Reunion Island Adventure Guide: Where Rum, Nature and History Meet in the Indian Ocean

Written by Kevin Pilley
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Reunion Island Adventure Guide: Where Rum, Nature and History Meet in the Indian Ocean”

“What do you prefer, Monsieur?  A blonde or brunette?”

I lifted my shoulders at the barman in an “ I’ll-leave-it-to-the-expert” way. He started to shake.

“I like to have a blonde in the morning and a brunette in the afternoon,” he confessed. “At night, I usually have both.”

Luckily, he’s talking about the island’s famous rum.

The Rum

Reunion Island, the French overseas department in the Indian Ocean and close neighbour of Mauritius, has two types of  rum : one fermented from sugar cane juice and one from molasses.  Old rum is white and matured in oak barrels. The rest is an amber shade of brunette.

Every village on L’Isle d’Intense, the Intense Island as it’s called, has its own rhum arrangé (arranged rum), a spiced rum cocktail that has added ingredients such as flowers, fruit, wood, spices—the possibilities are endless.

“All of Reunion’s history you will find in one glass,” said Lucienne at Mirest restaurant in Entre-Deux.

“Surely not all of it,” I said, asking for a refill.

Reunion Island has been described as “an enclosed experimental garden” with seeds, notably of orchids, blown in by the annual cyclone. Spices like nutmeg and cloves were stolen from the Dutch Molucca Island to plant on Reunion.

But rum is the oldest thing on Reunion Island, apart from the volcanoes. Residents made illicit arack or flangourin.  In 1845, the family-run Isautier Distillery opened and by 1928 there were 311 distilleries on Reunion Island. Now just three  remain  – Isautier , Savanna (1870) and Rivière-du-Mat in Saint-Benoit.

“If you behave, you’ll be able to taste our best rums after the tour,” said our guide at Savanna. We did and then set about perfecting the art of tasting and swallowing fermented sugar cane.

Starting with Metis (peppermint and vanilla ) and Cap Savanna( prune and wood) then moving on to blondes and brunettes of all ages, our palates were taught to distinguish between agricultural and commercial rums.

The most popular brand of rum on Reunion Island is Rum Charerette, which is used to make punches like La Fournaise (cinnamon), Le Baiser Tropical (barley water), Creole ( vanilla pods and mango), Nirvana (tamarind), the guava-based Goyaviers, which takes three months to prepare, and La Paille, an infusion of coffee beans, anise and faham, an almond-scented orchid.

If you haven’t noticed yet, you don’t go to Reunion Island for coladas and daiquiris. It’s all about the rum!

The Paradise

Reunion Island is one of France’s four overseas departments and the only one in the southern hemisphere. It’s also home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, the Piton de La Fournaise or Furnace Peak, which adds a little excitement to an adventure here.

Discovered by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Mascarenhas in the sixteenth century, the island was first called Santa Apollonia after the day of the first landfall. The archipelago of which Reunion forms a part is still known as the Mascarene Islands.

The 2500-square-mile island has 210-kilometre coastline of rocky beaches eroded by unforgiving waves. But visitors will also find 35 kilometres of sandy beaches such as Grand’Anse, Saint-Pierre, and Saint-Leu, with coral barriers and shallow lagoons ideal for snorkeling. The wealth of marine life found here are now protected by a Natural Marine Reserve.

The French Orient Company, founded by Cardinal Richelieu, took official possession of the three million-year-old volcanic island in 1642.

Mocha coffee introduced from Arabia and dried on “argamasses” of masonry around the southern town of  Saint-Leu made the island prosperous but it was sugar cane that attracted the Malabar immigrants, whose presence explains the island’s large number of Tamil temples, especially around the town of Saint-Andre in the south. The area is also famous for its vacoas, a plant beloved for its fruits, the pimpims, used in Creole recipes,  salads, vegetables mixtures, and in curry. A vacoas festival  is held each August.

Reunion Island, previously known as Bourbon Island, once produced 3/4 of worldwide production! of vanilla abundant and the vanilla plantations are a popular tourist attractions.

Coffee cultivation stopped at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Reunion Island became an overseas department of France in 1946.

                                                          Hiking is a popular activity

The Adventures

For such a small place, Reunion Island’s landscape has the diversity of a continent. One moment you could be in the Andes and the next Switzerland or New Zealand. If you walk the lava shoreline  or visit the trousouffleur geyser and you could be in Iceland. The island is famous for its waterfalls including Cascade Niagara, Les Trois Bassins  and Voile de la Mariée, aka bridal veil falls.

With so many micro-climates, extraordinary flora, fauna and fungi flourish. Even today, new plant and animal species are being discovered. Birders will have a ball. Birds took up residence on Reunion Island long before the first humans ever did.

Walkers and hikers have come to the right place as there are more than 900 kilometres of marked hiking trails of varied levels criss-crossing an array of beautiful terrains. More strenuous ascents can be made along the Lava Route and up Grande Brulé,  part of the Reunion National Park. Or tackle the Pitons des Neiges, the highest point on the island and in the Indian Ocean at 3060 metres.  Naturally, it has a rum cocktail named after it that includes cognac and milk.

Mindfulness in The Sun

The Path of the Marron Kings is named after the Marrons, from the Spanish cimmaron meaning fugitive, who were were the first to settle in the mountains in the middle of the island. They were hunted by their owners. Of course, you can also drink a Marron.

The most popular walks are around the three cirques –Mafate, Cilaos and Salazie. The cirques are three large depressions about 10 kilometres in diameter with high cliffs. There are also hiking gites, places to stay, relax and refuel after countless hours of hiking Reunion Island, especially handy in remote areas.

After a long and physically exhausting day, we were greeted by a smiling gap-toothed lady who said that there were no more Dodos left. It’s one of three Reunion Island beers, officially called Bourbon, but everyone calls it Dodo.

So we compromised with passion fruit flavoured rum into which we dunked nasturtium fritters. We ate a traditional daube with bredes, a spicy meat stew with chou chou leaves.  Our hostess spoke the Creole patois with Malagasy words, and entertained us around a camp-fire with Maloya music, the Reunion black American blues.

The town of Hell-Bourg is a showcase of Creole architecture. Saint Paul on the northwest coast was the first capital but was replaced by Saint-Denis 1667. The old Cremont Path, also called the English Path, is the oldest road on the island, connects the two towns and is still walkable between Grande-Chalapoupe and Saint Bernard.

Saint-Denis is now the largest city in the French city of dependencies. You can still see the square Sauda Garriga where the abolition of slavery was pronounced in 1848.The marine cemetery at St Paul contains the tomb of the notorious pirate La Buse.

Hotel Swimming Pool

The Takeaway

Reunion Island might have had a few names over its long history—Ile de Bourbon and La Réunion des Patriotes among them. But no matter what you call it, Reunion Island, the Intense Island, is a paradise and several types of Eden too. A place where, at some point, you’ll have your hand around a full-bodied blonde or a mature, tasty brunette, and be happy that a place like this still exist.

***

BeSeeingYou In: Reunion Island

Good to Know: There are no dangerous venomous animals on the island (though there are some seriously large spiders).

WOW! Factor: Beyond the astonishing natural beauty, Réunion Island is one of the leading places on earth to go whale watching.

Tip: The official language on Reunion Island is French, however the population also speaks Creole. Here are some words and expressions to practice.

Author bio: Kevin Pilley

Kevin Pilley
Kevin Pilley is a former professional cricketer and ex-chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine. His work appears worldwide. He has been published in over 800 titles. Allegedly. He lives in Wales and collects roses.

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