Traveling to Reunion Island
December 28, 2014 6:23 PM   Subscribe

This April we're going to Reunion Island (South Indian Ocean, SW of Mauritius). The good thing is that it's well off the beaten path for US tourists. The bad part is that it's well off the beaten path for US tourists, so it's somewhat more difficult to research than most destinations. I'm looking for recommendations and advice.

In more detail, we're there 14 days. We've got about 4 days in the middle of it all planned out with a multi-day hike leaving from Cilaos, going to Piton des Neiges, and back, and have Gites (guest huts) reserved already. And we have a rental car.

Otherwise, I'm looking for some other recommendations and advice, including (a) other must-see things in Reunion, (b) any advice on getting SIM cards, (c) culinary advice, (d) things I might not otherwise think to bring?
posted by kaszeta to Travel & Transportation around Roscoff, France (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am super jealous. The coffee varies from year to year in terms of actual quality, but the coffee that grows there on the island is incredibly historic. There was a really specific mutation that started on Reunion island (back when it was Bourbon island) that spread throughout Latin America, (and a couple places in East Africa). The coffee is quite expensive, because of its historic value and super limited supply.

I'm not super adept at french, so I don't have any links, but there are a couple (as in two I think)plantations on the island. I would contact them for a tour, even if you have a passing interest in coffee.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:09 PM on December 28, 2014

You could do worse than to shoot an email to the folks at La Réunion Tourism- I've worked with them before, they're friendly and super helpful. I'm reasonably sure that at least a couple of them speak English.
posted by Tamanna at 7:11 PM on December 28, 2014

Response by poster: @Tamanna: Yeah, the website is actually quite good, and made a lot of my booking particularly easy.

@furnace.heart: Yeah, visiting coffee plantations and drinking coffee are on our docket (as an aside, we did a coffee plantation tour on Oahu last year that was outstanding as well...)
posted by kaszeta at 7:16 PM on December 28, 2014

If you speak French, it's a HUGE destination for outdoors-loving French tourists and you'll find loads of information.

The main takeaway I've had from friends who've gone is that it's laid-back, tolerant, and one of those places you wish you could stay for life (and I actually know three people who did just that).

Regarding SIM cards, a quick search brought up this Routard thread from June this year, where responders say you can find them pretty much anywhere. The major French providers (SFR, Orange, Free) are all on the island, and it's well-covered, including for data, apart from obvious exceptions such as mountains.

Culinary advice? Again coming from friends who've been there: eat all the food. :D
posted by fraula at 2:22 AM on December 29, 2014

Oh and snorkels & masks, you can pick up snorkel fins (palmes de plongée) onsite. If even the snorkels and masks would take up too much space, decent ones are also pretty cheap. Décathlon is a go-to sport shop that carries a lot of different brands, they also have own brands that are cheap and reliable. Do you scuba dive? Réunion is one of the most beautiful places in the world to dive, plenty of rental gear available from dive schools/tours. If you never have, and don't have ear problems (check with a doc), you could also do an initiation dive where they guide you by the hand! I did that in Nice, which is beautiful but not nearly as gorgeous as Réunion, and it remains one of my favorite memories. (And I ended up earning dive certs because of it, seeing much nicer things later, but still remember that first dive fondly.)
posted by fraula at 4:09 AM on December 29, 2014

Response by poster: @fraula Only have rudimentary ability in French, but I find in most French-speaking areas I do well enough. I'd love to dive there, but unsure that I could get the SO certified in time.
posted by kaszeta at 6:29 AM on December 29, 2014

Best answer: I sent this AskMe to my friend and this is his reply:

"Okay! My background with Reunion: I'm American, my girlfriend is from Reunion, and I've been there twice. It's fantastic.

If you don't speak French, cram as much as you possibly can before your trip, and bring a tiny phrasebook. Reunion is the least English speaking place I've ever been. (Most of my travel has been central and Eastern Europe; even people in small villages in Romania speak more English than people on Reunion.) French is the official language but most people speak Creole in everyday life. Almost everyone can speak proper French, but some signs are still written phonetically in Creole. However, despite language barriers, people on Reunion are generally very kind and patient and will help you figure things out. I happen to be fluent in French so I'm not exactly sure what you should expect if you don't speak any French at all. As a fluent French speaker, I can tell you that people in restaurants and stores spoke "normal" enough French that I could communicate pretty easily (although their accents can be very challenging), but older people and people in more remote towns mostly spoke Creole around me and I was pretty lost from time to time. They just aren't used to having anglophones around, unlike in lots of other countries with more Western tourism. (In one tiny restaurant in the mountains, my girlfriend's father told the little old lady who ran the place that I was American, and she turned and looked at me like she was looking at a ghost!) Basically, you can speak French at them and they will definitely understand, however, they may speak Creole or very-heavily-accented French back at you (or a mix of the two) and you may not understand. You can always ask if they speak English, but they almost definitely will not. (I'm sure in hotels they do, at least!)

Eat everything! Just, everything. Also, drink everything.

Watch out for sharks! There have been a bunch of fatal shark attacks around Reunion in recent years; it's been big news in mainland France, since a relatively high number of mainland French people visit Reunion. (Remember, Reunion is part of France, so it's not very polite to talk to a Reunionese person about France like it's another country. Mainland France = "le metropole") During my last visit several beaches were closed due to shark sightings, and they were actually flying their official "Danger: sharks!" flag; a red flag with a black shark on it! Otherwise, Reunion is surprisingly free of dangerous animals; no venomous snakes, no spiders that can kill you, no big predators, etc. I've read there's a small danger of malaria and dengue fever but no one ever cautioned me about those while I was there and I never heard about any direct acquaintances having any problems with these.

I've been hiking in Cilaos and it's gorgeous and at times very strenuous. I've always wanted to do the Piton des Neiges! Another one-day hike I recommend is hiking up their active volcano, "La Fournaise" -- the Furnace. Very strenuous, and you're in direct sunlight the entire time so be prepared! Also, you might want to check (I'm not even sure how) if the volcano is open to tourists that day; the day I was there there were warnings not to go up on account of volcanic activity. I did anyway, which of course was very stupid of me. I didn't see anything I would recognize as volcanic activity but of course that doesn't mean it's safe.

Other things I love on Reunion:

The naval cemetery, with lots of pirate graves, including their celebrity pirate, "La Buse" -- The Buzzard. His story is really interesting and you can find it on Wikipedia or whereever. He was so hated they buried him standing up so he'd never get any rest, and people are still looking for his treasure -- directions to which he wrote out in an impenetrable code -- to this day.

Église Notre-Dame-des-Laves -- Church of Our Lady of the Lava. During one of Reunion's many volcanic eruptions, this church was spared by lava which allegedly flowed directly toward it and then veered off around the church. The hardened lava is still there so you can see this alleged miracle. It's an impressive sight; I'm not a believer but but it really does look like that's exactly what happened. My brain won't let me believe it's anything other than a random occurrence, but it's a compelling story when you're standing there looking at it.

Sea turtle farm and hatchery. Worth checking out if you're nearby.

At the insistence of my girlfriend's family, we also did scuba diving, horseback riding in the mountains, and paragliding. These were gorgeous and amazing but not my cup of tea. I would've been fine lying around under a palm tree with a drink in my hand the whole time whenever I wasn't hiking in the mountains.

That's all I got for now! I can't stress enough, eat and drink everything."
posted by komara at 8:18 AM on December 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I wanted to close the loop here and mention that our vacation to Reunion was splendid, and probably one of the best vacations I've ever had. 2 solid weeks of hiking (and hiking, and hiking), and @komara's advice of "I can't stress enough, eat and drink everything." was spot on.

The language issue was challenging (indeed, it's probably the second-least-English-speaking place I've ever been, and I've been a lot of places), but the people of Reunion also are very hospitable and patient, and had more than a little enjoyment from having the extremely rare American visitor.

Anyone else considering Reunion and finding this AskMe, feel free to get ahold of me, I can give you all sorts of wonderful advice. Pics here:
posted by kaszeta at 5:53 AM on July 16, 2015

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