Difference between revisions of "Reunion"
Revision as of 02:14, 2 January 2013
Reunion (French: Réunion ) is a French overseas territory located in the midst of the Indian Ocean, east of the island of Madagascar. This enchanting destination is blessed with a tropical climate and beautiful volcanic landscapes, with its appeal being as much due to its white sandy beaches as its mountain scenery.
The Portuguese discovered the uninhabited island in 1513. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, French immigration supplemented by influxes of Africans, Chinese, Malays, and Malabar Indians gave the island its ethnic mix. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cost the island its importance as a stopover on the East Indies trade route. It remained a colony until 1946, when it became a département of the French Republic.
Locals take great pride in marking the anniversary of the abolition of slavery (which happened on the 20th December 1848), in a festival known locally as "La Fête Cafre" (a "cafre" being the name given to an indigenous dweller on the island, now widely used to address friends). This gesture towards the past is still very much present in society today, and as such the word "slave" ("esclave") is a grave insult to a Réunionnais.
Today, the population of Reunion is widely varied in terms of ethnic origin, which each group inheriting its respective traditions.
Passport and Visa
Although Reunion is an integral part of France, it is not part of the Schengen area, so it has its own immigration and visa rules. Citizens of Mauritius, for example, do not need a visa for short visits to Reunion but do need a visa to visit mainland France.
The main airport is Roland Garros International Airport located near Saint-Denis (RUN). The vast majority of intercontinental flights arriving at Reunion come from France, with a handful of other airports through the Indian Ocean. Airlines flying to Reunion are the following:
It is often said that Reunion has more than its fair share of cars, and it's true. At certain times, the road networks can become jam-packed with vehicles, but in order to overcome this, all a visitor needs to know is when to travel and how to travel. The national road (route nationale) which goes round the island is double-laned for each direction in many places. The rest of the roads are usually tarmacked, with one lane in each direction.
Hailing a taxi on the island is fairly expensive, especially when leaving the airport (expect to pay 15€).
Intercity bus travel around the island is served by Car Jaune ("Yellow Bus", buses are easily recognizable by their yellow color). There are 13 lines. Apart from these buses there are also local buses. Most of lines operate between 6AM and 6PM. You can get schedules and details on their official website . Click on "Plans et tarifs" for a map of the network.
There is one main road around the island (74km of it is four-lane) and another road from Saint-Pierre to Saint-Benoit (route des plaines) through the interior of the island.
Due to the high number of cars, traffic jams often occur so you should avoid travelling during peak times.
Because of the volcano, the road is sometimes closed along the east side of the island.
The four-lane highway between La Possession and Saint-Denis, known as the route du littoral, runs between an unstable cliff and the sea. Because of the rain (mostly between December and March), this highway may be "basculée", that is switched to a two-lane road. Expect traffic jams in such circumstances.
Do not underestimate driving times, even if the island seems small. The main roads, especially on the west coast, tend to jam; so do the streets of Saint Denis. The roads in the interior are mountain roads, some with many turns and steep slopes.
Car hire is available.
Reunion Island has almost one thousand kilometers of hiking trails, with an astonishing variety of landscapes for an island. The cirques, plains and volcano have been classified as a French national natural park. The best hikes are probably in the Mafate cirque and on the volcano (see Piton de la Fournaise). The exceptionnal Mafate circus has no roads, and about 800 inhabitants.
Hiking guides and guided tours are readily available.
Some helicopter and airplane companies specialize in guided tours by air around the island and throughout the nearby islands. These depart very early in the morning (in order to avoid clouds and fog at altitude). They are reasonably priced, and will refer to other companies on other islands as needed. Mafate is a popular destination.
Reunion is very much an island to be discovered through exploring its mountainous scenery and outdoor activities.
The following two (fairly ambitious) hiking trails (Grande Randonnée): offer breathtaking views of the island.
An alternative is to walk in Mafate, without marked-out footpaths. Visit the villages (locally known as îlets) to get a feel of car-free settlements in beautiful surroundings.
Le Cirque de Cilaos
This can be accessed from Saint-Louis by the road of 420 bends (route aux 420 virages). Whilst in this welcoming village seated at the foot of the Piton des Neiges cliff, be sure not to miss the embroidery museum (musée de la broderie).
Le cirque de Mafate
It is also possible to reach here by the GR2 route from the north (canalisation des Orangers), or from Maïdo by taking the narrow path heading down the "La Brèche" pass, with a 750-metre change of altitude. It’s a fairly strenuous trip, 2 hours down, and 3 hours up (minimum), with dizzying drops. About halfway along, be sure to stop and appreciate the views, above a sheer drop of 1500 metres.
The cirque de Mafate is home to many villages, or “îlets”. Aside from La Nouvelle (1470m), there is Marla (1600m), Trois Roches (1220m), Roche Plate (1110m), Grand-Place (530m), Îlet des Orangers (1000m), Îlet des lataniers (650m), Îlet à Bourse (850), Îlet Malheur (828m), Aurère (930m) and Cayenne (530m). Although seemingly near from a bird’s-eye view, the journey from village to village requires a good few hours even for competent walkers. It is possible to get here by helicopter from St-Denis or St-Giles as well. Try HELILAGON, Altiport de l'Eperon-97460 Saint-Paul, tel.(0)18.104.22.168.
Le cirque de Salazie
The main villages are Salazie (the administrative centre), Hell-Bourg (a pretty, flowery village) and Grand-Ilet.
This is one of the island’s most spectacular sights. The eastern side of the caldera is carpeted in lush greenery through which slice a multitude of waterfalls. The area can be reached by crossing the river on a suspended footbridge, and by continuing alongside fields of watercress and chayotes (a green, pear-shaped fruit). A nice route would be to work one’s way through the vegetation and to go right up to the base of the waterfall – a perfect spot for a picnic.
Starting off from Hell-Bourg, a few lengthy routes can take you to the "trou de Fer" (literally ‘the iron hole’), or the "Piton des Neiges". Alternatively, you could opt for a shorter hike to "Les Trois Cascades" (‘the three waterfalls’), taking just two-three hours for an easy round-trip – still, you’ll need to be equipped with decent footwear though.
Le Piton des Neiges
To really make the most of it, however, it is well-advised to plan a night-stop at the Gîte de la Caverne-Dufour (3km from the summit). The hosts are nice people and, after a traditional rum-based fruit punch, a simple meal will take your mind off your exhaustion from the climb.
At the crack of dawn (at around 3:00am), grab your shoes again, marvel at the night sky which seems a million miles away from today’s polluted metropolises, then climb further. Walk by torchlight along marked-out paths leading to the summit, where the sunrise will leave an indelible mark upon your memory. Words cannot begin to explain the magnificence of this experience. The descent back to the gîte is no more surprising for most visitors that the initial ascent – it would be the first time to see by daylight the track you followed in pitch black earlier. The natural surroundings make it clear that you are on an (extinct) volcano..
Take the Route de Bras-Sec where the paths leaves off from. The view is completely unobstructed, and the wilderness is staggeringly beautiful. A good place to take a halfway pitstop would be at the "Grand matarum" cabin. For very good climbers only! The gîte takes bookings (several weeks in advance): Maison de la Montagne (Tel.: 02.62.90.78.78), or at the Cilaos tourist information centre 02.62.31.71.71, then book in for a meal and breakfast with the hosts at the gîte (02.62.51.15.26), 24 hours ahead. The journey back to Cilaos can be made in a single push (descending 1800 metres in altitude) – try to take it easy on those knees!
The path around Bélouve gets very muddy from time to time. The final route is to approach from Hell-Bourg passing through the cap Anglais: allow 6 or 7 hours for this route, which covers 1500 metres of altitude.
Le Piton de la Fournaise
The first surprise is on the "Nez de bœuf" pass (2136m), where, after walking through lush greenery, a panoramic over the "plaine des sables" (plain of sands) hits you. This plain of black sand from volcanic activity gives us a hint of what is to come. A path (or more precisely, a dusty track), riddled with potholes, takes us to the "Pas de Bellecombe" (2311m). A short walk of just a few metres from the car park takes you up to a lovely view over the "Fournaise". It’s a breathtaking sight as you see this lunar landscape presented before your eyes. A path (which is the only way of getting to the Fournaise) goes down about 150 metres in altitude in about 580 steps (we counted them!). Fortunately, there is a rail along the whole route, because the “steps” are far from being like those on normal staircases – they are from 10cm to 40cm in height and scramble over rock, earth, tree roots, concrete and pebbles. Nevertheless, the descent along the wall of the caldera leads you through tamarind trees and is not an all too unpleasant route.
Once you’re at the bottom, the first stop is to the "Formica Léo", a small volcano which has been inactive since 1753. From it’s reddish tip emerges about 20 metres of ash spewed out from successive eruptions of the volcano during its active years. The entire journey is well marked out with white markers. NB: These white markers, about every 2 metres apart, are essential in case of a sudden spell of mist – they will guide you back to the starting point. Be careful not to stray too far from them, as if you get lost there is very little chance of being rescued before the next morning, and nights up there are pretty cold!
After the Formica Léo, the signposts take you towards the peak, on hard and smooth earth, made up of old lava. A small sign marks out that it is made of “Lave Cordée” (basaltic, smooth, fluid lava, also known as “Pāhoehoe” lava). From then on, the track goes on through a more lunar-like landscape, and the long ascent begins, crossing more recently produced lava.
Getting one’s bearings is no problem, all you have to do is follow the throngs of fellow visitors. Nevertheless, be warned: drink lots and do not be deceived by the cool air at this altitude of 2200m. The sun, even through mist, is very strong, so protect your head and use suncream sparingly all over all parts of your body exposed to the sun (including your legs). Otherwise, be prepared for a few difficult days of sunburn. After the 2 hours of walking from the car park, you will finally arrive (about a third of the way along the route) at the summit of the Bory crater, at 2631 metres above sea level. This small crater, only 350 metres in diameter, has been inactive since 1971. It’s an ideal place to take a few photos or videos to immortalise the moment. Still following the white markers, the walk continues towards the Dolomieu crater (1km in diameter), which is still active, as the fumes will remind you.
This itinerary covers the crater, and the route traverses recent lava flows. You’ll certainly feel the heat on your legs and the crunching underfoot (as if you’re walking on pieces of glass). A few signposts remind you of the danger of climbing down the rock face to get closer to the crater. The positioning of certain seismic probes around the crater’s lip will put your mind at rest slightly. Once you are finished up on the summit, it’s just another 2 and a half hours of walking to return to your vehicle – without forgetting that you have to climb back up those 580 steps again!
French is the official language of Reunion, although Creole is widely spoken. Everyone understands French, but few people understand English.
French spoken with the local Reunion accent, intermingled with Creole, can be difficult to understand for native French speakers. Metropolitan French are locally nicknamed z'oreilles ("ears") for their tendency not to understand and ask people to repeat.
English speakers meet every Monday evening between 7:30PM and 11:00PM (including during holidays) at the Moda Bar, 75 rue Pasteur, in Saint-Denis. Infoline 0692 560220. If you speak English, it is a good way of sharing ones accent, culture and language to meet travelling and resident couch-surfers. Ten to twenty people attend each week. The bar allows people to bring take out food.
See also: French/Creole dictionary 
Reunion is part of the Eurozone, so as in many other European Union countries the currency used is the euro (symbol: €).
It is compulsory, for the large majority of businesses, to post prices in windows. Hotels and restaurants must have their rates visible from outside.
Most shops accept international credit cards (Visa and Mastercard) but most of them require a minimum amount for credit cards payments (usually €15).
There is a good number of ATM (called "gabier") which don't charge you for using them.
Most shops are closed on Sunday.
Most of supermarkets are open from 9:00AM to 8:00PM, Monday to Saturday. Some of them are open on Sunday morning.
You can find traditional objects in some shops but it's often easier and cheaper to go to a market (marché). The market in Saint-Paul is famous and you'll also find fruits and vegetables: it gathers on Friday morning and afternoon and on Saturday morning.
It's a good place to buy African traditional objects, such as Oware .
Here are some ideas for gifts:
Eat & Drink
Thanks to its history, Reunionese cuisine is a mix between different cultures: French, Indian, Chinese & African
Typical dishes are cari and rougail which are a meat or a fish cooked in a sauce and eaten with rice.
Depending on the season, many tropical fruits are available, like litchees (december), mangos, pineaples (the Victoria types in Reunion are said to be the tastiest), bananas, papaya...
At lunchtime, you can have many kinds of sandwiches and samoussas in snack-bars (cheap but not very balanced, except for the spicy "achards sandwich"), and find restaurants easily (average of 10-15 USD).
Reunionese cuisine is quite safe, but ask for some dishes to ensure that they're not too spicy. The spice level is below that of much indian cuisine.
The main local drink is rum. The lowest quality rum is made from fermented cane sugar molasses and is not aged (thus its color is clear). It is often drunk as rhum arrangé - rum flavored by fruit and spices. Rhum arrangé, being fruity and sugary, is easy to drink but beware of the high alcohol content! Higher quality rum is rhum agricole, made from fermented cane sugar juice. It is either clear, or aged in oak barrels, giving it a brown colour.
There are many possible accommodation types in reunion: Ordinary hotels; privately run Gîtes d'Étape; Gîtes de Montagne are mountain cabins or lodges located in the central areas appropriate and operated by Reunion Island Tourism Board; youth hostels are operated by Auberge de jeunesse de la réunion  (Official site). There are five youth hostels at Réunion Island ; Hell Bourg, Bernica, Entre Deux, Saint Denis and Cilaos.
For European people coming from an EU country, working in Reunion is allowed without a visa or work permit. If you're from outside the EU, you will probably need a work permit. Check with the French Embassy in your country. Do not forget, though, that the unemployment rate is high. If you work in the health sector (doctor, nurse), it will be much easier.
Voluntary service: Volontariat Civil à l'Aide Technique (VCAT). Conditions: you must be French or from another EU-member state or a country belonging to the European Economic Area. You must be over 18 and under 28 years old (inclusive). You must not have had your civic rights revoked by a court or have been convicted of certain offences. VCAT 
Reunion is fairly safe. You must, however, respect some simple principles:
Most crimes are family-related and linked with alcoholic behaviors.
The major attraction of Reunion is the stunning scenery, with impressive walks on cliffs and, obviously, the volcano. Be aware that in some high altitude areas, especially the volcano, mid-day fog may really hamper orientation; also, temperatures may drop significantly. In foggy weather, do not stray from well-marked paths. Carry layered clothing. Even on this tropical island, in high altitude locations, in humid weather, you can really catch a bad cold.
In 2006, Reunion experienced an epidemic of Chikungunya virus. By April, 230,000 people had been infected, which amounted to almost 30% of the population. The epidemic eventually ebbed, and by the summer new cases had dropped to near zero. Travelers should still take precautions against mosquito bites.
Caution should be taken when spending time in the sun. High altitude areas may be scorchingly hot when the sun is high, and cold when it is foggy. Prepare layered clothing.
Sanitary and medical facilities in Reunion are very good.
As in the rest of France, French and EU residents get most of their health care costs covered by the compulsory health insurance plan (sécurité sociale). This plan does not cover nonresidents, who will be expected to pay full price. A travel health insurance is thus advised. Full price costs are significantly lower than in the United States.
Visitors from European Union should bring an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) - obtained in their own country before departure. The E111 form is no longer valid. Ask for details at your local health care organization.
The major hospital is in Saint-Denis but there are various others in important cities. There are doctors in almost every village.
Tap water is usually safe for consumption. Public sources of water are unsafe if labeled with "Eau non potable" (Water not drinkable).
Emergency phone numbers
During the cyclonic season (November to April), you should check cyclone warnings shown in newspapers or broadcast by the radio or TV. There is three state of warning:
Country code: 262
Dialing within Reunion: all numbers have 10 digits. Landlines begin by 0262 and mobile phones by 0692 and with 0693.
Dialing to Reunion: international prefix + 262 + phone number without the first 0 (this leads to dial twice 262 which is normal). If you dial from France, just use the 10 digits number.
Dialing from Reunion: the international prefix is 00.
Calling to a mobile phone is more expensive than to a landline. Number beginning by 0800 are free phone. Number beginning by 089 are premium-rate.
Few foreign mobile phone companies offer international roaming to Reunion so double-check before leaving. Your company should provide specific roaming to Reunion since it has different mobile phone companies from mainland France.
Post offices are found in all cities.
Letter boxes are colored in yellow.
Less than 20g (postcard, letter with one or two pages in a regular envelop) :
The basic stamp for regular mail is red with the head of "Marianne" (the Republic logo). It does not carry its value and can therefore be used even after a price increase. It is sold in all Post Offices, Bureaux de Tabacs (Tobacco sellers identified by a red lozenge) and postcard vendors. The latter may also carry other common stamps.
In most Post Offices you will find an automatic machine (yellow) with a scale and a screen. Just put your mail on the scale, tell the machine (French or English) the destination, pay the indicated amount and the machine will deliver a printed stamp.
Chronopost, UPS and DHL offer parcel services.