Wednesday, January 19th, 2011
On January 4th, 2011 the Captain manoeuvred the Picton Castle into an astonishingly tight docking spot in Port Ouest, La Reunion Island. It was indeed a delicate procedure. The Captain gave helm orders to Nadja who responded with strong and controlled turns of the big teak wheel. Chris manned the engine controls, putting the engine in and out of gear and adjusting throttle. The bow of the ship was nudged and pushed by Logan and Katelinn in our skiff and 25 hp outboad; the helm spun; the engine growled; orders were repeated as the crew on deck passed heaving lines and hawsers to Shawn, Pania and Dave waiting to receive them on the dock – and she came in through the very narrow entrance, down a narrow channel, turned 180 degrees in what looked like not enough room, barely more than the ships own length and slid neatly into her berth alongside – a smooth ‘parallel parking’ job reminding us of what we observed in Rarotonga where the Captain backed the ship in and went sideways to get to her berth at Avatiu. A large crowd had gathered on the dock for the arrival of this Tall Ship and they excitedly snapped photographs, marvelling, whispering and chattering in French.
Once safely berthed the crew waited patiently as we dealt with the formalities of clearing in. The high lush mountains of the island provided quite a dramatic and picturesque backdrop. Speckled with villages they sloped steeply then gently down to Le Port – inviting us to explore. The sticky, humid heat that we had all but forgotten about during our passage from Bali had returned in spades and the off-watch crew took turns in the cold water shower before donning sundresses and shorts and venturing off the ship.
Chibley clearly had intentions of doing some of her own exploring, but the law and the multitude of dogs which inhabited the dock made that wish impossible. We were forced to tether her. Attached to a long leash of marlin and doted on by the on-watch crew – she still meowed mournfully and attempted escape several times by climbing the hawsers. Needless to say she was not too pleased with us and voiced her contempt regularly. In the end, I do believe she understood that we only had her best interests at heart! But she gave us all dirty looks.
There is a great possibility that the crew rented every car on the island – piling into their shiny new automobiles for road-tripping adventures. It takes about three or four hours to circumnavigate the island along coastal highways and roads. Highlights along the coast for the crew included the capital of St. Denis with it’s narrow streets, hotels and oceanfront boulevards;the busy port town of St. Pierre with it’s plethora of shops and restaurants and bars; the beach-side town of St. Gilles with its sweet surf, laundromats and relaxed atmosphere. The arrival of the Picton Castle happened to coincide with La Reunion vacation week. While ordinarily shops and some bars and restaurants might close for two hours at lunch and a few hours in the evening – a combination of French national attitude and island life – this week some did not open at all. Still, roadside fruit stands and family-run cafes were abundant and the crew made frequent stops along the way to satisfy a craving. Care for a frog leg samosa? How about a branch of litchis? Or a local Creole dish? Oui? Oui, merci!
La Reunion is an overseas department of France, the same as province or state, and conducts most of its trade directly with France. As such, you can have your espresso and eat your pain de chocolate too! Most of our European crew felt quite at home in the grocery stores and markets, discovering brands from home. You can buy fresh and perfect baguettes – even the gas stations carry a variety – and some fine cheese and head into the mountains for a picnic. On the east of the island is the active volcano of Piton de la Fournaise, it erupted just weeks before we arrived – covering the earth all the way to the coast with back lava and ash. The landscape is stark and beautiful and yet along the road green shoots are already peaking out of the black earth – representation of an ancient cycle of life on this island. Some of the crew hiked to the crater of the volcano. The earth is still hot to the touch and plumes of smoke mingle with the clouds.
Driving into the mountains is quite a treat. The winding switchbacks overlook lush valleys, cozy villages, deep lakes and rushing rivers. Waterfalls cascade down the mountainside -sometimes splashing onto meandering vehicles or hikers. Hidden amongst the mountain tops the mountain towns or cirques share common historical threads. Many of them were founded by slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar escaping servitude on the islands’ sugar plantations. Cirque de Salazie and the spa mountain town of Cirque de Cilaos in particular were crew favourites. While the coast is quite warm, the mountains can get downright cool. Exploring the highest peaks (Piton des Neiges is over 3000 m high) is impossible by car and as much of the inland in inaccessible by road. While the majority of us found our way into the mountains the conventional way, by auto or foot, Adrienne and Clark hired a helicopter and flew over the mountains – getting a bird’s eye views of this spectacular island.
The crew also spent a large amount of time at the restaurant / cafe just adjacent to the Picton Castle on the dock. Corsairre Bar became our local rendezvous. With a local and friendly staff, delicious Creole food and free wifi we spent hours there trying to connect with friends and family and get business done. The staff even organized a karaoke party night for our crew two days before we left. Many locals showed up so there was a balanced mixture of French and English singing and good times had by all.
La Reunion is beautiful and the crew thoroughly enjoyed their explorations.
*Thank you to Liam, Pania, Frankie and Adrienne for the use of their photographs!