Cape Town- I wasn’t surprised at the reaction from a young South African I met in the beach bathroom, located on a French and Creole-only-speaking island, when I greeted him. “Heita, how z’t?” I said, and he froze for a moment before smiling.
Just like this young man whom I discovered was a member of Buskaid – a youth string ensemble from Diepkloof in Soweto – it felt good to speak a mixture of all South African languages after two days in Réunion Island to someone who understood. This is a French region – or department as they call it – where one’s foreign vocabulary is limited to three words: “merci”, “bonjour” and “bonsoir”.
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After a brief chat with said young violinist, we agreed on one thing: “This is a great island.” He was not only there to explore it, but also to perform. The South African group was part of a huge line-up of artists who had arrived on the island to entertain crowds at the 2016 edition of the Liberté Métisse Festival, an annual music and cultural event celebrating Creole culture and Réunion as a land of freedom.
While it was good to meet a fellow South African, it was the adventure awaiting me that would be the highlight of my stay.
After a long drive south down the highway from the airport in the island capital of Saint-Denis, we finally arrived at the Le Floralys Hotel in L’Étang-Salé Les Bains. It offers a tranquil family environment under the shade of coconut trees and patches of colourful bougainvillea.
Exhausted as we were, our first activity was already lined up, and after a few precious minutes of freshening up, we were off again.
Our activity came on three wheels, known as recumbent biking – a bicycle that allows one to pedal in a reclining position.
We got on our bikes lazily, but this lack of energy vanished as soon as we laid eyes on the scenery around us, albeit from our odd cycling position. We pedalled enthusiastically around the quiet suburb of L’Étang-Salé and made several stops along the black sand beach, enjoying every minute.
The real adventure started the next day and was to prove me wrong in thinking of Réunion Island as being no different from some of the other Vanilla Islands such as Mauritius and Seychelles.
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Although Réunion is an ideal honeymoon destination, it’s not a place where you go to sleep and laze around.
At Saint-Gilles on the west coast, we went on a snorkelling expedition with shallow water and deep trenches to explore. In between the snorkelling we got to swim with dolphins. I later watched some guests, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, take a daring scuba dive into the water. I listened to their captivating stories afterwards as they recounted how they came across turtles and other sea creatures. And they had underwater pictures to prove it.
Not being an adventurer, I had remained on the boat, but had the pleasure of vicariously enjoying their experience.
All was not lost for me, however, as I found myself the next day in a helicopter, enjoying the breathtaking aerial views as part of a 45-minute flyover of the island’s most attractive spots.
Hovering over the stunning peaks and lush forests, we could see Réunion’s six famous waterfalls gushing from the mountainside down into the canyon to the volcanic area where eruptions are often active.
A few days later we visited Réunion National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site. After enjoying the spectacular views during a winding drive up and down the mountains, we embarked on a trail of one of the sites where a volcano had once erupted. It was a tiring but thrilling experience.
I didn’t feel equal to the task ahead the morning after another night out dancing and enjoying live Creole and reggae music on four different stages at L’Étang-Salé Les Bains beach. At Saint-Leu, the adrenaline rush I had been avoiding was waiting. I watched as instructors strapped paragliders to their bodies before running down the launch pad for some adventure. There they floated, dangling from multicoloured parachutes, down the mountain before landing on the beach way below.
All these activities, I was told, are just the tip of the full package of adventure that the island offers. However, make sure you have the budget to enjoy it all - Euros are the currency on Réunion Island and not everything comes cheap.
Even if you’re not conversant in French, you’ll still enjoy the tourist attractions and locals will utter a few English words to accommodate you. There’s lots of history, tranquility and unspoiled natural landmarks, and if you’re an adrenaline junkie, just load your purse and come over: you’re set for the time of your life.
Launched in 2010, Liberté Métisse Festival is a colourful cultural event celebrating the abolition of slavery and the island’s unique and rich history, roots and cultural mix. It takes place every December.
This is where you’ll enjoy music from the neighbouring Vanilla Islands, including the Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius, Mayotte, Madagascar and the Seychelles.
There’s no entry fee to the festival and it’s not all about music as the event includes exhibition stalls showcasing anything from coffee to handcrafted jewellery and local food for visitors to taste.
While some festivalgoers cheered and danced to the different rhythms playing right in front of the four stages, others chose to sit on the beach a few metres away from the first stage to savour the island’s indigenous Maloya music. One of various Creole genres, it is known for using only percussion and the musical bow.
With South Africa being a guest country of honour at the seventh edition of the Liberté Métisse Festival in December last year, organisers saw it fit to invite Buskaid Soweto and Cape Town’s Siyabuya Marimba Band to perform. Both groups left islanders asking for more.
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HOW DO I GET THERE?
French airline Air Austral is the only operator offering direct four-hour flights between Johannesburg and Réunion Island’s capital, Saint-Denis, three times a week – on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Prices vary, but a return flight in December is about R5 000. There are also frequent connecting flights offered by Air Mauritius, with a stopover in Mauritius.
South Africans visiting Réunion need not worry about visas, despite it being a French region, as we are permitted to spend up to 30 days enjoying the Indian Ocean island.
From backpacker set-ups to the most elite hotels situated on the banks of the picturesque blue lagoon, dotted with palm trees, the island offers hotel accommodation to suit every budget and taste.
Our friendly guide, Sully Chaffre, owner of Ethnix Tours, was extremely knowledgeable about the island. He offers a one-stop shop when it comes to helping you plan your Réunion vacation as the company can tailor-make your stay according to your budget and preferred activities.
“We advise people to have enough money to enjoy the full package that the island has to offer,” says Chaffre.
“People like me are there to ensure you enjoy every moment beyond the beach and other usual activities found on other Indian Ocean islands.
“We have way more to offer, from hiking, snorkelling and diving to helicopter tours and many other memorable activities.”
*Disclaimer: Tau was hosted by the Réunion Island Tourism Board and Air Austral
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