#OnTheRoad On Instagram: Reunion

reunion

This week on Instagram, Gadling is off to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

The Indian Ocean bridges Africa in the west and Southeast Asia and Australia in the east. Much less familiar to Americans than Europeans, the region’s islands challenge the Caribbean for the attention of upscale Europeans, and can lay claim to some of the world’s dreamiest properties. Some of its countries, like the Comoros, are very poor; others, including Seychelles and Mauritius, can be found at the top of Africa’s per capita income tables.

Most popular among French-speaking tourists, Réunion is a French overseas department whose closest neighbor is Mauritius. Like Mauritius, Réunion is a true creole hodgepodge of a place, with a melting pot population; unlike Mauritius, it boasts a volcanic, mountainous interior so dramatic that it is often likened to Hawaii.

I’m here for the hiking, the mountain villages, réunionnaise cuisine, the tropical fruit and the heat. It’s been an interminable, wet, gray winter and I want to warm up. I’ll be sure to pass along some warmth to you.

Do you have any photos you’d like to share with a wider audience? If you mention @GadlingTravel in your own photo AND use the hashtag #gadling, your photo will be considered for our Photo Of The Day.

[Image: Flickr | Aleix Cabarrocas Garcia]

Overseas France: Or Where You Can Find France Outside Of France

The days of colonial empires may be long over, though the United States, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Denmark continue each to administer a smattering of overseas territories.

Among these, France has arguably the most interesting and wide-ranging set of territories. Overseas France includes tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland (population around 6,000), the Caribbean overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the smaller Caribbean “overseas collectivities” of St. Martin and St. Barts, the South American overseas department of French Guiana, the Indian Ocean overseas departments of Réunion and Mayotte, and French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Wallis & Futuna in the South Pacific.

Officially, overseas France is divided into “overseas departments” (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion), “overseas collectivities” (French Polynesia, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna), and New Caledonia, which has a special status unto itself.

There are also two uninhabited French territories – a vast, noncontiguous territory with the grand name of Territory of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, inhabited only by researchers, and, most curious of all, the uninhabited island of Clipperton, which sits off Mexico and is administered directly by the Minister of Overseas France.

Tourism is a huge economic driver in many of these territories. St. Martin, St. Barts, and French Polynesia are particularly well known to Americans. Francophone tourists are also familiar with the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia, and Réunion.

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[Flickr image via Rayced]

Round-the-world: Mauritius & a trip status report

Originally, we’d scheduled five nights in Mauritius and four nights in Réunion. Mauritius would be devoted to the beach and the ramshackle capital of Port Louis, while our time on Réunion would prioritize hiking and the quaint villages of the interior. This, at any rate, was the plan.

Réunion was the one pesky piece of the itinerary that stubbornly resisted advance planning. Every attempt to nail down a gîte or hotel in one of Réunion’s inland calderas failed. My email requests for room availability were either returned with regrets or ignored outright. Our sources (Lonely Planet; the French civil servant and his wife, previously resident on Réunion, who we met in New Caledonia; the French women we met on Mauritius) suggested that we should rely on a tourist office on the ground to make reservations. This prospect seemed fine with me but didn’t exactly thrill Matt.

Our informants also told us that, in light of infrequent bus connections between the airport and the inland calderas and the extortionate taxi fares, we’d probably need a car. (Ordinarily, we would have inquired with our hotel regarding a transfer, though this was not an option in light of our inability to snag a reservation.) The hardy French women we met in Mauritius detailed their exquisite week-long itinerary over breakfast one morning. It involved hiking from gîte to gîte through the mountains. “You see nobody for half the day. It is like you are alone on the earth,” one of them said. That sort of isolation, with a simple bed and a home-cooked meal at the end of every hiking day sounded like a perfect holiday.

We weighed all this information against our existing itinerary. We had a limited amount of time (nine nights) set aside for these Indian Ocean islands, after all, and the thought of more fully exploring Mauritius struck us as more appealing than the alternative. In addition, the idea of returning to Réunion on a later occasion and doing it properly, hiking across the island’s trails and staying in countryside gîtes, seemed preferable to a more rushed visit.

So, after much conversation, we decided to remain on Mauritius for the entire nine nights. Our guest house in Mauritius had room for us for the entire period, and we were able to cancel our refundable Mauritius-Réunion round trip tickets on Air Austral, albeit with a penalty.

Mauritius was full of surprises from the beginning. It was mercifully cheap, for one, a huge relief after the staggering prices in Australia and New Caledonia. Mauritius is a culturally extremely diverse place, with Hindu, Christian, and Muslim adherents in evidence throughout. The majority of the population is of Indian descent, and Mauritius is ethnically diverse across the board, with Creoles of African ancestry and small percentages of Chinese Mauritians and Franco-Mauritians completing the puzzle. It’s not a rich country by North American standards, but it’s relatively well off, typically ranking in the top five or six African countries in terms of per capita GDP.

Mauritius is one of only eight countries that belongs to both the British Commonwealth and the Francophonie, and its first language of Mauritius is French Creole. We found that most Mauritians reached for French before English when interacting with foreign visitors, and most newspapers were in French as well. The French influence saturates many spheres of life on Mauritius. One example is culinary. Although curries are a menu staple, food is generally quite mild.

We spent our time exploring Port Louis, the capital, Pamplemousses Gardens, the southern quarter of the island, and the east coast up to the town of Trou D’Eau Douce. It was a fantastic week and a half. Stay tuned.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

How to take a round-the-world trip

An open-ended round-the-world trip can be led by whimsy and happenstance and benefit accordingly from extremely loose planning. A more structured, time-limited round-the-world trip necessitates figuring out transportation in advance. With five weeks to play with, we fell into the latter camp.

I emailed AirTreks in the spring and dutifully submitted an itinerary through their global map booking request system. AirTreks prices round-the-world itineraries, for fares well under what one would pay for each individual stretch.

Around this time, we made another decision, one personally radical. We would fly business-class the entire way. Such a choice certainly isn’t unusual for many frequent fliers, but for a budget traveler like myself who travels in coach barring those rare times I’m upgraded or am flying on someone else’s dime, this was a big shift in approach. This choice amplified the unusual nature of the itinerary, underscoring the fact that this trip wouldn’t be repeated or emulated anytime soon.

Once we nailed our itinerary down and decided to go with business-class tickets the entire way, we requested a new estimate from AirTreks. Then Matt started to play with the oneworld Explorer round-the-world booking engine. This is where things got interesting. The oneworld Explorer fare was several thousand dollars cheaper than the AirTreks fare.

There was really no decision to make. Even our patient AirTreks consultant urged us to go for the oneworld fare. We made the purchase. Though shockingly expensive by my own personal standards and customary budgetary constraints, the entire journey in business-class turned out to cost a few hundred dollars more than a single first-class round-trip ticket from New York to London.As far as subsequent planning is concerned, things have been pretty low-tech. We’ve got a handful of guidebooks (all Lonely Planet, though this is simply an accident of timing and availability) and a few downloaded iPhone apps, which I’ll comment on if they turn out to be at all helpful.

Other planning focused on the tips of friends and acquaintances. My sister, a food writer, recommended some Sydney restaurants. Melbourne chef Tony Tan, who I’d had the good fortune of meeting on my previous visit to Melbourne, passed on a must-visit list of new Melbourne restaurants. A friend of Mauritian background provided contact information of a villa rental company with beautiful properties that were simply too expensive for our budget. The exchange that followed didn’t help us with accommodations, but it did allow us to clarify our focus for Mauritius.

For hotels we scanned our guidebooks for mid-range accommodations and then searched online to get a general sense of how hotels were reviewed. I’ve always taken TripAdvisor with a massive grain of salt, as I’ve found on several occasions that I don’t mind the sorts of hotels pilloried by TripAdvisor contributors. But we did use TripAdvisor this time as a kind of quality control verification source. In one case, we nixed an otherwise appealing hotel choice based on a number of reviews that suggested an ongoing cockroach infestation.

We poked around online to find low rates at good hotels. In both Sydney and Melbourne, location was the key consideration. In Sydney we wanted a central neighborhood, and we ended up with a boutique hotel in Potts Point booked through Venere. In Melbourne I lobbied for a stay in St. Kilda, an area I remembered very fondly from my last visit. There we found a furnished studio apartment.

For our single night in Johannesburg, we decided to stay in a guesthouse in Sandton, a Johannesburg neighborhood with good restaurants. In New Caledonia, Mauritius, and Réunion, we focused on well-priced guesthouses and hotels in areas beyond built-up coastal tourist strips. In London, we opted for the Hilton in Canary Wharf because we found a good deal for it on Hotwire. The most expensive nightly rate we’re paying for a hotel is $165. The least pricey is around $82.

We made most of our hotel reservations in advance, leaving a few nights free in New Caledonia (to give us some freedom if we decided to change accommodations) and Réunion (a by-product of our inability thus far to find an inexpensive guesthouse in one of the island’s inland Cirques, or calderas.) We wanted to put logistics to bed as completely as possible in advance. More open-ended itineraries would probably benefit from fewer advance reservations.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Vinni123)

A round-the-world trip: Where?

Once I’d dispensed with my unrestricted fantasies of scurrying from seldom-visited corner to seldom-visited corner (see Monday’s post) we got down to the essentials of figuring out where we wanted to go.

The Micronesian islands of Palau and Yap were our first priorities. Both destinations had been on our radar for years. Palau with its faintly stinging marine lake jellyfish and the Federated Micronesian state of Yap with its enormous stone money both struck us as appealing in a magical, fairytale sort of way.

Once we’d identified our trip duration and got into the planning phase, however, the inclusion of Micronesia on our itinerary became a less appealing prospect. The flights there and onward were long. We’d need to overnight in Guam at least once, possibly twice, and though that wouldn’t be a hardship exactly, we wanted if at all possible to avoid layovers in places where we wouldn’t also be spending several nights.

The final clincher was the cost of zipping around Micronesia, which would have made an unavoidably pricey itinerary even more expensive. If we had been planning a round-the-Pacific tour, there is no question that Palau and Yap would have been included, but for a round-the-world trip they weren’t quite right. Reluctantly we crossed Micronesia off the list.Where else did we want to travel? We’d settled into a Southern Hemisphere focus, and we were keen to get back to Australia. We both wanted to visit Sydney and Melbourne. For a jaunt to a third city in Australia, Matt had made noises about Cairns and I focused on Perth. The inclusion of these two cities would have made a round-the-world air ticket even more complicated (more on that on Friday) so we dropped them and decided to divide our time in Australia between Sydney and Melbourne.

Years of thinking about Palau and Yap had us fantasizing about a Pacific island and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit one. We glanced across the region and zeroed in on a Pacific territory easily visited from Australia: New Caledonia, a French overseas “collectivity” three hours by plane from Sydney. We decided to sandwich six nights in New Caledonia between stays in Sydney and Melbourne. In New Caledonia we would spend most of our time on Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands, with a day reserved for checking out New Caledonia’s capital, Nouméa.

Beyond that, we wanted some time on Mauritius and the French overseas territory of Réunion, two Indian Ocean islands. To journey from Melbourne to Mauritius we’d need to break our rule against short layovers with a single night’s stay in Johannesburg. We’d then divide nine nights between Mauritius and Réunion, which is a short 50-minute flight from Mauritius.

From Mauritius we’d fly to London, where we’d spend the final days of our round-the-world itinerary visiting friends and exploring various East End neighborhoods.

Without further ado, here is the full itinerary: New York (via a stop to visit friends in New Orleans) to Sydney to Nouméa to Melbourne to Johannesburg to Mauritius to Réunion to London and then home to New York.

Seven stops in five weeks. After five years of daydreaming, it’d hard to believe that it’s now happening.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Eustaquio Santimano)