Monday, 9 March 2015

Second Chance & Second Chance Sister: book review


Once again Reunion Island is the setting for romantic fiction in Second Chance and its sequel Second Chance Sister. I believe the author, Linda Kepner, originally wrote them as one book, but that the publisher preferred to publish as two stand-alone books in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Ms Kepner lives in southern New Hampshire and has worked as a librarian, researcher, and editor, and has also written science fiction and fantasy novels as well as short stories for magazines and anthologies. 

cover of Second Chance by Linda Kepner

The story: At East Virginia University in 1969, Bishou Howard is a female Yankee graduate student in a Southern man’s academic world. Her parents are ill, and she and her brother Bat (a retired Vietnam vet) are raising their younger brothers and managing the rest of the family almost by themselves. Because of her French-Canadian background as well as her tight budget, Bishou accepts a job as an interpreter for an attendee at a university conference. Louis Dessant, a French-speaking visitor from Reunion Island, is an attractive, wealthy, lonely, and somehow vulnerable tobacco millionaire. (SPOILER: He has a dark secret in that ten years previously he fell in love with the beautiful con artist who had - unknown to him - killed the mail-order bride he had actually arrange to marry on Reunion and who taken her place. After Louis allowed his bride access to both his personal and company bank accounts, she disappeared with his fortune. Louis found her again in mainland France and killed the private detective who was tracking them; his wife committed suicide. He was sentenced to 7 years hard labour for the detective's murder). As Bishou unravels the secrets of Louis' life, she feels drawn to him, the people who staunchly support him, and the beautiful island he calls home. Bishou takes the risk and travels halfway around the world to see Louis’s tropical island. Will Bishou be welcome there, or has this all been a mistake?

cover of Second Chance Sister

In the sequel Louis and Bishou are together on Reunion. Louis struggles to return to a respectable place in island society and atone for his past sins. Bishou Howard, deeply in love with Louis, diligently works her way into the all-male bastion of the University as its first female professor. Bishou’s brothers travel to Reunion for an exotic, joyful wedding. However, Adrienne Bourjois has not forgotten that Louis was affianced once before, to her little sister Celie - who was betrayed and killed on her way to marry him. She has neither forgiven nor forgotten that Louis fell in love with the wrong woman, and killed a man to protect the impostor from justice. But Adrienne has not reckoned with the sincerity of Louis, the determination of Bishou, or the strength of Bat Howard to vanquish her bitter loneliness.

As works of romantic fiction the books follow all the typical criteria: virgin heroine meets handsome, rich, older but damaged hero, they fall in love and there's a happy ending. They are pleasant enough to read and you know what to expect: the question is not 'will they get there?' but 'how will they get there?'. However a number of points irked me: French is used quite frequently but there are lots of mistakes ('embracez-moi'  or 'mon treasor' etc. etc.) although unlike Island Awakening, at least the author didn't assume everyone spoke English. There are also some genuine mistakes (mangoes in September anyone?!); other mistakes that may be plot devices for further sequels (an American ambassador based on the island); or cultural or geographical mistakes that come from the author never having visited Reunion (the author says here that "[the Reunion] part of the story was part internet and part imagination").

What she fails to mention anywhere is that in fact the story very obviously takes its inspiration from the 1969 François Truffaut film "The Mississippi Mermaid" (La Sirène du Mississippi), itself based on the novel Waltz into Darkness by Cornell Woolrich writing under the pseudonym of William Irish. Here's a synopsis of the film: a tobacco millionaire on Réunion island, Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo),  becomes engaged through correspondence to a woman he does not know. When his bride Julie Roussel (Catherine Deneuve) arrives she is not the same woman as in the photo she sent, but he marries her anyway after she explains that she had forwarded a picture of a friend instead. After Louis allows Julie access to both his personal and company bank accounts, she disappears with most of his fortune. Heartbroken and bitter, he tracks "Julie" down in the south of France, where she reveals her real name, to be Marion. She professes that she fell in love with Louis, and he believes her. They try to make a life together in France, but a private detective whom Louis and Julie's sister, Berthe, had hired to find Marion, tracks them down to a house they have rented. Louis finds himself compelled to murder to keep Marion from prison, forcing them to go on the run. Does it sound familiar? Some major details (e.g. Louis, a tobacco millionaire on Reunion Island in 1969 whose mail-order bride is not the woman he expected) as well as a multitude of minor ones indicate that the novels have more or less been written as sort of sequels to the film.* While this doesn't particularly bother me, my question is - why not state this outright in the acknowledgements? Did the author think this was such an obscure Truffaut film that nobody would recognise the similarities?! Why thinly disguise some resemblances (such as the names of everyone but Louis) and leave others the same?

French theatrical release poster

* The main difference being that at the end of the film the characters, on the run, head hand-in-hand for Switzerland where they will be safe. For Second Chance to work the first wife had to be dead, hence the novel's plot point of her having committed suicide and Louis having done jail time to atone for his crime.


Further reading:


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Sunday, 1 March 2015

Cité du volcan museum

The Cité du Volcan museum re-opened in August 2014 after several years of refurbishments. It tells you everything you need to know about Reunion's Piton de la Fournaise in particular, and volcanoes in general.

Exterior of the Cité du Volcan

It's located in Bourg-Murat, the small town where most of the eating and accommodation options are to be found nearest the volcano.

Exterior of the Cité du Volcan

Initially opened in November 1992, its existence is largely due to the French volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, who had studied La Fournaise closely. They both died in a pyroclastic flow in Japan in 1991.

Exterior of the Cité du Volcan

It used to be known as the Maison du Volcan until 2011 when it closed for refurbishment. It reopened on August 5th 2014.

multi-sensory  lava tunnel, entrance to the Cité du volcan

Covering 6200m2, the new museum includes a 4D cinema, a 270°C auditorium screen, and has innovative and interactive features such as holographic projections, augmented reality, wide 'multitouch' surfaces, and audio-visual environments.

one of the exhibition rooms

In a bathyscaphe the colonisation of underwater lava flows is explained, including how a lava flow becomes a coral reef and the birth of living organisms.

one of the exhibition rooms



part of the Piton de la Fournaise timeline

A large part of the exhibition lets you explore Reunion island and its geological and geographical features, including the island's birth, more than 3 million years, up until the present day.

a copy of the first-ever map of Reunion

Other parts let you seen the human effect the volcano has had on the island, and explores the legends surrounding it.

exhibition room about the Volcano observatory 

The Cité du Volcan is one of four museums operated by the Regional Museums of Reunion group. The others are Kelonia, Stella Matutina and the MADOI.

exhibition room about the Volcano observatory 

The museum is open every day (apart from Christmas Day, New Year's Day and May 1st) from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. The ticket office closes at 4:45 pm.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Under the volcano - visiting Reunion's lava tubes


Fancy visiting the bowels of the earth? Crawling under a volcano along tunnels that were still molten magma just over a decade ago? This is what you can do when you visit Reunion's lava tubes.

Looking out to sea from the starting point

Although lava tubes are located all over Reunion, access to most of them is to be found in the island's south-east, in an area known as Le Grand Brûlé. This is where lava sometimes flows from the Piton de la Fournaise into the sea.

ʻAʻā lava to the left, pāhoehoe lava to the right

The particular lava tube that we visited dates from a 2004 eruption, eleven years ago. I believe that is the most recent lava tube in the world that can be visited by the public. Reunion's lava tubes are also fairly unique in that they are easy to access and show a large variety of geological forms. Elsewhere in the world lava tubes can be found in Iceland, Azores, Canary Islands, and the USA.

Tree bark imprint on lava

Although some people visit the tubes by themselves, it's highly recommended to go with a professional, which is what we did. We had been asked to wear trousers and closed shoes, and he equipped us with gloves, hardhats, headlamps and optional elbow and knee pads. Our meeting point was at the nearby Vierge au Parasol: the statue of a madonna holding a blue parasol. According to legend a local farmer placed this statue in his fields, hoping his crops would be protected from destruction by the volcano. Following an eruption he found that although lava had flowed through his fields the statue had miraculously been spared. 

Vierge au parasol (source)

Our guide, a trained speleologist, told us he knew of 22 entrances to the lava tube we were visiting that day; however we only used two - one to get in and one to get out!

Lava tube entrance 

We opted for the 3-hour 'discovery' visit, which covers about 1.6 km (1 mile). The same company also offers a 5-hr 'classic' and a 6-hr 'sporty' visit.

Inside the entrance looking out

A lava tube is a natural conduit formed by active low-viscosity lava which flows beneath the hardened surface of a crust or roof of lava. 

walking down the tube

When the supply of lava stops after an eruption or if lava is diverted elsewhere, lava in the tube system drains downslope and leaves partially empty, long, cave-like channels beneath the ground.

walking down the tube

Lava stalactites and stalagmites are known indifferently as 'lavacicles' and form in lava tubes while lava is still active inside. The formation of lava stalactites happens very quickly in only a matter of hours, days, or weeks, (whereas limestone stalactites may take thousands of years to form). A key difference with lava stalactites is that once the lava has stopped flowing the stalactites cease to grow, so if the lavacicle is broken it will never grow back.

shark's tooth-shaped lavacicles

We saw several examples of what is called perimorphosis, which occurs when an object, in this case a tree trunk, leaves an empty cast in volcanic flow.

example of perimorphosis

The lava sometimes leaves peculiar shapes, such as a dodo; at one point we even saw what looked liked a giant slice of chocolate cake!

does this look like a shark's head to you?

can you see a lion's head, complete with mane?


A rare characteristic that can occasionally be seen is lava pillars. Lava pillars are hollow inside, forming a pipe-like channel between the bottom and the top of a lava flow. 

A small lava pillar

The tube was always wide, but sometimes not very high. Most of the time we could walk along it normally, but not always. I'm 5'1" and reasonably athletic so I never had to go down on my hands and knees (if necessary I moved forward using an ungainly squatting position!) but some people preferred crawling. At a few places our guide indicated alternative narrow side tubes that the thrill-seekers in our group could wriggle along.

crawling along a narrower alternative route

It was surprisingly hot inside the tube (more or less the same temperature as outside, so high 20s°C), and the humidity level was high too (100%).

wall detail

In several places we saw thin roots of vegetation hanging down.

wall detail

If it rains it only takes about 30 minutes for the rain to filter through into the tube, and it can take up to three weeks for it to stop dripping afterwards.

roof detail

One of most memorable moments was before turning back, when we all sat down and turned off our headlamps. We found ourselves in complete and utter pitch darkness, which is something you realise you very rarely experience ...

roof detail

After a fascinating morning we were nevertheless happy to be back in our natural element - with natural light and fresh air!

Bois de rempart trees are the first endemic species to colonise a lava flow after an eruption

Note that visiting the lava tubes is not recommended for claustrophobics or people with heart, breathing, knee or back problems.


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Thursday, 5 February 2015

February 2015 volcano eruption

For the first time since June 2014 Reunion's Piton de la Fournaise volcano started erupting at 11am yesterday, February 4th. Here are some great photos taken by Olivier Lucas-Leclin from a 2,274 m summit called Piton Bert.

© Luc Perrot (source)

La Fournaise is one of the world's most active volcanoes, and this is its 12th eruption in 11 years.

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

The eruption is located on the southwestern side of the main crater.

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

© Olivier Lucas-Leclin (source)

Since 1980 the average length of an eruption has been 20 days.

© LR Photographies (source)

Here's a video from Imaz Press Reunion:


And here's a NPR radio report from Emma Jacobs, an NPR reporter currently in Reunion.

@Fabrice Wislez/Frog 974 Photographies

You can see live webcams of the volcano here.

UPDATE: the eruption came to an end late on Sunday 15th February.



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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The best of romance in Réunion

Whether it’s Valentine’s Day or any other day of the year, Reunion has plenty to offer when it comes to celebrating love. How about one (or several!) of these options:

1) Lux hotels have won awards for ‘Most Romantic Hotel’ several times, and LUX* Ile de la Réunion faces a shimmering expanse of aqua-blue waters, fringed by a stretch of immaculate sands. In this well-appointed hotel you can renew your vows on the beach, or enjoy a couples massage under a garden bower facing the sea…

2) Also located on the west coast, Le Cap, the restaurant of the four-star Boucan Canot Hotel, offers an intimate dinner under a gazebo, near the swimming pool and overlooking the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean… Perfect for a dinner tête-à-tête with a loved one.

3) Reunion is not just about beaches, its highlands are beautiful too. Enjoy a few nights staying at the Lodge Roche Tamarin at La Possession surrounded by 15,000m2 of tropical vegetation, or the intimate Le Dimitile Hotel at Entre-Deux, where an 18th century Creole house has been integrated into the hotel structure.

4) There’s something very passionate about volcanoes – it must be all that hot bubbling lava. Reunion has one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and while you won’t be able to visit it when it erupts, what about a champagne picnic on its summit when it’s not? Pack a bottle along with a baguette, some cold cuts and French pâtés, a little tropical fruit and you’re all set. By the way, did you know champagne has more bubbles at high altitude?

champagne at the summit of the volcano!


5) What about a helicopter flight over the island or a sunset cruise? Reunion’s two helicopter companies both offer a variety of flight tours, and Le Grand Bleu offers a 90-minute cocktail cruise daily.

6) Romance doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, but it might cost some effort! After a hard day’s hiking, waking up the next day in a comfy double bed in a Mafate B&B and seeing the whole of the mountainous cirque spread out at your feet really takes some beating. For some great views while still lying in bed try the Gite des Trois Roches in Marla!

And if you want to whisper sweet nothings in your valentine’s ear try ‘mi aime aou’, which means ‘I love you’ in Reunion Creole!


P.S. If you can't make it to Réunion what about reading one of these romance novels set on the island:

  • Dead Sexy by Kathy Lette (a "satire on the sex war")
  • Island Awakening by Lynne Martin (romantic fiction)
  • Second Chance Sister by Linda Kepner


  • A version of this post was originally published on the Welcome to Reunion Island blog.


    Sunday, 25 January 2015

    48 hours in Barcelona

    I was lucky enough to spend  three nights and two days in Barcelona earlier this month - my first trip to Spain. 

    our rented flat was in this building

    We rented a flat in the Poblo Sec neighbourhood of the city, and our first trip was to see Barcelona's most famous symbol - the Sagrada Família.

    view of the Sagrada Família

    outside the Sagrada Família 

    As this was January I believe we were lucky as we didn't have to queue to get in - friends who have visited during the summer later told us there was 3 ½ hours of queue!

    Nativity facade 

    Sagrada Família is a large Roman Catholic basilica designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Construction began in 1882, and Gaudí became involved in 1883, although when he died in 1926 (struck by a tram) the project was less than a quarter complete. Concerning the extremely long construction period, Gaudí is said to have remarked: "My client is not in a hurry." Work was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936, but has been carried on by various architects since 1940.

    entrance door detail - each insect is different 

    Unlike many other places of worship the Sagrada Família, which was consecrated by Pope Benedict in 2010, is filled with light inside. While never intended to be a cathedral (seat of a bishop), from the outset the Sagrada Família was planned to be a cathedral-sized building. 

    inside the Sagrada Família

     Construction is expected to be completed by around 2026- 2028.


    inside the Sagrada Família

    There are three facades: Nativity (to the east), Passion (to the West) and Glory (to the South). The latter is yet to be completed.

    sculpture depicting the Kiss of Judas on the Passion facade 

    The Plaza Monumental de Barcelona is a former bullring, the last bullfighting arena that was in commercial operation in Catalonia. It was inaugurated in 1914 and expanded in 1916. It was the last place in Catalonia where bullfights were held, since in 2010 the Parliament of Catalonia passed a ban of bullfighting events that came into force in 2012.

    Plaza Monumental (former bullring)

    Architect-designed telecommunications tower
    on Sants-Montjuïc

    Statue of a music hall performer who died 50 years ago,
    Raquel Meller, still adorned with fresh flowers.

    colourful Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) are everywhere

    Palau Güell is a Gaudi-designed mansion built for Catalan tycoon Eusebi Güell between 1886 and 1888. 

    part of the facade of Palau Guell

    The next day we started by visiting the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona, which was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries.

    interior of Barcelona Cathedral

    The cathedral is next to an interesting part of Barcelona known as the Barri Gòtic or 'Gothic Quarter'. Many of the buildings in the area date from Medieval times, some from as far back as the Roman settlement.

    'Barcino' was the Roman name for Barcelona

    During the 19th century the city government installed a one-way system for horse-drawn carriages in the narrow streets of the Gothic quarter. Signs said entrada or 'entrance' at one end, and salida ('exit') at the other end, so you were not allowed to enter a street from the end marked salida, only from the entrada end.

    'entrada' sign on a street in the Old Quarter

    modern sculpture, Plaça Nova square

    After the Cathedral we headed to the beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana, or Palace of Catalan Music.

    upstairs balcony, Palace of Catalan Music

    This concert hall was designed in the Catalan modernista style by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and was built between 1905 and 1908 for the Orfeó Català, a choral society.

    stained glass skylight in the concert hall

    The concert hall, which seats about 2,200 people, has been described as one of the most beautiful in the world, and is the only auditorium in Europe that is illuminated during daylight hours entirely by natural light. In a semicircle on the sides of the back of the stage are the figures of 18 young women popularly known as the muses (although there are only nine muses in Greek mythology). The monotone upper bodies of the women protrude from the wall and their lower bodies are depicted by colorful mosaics that form part of the wall. Each of the women is playing a different musical instrument, and each is wearing a different elaborately-designed skirt, blouse, and headdress.


    some of the muses at the back of the stage

    Our final visit was to Park Güell, a park system composed of gardens and architectonic elements designed by Gaudí for Eusebi Güell.

     view from Park Güell

    Entrance to the Park is free but there is a fee to visit the 'monumental precinct' (main entrance and the parts containing mosaics).

    Mosaic salamander (also known as a dragon) designed by Gaudi

    From the entrance a twin flight of steps rises, where the famous salamander or dragon can be found. The most popular image of the park, it is covered with decorative tile-shard mosaic. 


    Park Güell at sunset

    There are many other places we could have visited (Picasso Museum, Joan Miro Foundation, La Pedrera etc etc) but time was short, so we had to choose just a few places. We still have plenty more left for another trip!


    Suggested reading:
    • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón