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All about Reunion

View from sky, ILOHA Seaview Hotel 3*, Reunion island

An island of mind-blowing beauty, Reunion is the perfect destination for nature-loving travellers on the look-out for grandiose landscapes and new experiences.

 

Rising from the seas only 3 million years ago, Reunion Island has two volcanic massifs, Piton des Neiges (the oldest, now extinct) and Piton de la Fournaise (the youngest and one of the most active volcanoes in the world).

These two areas changed over time, resulting in spectacular scenery in the heart of the island. The three cirques of Mafate, Salazie & Cilaos were created following the collapse of Piton des Neiges. Assembled in the shape of a shamrock around the remains of the island’s original volcano, they are now a natural history book demonstrating to all visitors just how volcanos evolve.

On August 2nd 2010, these wonders were recognized as having outstanding universal value by UNESCO, thus gaining the classification of ‘World Heritage of Humanity’ in the category of natural sites.

The chosen area corresponds to Reunion’s National Park (an area of over 100,000 hectares, or 40% of the surface of the island), including the spectacular ‘Pitons, Cirques and Ramparts’, which contribute so much to biodiversity conservation. Reunion is home to a veritable biological treasure-trove, with 230 known plant species, of which many are endemic.

Reunion is France’s 35th cultural site and 4th natural site to receive the UNESCO world heritage classification, following Golfe de Porto in Corsica, Mont-Perdu in the Pyrenees, and the lagoons of New Caledonia.

A destination like no other, Reunion is ever-increasingly recommended as a destination for eco-tourists and nature-loving travellers on the look-out for grandiose landscapes and new experiences. Marked by successive eruptions of Piton de la Fournaise, the ‘Wild South’ stands out in particular as the island’s most authentically preserved region for both flora and fauna, as well as for Creole culture.

Geographic position

 

A volcanic island located about 10,000km away from Mainland France, Reunion first emerged from the Indian Ocean 3 million years ago. Located along the 21st southern latitude just 700 km west of Madagascar, Reunion is part of the Mascarene Islands, along with the neighbouring islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues.

Its geographic position means that the climate is mild all year round. A tropical island with steep rugged mountains, its landscape is characterized by the following: 210 kilometres of coastline, including 35km of sandy beaches (generally protected by a coral reef), 2 volcanoes: Piton des Neiges (3,071m, now extinct) and Piton de la Fournaise (2,632m, still active), and 3 natural amphitheatres called ‘cirques’: Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie.

A French territory since 1642, it became a French department in 1946. Reunion is also commonly known as ‘the intense island’ or ‘island of great visual beauty’, because of the richness and diversity of its landscapes.

  • Main city: Saint-Denis
  • Time difference with Mainland France: + 3h in summer, + 2h in winter
  • Population: 843,600 inhabitants
  • Surface area: 2,512 km²

Climate & seasons

 

The climate of Reunion is tropical with 300 days of sunshine per year. The air temperature varies between 24°C and 35°C. The water temperature varies between 23°C and 29°C all year. The west (or ‘leeward’) coast is drier and warmer than the east coast of the island, called the ‘windward coast’.

The tropical climate of Reunion is tempered by the influence of the Indian Ocean and its trade winds. The omnipresent mountains separate the island into two regions: up in the hills (‘les hauts’), where the temperature is cool and down by the coast (‘les bas’) where it’s hotter.

Our seasons are the opposite of the northern hemisphere: winter runs from May to October, and summer from November to April. The months of January and February mark the peak of summer (cyclone season), with July and August the coolest months during the winter. The periods between these two seasons are particularly pleasant. With its cool, dry weather, the dry season (April to September) is the ideal time for hiking. The humid season (October-March) is warmer and wetter, therefore the perfect time for flowers to blossom. It is also the best time for a beach holiday.

Reunionese culture 

 

The island is often given as an example of a multiracial society in which different ethnic groups coexist quite successfully, and where people of all origins are fully integrated into the community.

To give a quick historical overview, Reunion was deserted until the French landed during the seventeenth century. It was populated by successive migratory waves, first by French settlers, then by slaves brought in from Madagascar and Africa (their descendants here are known as ‘cafres’). Slavery was abolished in 1848, and the colony needed workers: indentured immigrants and labourers came in from India by the thousands, but also from the Canton region of China. In the 1960s, people from Mainland France (known here as ‘zoreils’) came to settle in considerable numbers, and those from Comoros and Mayotte completed this human mosaic during the 1970s.

This blend of origins, religions, rituals and customs could have been disastrous, but this was not the case. The island’s inhabitants succeeded in living together in harmony, accepting or adopting new cultures without forgetting their own roots. There is no community which lives cordoned off from the rest, and mixed marriages are commonplace: the Reunionese are united by the lives they have in common on an island they love, which goes far beyond their many origins.

Religions

 

In Reunion, religions coexist without conflict: people pray to Christ, Allah, Siva, Mourouga or the goddess Guan Yin. Churches, Tamil temples, Chinese pagodas and mosques can be seen all over the island.

In Saint-Denis, there is a visit called ‘The Reunion of Religions,’ during which you can visit four different religious buildings which are almost side by side. Christians were the first to arrive, and today’s devout church-goers make up the majority. Every Sunday, the churches are packed, with everyone dressed in his or her finest attire for the occasion.

This religious fervour does not prevent Creoles from indulging in more pagan rites, as can be seen by the small red altars dotted along the roadside, heavily laden with sacred offerings. They are dedicated to Expeditus, whose name is quite apt: the saint is said to answer all prayers very quickly.

Hinduism is the island’s second largest religion. Tamil festivals are very popular and an integral part of Reunion’s cultural landscape, with people of different faiths who are more than welcome at these highly colourful ceremonies.

In October there is Dipavali, the Indian Festival of Light. It heralds a week of festivities in towns such as Saint-André and Saint-Pierre, with successive processions of floral floats, dances and musical shows, with believers handing out gifts and religious pictures to those around them.

 

In January, there are spectacular fire-walking events, grandiose and popular ceremonies which reflect the fervour of those taking part. You may need to elbow your way through to get a good view of the penitent men and women walking barefoot across a pit filled with hot embers. When seen for the first time, this festival in honour of the God Mourouga is truly impressive: the penitents first go to the river to take the Cavadee (a small altar with offerings to the deity), which they then carry all the way to the temple to the sound of drums. Finally, as a sign of redemption, they pierce their skin with sharp needles.

 

Muslims from western India (Goujrat), Pakistan or the Comoros came to the island to trade, and are known here by the Creoles as ‘Zarabes.’ They built their places of worship close to their shops in town centres, and it is possible to visit them outside prayer times. With its green and white minimalist decor, the mosque in Saint-Denis is the oldest in France. Boasting ornate Arabic calligraphy, the mosque in Saint-Pierre was made out of precious local woods. More recently still, the mosque of Saint-Louis was decorated by Tunisian sculptors. Islam is so well integrated that the Madrasah of Saint-Denis is the only Koranic school in France under contract with the French Ministry of Education. Muslim holidays (the end of Ramadan, and Eid) are moments creating real excitement. On these occasions, food is shared with the poor, a way for Muslims to show their solidarity and their role within Reunion’s social melting-pot.

 

The Buddhist community is more discreet.

 

While having embraced the Catholic religion, the Reunionese of Chinese origin also worship their ancestors, notably in the temples in Saint-Pierre and the beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Centre up in Piton Saint-Leu. Widely practiced, the ‘double 10 festival’ commemorates the overthrow of the Imperial Manchu regime (10th October 1911). For the Chinese New Year, celebrated between January and February, the Chinese community take to the streets to the sound of gongs and drums. There are many associations who continue to uphold and promote Chinese culture (language courses, dance, cooking), ensuring its thriving continuation.

The creole language

 

Some communities still speak the language of their ancestors in the privacy of their own homes, but Creole is Reunion’s mother tongue, used almost exclusively in everyday life.

The language was born in the eighteenth century following the basic need for communication between slaves of different origins and settlers, and its roots are French, African and Malagasy. Over time, it has been enriched with vocabulary from English, Hindi and Chinese. As the language was adopted by every newcomer to the island and the only one that everyone could understand, it soon spread across the island.

With its French base, phonetic-based spelling and sweet-sounding terms, it is easily understandable (for French speakers). Thus, the word for ‘bee’ is a mouche à miel (‘honey fly’), the word difficult becomes ‘malizé’ and the French for bird (‘oiseau’) is written ‘zwazo’.

Today, it is taught at the University of Saint-Denis and it is used widely in theatre, literature and music. Reunionese music is thriving, contributing to the promotion of Creole culture overseas: the catchy reggae of Baster, Ziskakan’s blend of Indian music and African percussion, and poet/singer Danyel Waro are all known beyond the confines of the island.

Another well-known character on the Reunionese landscape is the Gouzou, a little character designed by a local artist called Jace, who can be seen on cliff-tops or inner-city walls, and can be spotted in Paris, London, Munich and even New York!

Architecture

 

Whether made of wood, metal or concrete, majestic colonial mansions or one-room huts, all houses are known as ‘cases’. Keep your eyes peeled and admire the colourful facades and intricate valances of little houses that line the roadside. As a living expression of local culture, this type of house is sadly dying out, often damaged by the ravages of time and of cyclones.

At the heart of Salazie, in the village of Hell-Bourg, which is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, there is a guided tour taking you around authentic Creole houses.

Handicrafts

 

Among the island’s more traditional creations, basket-weaving has always been very popular. No Creole would dream of going to the beach or market without his or her tente, a type of colourful basket. It is not uncommon to see a gramoun (an old man) walking along the roadside, with a straw hat sat firmly on his head and a bertel on his back (a flat square bag). Artisans use local plants for their materials; vacoa fibres, vetiver, coconut and choka plants are all braided to make hats, bags and shoes.

Remnants from the East India Company, noble woods such as benzoin, camphor and cinnamon wood are used in cabinet-making to create furniture and carve decorative objects. Cane armchairs made of tamarind wood are commonplace on the verandas of Creole houses.

Finally, don’t miss a visit to Cilaos to admire the local embroiderers at work. The creation of ‘jours’, lace doilies which are so fine that the light shines through, has been a specialty in the cirque since the late nineteenth century, and are marvellous examples of finesse.

Customs

 

The tradition on Sundays is for Creole families to get together for picnics which look more like a banquet. No sandwiches or boiled eggs here – the casserole heats over a log fire, and while the cari slowly cooks, family and friends sing and dance to music.

Some places are so popular that people save their place as early as Friday evening. This is the case of La Fenêtre des Makes, with its exceptional viewpoint overlooking Cilaos, of Cap Méchant and its beautiful coastal path or under the shade of filoas trees by the lagoon in Hermitage. Surprised tourists are often invited to join the party.

This a great way to discover the specialties of Creole cuisine and its influences from around the world: rice brought in by Indians (which soon became indispensable), samosas by the zarabes or Chinese steamed dumplings called bouchons.

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