Travelogue Reunion 2: Saint-Gilles

SAINT-GILLES

28 Dec 2018 – 01 Jan 2019

As far as roadtripping goes, we’d thought Ireland took the cake for Country With Most Manageable Drive Time Between Cool Things. Reunion was going to give that a run for its money when Day 1 was the transfer from the capital, St Denis, to beach town, Saint Gilles, totalling 43km… Including passing through 3 little towns en route!

That said, it can still be a white-knuckle experience thanks to the left-hand drive car, driving on the wrong side of the road and quite narrow roads at that. Even the main N1 and N2 are narrower than we’re used to. But it seems like a solution is in sight based on the mammoth bridge / fly-over that’s in the making in the ocean close the shore running more or less from St Denis to La Possession.

We were delighted at our first sightings of the next few days’ home as we rounded a bend and there it was! The sunny seaside town of Saint Gilles. Picture-perfect and every cliche in place as we took in the main road with its restaurants, shops, patisseries and boulangeries. Like a little French Margate.

Our digs were even more of a delight when we discovered that we’d been assigned a little standalone bungalow, complete with our own stoep, a dressing room (they called it a second bedroom) and, best of all, aircon.

Our host, Jacques, welcomed us in his very best English, which was a translator app that he spoke into in French, then pushed a button and it returned the translated equivalent in a posh English accent. Well, in Polynesian the first time, but that was easily remedied with a setting adjustment and a giggle.

Jacques (and his English Lady) told us where to find the best local amenities – everything was close by – and recommended a few must-do places. He also advised, by way of itinerary-planning that we have a local beach, a beach 1km down the coast, a beach 1km up the coast and another beach 6km up the coast.

As soon as he was gone, we put on our swimmers and headed for the beach down the coast, L’Hermitage.

We didn’t economise on the walk to the beach, checking a few of the recommended locations en route, taking a wander past the harbour so we could see where our Plongee (dive) shop was and generally enjoying the no-need-to-hurry-anywhereness of it all.

The beach itself was a bit disappointing. Quite gravelly sand and with a coral reef starting virtually from the shore, lots of rocks and stony bits to contend with on your way into the water. The water itself though was Azure blue, crystal-clear and bath-warm, so once we were in we were quite happy to bob around and, obviously, being South Africans, watch our bag on the shore.

We also people-watched and based on the lack of shore front accommodation (holiday or otherwise), the smattering of tents and the generous allocation of picnic tables under the trees just off the beachsand as well as the general demographic, we reasoned that this must be a locals’ beach. We hadn’t gone far enough along it to get to Saint Gilles’ only 5* resort and we’re curious to see what that was like. Another day.

For now it was time to get home for a sundowner, which was a couple of Phoenix beers we acquired from the hole-in-the-wall bottle store at the end of our road, creatively named Night Shop since it was only open (all) nights.

We pored over the tourist maps and books that Jacques had left for us and plotted our next few days. We also debated dinner since we weren’t wildly hungry, but had to eat.

We headed into town with no particular intention and wandered past a double storey cafe that caught our eye so we stopped and had a fantastic seafood wrap and chips, sitting on the top storey to admire the view of Roches Noires, the local beach Jacques had described as up the coast.

SATURDAY

Allocated as our day of exploring by car, Saturday started with a visit to the famous beachfront market in neighbouring Saint Paul. Mostly fresh produce and souvenirs, the market makes for an excellent breakfast-on-the-go, snacking as stalls catch your interest.

We were barely into the market before we had a bag of assorted samoosas to work through – pizza, smoked cheese and curried fish fillings among our favourites. We sampled the fresh strawberries and nibbled on some sweet pork strips as we marvelled at the unfamiliar tropical fruits and how different ordinary veg like onions and bananas looked.

Without any specific shopping to do (and we had no intention of cooking on this holiday, despite our bungalow being fully equipped), the market is a quick excursion, so we rounded off the outing with a quick whip around St Paul’s centre; a neat grid of a couple of narrow roads in either direction.

Hot and sweaty and ironically motivated to get back into the car (for the aircon), we began our drive up to Maido, the highest point on the island.

Only 29km away, but an hour’s drive because of the narrow and winding roads to get there, we could not have picked a worse time to do the excursion. Having read of its sometimes freakish microclimate, we didn’t believe it until it happened to us. Having left blue skies and 30+ degrees behind us, we had pouring rain halfway up the mountain and finally arrived at the top as the last of the cloudcover swallowed what we’d read to be the spectacular view! The mist was unbelievable, billowing like it was being generated by a smoke machine. And, insult to injury, it was 17 degrees, according to the car’s thermometer.

Determined not to waste the drive up, we wandered around the “view” points, in our shorts and flipflops, in contrast to our counterparts passing through the spot from the many hiking trails in the area, all appropriately attired with hiking boots, anoraks and most with those multi-functional wrap things that can be headbands or scarfs depending how you wrap them.

True as Bob, on the way down we passed through the same belting rain and we’re greeted with the same blue skies sunny day at the bottom again. Odd.

Fortunately, even a failed excursion isn’t enough to dampen spirits and the West Coast of Reunion is much like our beloved Eastern Cape coast in that there’s always something else worth doing. So we set the car toward Boucan Canot (the “6km up the coast” beach that Jacques had told us about) to see what we could see.

And what we saw was a holiday-makers paradise. Waterfront of restaurants and cafés, facing golden sands and warm waters.

The red flag was up, restricting swimming to the area of ocean cordoned off with orange buoys. Being such a proverbial drop in the ocean on the busy beach, it made for quite a concentration of bobbing heads. But the vibe was good and it was a great cool-off for a couple of hours after a day’s sightseeing.

Back in our own neck of the woods, we dropped off our car and walked down to Roches Noires for sundowners and to test it as a possible location for our New Years Eve festivities. We were nice and early so got a primely located table right at the water’s edge.

Sipping on ice cold local Fisher beers, we watched as the sun went from being low in the blue sky to turning the horizon orange before slipping away completely. A very nice way indeed to spend a(nother) couple of hours doing nothing!

With evening upon us, we headed back up to the main drag and tried a few spots closer to home. We managed to tick off another destination on our Guinness Index, at Chez Nous where they serve 33cl bottles for a hefty €6. Not for sissies either; it is brewed under licence in Mauritius and is weighty 7.5% alcohol!

SUNDAY

With our dive booked for 1pm that afternoon, we wanted a light and easy morning so took a drive 16km down the coast to St Leu to get a spot of breakfast.

We were getting accustomed to the roads and subjected to the slightest of traffic since we were based at the far end of St Gilles, closest to the direction we were headed for the day.

Arriving in St Leu we drove down the high street to get a lay of the land and then circled back to the start of the town to repeat the exercise on foot, walking along the beach and back through the town.

There were cafes dotted along the beachfront and we stopped at one of the huts, Les Filaos, to get some breakfast.

Breakfast had had us very confused. There seemed to be no “eggs and bacon” style plated options; rather, breakfast was a visit to the Boulangerie for some fresh crusty bread or a pastry or two. We had even tried to order a sandwich to fit in with the crusty bread theme and were told it was too early.

Fortunately, Les Filaos seemed a bit more relaxed and gave us a sandwich (a massive baguette slathered with creamy butter and layered with lovely ham) – hardly surprising since they were serving other patrons beers and Chardonnays and it was barely 10am.

Wonderful setting for a breakfast and we engulfed the view as much as our crusty brunch.

To balance our rebellion with local custom, we visited a Boulangerie in town and got a pain au Chocolat to nibble on as we walked through the little town and back to the car.

With everything so close together, our urban time management kept getting us ahead of schedule and the time we’d budgeted to drive home, drop off the car and walk to the Marina was way more than we needed an ended up at the dive shop almost an hour early. We were offered coffees while we waited (in that heat!) but opted to take a wander around the quay to the beach and back instead.

Back at the shop we had a heart-stopping moment when the dive shop couldn’t find my PADI accreditation on line… Which would have meant I would not have been able to dive! But they found me on the website and it turned out to be a Case of The Missing Initial and all that had started questionably was well.

We were required to set up our own gear so it was fortunate that Christian had so recently completed his dive course and was still fresh on the “what goes where”. The dive master checked out gear, assigned us as buddies and paired us with Jerome and Anais as his group. He also briefed us that we would be doing the Canyon route up and down the natural dales in the coral.

The boat travelled no more than a couple of hundred metres out and we plunged into the blue blue sea. We were to be exploring the far side of the coral reef just off the shore where we’d been complaining about the coral underfoot on the L’Hermitage beach on our first day’s exploring.

The water was crystal clear and like a bath so an absolute pleasure to dive in. We could see everything – lots of coral, bright fish, octopus and 3 sting rays! – and were light on oxygen, not needing as much to keep warm. We did 48 minutes at around 18-20 metres under water.

By the time we were back on pier, we were starving so it was a quick wash of the gear (no helpers to do that for you here!) and we were off like a shot to the Sandwicherie on the corner of our road.

La Salsa Du Pain had been sending wafts of freshly baked bread up to us since we’d arrived and was always busy, so was a Must Do on our itinerary. This was the perfect opportunity.

We walked the short way around – amazing how much smaller this town was, now that we had a proper lay of the land! – and ordered a tuna sandwich because, well, it was the only thing we recognised from what was left in the display.

As dumb luck would have it, it was delicious. As all sandwiches we’d experienced, it was a massive baguette loaded with creamy filling and crunchy garnish. Oh, and the reason it was so busy wasn’t actually the life-changing baked goods, it was the betting window it shared a space with. As we were trying to find a peaceful spot to engulf our breaded bliss, there were locals peering round us trying to grab snatches of the Trots on the screen behind us!

Not really the dulcet sundowner experience we had in mind as the setting to our reverie of the day’s memorable events. So we trotted ourselves up our driveway and enjoyed home-sweet-home on our cosy little deck.

Heading our for dinner we tried the main square. With a row of restaurants that had been quite shut in the off-hours we’d passed them, our curiosity was piqued. Hardly surprisingly, we were drawn to the pizza/pasta restaurant and it felt double serendipitous that we were offered a table in the busy restaurant while we reviewed the menu at the door with Google Translate.

We had a fabulous breakfast pizza (yay for something being bacon and eggs, even if it was dinnertime) and a salmon lemony with homemade tagliatelle. Yum!

MONDAY

As our last full day in Saint Gilles, we had a lot of experience and research behind our plan for the day. And it was perfect. Another blue-skies-sunny-day (which is all this island paradise seems to have, unless you’re trekking up to Maido) and snorkelling at La Salle Les Bains.

Rated to be the best snorkelling on the island, all you had to do was put on mask and snorkel and fall into the sea because the coral started about a metre in and the water was, obviously, crystal clear.

Jacques had given us snorkelling and beach gear, so we drove the 13km down the coast to La Salle Les Baines plage, followed Google Maps to a Sandwicherie, ordered a Poulet baguette and Hot Dog Gratiné like pro’s, stuck our brollie in the sand and flopped in the water with our snorkels like we owned the place.

It was everything the reviews described. What makes an average swimming experience is quite something else when it comes to snorkelling. The rocky bed becomes the view, the shallow waters become the vantage point and the stillness becomes the playground for the wildlife. We saw loads of fish and I really wish I knew more about our underwater friends to make this account more interesting; needless to say, there were big ones and small ones, stripy ones and spotty ones, and a small shoal of big silvery white fish with whom I attempted to school, but they weren’t having any of it.

It was a baking hot day (same as every day) so we were grateful to have our borrowed brollie to huddle under so we could prolong the doing-nothingness on the golden sands without being chased away by the sun.

Aware that it was New Year’s Eve and we hadn’t booked anywhere (everywhere was fancy multi-core set menus that cost a mint) we headed home to get showered and changed to opportunistically grab a sundowner somewhere and see where the night would take us.

We started at trusty Roche Noire and finally succumbed to the rooftop bar, La Nouvelle Vague, overlooking it all, which Christian had resisted thus far based on its direct exposure to the setting sun, which clearly was as a direct result of it being the best vantage point by far to see that very setting sun. We played musical chairs so much trying to trade off the sun and the sunset that even the barman teased us about getting our value for money!

Oddly, at 6 on the dot he booted everyone out and closed up shop. Lots of places were already closed, which struck us as very strange for a New Year’s Eve in a beach holiday town. Still spoilt for choice, we made a night of it with a circuit of the town, stopping in whenever took our fancy and had the most unexpectedly magnificent dinner to round off 2018; a proper steaky mouthful of a cheese ‘n bacon burger at a biker-themed bar called Burger 66.