Thrusting darkly out of the Indian Ocean is the active volcano that connects the beautiful island of Réunion with the clouds. At its feet, history and nature are tangled in a long embrace
The approach to Hell-Bourg is through a lumpy landscape of vividly green hills cut by waterfalls. Clumps of bamboo lean over the road, a riot of bougainvillea covers every wall, and rampant begonias line the little streams. Here and there, a tree fern, the forlorn remnant of cloud forest, punctuates the scenery. With all this evidence of the tropics, the sign "Hell-Bourg voted one of the prettiest villages in France" comes as a shock. Yes, this is France one of the four French overseas territories (the others are Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guyane or French Guiana).
La Réunion or just Réunion was discovered in the 10th century, but the lack of a good harbour and the rugged landscape discouraged permanent settlement. The first arrivals came from Madagascar, but then, in 1646, the governor exiled a small group of troublesome Frenchmen to the island. Later that century, some escaped Malagasy slaves made their way there, heading up into the highlands. The island was called l'Ile Bourbon until 1794, when it was renamed La Réunion, perhaps because of the meeting of cultures. The island briefly became a British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, but was returned to France in 1815. Before the opening of the Suez Canal, most ships circumnavigating South Africa called here and the island prospered. The French strengthened their hold, making it a French Overseas Territory in 1946. And so it has remained, as the islanders have no wish for independence.
Réunion is as French as Brittany. The combination of First World government with Third World ambience is as close to holiday perfection as you can get. Forget about adapting to new cultures, never mind the risks of foreign food, stop worrying about beggars, abandon your ingrained traveller's guilt. Réunion is the most hassle-free place I've been to. Its foreign-ness is in the landscape and in its geographical isolation.
The island is about the same size as Mauritius, its neighbour, but sees only a handful of British tourists each year. That's one of its appeals. Providing you can make yourself understood in French, you are treated with courtesy and curiosity. One taxi driver was fascinated to hear about Britain. Where was it? How long did it take to get to Paris from England? "You go by tunnel? Under the sea? Whee! Can you see the water? And the fish?"
Réunion is an island of threes. It appeared three million years ago, when a massive eruption pushed up the seabed to form a smouldering cone in the Indian Ocean. This mountain, Piton des Neiges, has now hunched down to a little more than 3,000m. Three hundred thousand years ago, another heave of the earth's crust created the volcano Piton de la Fournaise, which still periodically spews fiery lava down to the coast. And there are three cirques, great amphitheatres of mountains sheltering isolated and fertile valleys.
Here, the main tourist attraction is the contrasting landscape. The mountains bring dramatic differences in climate as well as scenery, so you can choose to be wet or dry, in green or brown surroundings. Réunion's mountainous interior retains more virgin forest than any other island in the western Indian Ocean and, being French, the island is well-served with hiking trails. There are over 1,000km of footpaths, some of which are well-maintained grandes randonnées. Numerous gîtes de montagne allow you to hike for a week or more without needing a tent, and excellent maps make route-finding easy. Mind you, these are tough trails: steep and often muddy. But you can ease your aching limbs on a tropical beach when it's all over.