Reunion Island, east of Madagascar.
Reunion Island, east of Madagascar. Contributed

Reunion Island: Ebony and ivory

On the beach girls in groups watch boys in groups, courting couples draw close, black leg touching white leg, surfers compete to catch waves and there is a volleyball game happening. The skin tones are astonishing; these bikini- and board-short-clad people are all hues from ebony to ivory. It's not an international youth jamboree, just the kids of Reunion enjoying Saturday afternoon. Here there are 50 flavours of rum, 32 varieties of sugar cane and 800,000 people who are a true Creole mix, with French, African and Indian ancestors.

Reunion, a department of France since 1662, is a tropical island in the Indian Ocean - a vast rock thrust from the sea with jagged mountain peaks and rushing waterfalls high above still lagoons and blue ocean.

Near the sea the air smells of vanilla, pineapples and molasses and in the mountain coolness, of cows and gorse flowers. The geographical diversity in this pocket-sized place is astounding, the soil is rich, the sun bright and rain showers come and go; it's a Garden of Eden where everything grows but apples.

St Denis, the capital, reflects history stories as I walk its streets. On the rocky waterfront a row of mighty cannons point to the sea protecting the harbour, a reminder of the ignominy of the five years, from 1810, that Britain occupied the island.

It wasn't all bad. The Brits introduced sugar cane that soon became sweet gold and today is still the biggest crop.

Rue de Paris saunters gently uphill, ending in the lush glory of the botanical gardens. Along the way and down side lanes, I pass Creole mansions with picket fences, wooden shutters and wide, cool verandas. Grand neoclassical French buildings ? the old town hall, university buildings and the 1832 cathedral ? are interspersed with cute boutiques, bars, bistros and bakeries. Yummy and so Francophile, right down to the tiny espressos and pains au chocolat.

St Denis deserves more time, but the mountains behind are calling. Reunion's volcanoes, cirques and mountains, a third of its area, were given Unesco World Heritage status last month. These are serious mountains and their volcanic origins and dramatic rise from the sea makes them uniquely spectacular. Piton de Neiges, the highest peak, is 300m taller than Mt Ruapehu.

On the island's eastern flank Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano, regularly bursts its seams and a great red-hot slug of lava dribbles down to the sea. "It's a friendly volcano," our guide, Phillipe Techer, says, as we clamber over the crust of the last lava flow, looking for fumaroles in which to poke sticks. "It takes things slowly so we come and look at the action rather than run away from it."

I can feel the heat through my shoes. We find a hole exhaling hot air, so hot that our sticks ignite and, in a moment, we have a fine little fire, but no pan or eggs to fry.

The volcano is fun and Reunionnais delight in its unpredictable antics, but it's the Cirques, three ancient inactive volcanic craters bunched in a vast cloverleaf, that intrigue me.

Philippe doesn't look like a Frenchman, but drives like one, taking the 420 corners, most being switchbacks, to Cirque de Cilaos at speed, while chatting in Creole on his cellphone. Have faith, I think, and offer a few Hail Marys - this is a mostly Catholic country.

A tunnel takes us under a mountain into the bowl-shaped valley of Cilaos. Saw-toothed ridges rise precipitously from lush lowlands, sun-white cloud rolls over the dark peaks and mysteriously dissipates; villages surrounded by neat green fields perch on flat land cut by steep gorges. What a sight, what a scene. "Gaspingly beautiful," I say. "Always gorgeous," Philippe says, and he's been here hundreds of times.

The rapid rise in altitude is accompanied by a temperature drop of 15C, so I haul on a jacket before walking around Cilaos, the largest of three villages in the Cirque. The white bell tower of the church is the town's focal point and wooden houses painted pastel shades cluster around it. Cilaos is cute - a tiny toy town with French-style temperate gardens that are filled with dahlias, cosmos and chrysanthemums.

Cirque de Mafate, another of the volcanic valleys, has no road access and the 2000 people who live there walk to the road-end when they need to visit the rest of Reunion. Angelo Tierrce, the recently retired Mafate postman, walked 167 steep kilometres over five days for 35 years, delivering letters. I yearn for more time here, want to follow his path and feast on this scenery slowly.

There is time, late in the afternoon, to snorkel and Grand Hotel du Lagon - where I'm staying - is next to the beach. Beneath the lagoon's still surface an extraordinary array of brightly painted, weirdly shaped tropical fish go about their business. Favourites are the Picasso fish with a long nose, googly eyes and purple, orange and black markings and an orange box-shaped puffer fish who flutters through water with lips pursed for a kiss.

The sun is low, beautifully illuminating schools of angelfish that I follow through canyons of coral.

I'm drip-drying on a deckchair when the barman suggests a sundowner. "Not strong, just rum, ginger and vanilla, all from Reunion. You must try it. No? Oh, you break my heart." With those warm words I give in; a sundowner it is.

The sun goes quickly, sliding into the sea and, I swear it wasn't the rum, I see the green flash.

I've longed for that moment for years.

IF YOU GO
* Reunion Island's volcanoes, cirques and mountains, a third of its area, were given Unesco World Heritage status in August this year.

* Air Mauritius flies directly from Melbourne to Mauritius each week and has many daily flights to Reunion (40 minutes).

Mauritius and Reunion make divine stopovers to London, Paris and Africa, and Air Mauritius has direct flights to these places.

* To avoid the red-eye connection to Melbourne, night-over in a Causeway Hotel in the heart of Melbourne.

* Stay: Naiade Resorts has two beach-side properties, including Grand Hotel du Lagon, Reunion's only five-star accommodation.

Get good deals through Naiade's New Zealand agent, Adventure World by visiting www.adventureworld.co.nz



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