I may have mentioned previously that the people of Reunion love their “pique niques” and driving around, so on weekends, particularly on Sunday mornings, the tradition is to drive around, get some food, and take it to your picnic spot. One of the preferred foods for picnicking is grilled chicken, which even has a unique name for the island: “poulet bitume” (literally, “asphalt chicken” or “roadway chicken”). On a weekend with good weather, the result is an almost uncountable number of places setting up a grill and selling fresh-grilled chicken at the side of the road. It’s not just restaurants, either, but houses, shacks, stores, and the like all set up with their grill selling fresh-grilled chicken and assorted sides. It’s quite the sight, and one that we had missed on our first weekend on the island (since we were far from the nearest road, up at the Gîte de la Caverne Dufour). But on our second weekend on the island, as we were driving along the southern coast by Saint-Philippe, we came across the beautifully-situated La Mer Casée right around lunch time, and decided to check it out for our grilled chicken.
I mentioned a few times that I didn’t stay in a lot of “hotels” in Réunion during our visit, since a substantial fraction of the lodging on the island is distinctly less formal than a typical hotel, ranging from our mountain gîtes, to a handful of Chambres d’hôtes (basically, B&Bs), and other alternative lodging arrangments. After our hike up Piton de la Fournaise, we came across one of the more memorable gîtes, Matilona in the quiet village of Ste-Rose on the northeastern coast of the Island. Matilona is a rather funky place. It doesn’t really have any one place you can stand and take it all in, so I didn’t really get a picture, but Matilona is built out of a sprawl of several little buildings, Matilona was originally a supermarket, but it’s been turned into a guest house with quite a few rooms (ranging from simple, compact rooms for 1 or 2 people, to large multi-bedroom suites, to the multi-floor suite we stayed in on one end of the complex). A surprisingly large common area, two common kitchens, and a large outdoor common space are all there for guests, as was a very nicely maintained swimming pool. The owner also maintains a collection of local plants, and keeps chickens in the back of the property. The overall vibe that the owner is trying for (with more than a little success) is that you’re staying in a quirky friend’s house.
Like I had mentioned in my review of Gite de la Caverne Dufour, the island of Réunion has several classic hikes recommended to visitors, like watching sunrise from the Piton des Neiges. Another of these classic hikes is to visit the other volcano on the island, the Piton de la Fournaise (“Furnace Peak”). It’s rather a different hike, since this volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting on average once every nine months, and much more frequently recently (6 weeks before our visit, 2 weeks after, and yet again just last week), so you are hiking across lava plains instead of hiking up tall peaks. But the basic approach is still the same: most people stay at a local Gite the night before, and then hike to the inner caldera in the relative cool of the morning. In this case, it means staying at the rather nicely appointed Gite du Volcan, located at Pass de Bellcombe on the north rim of the volcano’s outer calder (facing the coastline, not the interior).
After the great laundromat kerfuffle, the next day went a lot more smoothly. We first visited the Saga du Rhum, a most excellent museum about rum, distillation, and Réunion’s history… with a most excellent tasting room allowing you to get free samples of most of the island’s many different rhums. After finishing at the Saga du Rhum, it was time for lunch. We headed back into Saint-Pierre, and settled into Kaz à Léa (Creole for “Lea’s House”) for lunch, right as noon prayer was sounding (Saint-Pierre has a sizeable Islamic population, and we were about a block away from the major mosque). And hey, how can I resist… it has “Kaz” in the name!
One of the pieces of advice we got from the few people I was able to talk to that had been to the island was to tour a coffee plantation. And I discovered that this was a bit harder to set up… most of the plantations are very small family farms, and you have to set up the reservation via phone, often with a member of the farmer’s family who speaks no English and doesn’t understand my French. But it’s worth doing: the plantations all focus on a single variety of coffee: the Bourbon Pointu coffee bean. Bourbon Pointu was grown long ago on the island (back when it was Ile Bourbon), and was a highly-prized variety, and thought lost when the island shifted to a sugarcane economy. But starting at the turn of the last century, an enterprising agricultural engineer discovered small plantings of the plant that had been maintained in a Japanese horticultural greenhouse, and was able to successfully reintroduce the plant to the island. The result is a small but growing industry of coffee producers on Reunion producing one of the world’s best-regarded, and most expensive, coffees. So we set out one rainy day in search of La Maison du Laurina, a small coffee grower on Le Grand Coude on the Southeastern corner of the island
I’ve often talked on Offbeat Eats about how you find places, and my top two techniques are “research” and “happening across a place that’s got people waiting in line”. But sometimes, I do end up stumbling upon one of these purely by accident. Pizza Del Forno in Saint-Pierre, Reunion, was definitely one of these.
After our three days of hiking in the mountains north of Cilaos, it was time to return to civilization. In this case, the city of Saint-Pierre, the largest city on the island, which has a surprisingly nice beach, and a very vibrant cultural scene. Saint-Pierre was also a return to actual restaurants. The entire beachfront in town is filled with a variety of food trucks, cafes, and restaurants, and we ended up settling on Le Moana, a Tahitian restaurant (Tahiti being yet another French island…).
As part of our trip, we decided to take a several-day hiking trip in the mountains of Réunion. One of the classic hikes is visiting the highest peak on the island: the Piton des Neiges, the extinct volcano that forms the center of Réunion’s cirques. At 3000m/10,700 ft, the highest peak on the island, it’s a bit of a hike, and the ever-present cloud layers don’t exactly help with the view. The standard technique for handling this is to break the hike in two: first hike up to the Gîte du Caverne Dufour for the night, and then get up at 4am and hike the remaining 600m to the summit to catch sunrise. The trail, however, is designed by the same people that designed the roads: steep, narrow, and having lots and lots of switchbacks. Gaining 1100 meters over the course of just 2500 meters makes this almost a staircase into the clouds. But when you get there, while rustic, the Gîte is actually pretty pleasant.
Once we left Hermitage-Les-Bains, almost all of our remaining lodging on Réunion consisted of various gîtes. The “gîte” is a bit of a French-specific concept, but it basically means “guest house”, and the concepts ranges ranges from simple “gîtes a la montagne” (mountain huts providing little more than a meal, a bunk, and a blanket), to nicer “gîtes rural” (simple guest rooms), to elaborate Chambre d’Hôtes” which are like fancy bed and breakfasts. In Palmiste Rouge we stayed at a pretty good example of a “gîte rural”: Domaine Papangue, a beautiful home in the mountains of Cirque de Cilaos, which was outfitted with a small guest house with four very simple bunkrooms, a pool, and an excellent view (a product of a most adventuresome drive down the canyons and back roads of Palmiste Rouge). Domaine Papangue also had splendid hosts, who cooked us a fabulous dinner, taught us a bit about the island’s culture Creole cuisine (despite a modest language barrier), gave us hiking advice (of the cautionary sort, “Can I see your route on a map? Seems tres sportif! Are you sure?”), and even let us leave some luggage with them while we hiked. And, in what was a rather common occurrence throughout our Réunion travels, marveled at the fact that we were Americans, since Americans almost never show up in Cilaos.
Sometimes, getting there is half the fun. Our next destination in Réunion, Cilaos, involved one of the most interesting and challenging drives I’ve ever done. On an island already infamous for it’s many steep and winding roads, the N5, leading from Ilet Palmistes to Cilaos in the Cirque de Cilaos, is the granddaddy of them all. The road is only approximately 20 km long, but that 20 km of driving involves over 2000 m of elevation gain and loss, over 600 turns (most of them in the 400+ switchbacks), two one-lane tunnels, several one-lane segments, dozens of blind corners, narrow shoulders, and other driving challenges. The road is so twisty that in a few places it even loops back over itself! It truly is one of the most challenging, and most impressive, drives I’ve ever done (especially at night!). And after our first drive up the N5, we emerged from the Peter Both Tunnel to find a small parking area, and, a “Camion Bar”. In the pantheon on Réunionnaise restaurants, if there’s anything that comes in a close second in popularity to the ubiquitous “le Snack Bar”, it would be “Le Camion Bar”. Basically, a food truck. And seeing the “Camion Bar Broderie” was certainly a welcome sight, and a chance to put the twists, turns, and tunnels of the drive behind me as we stopped, enjoyed the view, and had some sandwiches.