We approach for landing. I’ve caught a glimpse of the island from the plane. A sprinkling of white houses atop green mountains and hills, dramatic cliffs, turquoise water lapping at the shoreline. Nothing but ocean beyond. It looks petite, idyllic and welcoming.
The lower we get, buckled up, braced, it really does seem the pilot will give land a skip and settle us on water … yet that’s only because the Saint Denis airport literally runs parallel to the coast. A gentle skid and a bump, and we’ve arrived. I’m beyond excited to breath in this brand new destination.
I’m here for the weekend as a guest of Reunion Island Tourism, to experience the Festival Liberté Métisse. The 20th December marks the day that slavery was abolished on Reunion Island and for the past five years there’s been an organised festival of freedom on the Etang Salé les Bains beach. One of expos, concerts, craft and song.
To offer some bearings, Reunion Island is in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, with Madagascar its closest neighbour. A Department of France, the island falls under French rule with the citizens holding mainland residency. They refer to the Metropol when talking about France, as though it were just down the road and not across a continent and ocean. French is spoken, the Euro is used. The food is very good.
Reunion forms parts of the Vanilla Island collective, an alliance formed to promote Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius, Mayotte, Comoros and the Maldives. On our first day there we attend the press conference where President Didier Robert addresses the various representatives, highlighting the importance of tourism to the region. The end of his one year leadership he hands over to Ramarcel Ramanantsoa of Madagascar, who is encouraging as he addresses the room. Focus on the environment, responsible and sustainable tourism, the people, collaboration. This is what you want to hear.
There may be much in common with the neighbours, yet here on Reunion Island it feels different. This island first and foremost belongs to the proud and relaxed Creole people, with their melting pot of ancestry and culture. This is the uniqueness and the focus. They are the ones that give it heart and character.
Originally settled by people of Madagascar, then African, Arabic, Chinese, Indian and European; the racial diversity has born a beautiful people that celebrate their origin and will not be hung up on the divides of their ethnic ancestry. ’We are Creole’. I’m told. ‘Not Irish or African or Chinese. Creole of Reunion.’
The Festival officially opens with the Renegades percussion group who bring life to the proceedings. The audience start to bop to the beat and follow their lead, clapping and cheering along. There’s dance and live graffiti going up.
I wander around the many stores on offer, which showcase island artisan works. There are fabrics, items made from recycled goods, jewellery, baskets and macramé’s. A few of the stalls that I get lost in for demos and chats are the Vanilla Co-Operative, the Noute Kafé for hand ground and roasted coffee, and the Maison de Geranium distillery. Also Maxime the jeweller who intricately carves the palm seeds which he calls vegetable ivory. I couldn’t resist, buying a necklace with a turtle on it.
Jean-Jacques Magdeleine, the geranium distiller.
Jeweller Maxime Fauquembergue of Arleo Arts
Hand roasted coffee by Alexandre Dijoux of Noute Kafé, selling for as much as US$600 per kg on the Japanese market. More here.
Graffiti in the making. More here.
If you opt for a quiet moment on the beach as the sun sets and the music adds to the ambience. That too is possible.
Over the next two days the three stages on the beach host various dance acts, musicians and bands. The crowds come and go, some settling in with blankets and picnics, others passing through, stopping to have a dance, usually with a stranger. But then again, on an island with a population of only 850 000, one with a proud sense of history and belonging, there is no such thing.
The Etang Salé les Bains beach has a character of its own. Palm trees line the coast and the water laps gently in the area offered for protected swimming. The sand under foot is volcanic black, and burns as you walk down to the shore. This thanks to the active volcano which occasionally erupts to add to the bulk of land. My guide Nicolaas Barniche of Tours Reunion tells me that it last erupted in June 2014. Also that in its big eruption of 2007, the island actually gained 3,5 ha. Not a bad thing that. He laughs and says that the La Reunion residents refer to it as ‘their volcano’ with pride. Not fear. Although typically there are legends of devils and dares that surround it.
From the air during our helicopter flight with Coral Hélicoptéres, I get a better idea of what they mean. There’s nothing quite like an aerial perspective and that is particularly true of Reunion. As we take off my French pilot offers detail of the areas that we are flying over.
I see the change of landscape and for the first time grasp the diversity of offerings for which this destination is renowned.
We fly over fruit trees and farmland, over scatterings of homes on hill tops, some only accessible by foot. Lush green crevices with cascading waterfalls, which we career past, the pilot lifting the toggle at the last moment, playing with us and the wonders of nature. Further teasing as we are taken to the barren black and grey of the volcano and her craters. It thrills me when I catch a glimpse of some hikers, the red on their jackets breaking their cover. What an activity to do.
I don’t want the flight to end. I haven’t understood a word, yet the whir of the overhead propeller, the view through the front window and speed at which we are flying through the air excites me. The last stretch is over the lagoon. White beaches, calm blue water, yachts and boats. I’m delighted as I catch sight of two leatherback turtles playing in the water below. What a gift that is.
The Piton de La Fournaise.
Back on solid ground, we head to the Saint Pierre Market to replenish on local offerings and do some shopping.
Everybody loves a good market, especially one that is bursting with fresh fruit and veg, local specialty cuisine, crafted goods, woven baskets, photography, jewellery and hand produced clothing. Money was spent, litchis and annanas eaten, chats were had. My kind of shopping experience. It’s right on the coastline too, with a skate park next door.
The weather is hot and very humid. Especially after the gentle rain which seems to come at night in the rainy season. A welcome thing, that enhances the vibrancy of the colours and flavours.
The highlight of the trip is spending an evening with legendary Creole musician, poet and activist Denyal Waro, as he celebrates freedom with a Kabaro. Joining him at his modest home with a group of about 50 for dance, song and tradition. Mud underfoot as the drizzle joined us for much of the time. One of the most famous of the island’s Creole, it was his determination that brought Maloya music to the world. It’s trance like rhythmic blues infectious. What a privilege to meet and interview him afterwards as he spoke of how the focus of the music has moved from a political voice of slaves to a message of peace and hope for the environment. We joined in as the group danced and sang with abandon, all emotions piqued.
Some of the group with Danyel Waro after the Kabaro.
Petite in size, grand in character. Here lives the good life. This is an island that proudly belongs to the people. One that I hope to return to for further exploration.
The Essential Details
- South Africans do not need a visa to visit Reunion.
- Its easy to access with direct four hour flights from Johannesburg offered twice a week, Thursdays and Sundays with Air Austral.
- The Currency is the Euro.
- Allow yourself plenty of time. At least a week. There is so very much to see and experience. You can hire a car and drive yourself, but as an advocate for a guide, I would suggest that you contact Reunion Tourism for guidance, or Nicolaas who took care of us.
- Read more on the Reunion Island blog and follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
- I travelled as a guest of Reunion Island Tourism, joining a media group from China, Belgium, France and Madagascar, by invitation of Destinate. We were accommodated in the Floralys Excel hotel.
- Read about my other visit to Reunion Island. #GoToReunion
Journos Francoise Gauder of Belgium and Wang Yang of Beijing TV Station who I travelled with, getting their selfie on.