Restaurant du Vieux Pont, 12390 Belcastel (00 33 5 65 64 52 29; www.hotelbelcastel.com). One Michelin star. Menus about £15-£40; a la carte menu £25-£30. Doubles from £45. Closed Sunday dinner, Monday and Tuesday lunch, 1 January-15 March he ravine wall drips like a leaking tent. Large pendulous drops of diamond-bright rainwater plop from the shoots and branches overhanging the steep path and I am soon wet from head to toe. It is warm, though, and after a few minutes I can no longer tell whether the sheen of moisture painted over every inch of my body is rainwater or sweat. Ahead of me. the path is well marked but roughly hewn, and it can be treacherous for unwary hikers, who are regularly plucked from these slopes by mountain-rescue helicopters. I am climbing the wall of the volcanic caldera, the Cirque de Cilaos, one of three spectacular craters at the centre of Reunion.
So steep and inhospitable is the approach to these craters that in the 18th century they were a refuge for runaway slaves, desperate to escape the harsh conditions of the spice and sugar plantations that thrived along the coastal plains. Cilaos, like its neighbour Salazie, is reached by a road that bends and twists, curling around the deep ravines in a wrist-numbing series of gear changes. Cirque de Mafate, the third and most mysterious crater, is still accessible only on foot or by helicopter. These three craters sit side by side like the chambers
in a heart. There is a fourth crater, too, the active volcano Piton de la Fournaise, but it is displaced towards one end of the island where it periodically spews molten lava towards the east coast.
Sandwiched between Mauritius and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, Reunion is 9,600km from Paris. And, in spite of the 11-hour flight from the capital, there is no denying Reunion’s resolutely French identity. It is underlined by small but unmistakable cultural clues, such as the way virtually every other passenger in the arrivals hall at Roland Garros airport lights up a cigarette with a sigh of relief underneath the ˜No Smoking’ sign. Reunion’s identity has been solidified by its modern-day status as an overseas departement of France, its inhabitants descended from colonists, former slaves, Indian and Chinese traders and les Grands Blancs, the white planters. These aristocratic landowners arrived in the 17th century when the island was still a proud royal possession called lie Bourbon, a potential supplier of spices and victuals for the French merchant navy on the trade route to India.
I am heading for the rim of the crater, to the spot known as Coteau Kerveguen, a ridge approaching Reunion’s highest peak, the daunting 3,000-metre Piton des Neiges. At 1,830 metres, and still 40 minutes’ climb from the top of Kerveguen, the air is fresh and the surrounding mountains are draped in cloud. Wild strawberries peep from the greenery at my feet and I taste their juices as I climb. Small finches, called tec-tecs, watch me from the trees that cling perilously to the mountain. The branches above me are decorated with wispy beards of green moss as thin and stringy as angel-hair pasta. Underfoot, I must take care not to slip, or to stand on the toads with liver-spot-brown skin that hop among the rich leaf mould. After an hour I am breathless and pause to rest. There is perfect tranquillity here, and the sun begins to break through the morning mist. Gradually, the surrounding peaks
Cirque de Cilaos, one of the three vast craters that surround the island’s highest peak, Piton des Neiges, with Cilaos village below come into view, their cloud cover melting as the day warms up. To my left I can see Le Bonnet de Pretre, a mere 1,675 metres high, while 300 metres below all of Cilaos is laid out before me.