Before I tell you about my Saint-Denis experience, let me say this- Reunion is a revelation. Ahead of my trip I had this picture in my mind – sandy shores, pool time and slothing about on a chaise, cocktail in hand. You know, tropical island vibes. But non, non, non mes amis, expunge those thoughts immediatement, because I can assure you its a gross misprepresention of what Reunion is all about. For starters, the natural assets are spectacular – mountains, volcanoes, craters in triplicate, palm plantations (see pic below), waterfalls, hiking-biking-walking trails, adventure sports, caving…if you can name it, you can do it. Depending on your locale, you’ll find elements of Paris, lunar landscapes, and as you edge into the mountains you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the French Alps. It’s that diverse.
But let me not digress. About Saint-Denis, I loved it most out of all the cities we travelled through, and when I re-visit Reunion I plan to stay longer and really get into it. It’s the island’s capital and the perfect place to get a perspective on Reunion’s harmonious social diversity, culture, heritage and cuisine. The architecture I found to be particularly interesting, influenced by several major historical periods.
HINTS OF PARIS
Situated on the northernmost coast, Saint-Denis is the Réunionese commune that most channels Paris, right down to the smatterings of French Colonial architecture, antique lamp posts and those navy-blue enamel road signs that you see all over the greater Républic. Even the police sirens sound the same. (PS, Paris is my spirit city after Cape Town and after eleven visits to the City of Lights, it’s no secret that I’m a little France-obsessed, so naturellement I was in my element in this charming city.
Whether in an urban or rural situation, the buildings reflect various periods in the island’s history. The city is designed in a neat grid quite typical of the colonial trading posts of the day-it’s compact, easy to navigate and can be explored on foot in one morning. Embellishments on some of the older residences throw back to Victorian and French colonial times – like the patio lace and the wrought iron gate you can see on the pic below.
And in the Old Town there are a number of original wooden Creole houses, unchanged over the decades.
Saint-Denis is the only Réunionese city where you’ll find a number of cultural sites, including museums. Landmarks in town include the Cathédral Saint-Denis, the peppermint coloured Villa Déramond-Barre, the Old Town Hall, the Noor e-Islam Sunni Mosque with its 32-metre high minaret, and the Musée Léon Dierx, which, while small-scale nevertheless houses a pedigreed permanent collection with paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin and Renoir and a bronze by Picasso. The Jardin de L’Etat, established gardens planted in the 1800’s, is a botanical haven with more than two and half thousand species of flora to enjoy.
On Rue du Maréchal-Leclerc that bisects Rue de Paris you’ll find two well known markets selling handicrafts made locally and in other Indian Ocean countries – the Petit and Grand Marchés – with the latter listed as a national monument that also houses a small theatre.
Nearby, leading off Rue de Paris and Rue Alexis de Villeneuve in the shadow of the Cathédral is a small and vibey piazza with bars, pavement cafes and cool rooftop restaurants. The entire district is atmospheric and a great place to spend an evening.
For gastronomes, menus are diverse and delicious, running the gamut between Chinese, Creole, Indian and African food, and of course if it’s patisserie you’re after, there’s sure to be a boulangerie close by to sate your pastry addiction.
Saint-Denis has charm, character and soul, a place where time stands still. If you’re an immersive traveller, Reunion has your name all over it so when you book, give yourself time.
Do the hikes, walk the volcano paths, see the Cirques, cook Creole, talk to locals and absorb the exotic. Reunion is actually France, just in the Indian Ocean, with palm trees. An effervescent destination with a touch of the exotic and a unique, spirited identity- it really is the ultimate island.
Bon voyage, à bientôt!
🇷🇪 Disclaimer: This blog post is one of a series I’ll be uploading as part of a paid partnership between Cape Town Diva and the Reunion Island Tourism Board.(RITB)
🇷🇪 Borders are opening across the world so keep an eye on the RITB 👆website for updates! Hopefully not long now!
🇷🇪 Accredited tour company in Reunion: the amazing Sully Chaffre of Ethnix Tours
🇷🇪 Read more about the island via the RITB blog
🇷🇪 For France-SA diplomatic info, please click this link