Piton de la Fournaise ©
The island of Réunion is a tiny bit of France with a tropical twist, situated 500 miles (805km) east of Madagascar, deep in the heart of the Indian Ocean. Nicknamed 'l'Île Intense', Réunion is a dramatic, mountainous paradise created and shaped by volcanoes. The scent of vanilla, stretches of black sand beaches, forest-covered peaks, rushing waterfalls and an incredibly diverse and friendly population makes this overseas département of France an idyllic destination.
The history of the island is reflected in its people. The Portuguese stumbled across the unoccupied island in 1513, but it was the French that descended in 1646 and stayed put. French exiles and colonists, Malagasy slaves, Chinese indentured labourers, Indians and Pakistanis have subsequently created a rich melting pot of culture, as well as the island's most widely spoken language, Réunion Creole.
Réunion was hard hit with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as it lost significance as a stopover on the East Indies trade route, and today it relies heavily on mainland France for financial support. Its main industries are sugarcane, rum, vanilla, geranium oil for perfumes and not surprisingly, tourism. An interesting facet of the island's economy is the enormous gap between rich and poor; its high unemployment rate contrasting with an affluent elite. One's immediate impression of the place, however, is that the groups seem to live relatively equably side-by-side, with plenty of racial and religious mixing. That is not to say there has not been conflict caused by such socio-economic disparity, as seen in riots 15 years ago.
Réunion is home to one of the world's most active volcanoes, le Piton de la Fournaise, and has three major cirques: Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. This provides breathtaking scenery and world-class trekking and canyoneering, with plenty of footpaths and daredevil drops to choose from. The island's beaches are not given the credit they deserve - the black volcanic sands at Etang-Salé are a treat (though the sand can be scorching in summer), the warm Indian Ocean is the colour of absinthe and the abundance of underwater creatures makes snorkelling a must. The popular St Gilles-les-Bains offers classic palm-fringed shores on a wide lagoon and Saint Leu has incredible surfing. For those who venture inland, small mountain villages, lush forests, rich birdlife and flora can be found.
Delicious local cuisine, local fusion music and dance, and quintessentially French sophistication are served up side-by-side in Réunion. Outdoor activities and plenty of relaxation are combined with a welcoming people and a magnificent backdrop, making Reunion indeed 'l'Île Intense'.
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