffs. Its heights also beckon the visitor. The narrow roads rise suddenly and the nippy air is scented with flowers and geraniums (the “rosat” geranium whose leaves are distilled to make essential oil much sought after by the perfume industry). Higher up, the landscape is covered by a high altitude forest of acacias, scented mimosa, and “tamarins des Hauts” – an endemic species of trees (tamarind) with distorted trunks, appreciated by cabinetmakers. As the road suddenly stops at Maido, the plunging view over the cirque of Mafate will take your breath away.
Some places in the west are evocative of the island’s history: the Villele Museum and Chapelle Pointue (Pointed Chapel), the Stella Matutina Museum, tracing the history of sugar cane, and the Mascarin National Botanical Conservatory, working for the protection of rare and endangered plant species of the island and the Indian Ocean.
The East Coast
The east coast is exposed to regular rainfall brought by the trade winds. However, the rains which feed rivers and some magnificent waterfalls, are followed by days of radiant sunshine and immensely blue skies. Tropical spices, sweet-smelling coffee, and, since the first half of the 19th century, omnipresent sugar cane, have made this sector prosperous.
This is also the land of vanilla, cultivated everywhere, either intercalated in the sugar cane fields of Sainte-Marie and Sainte-Suzanne, or hanging onto wooden stakes (made of what locals call “candle” wood or forest wood) from Saint-Andre to Sainte-Rose. Visiting the “Vanilla House” in Saint-Andre and the Vanilla Co-operative of Bras-Panon, where skilful craftsmen and women perpetuate the technique originally developed in Reunion in the 19th century, is a must. In the processing season, the sweet smell of vanilla is only rivalled by the powerful smoke coming out of the region’s sugar factory of Bois-Rouge.
From July to November, the strong smell of warm sugar fills the air. Book for a visit of the sugar factory and dip your hands into “brown gold”. A century ago, harvesting the cane fields required a lot of labour. Hence, after slavery was abolished, tens of thousands of indentured Indians were “imported” into Reunion. These Tamil Indians (called “Malbars,” whereas Muslim Indians are referred to as “z’Arabes”) have contributed their part to the island’s cultural melting pot in the form of numerous, brightly coloured temples which perpetuate the eastern countryside. Sainte-Anne Church (a listed monument which was used as one location of Francois Truffaut’s movie “La Sirene du Mississipi”), is a curiosity worth a visit.
Magnificent estates and huge white houses tucked away in dream-like orchards also form part of the colonial heritage. One example is the beautifully restored “Valliame House” in Saint-Andre. In Sainte-Suzanne it is now possible to visit “Le Grand Hazier” – an old colonial mansion nestled at the end of a coconut-lined alley.
But there is plenty more to admire in the east, especially waterfalls and rivers. Riviere des Marsouins (Porpoise River), flowing along a valley with breathtakingly steep slopes, is the wildest of them all. With a bit of luck, you will be there when “bichiques” are being fished at a river mouth. A sight you will certainly find interesting is the crossing of Riviere de I’Est (East River), with the old suspended bridge, now a venerable and carefully kept relic.
After Sainte-Rose, you are entering the realm of the volcano, which surprised everyone when it flowed outside of its natural “enclosure” in 1977, spewing scorching lava on the village of Piton-Sainte-Rose. Miraculously spared, the church now stands in the middle of a field of cooled lava. Sainte-Rose also offers some breathtaking viewpoints on a wild and preserved seashore, as at Anse des Cascades.