Réunion is often cited as an example of racial and religious harmony, and compared with mainland France it is. While Marine Le Pen's far-right party wins 27% to 30% of the national vote, it doesn't exceed 3% in Réunion. Not that it’s all hunky-dory. Réunion suffers from the same problems of a disaffected younger generation as in mainland Europe. But on the whole it’s a pretty cohesive society, and the Réunionnais are quietly but justifiably proud of what they have achieved.
The National Identity
The physical and cultural distinctions between the various ethnic groups are far less apparent in Réunion than in Mauritius. In Réunion there has been much more interracial mixing over the years. Ask the Réunionnais how they see themselves and the chances are they'll say 'Creole' – not in the narrow sense of having Afro-French ancestry, but simply meaning one of 'the people'. That is, someone who speaks Creole, who was born and bred on the island and is probably – but not necessarily – of mixed ancestry. This sense of community is the glue that holds society together.
The Réunionnais are in general more reserved than the Mauritians, but within this overall pattern there are local differences: southerners are reckoned to be more relaxed and friendly, while perhaps not surprisingly the people living in the Cirques are the most introverted.
While the Réunionnais also regard themselves as French, they don't really identify with people from the mainland. There is even a slight undercurrent of resentment towards the 100,000 or so mainlanders who dominate the island's administration and economy. The locals refer to them very slightly derogatorily as Zoreilles (the Ears); the usual explanation is that they are straining to hear what's being said about them in the local patois.
Contemporary Réunionnais are a thoroughly 21st-century people. The vast majority of children receive a decent standard of education and all islanders have access to the national health system, either in Réunion or in France. There are traffic jams, everyone has a mobile (cell) phone, and flashy cars are ubiquitous. But beneath this modern veneer, there are many more traditional aspects.
One of the strongest bonds unifying society, after the Creole language, is the importance placed on family life. It's particularly made evident at the pique-nique du dimanche en famille (Sunday family picnic). Religious occasions and public holidays are also vigorously celebrated, as are more personal family events, such as baptisms, first communions and weddings.
Though Réunion can't be mistaken for, say, Ibiza, Réunionnais share a zest for the fest. On weekends St-Gilles-les-Bains, L'Hermitage-les-Bains and St-Pierre are a magnet for Réunionnais from all over the island. The towns turn wild on those evenings as flocks of night owls arrive en masse to wiggle their hips and guzzle pints of Dodo beer and glasses of rum.
On a more mundane level, you'll quickly realise that the possession of a brand-new car is a sign of wealth and respect. The 'car culture' is a dominant trait; small wonder that traffic jams are the norm on the coastal roads. Many Réunionnais spend up to two hours daily in their car going to and from work! One favourite topic of conversation is the state of the roads, especially the tricky Route du Littoral between St-Paul and St-Denis, which is sometimes closed due to fallen rocks.
Another noticeable (though less immediately so) characteristic is the importance of la di la fé (gossip). If you can understand a little bit of French (or Creole), tune in to Radio Free Dom (www.freedom.fr) – you'll soon realise that gossip is a national pastime.
Despite the social problems that blight any culture, on the whole it's a society that lives very easily together.
Feature: Sunday Picnic: A Réunionnais Institution
At the weekend there's nothing the Réunionnais like better than trundling off to the seaside or the mountains for a huge family picnic, armed with giant-sized rice cookers replete with hearty carris (curries) in the company of gramounes (grandparents) and marmailles (children). To get the most sought-after picnic shelters, some members of the family sometimes arrive at 4am to reserve them! Visitors are welcome, and are usually invited to share a meal.
Cultural diversity forms an integral part of the island's social fabric. Réunion has the same population mix of Africans, Europeans, Indians and Chinese as Mauritius, but in different proportions. Cafres (people of African ancestry) are the largest ethnic group, comprising about 45% of the population. Malbars (Hindu Indians) comprise about 25% of the population, white Creoles (people of French ancestry) 15%, Europeans (also known as Zoreilles) 7%, Chinese 4% and Z'arabes (Muslim Indians) 4%.
The bulk of the island's population lives in coastal zones, with Malbars living predominantly in the east. The rugged interior is sparsely populated. Because the birth rate has remained quite high, a third of the population is under 20 years of age.
Réunion also sees a continual tide of would-be immigrants. With a system of generous welfare payments for the unemployed, the island is seen as a land of milk and honey by those from Mauritius, the Seychelles and some mainland African countries. Since 2010 there has been significant immigration from the neighbouring Comoros and Mayotte Islands.
An estimated 70% of the population belongs to the Catholic faith, which dominates the island's religious character. It's evidenced in the many saints' days and holidays, as well as in the names of towns and cities. Religious rituals and rites of passage play an important part in the lives of the people, and baptisms, first communions and church weddings are an integral part of social culture.
About a quarter of Réunionnais are Hindus, which is the dominant faith in the east. Traditional Hindu rites such as teemeedee, which features fire-walking, and cavadee, which for pilgrims entails piercing the cheeks with skewers, often take place. Muslims make up roughly 2% of the population; as in Mauritius, Islam tends to be fairly liberal.
Interestingly, a great deal of syncretism between Hinduism, Islam and Catholicism has evolved over the years. In fact, many of the Malbar-Réunionnais participate in both Hindu and Catholic rites and rituals.
Apart from celebrating the Chinese New Year, the Sino-Réunionnais community (making up about 3% of the population) is not very conspicuous in its religious or traditional practices.
Religious tolerance is the norm. Mosques, churches, Hindu temples and pagodas can be found within a stone's throw of each other in most towns.
Feature: The Odd Cult of St Expédit
You can't miss them. Red shrines honouring St Expédit are scattered all over the island, including on roadsides. St Expédit is one of Réunion's most popular saints, though some scholars argue there never was a person called Expédit. Whatever the truth, the idea was brought to Réunion in 1931 when a local woman erected a statue of the 'saint' in St-Denis' Notre-Dame de la Délivrance church in thanks for answering her prayer to return to Réunion. Soon there were shrines all over the island, where people prayed for the saint's help in the speedy resolution of all sorts of tricky problems.
Over the years, however, worship of the saint has taken on the sinister overtones of a voodoo cult: figurines stuck with pins are left at the saint's feet; beheaded statues of him are perhaps the result of unanswered petitions. The saint has also been adopted into the Hindu faith, which accounts for the brilliant, blood-red colour of many shrines. As a result the Catholic Church has tried to distance itself from the cult, but the number of shrines continues to grow.
One of the greatest pleasures of visiting Réunion is experiencing Creole-flavoured French culture – or French-flavoured Creole culture, depending on how you look at it. For news of cultural activities on the island, keep an eye on the local press and visit local tourist offices, where you can pick up flyers, theatre programs and a number of free events guides such as the monthly L'Azenda (www.azenda.re).
Few Réunionnais novelists are known outside the island and none are translated into English. One of the most widely recognised and prolific contemporary authors is the journalist and historian Daniel Vaxelaire. His Chasseurs de Noires, an easily accessible tale of a slave-hunter's life-changing encounter with an escaped slave, is probably the best to start with.
Jean-François Samlong, a novelist and poet who helped relaunch Creole literature in the 1970s, also takes slavery as his theme. Madame Desbassayns was inspired by the remarkable life story of a sugar baroness.
Other well-established novelists to look out for are Axel Gauvin, Jules Bénard, Jean Lods and Monique Agénor.
Music & Dance
Réunion's music mixes the African rhythms of reggae, séga (traditional slave music) and maloya with French, British and American rock and folk sounds. Like séga, maloya is derived from the music of the slaves, but it is slower and more reflective, its rhythms and words heavy with history, somewhat like New Orleans blues; fans say it carries the true spirit of Réunion. Maloya songs often carry a political message and up until the 1970s the music was banned for being too subversive.
Instruments used to accompany séga and maloya range from traditional homemade percussion pieces, such as the hide-covered rouleur drum and the maraca-like kayamb, to the accordion and modern band instruments.
The giants of the local music scene, and increasingly well known in mainland France, are Danyel Waro, Firmin Viry, Granmoun Lélé (deceased), Davy Sicard, Kaf Malbar, Lo Rwa Kaf (deceased) and the group Ziskakan. Women have also emerged on the musical scene, including Christine Salem and Nathalie Nathiembé. All are superb practitioners of maloya. Favourite subjects for them are slavery, poverty and the search for cultural identity. You'll also find a mix of séga, maloya and reggae, called seggae (look for René Lacaille and Ti Fock if you're interested).
As for Creole-flavoured modern grooves, the Réunionnais leave those to their tropical cousins in Martinique and Guadeloupe, although they make for popular listening in Réunion. It's all catchy stuff, and you'll hear it in bars, discos and vehicles throughout the islands of the Indian Ocean.
The distinctive 18th-century Creole architecture of Réunion is evident in both the grand villas built by wealthy planters and other colons (settlers/colonists) and in the ti' cases, the homes of the common folk.
Local authorities are actively striving to preserve the remaining examples of Creole architecture around the island. You can see a number of beautifully restored houses in St-Denis and in the towns of Cilaos, Entre-Deux, Hell-Bourg and St-Pierre, among other places. They all sport lambrequins (filigree-style decorations), varangues (verandas) and other ornamental features.
Réunion is refreshingly liberal and equality between the sexes is the widely accepted norm. Divorce, abortion and childbirth outside marriage are all fairly uncontentious issues. However, it's not all rosy: women are poorly represented in local government and politics, and domestic violence is prevalent. This is closely connected to high rates of alcoholism.
Réunion lies about 220km southwest of Mauritius, at the southernmost end of the great Mascareignes volcanic chain. Réunion’s volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, erupts with great regularity, spewing lava down its southern and eastern flanks. The last major eruption occurred in 2015, with almost 2½ months of continuous volcanic activity.
There are two major mountainous areas on Réunion. The older of the two covers most of the western half of the island. The highest mountain is Piton des Neiges (3071m), an alpine-class peak. Surrounding it are three immense and splendid amphitheatres: the Cirques of Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. These long, wide, deep hollows are sheer-walled canyons filled with convoluted peaks and valleys, the eroded remnants of the ancient volcanic shield that surrounded Piton des Neiges.
The smaller of the two mountainous regions lies in the southeast and continues to evolve. It comprises several extinct volcanic cones and one that is still very much alive, Piton de la Fournaise (2632m). This rumbling peak still pops its cork relatively frequently in spectacular fashion. In 2007 lava flows reached the sea and added another few square metres to the island. Since 1998 there have been spectacular eruptions almost every second year – attractions in their own right. No one lives in the shadow of the volcano, where lava flowing down to the shore has left a remarkable jumbled slope of cooled black volcanic rock, known as Le Grand Brûlé.
These two mountainous areas are separated by a region of high plains, while the coast is defined by a gently sloping plain that varies in width. Numerous rivers wind their way down from the Piton des Neiges range, through the Cirques, cutting deeply into the coastal plains to form spectacular ravines.
The animals that you are likely to see are introduced hares, deer, geckoes, rats and, if you're lucky, chameleons. Tenrecs (called tang in Creole), which resemble hedgehogs, are a species introduced from Madagascar.
The most interesting creepy crawlies are the giant millipedes – some as long as a human foot – which loll around beneath rocks in more humid areas. Other oversized creatures are the yellow-and-black Nephila spiders whose massive webs are a common sight. You'll also find the Heteropoda venatoria or huntsman spider, called babouk in Creole.
As far as birdlife is concerned, of the original 30 species endemic to the island, only nine remain. The island's rarest birds are the merle blanc (cuckoo shrike) – locals call it the tuit tuit, for obvious reasons – and the black petrel. Probably the best chance of seeing – or, more likely, hearing – the tuit tuit is directly south of St-Denis, near the foot of La Roche Écrite.
Bulbuls, which resemble blackbirds (with yellow beaks and legs but grey feathers) and are locally known as merles, are also common. Birds native to the highlands include the tec-tec or Réunion stonechat, which inhabits the tamarind forests. There's also the papangue (Maillardi buzzard), a protected hawk-like bird that begins life as a little brown bird and turns black and white as it grows older. It is Réunion's only surviving bird of prey and may be spotted soaring over the ravines.
The best-known seabird is the white paille-en-queue (white-tailed tropicbird), which sports two long tail plumes.
Mynahs, introduced at the end of the 18th century to keep the grasshoppers under control, are common all over the island, as are the small, red cardinal-like birds known as fodies.
The best spots to see birdlife are the Forêt de Bébour-Bélouve above Hell-Bourg, and the wilderness region of Le Grand Brûlé at the southern tip of the island.
Thanks to an abundant rainfall and marked differences in altitude, Réunion has some of the most varied plant life in the world. Parts of the island are like a grand botanical garden. Between the coast and the alpine peaks you'll find palms, screw pines (also known as pandanus or vacoa), casuarinas (filaos), vanilla, spices, other tropical fruit and vegetable crops, rainforest and alpine flora.
Réunion has no less than 700 indigenous plant species, 150 of which are trees. Unlike Mauritius, large areas of natural forest still remain. It's estimated that 30% of the island is covered by native forest.
Gnarled, twisted and sporting yellow, mimosa-like flowers, the tamarin des Hauts (mountain tamarind tree) is a type of acacia and is endemic to Réunion. One of the best places to see these ancient trees is in the Forêt de Bébour-Bélouve, east of the Cirque de Salazie.
At the other extreme, the lava fields around the volcano exhibit a barren, moonlike surface. Here the various stages of vegetation growth, from a bare new lava base, are evident. The first plant to appear on lava is the heather-like plant the French call branle vert (Philippia montana). Much later in the growth cycle come tamarind and other acacia trees.
Afforestation has been carried out mainly with the Japanese cryptomeria, tamarin des Hauts, casuarina and various palms.
Like any tropical island, Réunion has a wealth of flowering species, including orchid, hibiscus, bougainvillea, vetiver, geranium, frangipani and jacaranda.
It is estimated that nearly a third of the 25km-long lagoon along the west coast from Boucan Canot south to Trois Bassins has already suffered damage from a variety of causes: sedimentation, agricultural and domestic pollution, cyclones, fishing and swimmers. To prevent the situation deteriorating further, a marine park was set up in 1997. In addition to educating local people on the need to keep the beaches and the water clean, marine biologists have been working with local fishers and various water-sports operators to establish protection zones. A fully fledged nature reserve – the Réserve Naturelle Marine de la Réunion (www.reservemarinereunion.fr) – was created in 2007.
Part of the interior of the island is protected, too. The Parc National des Hauts de la Réunion (www.reunion-parcnational.fr) was established in early 2007, resulting in half of Réunion's total land area now being under protection. There's a tightly regulated core area of 1000 sq km, including the volcano, the mountain peaks and the areas around Mafate and Grand Bassin, surrounded by a buffer zone of some 700 sq km to encompass most of the ravines.
The central problem confronting Réunion is how to reconcile environmental preservation with a fast-growing population in need of additional housing, roads, jobs, electricity, water and recreational space.
Despite the establishment of the Parc National des Hauts de la Réunion and the Réserve Naturelle Marine de la Réunion, the island is facing major issues, all related to two massive engineering works. The 'smaller' is the Route des Tamarins, which was completed in 2009. This 34km expressway that slices across the hills above St-Gilles-les-Bains required numerous bridges over the ravines. According to local environmentalists, the road cut across the only remaining savannah habitat on the island.
The second major engineering project is the Nouvelle Route du Littoral (new coastal highway). Due to be completed in 2021, this expressway will link capital St-Denis to La Possession and will be built on columns rising out of the ocean. The scheme has been met with anger by environmentalists, who claim that such major infrastructure works will have a negative impact on marine life. They have started to file lawsuits to derail the project. However, local authorities claim this project is vital for the economy and development of the island.
Feature: Unesco World Heritage Site
Réunion's landscapes and natural riches are so unique that in 2010, Unesco designated over 40% of the island a Natural World Heritage Site under the title 'Pitons, Cirques & Remparts'. This is an exceptional recognition of the island's phenomenally appealing mountainscapes and its remarkable biodiversity. Other natural sites in the world that have been awarded such a distinction include the Galapagos islands, the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon National Park.