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Visiting the Furnace—Reunion Island

When the Picton Castle put into Reunion, I don’t think we realized where we were going. A small island in the Indian Ocean with more things to do than you can possibly imagine. The ship is alongside in Le Port, which is on the northwest corner of Reunion just west of Saint Denis, the island’s capital. As the crew soon learned, it is much easier to get around and do what you want to do in Reunion in a car. There is a line of white (because most of the cars are) rental cars alongside the ship, of various shapes and sizes. Most of the radios don’t work and very few have air conditioning, and not one of them has any hubcaps, but it feels good to have some freedom and mobility!

To drive around Reunion would take a while and though it has a quick coastal road, most of the most beautiful sights are inland. The coastal road has not only heavy traffic during rush hour but also has steep cliffs on the side, which are covered in heavy steel netting to stop the rocks falling on the road. They sometimes shut off the inside lane for months at a time. Yikes! You don’t want a sunroof around here!

As you start to go inland, what you may expect and what you get are quite different. A drive into the mountains or “La Cirques” as they are called—basically canyons left over from the volcanoes—you think it will be pretty but it is jaw-dropping gorgeous. You start the drive into the La Cirques by driving along the dried-up riverbed with some very steep cliffs on either side. Lush vegetation covers each cliff, with the dark volcanic rock poking out here and there. As you get higher there are definite Yikes! moments. To get to Cilaos, at the top, you must go up and through more than 200 switchbacks, a tiny windy road going off through dark tunnels only one-lane wide and carved literally out of the hills. Rocks litter the road all the way up and sometimes no wall borders the side of the narrow road as you keep going up and up. Sometimes the roadside wall has a nice car-shaped hole in it! YIKES! But oh, my! Was it worth it! The view was so amazing looking down into the valley with small villages nestling into the canyons. The colors seemed so vibrant. Flowers cover this whole island, and up in the mountains it was no different. We saw purple hydrangeas, roses, and loads of tropical flowers that I didn’t recognize that smelled amazing. Rainbows were covering the peaks as we drove up, and the cloud cover gradually got heavier and it got cold. Gloriously cold!

Entering Cilaos, you might think you had driven a high road through the Alps and ended up somewhere like Chamonix. The highest peak in the Cirques is about 11,500 feet. You can see this from the village and with mist rolling over it like a table cloth. Cilaos was a little French village with a spattering of shops, hotels, and restaurants, and covered from one end to the other in flowers. It was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave. I was happy chowing down on the fresh-grown lentils and drinking local wine. Yummy. But time goes so fast when in port and you feel like you must see it all. There were volcanoes to see yet, and active ones at that!

Going back down through the switchbacks is not quite as scary, as you aren’t on the edge of the road anymore! But you go down much faster than you go up! Then back along the coast to the southern tip of St. Pierre and then straight back inland and up and up again. “The Furnace” they call this still-active volcano, and yesterday they reported in the paper that it had stabilized after starting to erupt again before the holidays. We stopped at the first lookout as you go up. I honestly didn’t expect to see much as it had been so misty on the way up. Looking over the rail I found myself staring into an old lava flow, now a glorious valley filled with tiny hills and leading straight into the ocean. It was so beautiful. How, I wonder, can every view I see be better than the last? And still we go farther up. The switchbacks are not quite so scary and the road is much better maintained here. I am just starting to relax and put my feet up on the dashboard (I am not driving here!) when around the corner we go and there right in front of us is a moonscape. It’s part of the crater of the volcano and just a strange but pretty sight. A dirt road runs along the bottom of the crater to get you the rest of the way up. What a crazy sight!

The rest of the drive up I spend wondering if it is worth climbing the 4.5-hour hike to the farthest peak of the furnace, with the chance of seeing real lava. The verdict is definitely yes, but unfortunately I had only flip flops on and it just didn’t seem right to hike up a mountain in them! I sat drinking coffee and wondering if the mist—so heavy that I couldn’t see the little kiosk which was 20 feet in front of the car—was causing the hikers any drama. After a couple of hours I began to wonder if my French was good enough to cover an explanation that still my friends hadn’t come back. I needn’t have worried. Through the mist and sweating profusely they arrived, smiling and talking nonstop about the little volcanoes and the steam. I was jealous and hated my flip flops right then!

We finished the day off by coming back around the island by the east side through the sugar cane and vanilla, where the air smells so fragrant and the waterfalls are so large you cannot imagine! It is a good thing I wasn’t driving or there would have been a danger of driving straight off the road as I stared at the great plunging waterfalls.

Back on the ship, the watch looked as if someone had tried to melt them. Lordy! Was it ever hot down here! There was a hose hooked up to the shore water, and the watch took turns hosing themselves off. Today it is still ungodly hot down here and we have also taken turns hosing ourselves. Everything is hot. The decks are so hot don’t even imagine taking my flip-flops off, and we keep imagining one of our lovely shipmates might come up the gangway with a bag of something really cold to drink!

PS: I just took the temperature. Now I know why it so hot—it is 44 degrees! Hot, hot, really hot.

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