La Reunion

4th September to 12th October

Mountains, wine, hiking, more wine and it’s not a hedgehog 

If you haven’t been here and you’re not French, you may not know much about Réunion. You may scarcely have heard of it. France probably wants to keep it a secret.

It must be French!

So first of all here’s some geography. It’s a French Territory (like Martinique and Guadalupe) a bit bigger than its nearest neighbour, Mauritius, which is just over 100 miles away. Both islands emerged from the same geological hotspot in the earth’s crust, though Réunion is much younger, a mere 2 million years. Hence it’s very mountainous with stark steep volcanic peaks everywhere other than on the narrow coastal belt, and lots of deep ravines. Madagascar is about 400 miles west of here.

Preparing colourful street decoration in St Denis (the capital)
Traditional villas from early 1800’s

First settled by the French in the 17th century, sugar became the mainstay of the economy, with firstly slave labour from Africa, and then indentured labour from India and elsewhere. Hence the population mix today. In Réunion’s case it’s roughly a third each of people with origins in Europe, Africa and South India, plus a handful from China and elsewhere, all with lots of intermixing from earliest days, total over 800,000 people who mainly live in the coastal towns. I find it delightful. 

Could easily be a scene from the French Alps?

Those born here are Reunion Creole and often speak a local French creole language, which I’m told is similar to Mauritius creole. But totally incomprehensible for visitors like me, who must try and use French, which is the official language.

That’s your geography and history lesson for the day.

Recently added land

For me, life here could be very easy, even easier if I spoke much more French. 

It has all the comforts of France, everything from fresh baguettes, myriad cheeses and bottles of Bordeaux, to good infrastructure, clean streets and well-stocked chandleries. Bins are emptied promptly. Cafes, bars and restaurants abound. 

People seem much more laid back and friendly than in much of France. Cars usually stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, and we exchange friendly ‘Bonjours’ with a smile. People everywhere seem happy to chat with me.

A popular local beer

The only reason Réunion is not so very easy is that the island has all these super steep mountains, which were created so we could go hiking. 

Useful guide for 152 trails (there are more)

And since the seas are so full of unfriendly sharks that visitors only swim or surf a little bit, we all go mountain walking instead. Or to be precise, some go walking. Others run or ride their bicycles up and down these crazily steep slopes.

The place is covered in a network of steep hairpin roads, the hairiest hair pins you’ll find anyway outside your granny’s dressing table. 

This allows access to hundreds of well-marked paths. As in the Alps there are excellent signs, maps and splodges of paint, so no one ever gets lost – except me.

Well marked trails everywhere

And if mountain walking is too tame for you then every year they hold an international mountain ultramarathon, reputedly one of the toughest races in the world. It’s designed to bring out and satisfy the masochist in you – something the French excel in (see also Tour de France, Marathon des Sables, Vendée Globe – a question to ponder: is masochism an under-reported part of the French psyche?). 

This year the Réunion endurance run, La Diagonale des Fous, Madmen’s Diagonal, will be held this week, mid-October (probably explains why in the time I’ve been here there are so many people running up and down these extremely steep and rocky paths – running!).

Scenic places for an ultramarathon

The course covers 166 km, with a total climb of nearly 10,000 metres (significantly more than Mount Everest). 

There are over 1,000 entries, far fewer than usual, and winners usually finish in less than 24 hours; others may take three days. Although I have done a few standard marathons in my time, the thought of four marathons run consecutively on rocky and muddy little paths with Mount Everest included, leaves me incredulous. Even ambling along the paths in sedate style is a seriously tiring affair.

If you enjoy mountain walks in an exquisite variety of scenery both above and below the clouds, with fabulous wildlife and glorious views, Réunion is a dream. 

Walk above the cloud, beneath the cloud or in the cloud

If you’re not up to walking, then there are hundreds of helicopters. There are perhaps more helicopters per person than anywhere on earth, though I’m only guessing that. (For one well populated area in the Cirque Mafate, it’s how residents get their food supplies. They walk a couple of hours up a mountainside to where they keep their cars, drive down to a supermarket, leave their shopping for helicopter delivery, drive back up the mountain, and walk down to their homes. Not really popping out to the corner shop, is it)

While thinking of most, highest, biggest, etc, Guinness Book of Records stuff, I can tell you that Réunion, apart from its amazing number of helicopters, has records for heaviest rainfalls on earth (over 1.8 metres in 24 hours is one such) and for its size is one of the most biodiverse places on earth too. Its cirques, ramparts and pitons give its National Park (40% of the island) UNESCO World Heritage status.

And so for more than a month I’ve been wearing out joints and organs that are little used with life on a boat (ie. legs and lungs). Plus eating a lot and enjoying a subdued and civilised social life with the twenty or so visiting and resident boats. 

Birthday party
This ship, the Marion Duffresne now restocking behind our marina, is a research and supply vessel for French islands near Antarctica

We’re a mixed bunch of visiting boats, mainly French, but including Scandinavians, Chilean, Canadian, Madeira, Swiss, Réunion, Spanish, German and me (English). Réunion has new-found popularity with world-cruising sailors while both Mauritius and Madagascar remain shut.

I cherish and value the international goodwill and friendly helpfulness that are so much a part of cruising life. About half of us, maybe a dozen boats including me, will head for South Africa in the next few weeks, before the start of cyclone season.

Legs and limbs, and shoes, are worn out (disused historic cable car behind)

Oh! This little creature that I stopped to chat with on one of my walks is not a slimline hedgehog, as I’d initially thought. It’s a tailless tenrec. It seemed friendly. Apparently good to eat. Maybe a useful word for Scrabble too. I’d not heard of tenrecs.

7 thoughts on “La Reunion”

  1. Mike Thank you again for another interesting letter. I was thinking of you just yesterday and looked you up on Marine traffic. I am pleased you are enjoying Reunion. Yes it did seem to be be very easy living when I have visited Shame you will not be there for the lychee season. Tenrecs I am familiar with. Our dogs in Mauritius used to find dead ones and roll in them to pick up a particularly strong smell which they obviously found attractive.

    Have been hoping that you would be able to get to Mauritius. The airport has just opened but I think for returning Mauritians. Ports probably remain closed. As always great to hear from you.

    Regards Richard

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  2. Magnifique île de la réunion Thank you Mike for yours photos We were at réunion island in January 2020 We love this island …take care and
    BON VENT as we say in french…☀️⛰🌴⛵️

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  3. Good to hear that you and Henrietta are enjoying yourself. Your blog is very interesting and informative. Fairwinds and smooth seas.

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