Indian Ocean - A week in Réunion

We arrived in Réunion on Carmel's birthday - her present was having the pleasure of driving a strange car on the opposite side of the road in a place she'd never been to before. I got to navigate. We blundered out of the airport and turned east, having decided to give St. Denis a miss and to stick to somewhere smaller and possibly easier to negotiate. Fat chance. The first kilometre or so was interesting, but other drivers seemed to forgive us our trespasses as we finally got onto the highway and set off for St-André. We had the address of a possible place to stay, but no map of the village. The town looked interesting, with two temples on the main road, so we stopped to get directions, found the guesthouse (P'tit Coin Exotique) and booked in. We arranged to have dinner courtesy of Mme Paton-Reverdy then drove back into St-André to look at the temples. No problem finding them, but the streets were one-way, and by the time we were lost in the maze of intersecting roads at the commercial end of town it was dark and we had no idea how to get back to the guesthouse. Eventually I found a helpful woman who directed us back to the street with the main temple in it, and we could navigate back from there.

Carmel's birthday was celebrated in style, with lots of hugs, "Happy Birthday" sung with a Tamil accent, and long conversations in fractured French and English.

After breakfast we set off into Cirque de Salazie and Hell-Bourg. Pictures can't do justice to Réunion, it is so spectacular, with breath-taking scenery, cliffs that tower overhead, countless cascades tumbling hundreds of metres down the hillsides. We took a long time to drive to Hell-Bourg, stopping all the time just to enjoy the views. We booked into a centrally located hotel, had lunch, and set off for a walk, but the clouds quickly settled in, rain poured down, and we had an afternoon of reading books, very grateful for the heater in the room.

In the morning we had been going to drive out to Grand Îlet, but the weather was against us - totally clouded in and drizzle - so we drove out of the Cirque and out to the Plaines des Palmistes, where we expected to spend the night. It was a Sunday, and everywhere was totally packed out with people up in the mountains for Sunday lunch. Both of the places we ear-marked as possible overnight stays were closed, with no-one in sight. We got the impression that the owners were also out for a long lunch. Eventually we gave up and drove off towards the volcano, hoping to find one of the many guesthouses along the way open and available for check-in. Luck was with us - the charming Ferme du Pêcher Gourmand was open. Although they were desperately busy with dozens of people having lunch the friendly staff settled us into a very pleasant unit overlooking the grounds.

We drove back to the Plaines des Palmistes, to explore the Fôret de Bébour-Bélouve, where dozens of people were having picnics and picking goyave, a fruit that grows in orchards but escapes over the fence into the forest. The forest wasn't quite like I expected, but it had a spectacular "bowl" of mountains at the start, and when we drove into the mist is was rather spooky and beautiful.

Despite the cloudy weather we drove up to the volcano in the morning, hoping that the mist would lift. The main reason I wanted to go to Réunion was the possible siting of a live volcano, but it was not to be. We drove the entire way to the inner crater through thicker and thicker mist that thickened into rain. By the end of the road visibility was down to only a few yards and we were draped in our waterproof capes, scurrying into the refuge to escape the driving rain. It was packed out with people! We would have liked better weather, but the trip was by no means wasted. The volcanic landscape was rather beautiful in the mist, and we saw a number of superb rainbows, including one that almost crept along the ground towards us when we were down on the Plaine aux Sables.

We spent the afternoon driving down to St-Joseph, on the coast, and back through Petite Île, keeping to minor roads as much as possible. The roads are rather interesting, with deep drop-offs on the unmarked sides, easy to misjudge and drive over the edge. We had dinner at our guesthouse that night, and met some interesting people from Bordeaux. We managed to overcome the language barriers and had a wonderfully friendly evening, with lots of things to talk about.

In the morning we drove out to Grand Bassin, then took the back route down towards St-Louis before picking up the road to Cilaos. Along the way we passed a number of indian temples, and stopped to have a look at one that appeared to be in the front yard of a minor engineering works. The man who came out to greet us was perfectly happy to let us wander around and explore the temple precinct.

Once again there was fabulous scenery everywhere we looked. The road was more difficult than that going to Hell-Bourg, and we often sounded the horn before going around single-land hair-pin bends. There were several tunnels, and tiny side roads going off at impossible gradients to villages down in the valleys. At one point the road turned back on itself and crossed over with a bridge - a greater than 360° turn. We booked into a hotel at Cilaos, then took a picnic lunch with us and set off to Îlet à Cordes, returning early enough to have a good look around Cilaos, visit an embroidery museum, and have a wine-tasting at the cellars. Had a very poor dinner at the hotel; it was notable because we'd had such wonderful food everywhere else on this trip.

In the morning we drove down towards the coast, then found the back road that would take us to Petite France, where we wanted to spend the night. This was another interesting drive; one of the attractions along the was a huge communal spider web with hundreds of huge black/red/yellow spiders. We wasted most of the afternoon waiting for the custodian of the gîte to turn up, but eventually we were booked in; Carmel to a large, comfortable room and me to its poor cousin. Dinner was difficult to come by, but we drove off down the hill and found an outdoor place that had curried sausages and a hungry and friendly cat to help us eat them.

The whole purpose of driving over to Petite France was to go to the lookout at Le Maido, so up we drove to get a splendid view of Cirque Malfate.

We did a bit of a loop back down to the coast, then drove back along the coast on the old road, through St-Gilles and L'Hermitage, to end up in St-Pierre, where we were to spend our last night. St-Pierre was fine; good hotel, excellent food, a Chinese temple to look at, a park along the reef-protected beach and a live jazz band playing on the street at night. We had a good last night there and flew to Mauritius the next morning.

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