Running around the luggage conveyor belt at Roland Garros Airport, Réunion, my almost three-year-old is having a meltdown of massive proportions. It’s almost 10pm and way past his bedtime.
We’re the only travellers left at the luggage check-out section.
Our three pieces of luggage lonesomely circulate while my child cries over not wanting us to remove them from the conveyor belt but also not wanting to let his precious luggage out of sight.
We’ve just completed four exhausting hours on a jam-packed flight with our two small children – both full of energy, but crammed into a small space in the plane. Any parent will understand the horror.
I look at my eight-month-old daughter, who has decided the situation isn’t tense enough, and has soiled her nappy just in time for her brother’s meltdown. She is on the verge of her own breakdown if I do not change, feed and get her to bed soon.
My husband is desperately trying to arrange a taxi to transport us to what would turn out to be the worst AirB&B booking ever. (We were still blissfully unaware of this approaching disaster.)
This was hour number six of what was supposed to be a relaxing two-week family holiday. What the hell were we thinking?
Lesser known than neighbouring Mauritius, Réunion Island is an exciting, interesting and varied destination. A region of France in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar, the island is a quick four-hour flight from O R Tambo International. Quick if you don’t travel with small children, that is.
Réunion is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Piton de la Fournaise, which erupts almost every year. La Volcan, as it is locally known, is the beating heart of the island.
Along with the now dormant Piton des Neiges – a 3 069m shield volcano – Piton de la Fournaise has created a coastline that is both stunning and diverse. To the west, travellers are treated to idyllic tropical beaches where turquoise island seawater splashes on the white sand and islanders bask in the sun.
Just south of that lie Réunion’s magical black beaches, created by volcanic rock.
The wild south and east boast the most magnificent waterfalls and beaches, as well as Coulee de Lave, the unbelievable lava flows from Piton de la Fournaise which run straight down into the ocean.
The infrastructure is great, most roads are world-class and South Africans do not need visas to enter the country as tourists.
The island covers 2 512m² and has more than 1 000km of hiking trails. One can hike to the rim of Piton de la Fournaise and through the forests to wonderful waterfalls or explore the region of Piton des Neiges and the mountain town of Cilaos, which is only reached by driving the bone-chilling mountain road made up of hundreds of hairpin bends.
Activities include everything from helicopter rides and paragliding to spa treatments and fine dining. There are parks for the kids and fun for all to be had. It’s an adventurer’s dream.
It’s perfect for those who love the outdoors but also those who just want to lounge next to the beach.
It’s a travel-brochure idyll that will have you pulling out your wallet and booking your tickets immediately.
That is, if you don’t decide to pack up your two small children on a do-it-yourself, no travel agent, rent-a-car, AirB&B roadtrip journey not only around the circumference of the island, but also exploring the volcanic regions. All without the official documents to legally drive in the country.
Let me explain. After we finally got the luggage removed from the conveyor belt, the tantrums quelled, the taxi called and the first night of horrible accommodation behind us, we collected our pre-booked rental vehicle. Only then did we realise my husband’s driver’s licence had just expired and that, legally, I was the only one who could drive the car.
“The car” turned out to be a seven-seater minibus just about as wide as the lanes in Réunion are.
Thanks for the free upgrade, kind rental car company, but I do not have a Code C driver’s licence. Not the most skilled driver at the best of times, I did my very best. But, after 20 minutes of trying to manoeuvre the thing out of a very tight parking spot and with both children again having a field day, we opted to take our chances with the local law enforcers.
Hubby took the wheel as we headed off to one of those idyllic beaches I was talking about – where the kids would swim and play in the sand while I sipped gin-and-tonics and watched my little family be happy.
And then the rain came, and the wind and more tantrums – because eating croissants and French bread and ham is apparently not on a two-year-old’s list of “things I have to do before I turn three”.
The eight-month-old had a go at the bread but I intervened because my Heimlich manoeuvre skills are not up to scratch.
At least the accommodation was really good, but I was constantly reminded why most parents travelling with small children head over to Mauritius for a beach resort holiday with nannies, meals included, and without having to drive anywhere, ever.
On Réunion everyone speaks French and, unless you do too, you’re going to be using a lot of hand gestures to get along. Luckily the language of baby tantrums and general family confusion is universal and locals were understanding and kind to us.
We persevered and at the slightest sight of sunshine we’d hop down to the beach and rapidly down a G&T. And we drove that bus all around the island, where we saw the black beaches and the volcano and the wild forests and beaches where waterfalls fall right into the ocean.
And my kids played on the lava flows (for a couple of minutes before one got hurt and both started crying) and ran through waterfalls and splashed in the most beautiful ocean water.
And despite all the meltdowns and both kids getting sick – with me subsequently Google-translating symptoms to a person I can only hope was a medical practitioner – and all the rain and the fear of getting caught by traffic officers, and occasionally ending up on the wrong side of the road, it was probably one of the most breathtaking destinations we’ve seen and one of the most influential family holidays we’ve had.
We returned home exhausted, exhilarated and with one conclusion: Réunion should be on everyone’s bucket list. Taking your small children on do-it-yourself vacations abroad should only be on that list if you, like us, are fans of utter chaos and adventure . . . or have unnaturally well-behaved children.
This article originally appeared in Weekend Post on 2 July 2017.