Where can you shop in Leclerc or Decathlon, say “au revoir” to the local boulanger as you walk out with a baguette under your arm and be on a tropical island 6,000 miles from mainland Europe?
Where can you spend the morning walking through a rich primal forest or climbing up to the crater of an active volcano and the afternoon snorkelling amongst multi-coloured fish in a tranquil lagoon and still be in France?
The answer is Réunion island, well known to the mainland French, but undiscovered by the British apart from a 5 year period in the 17th century when this paradise island belonged to the the crown.
When I landed there after an 11 hour flight from Paris there was no need to show my passport as we were still in France and Europe – officially if not geographically speaking.The island is volcanic and you can see recent lava flows, but most of the island has lush green vegetation and is richly fertile.The best time to go is in October when the temperature is in the high 20s and the water in the lagoon around 24 degrees.
It’s a destination popular with active people who like strenuous walking with magnificent views. However, there is much to do and see for the less active, including finding out how the ubiquitous sugar cane is turned into sugar and rum, and how orchid flowers are fertilised by hand to become vanilla pods – a very labour-intensive and expensive process.
The guides are excellent and lively, reflecting the colourful and vibrant personalities of the local people. They are a happy mix of origins, cultures and religions. Observe a wedding party on the beach and you will see a pleasant mix of colours and types within one family.Walk round one of the coastal towns (all named after saints) and you will pass an Indian Tamul temple, a Chinese buddhist shrine, a mosque and a Catholic church all within a 100 yards You’ll see all types of dress and sense that all are accepted and appreciated.
Réunion Island is relatively new (3 million years old). and was uninhabited until 17th century. A handful of French landed on the island, then African slaves were brought over to work on the plantations. When slavery was abolished, workers were brought over from India and China. The locals speak creole, which is difficult for visitors to understand, but everyone learns French at school and takes French exams.
With such a warm climate and a family-centred people, the island is exploding with children and the population of 700,000 will grow to one million in the near future. This is a concern. There is one main road circling the island, and already there are significant traffic jams approaching the main towns each day.
On a Sunday, local families escape to the upper reaches with pots of prepared stew, which they eat with rice in large groups beside cooling rivers or forests. Large circular picnic tables with roofs are provided for the purpose.
Walks are well signed and maintained and the island has an excellent infrastructure of roads to European standards. Eating out in restaurants is good value for money, or you can by food from roadside sellers offering everything from stews and samosas to local exotic fruits including delicious Victoria pineapples.
The waterside Saturday market in St. Pail is not to be missed, with its extensive variety of hot food, scrumptious fruit and tropical vegetables on offer as well as textiles and crafts from Madagascar. What can be more relaxing than drinking a mixture of freshly squeezed pineapple or mango juice with rum (punch is pronounced ‘ponch’ there), sitting in a beach café watching the 6 pm sunset? Or drinking ‘Bourbon’* beer with its dodo logo and say with the locals “la dodo lé la”.
I was envious of the local people being able to swim in the lagoon all year round, apart from the monsoon season in December. No wonder many mainland French who go there to work find it hard to leave and often stay.
Are there any drawbacks? Apart from the traffic jams the only problem is sharks! Yes, but they don’t come into the lagoon, so can be avoided! So what are you waiting for? Go to France and visit paradise at same time! La dodo lé la!
*Bourbon was the name of the French Royal family when the island was discovered and was the name of the island until the revolution-nothing to do with chocolate biscuits!
Stephen Winton is the founder of www.retiringinfrance.com