If you’re visiting Reunion Island, your most likely going to spend a night in Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis is the entry point for most overseas visitors and Reunion’s largest city. Nestled between mountains, sky and sea the city is a dazzling sight from above. It won me over before my plane had even touched the ground. Surprisingly this little French capital often gets overlooked by travelers eager to reach the beaches and mountains the island is most famous for. True, Saint-Denis doesn’t offer up any of Reunion’s big ticket items, but for those with a day up their sleeve, it’s a great introduction to life on the island, and an opportune chance to soak up the French language and Creole culture that makes this place so unique. Here are a few suggestions that will help you make the most of your time in the capital. You may just find that one day is not enough!
Explore the City’s Colonial Past Along Rue de Paris
Rue de Paris cuts through the heart of the old quarter and is a good place to start your day. Begin by popping into the Tourist Information Bureau, located mid-way up the street, and pick up a handy English language map. From here wander the length of the street, taking in the many monuments, churches and historical buildings that line the pretty boulevard. The bright colors and distinctive architecture will give you a real sense of what life was like in the French colonial era. Each site is also handily signposted (in English!) with explanations of its particular architectural and historical significance, providing ample information for those wanting to delve a little further into the past.
Feel Sophisticated While Browsing The Galleries
Many of the historical buildings along rue de Paris have been converted into small galleries and upscale boutiques. Most are free to visit and easy to breeze through in a morning. The most prestigious collection can be found at the Musee Leon-Dierx where, for just 2 euros entry fee, art lovers will be treated to impressive pieces by the likes of Toulouse Letrec, Renoir, Gauguin and Picasso. Visiting these galleries will also give you a chance to take in the impressive interiors of some the most charming creole buildings, a worthwhile reason to visit in itself.
Reconnect with your Inner Child at the State Botanical Gardens
At the far end of rue de Paris lies the city’s botanical gardens. This park offers a nice refuge from the heat of the city, and creates a real sense of whimsy that will enchant both children and adults alike. I couldn’t help but feel like a kid again as I wandered under the majestic old trees playfully adorned with colorful parasols, paper lanterns and glistening lights. Over-sized paper-maché flowers sprout next to real ones, vine-sculpted chameleons hang from branches overhead, and creative fountains pop-up around every bend. For the kids there are also a few quite unique playgrounds, a splash-pad, and an enclosure where you can get up-close with parrots and turtles. When you are ready for a break, there is also a nice shady café offering up a full menu of meals and refreshments at a surprisingly reasonable price.
Visit the Natural History Museum
This museum is located within the state gardens and, is worth a look if you’re interested in the islands unique biodiversity. Entry costs 2 euros and will buy you a close encounter with a slightly creepy collection of stuffed critter, all of course native to the island. There is also an interesting section on the now extinct dodo bird and a a feature exposition that changes regularly. Be warned that all information is offered in French, so it may be difficult to fully appreciate the collection if you do not speak the language.
Get your Shopping Fix at the Markets and French Boutiques
Along the streets intersecting rue de Paris, you will find an array of boutiques by local artisans and specialty stores offering all the finer French indulgences. There are two markets worth visiting, aptly named the small and the large. The large offers a colorful collection of souvenirs and crafts from Madagascar, while the small focuses on produce, offering an array exotic fruits, flowers and preserves targeted at locals as well as tourists. Both markets have a few vendors selling smoothies and local snacks. If you are looking for more mainstream shopping, Rue du Marechal Leclerc is the place. Along this pedestrianized road you’ll find all the name-brands, as well your more practical outlets including banks, pharmacies and optometrists. This is also a good place to take a break at one of the many cafés, or to grab a fresh samosa from the vendors on the street.
Visit the Cathedrals, Mosques and Temples
Reunion is a country with routes in Africa, Asia and Europe and there is no better way to get a sense of these converging influences than by visiting the city’s places of worship. Within the city center you’ll find the Cathedral de Saint-Denis, the beautiful grande Mosque, two Chinese temples and an intricate Tamil temple. All are within walking distance and are clearly marked on the free city map. A kaleidoscope of color and details make the Tamil temple particularly impressive, but be prepared to dress in long pants and shoes if you want to enter past the main gate.
See the City from Above
If you’re wanting a slightly different perspective, head for the mountains and enjoy the cityscape from above. Its a great way to get out of the heat and do something a little bit different after a sweaty morning of touring by foot. If you don’t have a car (as was my case) simply jump onto city bus 21 or 22 heading on the montagne route. The buses run frequently and, for under 2 euros, you are treated to some pretty majestic views. The route starts with a windy stretch of switchbacks, ascending the green hills until you’re high above the shoreline looking down at the city and the sea. The route then turns inland passing through a few quaint creole villages before commencing its return to the city. Simply stay on the bus and the full route should take you about 1.5 hours return, or jump off midway at Eglise St-Gabriel. This is where the best views end and will allow you to visit the beautiful old stone church. Grab a coffee and treat at the delicious Boulangerie Baguepi before catching the next bus down. If you have even more time in Saint Denis, there are also plenty of hiking trails that commence along the montagne route which could easily be added to second day’s itinerary.
Enjoy a Sundowner at the Waterfront
The waterfront neighborhood known as the Barachois, is where local life congregates each evening. Join the joggers and bikers on the promenade, watch a game of petanque or pop into one of the lively creole snackbars for a cold beer and creole snack next to the sea. Make sure you pause at the old military cannons to take in the view, then pop into the brasserie Roland Garros where you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported onto the lively streets of Paris, France. The atmosphere is great and the cocktails superb. If you’re not tempted to settle in for the night, you’ll be spoiled with an array of restaurant choices within this area.