Reunion Island, that tiny piece of France in the Indian Ocean, is diverse in many ways. For a small island, it features a variety of scenic landscapes, mostly formed by aeons of volcanic activity. We hired a car and spent a week circumnavigating the island to see what Reunion had to offer.
My trip started in Saint Denis, the capital, in the north of the island. The first thing that struck me was the pretty French colonial buildings in the “city”. Between that, the excellent road infrastructure, EU number plates and the spoken language, you would not be mistaken for thinking you were on mainland France (except the tropical air and tall palms remind you otherwise). Reunion, is indeed a French overseas territory. Fortunately, visas aren’t required for South Africans.
I didn’t saunter too long in Saint Denis and headed for the mountains. Or rather a caldera (a volcanic depression known locally as a cirque) that formed a long time ago. Cirque du Salazie was the first of these calderas that we visited, and is adorned in lush forests and cascading waterfalls. A small town, Hellbourg, at one of the peaks, makes for a good break or for the start of some adventure sports, hiking and mountain biking. Back at lower altitudes, there are two waterfalls in scenic settings that are worth visiting – Bassin de la Mer and Bassin de la Paix. Black volcanic rock contrasts with the sprays of white and the surrounding tropical green forest.
After skirting the coast with its sugar plantations, and stopping at some beautiful picnic spots (especially Cayenne outside Saint Rose) we turned inland. The road ascends to The Plains, the countryside with its rolling fields. Some of the tasty Brie cheeses are made here. Accommodation choices are rather limited, so booking in advance is recommended. The reason for staying here is to get an early start the next morning to visit the raison d’être, the volcano.
Piton de la Fournaise, is the only still active volcano on the island and is popular with tourists. It’s advisable to get there early as the clouds and wind tend to roll as the day progresses, hiding the incredible view. The volcano put on a show as recent as September 2016, although there is enough advance warning through monitoring to make it a safe visit. Heading to the volcano, one passes through a national park (like all their parks, there’s no entry fees payable), with scenic vistas and a multitude of hikes. At the end of the road, there’s a view of the Piton and some smaller craters. The hike to the volcano is about 4 hours return, and the weather can change dramatically within minutes. The closer you get to the volcano peak, the more desolate the surroundings, yet there’s still beauty in it. Lava flows that cooled and solidified make for spectacular shapes.
The Cirques are no longer active volcanoes, and are much lusher by contrast. I mentioned Cirque du Salazie already. The other popular one is Cirque du Cilaos, which we visited. It’s a scenic drive on sometimes narrow roads to get there. It’s also popular for hiking (or relaxing or strolling through the village at Cilaos). If you’re pressed for time, then at least do the short hike to the view point at Roche Merveilleuse. You’ll get a panoramic view of the Cirque around you as well the prominent Piton des Neiges, the tallest peak in the Indian Ocean (at 3000 odd metres).
(The last of the calderas, Cirque du Mafate, is only accessible by foot, making it perfect for overnight hikes. With my limited time, this one was not on my itinerary.)
Read on for more about our trip to Reunion Island as we explored the beaches of this tropical island.