On top of the world, or at least that’s how it felt atop Piton de la Fournaise

From Madagascar we made a quick trip to the European Union. Who knew you could go from southeastern Africa to the EU so quickly?

Réunion, you see, just a little east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is an “overseas region” of France so it’s really a part of France. The official language is French, they use the euro, and, driving around, it feels as though you’re in France. On arrival at the airport outside Saint-Denis, the capital and major city, we drove to a shopping mall to get SIM cards for our phones. We were just blown away by how different it was from Madagascar. The latter, of course, is one of the poorest countries on earth while there we were in Saint-Denis with big grocery stores, fully stocked with anything you might need. Plenty of shopping to be done, nice cars, people nicely dressed. The difference was almost unbelievable and certainly unexpected.

Our beach resort felt a lot more like Europe than Africa

SIM cards purchased and installed we headed around to the western coast of the island to our resort a little south of Saint Gilles. As we settled into our five-night stay at the LUX* (that’s the name, asterisk and all) resort one of the first things we noticed was that while Réunion felt more France than Africa, the restaurants also don’t have prices like Madagascar. Sticker shock! Not that it was all terribly expensive but definitely EU prices, not Madagascar prices.

What is there to do in Réunion? From our perspective there were two things about the island that stood out. One, Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace) is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, with the most recent eruption just last year. A major tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can hike up to the rim of the volcano if there is no risk of eruption.

Near the start of the hike you can see a little vegetation but it is gone not long at all after starting

So off we went. One of the remarkable parts of the hike was the drive up there; climbing up the mountain from the coast was just stunningly beautiful; I don’t know if the cows we saw grazing away appreciated the views they had but they sure should have. The hike itself wasn’t so beautiful, to be honest. The hike consisted of a long stretch across the empty, lava-crusted caldera, and then a long climb up, up, and further up to the rim of the volcano. No greenery or living creature to this amateur eye. Once we finally made it to the top I was figuring we’d see bubbling lava or at least smoke or something, but no, just a big open dry pit. The views from way up there were nice, but it’s not something one absolutely needs to do in life.

Mark at the top of the volcano. In the U.S., of course, they would have big chain fences or stone walls around the perimeter but here it’s just a painted white line suggesting it’s not safe to go beyond. Of course, lots of people did go beyond.

We didn’t learn the other important thing about Réunion – that it has a remarkable concentration of sharks in the water – until near the end of our stay. Possibly something useful to have known earlier, particularly when you’re staying at a beach resort and spending lots of time in the water. In just five years, between 2011 and 2015, there were 17 shark attacks recorded on the island’s beaches, seven of them fatal. That’s a lot! As a result swimming is banned on over half the beaches in Réunion. Fortunately, though, we were staying on the most popular and safest beach in the country so they didn’t bother us.

Funny story: we learned about the sharks from Ted and Todd, a couple we’d met back in Madagascar; they were at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park the same time we were and then drove back to Morondava and flew to Tana the same days as we did. They were the ones who told us about the attacks on the road out to the Park and thus explained the caravans we traveled in. Just as we were ready to start the hike on Piton de la Fournaise who do we run into but Ted and Todd again so we did the hike with them, during which they were amazed that we talked about swimming at our resort. They were staying on the other side of the island from us, explained there was no swimming anywhere around their place, and told us all about the sharks.

Here I am with Ted and Todd on our hike. Mark took a couple pictures but Ted always had his eyes closed.

We may need to spend more time with Ted and Todd if we want to stay safe.

Other than our one excursion to hike the volcano most of our time was spent hanging around the beach and searching out food. The meals at LUX* were pretty expensive so we sought out local places pretty successfully, including one Italian place that we kept going back to. And that was it. From here we fly a little further east to the island of Mauritius for more beach time. Life is rough.

An evening beach scene

We stayed right next to Hermitage Beach, the most popular (and shark-free) beach on the island. These are casuarina trees, beneath which the locals relax, play games, and have their barbecues.

Strange flora on the island

And long beautiful beaches

The vastness of the lava fields was impressive

As you climb the mountain there’s lots and lots of pretty much nothing up there

Selfie time!

Love the view from up here

This is near the very end of the hike (which would make it also the very start…). The greenery is interesting, but so are the clouds. They recommend that you start the hike early because clouds start rolling in pretty heavily around noon. Sure enough, by the time we got down the cloud layers were pretty heavy on the mountain. We saw lots of people just starting their hikes at this time and we could tell they would see nothing once they started climbing.