Reunion Travel Guide

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Cirque de Salazie

Cirque de Salazie

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Reunion is a French department lost in the Indian Ocean. There are coconut trees and beaches in Reunion, the turquoise blue lagoons and the white barrier reef are there waiting for you to fulfil your exotic dreams.

Until the middle of the 17th century, the island which was uninhabited. It was visited by Arab, Portuguese, English and Dutch navigators. The island was a much appreciated stopover on the commercial route for its abounding fresh water, right next to the shores. It appeared on many maps under different names. The French saw a first good use to make of it : a prison or rather a place of banishment for the undesirable mutineers from Madagascar. The Kingdom was then trying to get a foothold in the south of the Great Island, 700 km further away to the West. During the clemency year of 1643, the small volcanic island became Bourbon, "the possession of the King". To do so, it only took the putting up of an engraved stone on the seashore (today's district of La Possession).

The first mutineers were landed there in 1643. They discovered a dream prison, covered with forests, game and rivers. From 1663 onwards, the first settlers settled down with their Malagasy servants.

The importance of the faraway island showed progressively. The East Indies Company was to run it with an iron fist for a century until its bankruptcy in 1767. Coffee growing developed and with it the slavery system was established. The white settlers bought their labour from slave traders who tore men, women, and children away from the Malagasy and East African coasts. The original white population who had started mixing with its first Malagasy or Indo-Portuguese coloured women servants became a minority.

At the end of the 18th century, coffee plantations quickly disappeared and were soon replaced, from 1815, by sugar cane plantations. During the French revolution, the island changed names for a short while. The Revolutionaries renamed it Reunion, a symbol for the meeting of the revolutionary troops in Paris in 1790. From 1810 to 1815, the island went to the English before it was given back to the King of France.

In the 18th century, the island which had become Bourbon again, prospered with its sugar cane. The "sweet reed" made the fortune of the colony. Faraway France bought for a fortune sugar chunks moulded in tens from factories adjoining the colonial properties. The large estates became larger, the mountainous inland was progressively exploited and the cirques became populated. In 1848, slavery was abolished. But the cane still needed always more labour and so Indian and African voluntary workers were called on. Their living conditions were soon to become very similar to those the slaves endured.

Plantation companies endured until World War Two, punctuated by economic sugar cane crises. New forms of cultivation appeared. Vanilla, an orchid from America shaped like a creeper aroused dreams of richness among the settlers. Its dried pods were fought over in the Old Continent. But it didn't reproduce easily on the island. Till the day a slave from Sainte-Suzanne, Edmond Albius, discovered a simple and efficient way to pollinate its flower with a simple hand gesture. Vanilla fields spread, "Bourbon" label became an international reference, which is still recognised today. In those days, Reunion also discovered she could produce geranium and vetiver which, once distilled, could be transformed into essential oils which were very much appreciated by perfume makers. New fragrant cultivation prospered in the auspicious upper-reaches of the West and South.

But the soil's richness did not benefit everybody and selling prices were falling. The population was enduring in an abandoned colony. France preferred to bank on the very close-by huge island, Madagascar. On 19 March 1946, the island obtained the status of an overseas French Department and became fully French. The movement accelerated from the sixties onwards : Reunion equipped herself, her youth became educated, the economy diversified and developed. The local infrastructures of today have no longer anything to envy most departments of metropolitan France. Since the mid-nineties, tourism has been bringing in more money than sugar cane, vanilla, geranium and vetiver put together.

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