THE bells in the tower of the pretty little white and blue Catholic church toll 12 times, drawing me through the grand façade and out of the steamy midday heat.
Once inside, I pay homage to the architect, whose designs for soaring ceiling and high windows have created this bright, cool sanctuary.
I gaze over dozens of rows of pews to the simple altar and iconic statues and admire the craftsmanship that has gone into the birdcage-like wooden pulpit.
The well-maintained Notre Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snow), with its colourful gardens and commanding hillside position, could be the pride and joy of any little French provincial town.
And while this is technically a French provincial town, it is not in France.
It is Cilaos, meaning “place you never leave”, sitting 1200m above sea level in the middle of Reunion Island.
The island, off the east coast of Africa (to the right of Madagascar and left of Mauritius on the map), is in fact a French Department and all rules that govern France also apply here.
A harmonious marriage of African, European, Indian and Chinese cultures make Reunion a unique Creole blend.
But the accent is definitely French – in both the voices and the attention to detail and luxury appointments in the chic hotels.
Still, Reunion Island is in its own little world.
The Indian Ocean’s “wild child” may be small in stature (2500sq m), but she is big on nature.
The island’s diverse landscapes, climates and flora and fauna attract adventure seekers, adrenalin junkies – among them abseilers, canyoners, mountain bikers and hikers, scenery lovers, divers, game fishermen and big surf chasers (the gauche de Saint-Leu has hosted the world’s best surfers in competitions including the Rip Curl Pro).
From the Creole soul of St Denis in the north to the Indian-influenced St Louis in the south, the green and tropical east to the sun-drenched beaches in the west, its 30km of coral reefs and turquoise lagoon from west to south to the ancient forests, the rugged mountain scenery of the interior to moonscapes and volcanoes, Reunion is an island of contrasts.
And those contrasts are apparent in technicolour grandeur on a drive to one of the must-see attractions on the tourist map – the cirques. The collapse of subterranean lava chambers helped create the three cirques – Cilaos, Salazie and Mafate.
Millions of years of rainfall, wind and erosion then scoured out and sculpted the massive natural amphitheatres that form a three-leaf clover – best grasped on a 3D map in the tourism office in Cilaos.
The town – once the preferred hiding place for escaped slaves because of its multitude of nooks and crannies – lies below the extinct volcano, Piton des Neiges. Piton des Neiges created Reunion Island and is the highest point in the Indian Ocean at 3070m.
Before the road was completed in 1932, the only way in to Cilaos was by foot or sedan chair carried over a very narrow footpath.
But now from St Louis, we head inland for 37km on a breath-taking route (the road with 420 bends), running the gauntlet of rockfalls and landslides as it traverses valleys, canyons and ravines, snakes around steep cliff edges, and seemingly defies logic by squeezing through tunnels in the side of mountains.
Motion sickness almost gets the best of some of our group as we tackle tight bends and curves, winding round and round, and climbing ever higher.
What looks like dry river beds below we later realise show the path of lava flows. The grey stones and rocks stand out against the lush vegetation surrounding them.
Colourful collections of houses and small villages lie in the shadow of the dominating brown and green mountain walls, craggy and tooth-like peaks, and the cradles between them.
From lookouts such as La Roche Merveilleuse, we survey the whole valley, pointing out the aptly named Priest Hat and gaining a bird’s-eye view of our destination.
You can’t resist the temptation to stop the vehicle, get out and snap yet another panorama.
But because even the mind struggles to gain a perspective of the majestic views, no camera or video can really do justice to the alpine-like setting in the tropical climate.
And tropical it is, with the cirque getting its fair share of heat, humidity and rainfall.
Cilaos actually holds the world record for the most rain in a single day – 1870mm fell on March 16, 1952.
Wine joins lentils as a specialty of the cirque, so we stop at Chez Dijoux’s roadside stall for a spot of wine-tasting of Vin de Cilaos whites and roses.
The first vines in the area were brought over in 1771 by French colonials and the vines have since formed an essential part of the cirque.
Cilaos also celebrates the dying art of embroidery at Maison de la Broderie, with the very time-consuming handicraft fetching up to thousands of euros for a tablecloth.
Angele MacAuliffe, the daughter of the town’s first doctor in 1899, established the first embroidery workshop with 20 local women, and the tradition continues today with children’s clothing and Manchester available for sale.
But despite all its history and promises of adventure, the clean fresh air, quaint architecture, and jaw-dropping panoramas are enough in themselves once we arrive in the town.
And as the carillon in the pretty little church on the hillside rings out once again, you understand why this quaint spot is “the place you never leave” – at least not in spirit.
*The writer was a guest of Flight Centre.
Air Austral flies direct from Sydney to Reunion, twice weekly, with connections to Mauritius daily.
Flight Centre can arrange flights, accommodation and tour packages.
Where to stay:
If you want a nice balance of Creole tradition and modern French indulgence and luxury, you can’t go past Grand Hotel Du Lagon at the southern end of the beach at L’Hermitage.
This villa-style resort – Reunion Island’s first five-star hotel – pays tribute to colonial architecture and offers a relaxed beachside ambience on the lagoon at Saint-Gilles. It was named Best Hotel of Reunion Island in a World Travel Award in 2009. The complex, boasting beautiful gardens and bougainvillea trestle walks plus large open spaces, includes 166 Superior rooms (34sq m) and Junior suites (44sqm), Orangine pavilion-style a la carte restaurant, the main Odysee buffet restaurant, Clapotis beach barbecue restaurant and Pipangaille pool bar.
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