The northern coastal road brings you to St Denis, the island’s capital that, with 140,000 people, is the largest city in the overseas French departments. Here, on the coastal plain it is easy to imagine you are in provincial France. Everything is so familiar, from the design of the road signs to the brand names on the billboards, and from the urban architecture to the pleasant public parks. At St Andre, you turn inland to climb into the Cirque de Salazie, one of three magnificent amphitheatres that surround Piton des Neiges, Reunion’s highest peak standing 3,069 metres above the coastal towns.
The Cirque de Salazie is a long, deep, sheer-walled canyon full of twisted hills and valleys, and waterfalls tumble down the rocks on every side. Although the cirque is generally swathed in mist and cloud we were lucky to have a completely clear morning to admire its wild beauty. High up in the cirque at the end of the road lies Hell-Bourg (lun des plus beau villages de France), an appealing village with many small, brightly painted, attractive Creole buildings dating back as far as the 1860s. The local population comprises Creoles (the largest group at 40%), Europeans (French), Indians and Chinese, and it appeared to us every mix in between.
Everywhere we heard the unique Reunion version of Creole being spoken, sounding very much like French, but incomprehensible to me and, according to our guide, to native French speakers too.