Located nearly 200 kilometres southwest of Mauritius and east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, the Reunion Island comes as a pleasant surprise for the travellers. Often referred as the “intense island”, this green gem offers all the elements that would delight visitors of varied interests.
While winter freezes the upper part of the hemisphere, Reunion Island spreads out its glimmering water under a clear blue sky, with alleys of palm trees, insolent greenery and exotic landscapes warmed up by summer rays. Covering around 2,512 square kilometre area, this tiny piece of land, almost twice smaller than Delhi, offers an ideal destination for tourists seeking a break. With more than 200 kilometre coastline, Reunion Island has everything to satisfy visitors fond of beaches and sand, leisure time under the shadows of filaos and their knife-edge foliage. Of the beaches and lagoons that are primarily situated on the West coast, not all are accessible for swimming. Boucan Canot, located in the north of the island, is the most popular among them, thanks to the multiple activities that it offers. Here, the visitors not only enjoy the translucent water, but also water sports and activities such as surfing and windsurfing. All along the beach, numerous cafés, restaurants and shops are there to accompany the laid-back moments with fresh fruits cocktails or snacks to be enjoyed on the spot or in the sunshade. Further south, the beach of Etang Salé and its stretches of black sand coming from the volcanoes around are not to be missed. Scorching in the middle of the day, it is a nice place to take a stroll when the temperature gets cooler. We suggest you to end up this atypical walk along the shady alleys of its adjacent coastal wood, famous for its bunch of Indian tamarind.
If the insular specificity of the Reunion Island mostly evokes the tranquillity of seaside resorts, you might be surprised by the large variety of reliefs and sceneries there. A few steps away from sand dunes, the island’s famous volcanoes rise till around 3,000 metre height. On the way, you will be able to appreciate the transformation of the landscape and the wildlife around. From Saint-Denis to the circus of Salazie, large highways become meandering roads, running along the high volcanoes. Meanwhile, rows of houses slowly vanish and are replaced by a tropical environment with luxurious vegetation, waterfalls, and untamed gorges. The specific names given to each of those natural monuments will surely raise your curiosity: the “veil of the bride” refers to a thin row of waterfalls situated at an altitude of 500 meters. The “water chicken pond” alludes to a small island that used to hide birds of all species, including water chicken probably originating from Madagascar. At the heart of Salazie, don’t miss Hell Bourg, classified amongst the most beautiful villages of France. Nestled in the circus, it presents a peculiar atmosphere with its magnificent Creole houses thoroughly preserved across time, sometimes enlarged and renovated according to the standards of the moment. Made of wood and lime, the colourful buildings are usually decorated with traditional lambrequin added at the edge of the roofs, an element designating a short piece of decorative drapery made of wood or of tinplate. These traditional houses awake the sensibility and interest of those fond of architecture. They may seem to be inspired by Pondicherry, a former French colony in the Indian subcontinent. The “cases créoles” as they are called there, are most of the time embellished with pots of flowers – arum lilies, honeysuckles and wonderful bougainvillea, adding colours and opulence to the courtyards.
For the amateurs of vertiginous sceneries and high sensations, Reunion also shelters the highest peak of the Indian Ocean with the Piton des Neiges and its 3,070 meters height. At the origin of the island, this volcano offers an unobstructed view of the surrounding. Known for the difficulty of its trail, the hike that leads to the heights requires a day or two walk with an overnight stay in a cottage halfway. Caverne Dufour, the only shelter available, welcomes hikers and enables them to admire a beautiful sunrise on the circus at dawn.
Cuisine reflecting diverse culture
Reunion Island also translates its diversity through its diversified cuisine. Inhabited since 350 years only, the island is today the result of successive migrations, with the arrival of the first settlers from France and their Madagascan slaves, followed by indentured labours from Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and China. This mix of traditions and specificities out of different continents is reflected in the language, architecture, lifestyle and food. The local dishes will tickle your taste buds with the smooth and plain savours of French cuisine, strong flavours of the South, with spices reminding India, Africa and Asia as well. The famous cabri massalé, coming straight from the Indian kitchen, is today a cornerstone of local food. At first prepared by Indian families during important events, the dish has quickly reached the households of Reunion Island. Among the ingredients, you will find cabri meat or goat meat, cumin seeds, ginger, curcuma, and kaloupilé or curry leaves. Nothing to destabilise Indian tourists!
Also present everywhere, the rougail is a dish of Madagascan origin which can be linked to pickles, that accompanies main courses or “carry” as called locally. Other dishes considered as specialities from Reunion Island will remind you of Chinese influences, such as the chopsuey made of rice instead of traditional noodles.
Authentic melting pot of cultures and flavours, the island will surprise you through its diversity. This small island, less known than her Mauritian neighbour, will also remind you of the Indian customs and art de vivre, inviting you for a smooth and enjoyable experience of home outside home.
A bit of history
Before becoming a part of the metropolitan France as an overseas department, Reunion Island underwent a long period of historical changes and political evolution. Its links with India dates back to the 19th century, when French settlers decided to recruit indentured labours from abroad, especially from India where they had few territories such as Pondicherry. To expand the labour supply, a Franco- British Convention later allowed 6,000 Indian labours to be recruited on an annual basis to work under the indenture system. Between 1848 and 1860, nearly 37,800 Indians were sent to the island, alongside 26,750 African and 423 Chinese workers. Most of the Indian indentured workers were from the region of Tamil Nadu.
This migration coming from the Indian subcontinent was also extended by the simultaneous arrival of merchants, traders and artisans from Gujarat. Educated and skilled in business, those Muslims migrants settled down swiftly on this land. Considered as foreign workers for a long time, it is only after 1920 that Indians from Reunion Island were allowed French citizenship.
Today, the Indian diaspora is mainly divided between ‘Malabars’, a generic term used for all Indians from South India and ‘Zarabs’, referring to the Muslim population.
Today, the Indian community living on Reunion Island is actively preserving the root traditions and culture through yearly festivities such as Deepavali and Navratras and hosting various events and programmes to promote Indian music, dance and literature.
How to reach
Air: The main airport is the Roland Garros International Airport located near Saint-Denis. The vast majority of international flights arriving at Reunion come from France, with a handful of other airports through the Indian Ocean.
Where to stay
All types of accommodation are available on the island, from youth hostels to five stars hotels. Privately run Gîtes operated by Reunion Island Tourism Board are also recommended while trekking or hiking.