Enigmatic, wondrous, a moonscape and marine paradise… Réunion Island is a land of great contrasts and sights that shine a light on the power of our planet, whether you're high up in a helicopter or standing with your feet in the Indian Ocean.
Leonard Cohen told us, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
What we were looking at, flying in a helicopter over Réunion Island, was not merely a crack. It was a site that about once a year blasts right open to reveal a more fiery kind of light. The light of hot molten lava, together with broken rocks, steam and gas, propelled from the heart of the earth. For several days, this volcano’s eruption illuminates and transforms life around it.
We missed the fireworks of Piton de la Fournais (‘The Peak of the Furnace’) this year, but we felt the power, the mystery of a place that is home to such a rare phenomenon. We sensed its magic as we drove from the airport to our hotel, the Blue Margouillat Seaview Hotel in Saint-Leu, on the west coast. As we saw signs directing seekers to the Furnace. And we felt it as we followed one of those signs to the HELILAGON helicopter airbase, in Saint-Denis.
Lying within the Réunion National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Piton de la Fournais is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, with more than 150 recorded eruptions since the 17th century. It is 2,631 metres high and around 530,000 years old.
Formed by volcanic activity in the oceanic crust, Réunion is a rugged land of deep valleys, peaks, cliffs and waterfalls, surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Intrepid hikers, adventurers, surfers, beach-lovers, photographers and storytellers find a home here. Countless of them drive right up to the rim of the external crater to view the peak or hike it to the summit.
Flying over the expanse, we soared through remote gorges, up over wispy clouds, and around the endless lava plateau surrounding the volcano. I wondered if this was the closest I’d come to feeling what landing on the moon would be like. Then we saw it: the central crater, 350m above the caldera floor.
Seated in the front of the helicopter, I turned around to face my friend in her window seat in the back. Our eyes met and I knew she felt it too. The light in the cracks.
"I had seen my first volcano! I had flown like a bird and now I would curl up in my nest and let it all digest."
Back at the hotel, we floated into our rooms, down to the restaurant and out to the pool, overlooking the ocean. Perched on a hill in the small town and fishing port of Saint-Leu, the Blue Margouillat Seaview Hotel has a sincere peace about it, a quietness that allowed what we had just experienced to sink in.
I had seen my first volcano! I had flown like a bird and now I would curl up in my nest and let it all digest.
Blue Margouillat Seaview Hotel is a particularly special home for culinary hearts, with Head Chef Marc Chappot and his team creating enchantments of their own in the kitchen. From slow breakfasts with the birds on the terrace to fine dining evenings under the stars, we tasted unique local spices and flavours, fresh inland fish and garden herbs, in the most exquisite of presentations.
In between gastronomic explorations, the island called me still and I headed out on foot to explore the boardwalk and beachfront of Saint-Leu. The ocean presents its own fascinations here, as, just off the coast lies a Natural Marine Reserve and a coral reef that shelters thousands of species, including turtles, starfish, crustaceans and tropical fish.
I wandered down the local streets, past fruit vendors and ice-cream sellers, jungle-gyms and hammocks tied between trees alongside the beach. Every now and again, I peered up into the distance where our volcano stood out of sight. Even kilometres from her, I felt the magic. The intensity of the land I was walking on, the raw power of the volcanic hotspot beneath my feet, the stirrings of the next explosion and the stirrings in my own heart and mind where new light had found a way in.