Sharon Gilbert-Rivett recalls finding black market wine, pastries and smoking lava flows on this French Indian Ocean island
Pierre-Noe Dijoux is a wicked man. He’s just opened a fifth bottle of home-produced Malbec for us to sample and the wine, decanted for tastings in the small cellar under the Hotel Tsilaosa, is beginning to go to my head. Two floors up the hotel spills out onto the main street of Cilaos, a quiet mountain town surrounded by a fortress of impenetrable rock. You’d think we were high in the Alps, but this little piece of France is just over four hours by air from Johannesburg. Welcome to Reunion.
As I down Monsieur Dijoux’s yet another glass of splendid “under-the-counter” wine, which took just two weeks to ferment, the cellar is packed with guests, mostly from France, all enjoying Dijoux’s good humour, home-cured hams and cheeses and, of course, the excellent wine. “Vive la Revolution!” I cheer, as we all raise our glasses. Then Dijoux family and our guide Nico Cyprien lead us upwards to the light, and a hearty meal at our host’s restaurant a half-block down the street before we head for la-la land in his quaint, comfortable hotel.
I am awake at dawn the following morning – a testament to the quality of Monsieur Dijoux’s brews. The rising sun turns the walls of the volcanic crater surrounding Cilaos into burnished gold. Situated smack-bang in the middle of the crater, Cilaos is wedged at a height of 1200m between the soaring Piton des Neiges – the highest on the island – and the active Piton de la Fournaise, which last erupted in 2007. The scene is impressive.
We arrived on Air Austral’s scheduled Sunday morning flight from OR Tambo in the late afternoon, to find a world of soaring jagged peaks and plunging valleys, dense rainforests, hidden cirques and caldeiras. Jurassic Park meets Mountains of the Moon.
We spent our first night at the Lux Hotel in the village of Ermitage, close to popular St Gilles de Bain and a half-hour’s drive from the airport and St Denis, the capital. It’s one of a handful of “luxury” resort-type hotels on Reunion and the perfect place to unwind, with a stylish seafood supper on the beach, a breeze wafting through the palm trees and waves lapping at the edge of the coral lagoon a few metres away. Paradise.
Cyprien had picked us up from the Lux for the drive from the coastal shelf. And what a drive it turned out to be! Kilometres of hairpin bends climbed beyond the clouds to the dizzying heights of Reunion’s interior and Cilaos, via one of the narrowest tunnels in the world, barely wide enough for a small truck to fit through. That’s how I got to be here, admiring the sheer cliffs that enfold Cilaos in a protective, rocky embrace. And that’s how we get back down to the relative civilisation of the coast and the island’s “wild south”.
A few hours later I am staring into a gaping chasm spewing out steam. I am surrounded by similar plumes of super-heated air, which turn to steam as soon as they meet the cool air of Reunion’s coast. A kilometre in front the Indian Ocean pummels the edge of a jagged hardened lava flow that stretches out to the distant Piton de la Fournaise from whence it poured seven years ago.
That the lava flow is still “smoking” from its cracked and razor-sharp surface indicates that far beneath, molten rock is still moving along hidden tunnels to sea. It’s a freak show that has me enraptured, standing out in the middle of the flow, surrounded by the evidence of Mother Nature’s raw, unbridled power atop the very forces that shaped our planet.
The change of scenery is dramatic. At lunchtime we were swimming in a tidal pool at St Anse, a popular seaside town with swaying palms and a powder white beach lapped by a deep turquoise sea. Now all I see is black lava and the scars left by volcanic activity through the ages, reaching back through the clouds to the hidden fiery peak.
Conversation over dinner at the marvellous Hotel la Fournaise in the village of Sainte-Rose, at the southern tip of Reunion, is all about the volcano. Guide Cyprien explains that Reunion’s economy is built on volcano tourism. Piton de la Fournaise’s eruptions – “safe” to watch from a distance – attract volcano buffs across the world.
Hotel la Fournaise’s owner Johan Chan-Hin-Chun, a second-generation Reunionese loves “his” volcano, which has helped to make his establishment the perfect base from which to explore the lava fields. You can drive into the mouth of the sleeping monster, visit the top, through lava deserts and moonscape-like scenery, and hike to Piton de la Fournaise and the edge of its crater.
But the best way to experience the volcano is from a helicopter, courtesy of aerial tour operator Corail. We swoop low over the active caldeira and speed over the endless lava flows. Breathtaking! Flying over Reunion puts into perspective the diversity of this incredible island.
One minute you’re up in the clouds, searching for rare orchids in the beautiful Belouve rainforest, the next you’re in a French café next to a beautiful beach, or a patisserie with enough mouth-watering pastries to sink the Bismarck again, then you’re on a catamaran cruising the seas, swimming with dolphins and drinking rum. Vive la difference!
Coast: The four-star Boucan Canot Hotel at Boucan Canot is a low-key luxury resort on the beach a short drive from St Gilles de Bain (where all of the boat-based activities depart). The rooms are excellent, the food is outstanding and the atmosphere is relaxed with outstanding service across the board. The hotel has a lovely swimming pool overlooking the beach where there is a protected tidal pool. The sunsets from the hotel are among the best on the island. It’s a perfect base for seaside exploration and close to the awesome Kelonia turtle rehabilitation and education centre at St Leu.
Mountains: Diana Dea Lodge offers superb, contemporary accommodation high up the hills below the Piton de la Fournaise. Set on a nature reserve where deer roam wild and you can see the rare Reunion harrier – or papangue – the lodge’s chic, modern rooms have lofty views of the ocean far below it. The food is superb and the service first-class. It’s a great place from which to explore the summit of the volcano and the rainforest of Belouve