Gîte de la Caverne Dufour (Piton des Neiges, Réunion, France)

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. No, it’s definitely not a resort, but it is a nicely maintained bunkhouse. For those of my readers from New England, I can say it’s very much like one of the Appalachian Mountain Club Huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains: they provide a bunk and blankets, and a place to get out of the elements, and little else. Indeed, aside from the language being French, I could almost convince myself I was at AMC’s Greenleaf Hut instead of a hut high up in the hills of a small island in the Indian Ocean. But its warm, the company pleasant enough, and you have the company of a bunch of other hikers (particularly important in this case, ones familiar with the trail to the summit, since you’re leaving in the dark).

Most importantly, the Gîte offers dinner. Already in this point in the trip we had noted that any sort of halfway decent local Réunion place can pretty much always be counted on to serve up a good meal of Réunionais items, and the mountain Gîtes of Réunion were no exception. In the case of Gîte de la caverne Dufour, the remoteness of the hut didn’t stop them from assembling a very bountiful and filling dinner. Not just one, but two different carris (one with chicken, and one with swordfish), served up with rice, an incredibly fiery rougail that was mostly little birdeye peppers, and some of the most delicious and tender lima beans I’ve ever had (I’m still trying to recreate that recipe). Oh, and the ubiquitous rhum arrangé? Yup, each diner was also served with a shot glass of that. In fact, it was quite a pleasant meal for one prepared and served in such a rustic environment. So it was a very pleasant place to stop, recover, and plan for an early morning departure.

The next morning, the hustle and bustle of the other hikers arising made for an effective alarm clock, and we soon found ourselves dressed, and hiking up the very rough and tumble trail by flashlight (the trail was gnarly enough that our reaction upon walking down later in the morning was “we hiked up that?!”). But the resulting sunrise, and the awesome view of the Cirque de Cilaos and the Cirque de Salazie made it worth every footstep.

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