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Tropical France

Department of Réunion

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So you’re hoping to spend your vacation on sun kissed tropical beaches, enjoying a gentle breeze as you lie in the white sand under swaying palm trees?

Well, you need to book a cruise to…. France. That’s not mainland France, you understand, but the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. One of the quirks of French history is that overseas possessions are actually considered part of France itself. This is unlike the situation in the UK, where British overseas territories are considered separate entities. When you set foot on Réunion (pronounced, roughly, ray-oo-nee-on, with the stress on the second syllable) you are quite literally entering France – even though the French mainland is several thousand miles to the north.

This political oddity means that Réunion enjoys several benefits. First, because it’s officially a department (county) of France, it enjoys French government funding, a high standard of healthcare and infrastructure support and a hard currency – the Euro. These benefits ensure that the Réunion tourist industry is very sophisticated, without being overcrowded. The island is becoming increasingly popular as a cruise destination because of its civilized political state and (relative) closeness to Madagascar and Mauritius…

…and, of course, because it’s heaven on earth. Réunion has some of the very best beaches in the world. If you’re visiting the island as part of a cruise, you may have a short journey to get to them, however: your ship will likely dock at the island’s capital, Saint-Denis, which is only the northern tip of the eighty-mile long island. Most of the best beaches are on the western coast, between the towns of Saint-Paul and Saint Louis. These are mostly classic Indian Ocean white sand affairs, though there are a couple of black sand volcanic beaches – a legacy of the island’s still active volcanic hinterland.

Communications within Réunion are very good. The island is encircled by a coast road which bypasses the ups and downs of the interior and visits all the major settlements, which are all on the coast.

Saint-Denis itself is a delightful town – everything you would expect of a well-to-do colonial outpost. Although you’ll probably use it as a base for your short exploration of Réunion after disembarking from your ship, it’s an interesting place to explore in its own right. Amid its carefully-kept streets and manicured gardens are all kinds of interesting sights. You could, for example, visit the local natural history museum, which contains specimens of wildlife from islands all over this part of the Indian Ocean, and further afield. If you prefer the arts to the sciences, the Musée Leon Dierx is well worth a visit – it includes works by such luminaries as Picasso and Gauguin, and, as such, is no mere provincial gallery – it’s a serious collection worth investigation by serious art fans.

Réunion is also worthy of investigation by serious food fans, too, as it’s the meeting point between two of the world’s great cuisines: French and Indian. French foods and styles of eating dominate many mealtimes – coffee and croissants is as typical a breakfast here as it is in mainland France, and wine consumption is as high. But Indian influences make themselves felt in the broad range of spices in use by the island’s cooks, the prevalence of rice as a staple dish and the popularity of Indian-style flat, unleavened breads. If you can stomach it, you can even try one of Réunion’s most unique dishes – octopus curry!

If you like getting outdoors and taking exercise, Réunion is certainly the cruise destination for you. If you’re fit and active you can sign up for guided hikes around some of the island’s high peaks, including Piton des Neiges, Réunion’s highest peak. Réunion of course, remains highly volcanic – although volcano science has advanced to a sufficient degree that eruptions can be predicted well in advance – so you don’t need to worry about being chased off the mountain by a red hot lava flow! If you don’t want to go too high, there are also lengthy (and less lengthy) hikes to be had in the lush tropical forests on the lower slopes of the mountains. There’s a wide variety of exotic tropical flora and fauna to be admired on Réunion, and guided walks are available to help you find out more about this aspect of the island’s environment – the tourist information office in Saint-Denis will give you more information.

Réunion is very different from so many tropical islands. It is highly developed, yet in some ways still in the grip of primeval nature; it features a melting pot of cultures, yet that of France still dominates. It is, in many senses, a crossroads between humanity and nature, and between civilizations.

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