During your holidays in Réunion Island, there might be good chances that you will be staying in a hotel in the region of Saint-Gilles-les-Bains which forms part of the commune of Saint-Paul. Spread over an area of 241.28 square kilometers, this beautiful commune is the third biggest of all towns inside France’s territories. It extends from the North-West coast of the island up to the summit of Gros Morne, at a height of 2990 meters and its population is of more than 103000 inhabitants, the Saint-Paulois.
It was in its bay that the first French settlers of the island set foot on the 29th of June of 1642. Saint-Paul is thus the most ancient commune of the entire island. For some time, Saint-Paul was also the capital of the island.
Nowadays, you can still find one of the places where the first settlers stayed: the cave of the first settlers, also known as the cave of Bernica. This cave, which measures more than 369 meters is a well-known touristic spot of the region. According to legend it was there that the first settlers found refuge from the weather after first setting foot.
The commune thus has a rich history, something which makes it a very interesting place to visit during your holidays in Réunion Island. Among the places that you will be able to visit you’ll find: the marine cemetery, La Part des Anges distillery, the Saint-Gilles Beach Resort, the street and craft markets, the Villèle Historical museum, l’Eperon craft village, the Réunion Aquacium, the Saint-Paul Marshes, the Maïdo forest road and the underwater walkway of Ermitage.
The marine cemetery
If you’re interested in the history of Saint-Paul, the marine cemetery will also be interesting to you. The cemetery is located at the South entrance of Saint-Paul on the road to Saint-Gilles and exists since 1788. You can see it has a rich history as evidenced by the graves of the first settlers of the island and those of the old influential families of the commune like the Panon, the Debassayns, the Desjardins or the KerAnval… and even people like Erasme Fueillet, a famous poet named Leconte and the graves of several pirates who once sailed across the Indian Ocean like La Buse. Near each grave you will find a short description of their lives.
La Part des Anges distillery
Even though Réunion Island only has three rum distilleries, there is also another one in the commune of Saint-Paul that makes its beverages from exotic fruits and not from sugar cane juice. La Part des Anges distillery is located right in front of the Vue Belle municipal pool at Saline-Les-Hauts. There, you will find fine spirits of the Sublim’ brand that are made from carefully selected fruits such as mangoes, litchis, bananas, pineapples, guavas or tangors which are a crossbreed between tangerines and oranges.
This distillery, which belongs to Céline and Ludovic Maufras, gets its name from the expression used to describe the perfume of the alcohol emanating from the distillation of exotic fruits: La Part des Anges. One hour tours of the factory can be arranged on appointment and are held on Thursdays and Fridays, for a fee.
The Saint-Gilles Beach Resort
The Saint-Gilles Beach Resort is an important touristic area of Réunion Island. A large quantity of quality hotels and villas can be found there. Long ago, it was just a small fishing and agricultural village located on the lands of the powerful Desbassayns family. The development of Saint-Gilles really took off with the construction of a road linking it to Saint-Paul in 1863, then with the construction of the railway which revolutionized transport in and out of the city. Rich families came to bathe there, often on doctors’ prescriptions. Since the development of modern roads in 1963, the majority of islanders go there on a regular basis.
From the port of Saint-Gilles you will be able to enjoy the majority of nautical activities that are available in Réunion Island like exploring the seabed, scuba diving, big game fishing, surfing, going on boat trips, sailing, jet-ski, kayak etc…
Another touristic attraction of the city is its small red train, named Rosalie, which will take you on a journey across the historical landmarks of the city of Saint-Gilles.
The street and craft markets
You will surely want to purchase some souvenirs on your visit of the region of Saint-Paul during your holidays in Réunion Island. Thus you will need to visit its street and craft markets.
The market of Saint-Gilles-les-Bains is open every Wednesday morning in the town centre. There, you will not only find handicrafts made locally or imported from Madagascar but also fruits, vegetables, local cakes, coconut-flavoured ice creams, etc…
The grower’s market is held on the theatre’s parking every Sunday morning and is the perfect place to savour and buy fruits and vegetables grown locally. At the Mail de Rodrigues market in Ermitage, you’ll be able to buy organically grown fruits and vegetables and to discover other locally-made handicrafts.
The Villèle Historical Museum
If you’d really like to see an old colonial house that once belonged to one of the richest landowners of Réunion Island ever since its colonization, you must go on a tour of Villèle historical museum. This museum is located in Saint-Gilles-les-Hauts and is installed in an old house which once belonged to the Desbassayns and Villèle families.
The Debassayns family came to Réunion island from Toulon and was once one of the most powerful and rich families of Réunion Island. It was raised to nobility in 1815, obtaining the title of baron and then the title of count in 1827. The property was acquired by Henri Paulin Panon upon his return from the Seven-year war after the surrender of Pondicherry in India. He was then named Desbassayns to distinguish him from his brothers because of the presence of basins on the property that he inherited from his grandmother. However, after his death in 1800 his wife became the central figure of the property. In 1841 she ordered the construction of the Chapelle Pointue, a small church that you must absolutely visit during your trip in Saint-Gilles-les-Hauts.
L’Eperon handicraft village
At l’Eperon handicraft village, you will find the best in local handicraft: jewellery, clothes, ceramics, stained glass, pottery, decoration, toys, etc… This handicraft village was set up in 1978 in an old sugar estate. It’s the best place to hang out and chat with the local artists. You will also be able to take courses in pottery, drawing and painting with the local artists.
The aquarium of Réunion Island
The aquarium of Réunion island is located on the central islet of the pleasance port of Saint-Gilles-les-Bains and holds about 600 000 litres of sea water. It opened its doors in 2000 and has a collection of 500 fishes and more than 200 marine species. It also conducts scientific research on marine life. During their visit, children will be able to listen to whale songs and learn to recognise corals, plankton, sharks and marine mammals with the aquarium’s mascot named Polype. The aquarium is open from Tuesday to Sunday and admission is paid.
The Pond of Saint Paul
The Pond of Saint Paul is a historical site and a nature reserve that is very important to the people of Réunion Island. The first settlements were constructed near the pond in 1648. Many remains bear witness to its long history, like the old irrigation canals or the old water mill which dates back to 1820. The site also harbours several indigenous species of the Réunion Island such as moorhens, Malagasy doves and “papangues”, among others…
Picnics, walks, kayak, bicycle and train tours are organised near the pond.
The Maïdo Forest Road
The Maïdo forest road and the neighbouring area are prized attractions for hikers and tourists. This region of the higher part of the commune of Saint-Paul owes its name to the neighbouring mountain: the Pîton Maîdo which rises above 2200 meters and dominates the circus of Mafate and its islets. There, you will find a primeval forest that harbours more than a hundred animal species and ninety species of plants.
The most athletic will be able to practice a variety of sports such as all terrain biking, quad, summer sledging, or hiking. You will also be able to find essential oil distilleries there as well as mountain abodes and tables d’hôtes.
Ermitage undersea walk
The lagoon and the coral reef of the region of Ermitage now form a protected natural reserve that harbours more than 3500 species. During your holidays in Réunion Island, it will be possible for you to literally immerse yourself in that luxurious environment and to discover its fauna and flora by going on an undersea walk. However you will have to bring your own diving fins, masks, snorkels and diving suits.
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