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.
Our second day of exploring the Western Coast of Réunion had us staying in the resort town of Hermitage-Les-Bains. It’s definitely a resort town, dominated by several large resorts, and the local dining scene caters to it, with a rather large assortment of restaurants offering up large buffets and extensive cocktail bars. While a few of these places (La Marmite and Coco Beach in particular looked like they had a rather nice assortment of Carris and seafood), we opted to check out one of the quieter places a bit off the beaten path. Our first attempt was the diminutive and subtle L’Arc en Ciel, which looked phenomenal, but were unable to fit us in. But around the corner we found Le Manta, a pleasant restaurant built around two very large and lush outdoor dining gardens (one smoking, “le section fumeur” is still alive and flourishing in France) and a rather extensive menu built around Réunionnaise Creole cuisine.
Our next goal before leaving Saint-Denis was to make sure we tried one of the restaurants known for local Créole cuisine, and in the case of Saint-Denis, there’s one place that has a particularly good reputation for catering to Créole tastes over those of visiting tourists, and that’s Le Reflet des Îles. Located about half a kilometer down Rue Pasteur (where about half of downtown Saint-Denis’s bars and restaurants are located) from the previously reviewed Zanzibar Café, just walking in you can see that it’s a popular place with both the tourists and the locals, with quite a few mainland French and Reunionnaise families all gathered around tables enjoying their rhum cocktails, la Dodo, and serving up large plates of food from various marmites (little cast metal pots traditionally used to cook the local carris, civets, and rougails) located all around the table.
Our second full day on Réunion had us setting out to check out on of the cooler geographic features of the island: the Cirques. Réunion was essentially formed by two volcanoes: the now-extinct Piton des Neiges, and the still active Piton de la Fournaise. For the former, the old volcanic caldera has collapsed and eroded over the last 100,000 years to form three sub-formations: the Cirque, each a very steep mountain valley. All of them are inhabiting, but only two of them, the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos, are road-accessible (the Cirque de Mafate is accessible only on foot or by air). So we decided to check out the Cirque de Salazie, since it’s a pretty short drive from Saint-Denis. The town of Hell-Bourg is located in the middle of the Cirque de Salazie, and the very rugged terrain makes this a splendidly beautiful French/Creole village located in the mountains. It’s a fairly quiet town, mostly with older Creole architecture, and primarily serves as a stepping-off point for the many hikers visiting the region (indeed, we basically returned to Hell-Bourg twice during our trip, once as hikers, and once driving through to see the forests of Belouve). But after checking out the area, we started to become hungry for lunch, and we immediately found the cute little Crêperie Le Gall.
Well, after a half-day of wandering around exploring the fairly unique town of Saint-Denis (I’m still trying to figure out why Réunion has such an unusually large number of insurance brokers and eyeglass shops… are there some weird niches in French insurance law and health care at play here?), it was time for dinner. One place we passed by that looked quite delicious was Zanzibar Café, located on Rue Pasteur a few blocks from our hotel. While the mainstay of Réunion cuisine is the island-specific carri served most anywhere, there’s also a lot of direct French influence in the food as well; you’ll also find patisseries, cafés, brasseries, charcuteries, and other mainstays of French culinary tradition all over the island (indeed, we stopped at many a fine patisserie located up in the hills kilometers from the cities). Zanzibar is a pretty good example of this: the menu at Zanzibar is basically your standard French cafe menu (steak frites, French chicken dishes, French-style sausages), alongside a rather nice assortment of Malagasy and African dishes.