My visit to Reunion Island remains a highlight of my travels. The creole music, sultry atmosphere, myriad of attractions and activities are on offer. Black beaches, white beaches, blue lagoons, aerial views. Hilltop villages, an active volcano, delicious food and rhythm of life. I wrote about things to do there: Reunion Island. Untamed Adventures on a Wild Island for Travel Update, as below.
A year ago my knowledge of Reunion Island was limited. I knew it was located in the Indian Ocean, was French in character and that I needed to get there. Especially after reading this early description by The Marquis de Mondevergue who said in 1966 – ‘Bourbon Island – as it was first known – may appear rather primitive with its mass of mountains and impenetrable forests, but there are some exceedingly beautiful places, fresh air and clean water, and such a large amount of game, fish, turtles, wild cows and pigs that anyone ought to be overjoyed at the prospect of living there…’ How right he was.
Having now experienced Reunion Island’s diversity I know it to be an adventurer’s paradise, one where the magical mix of relaxed island living blends naturally with an array of outdoor activities to satisfy the most active traveller. One feels somehow healthier here and all the locals appear to radiate fitness. The sun is hot, the water warm, the food is good and it’s as though the infectious Malayo music of the Creole people seeps into your soul on touchdown.
A Department of France, Reunion Island is found just off the coast of Madagascar and covers an area of 2500 square kilometres. It falls under French rule with the citizens holding mainland residency. They refer fondly to the Metropol when talking about France, as though it were just up the road and not a continent away. Here French is the official language and the Euro the currency. Yet despite their close relationship with France and the influx of investment that has Francophiles feeling comfortable in St. Denis and beyond, Reunion has retained its authentic island feel. Palms trees stand tall alongside trendy shops, bistros and bakeries and the local Creole spirit infect the streets with a casual multi-ethnic atmosphere, the blue waters creating a calming effect.
There is a myriad of reasons to visit Reunion Island, among them to see the remarkably preserved natural environment, to discover impressive gorges, valleys, steep cliffs and the magical waterfalls that form part of the UNESCO World Heritage site and to get up close and personal with the world’s most active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise. Here the ecosystem offers exceptional growing conditions for a range of animals and plants. There are more than 3000 endemic plant species and a host of marine wildlife in the coral reefs of the coast. A tranquil turquoise lagoon protects 25km of beachside from Saint-Gilles to Saint-Pierre and its natural beaches vary between white and black sand according to their proximity to the volcanoes. From June to September you can even see the dance of humpback whales off the coast.
Here is a look at some of the main attractions, whether it’s gentle exploration or adrenalin-pumping highs you’re after. This island invites you to become actively involved.
The Piton de la Fournaise’s eruptions are predictable and slow-flowing as opposed to the exploding volcanoes in other parts of the world. The area around the volcano resembles a stark moon landscape and you can even see how in the great eruption of 2007 the lava made its way down the side of the volcano, across the main road and into the ocean, gaining the island an additional 3.5 ha, I’m jokingly told.
The road has been re-built and passes straight through this immense field of solidified lava in the most mesmeric patterns. Amazingly in some places, it is still steaming from the heat that remains inside the lava masses. The highest point on the island is the Piton des Neiges, which soars at 3070m and has been inactive for about 20 000 years. The most dominant geological feature on the island, this is a favourite destination for hikers. Its name translates as Snow Peak and you might even find a little bit of snow dusting the top of the mountain.
As a volcanic island, the topography of Reunion is unique and craggy, with the island’s three cirques Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate each attracting travellers to their own distinctive natural formations. Created by Piton des Neiges, the volcano that gave birth to Reunion Island and further shaped by centuries of erosion, they appear as natural amphitheatres. All are worth visiting, yet a guided hike to one of the villages inside the Cirque de Mafate that is only accessible only by foot is highly recommended.
If you’re looking for nail-biting excitement while on your Reunion Island holiday, you certainly won’t be disappointed. This is the active travellers mecca and thanks to the compact size of the island, you can choose to do more than one per day.Among the options are hang gliding, paragliding, kayaking and rafting. Also the ever more popular canyoning down the Riviere de Roche on the northeast coast near the town of St. Benoit. Here the river has carved old lava flow into a canyon, with high walls on each side and tranquil pools interspersed with rapids and waterfalls that you can cascade down.
Ocean sports include boating with the choice of catamarans and luxury yachts for rent. If you prefer, climb aboard a jet ski or try your hand at water skiing or windsurfing. Most avid hikers would view Reunion Island as a premier destination for their favourite activity, with many guided and self-guided trails laid out across the fascinating terrain, well-marked to match your level of fitness.
Take to the skies
There is nothing like an aerial perspective, especially to offer an overview of the varied geography of Reunion Island. Opt for a helicopter flight with Coral Hélicoptéres or alternately you could take a microlight tour with FelixULM who operate out of Le Port. The thermal drafts of Reunion Island make it the ideal place for just about any kind of gliding sport, including skydiving. Even if you haven’t tried skydiving before, there couldn’t be a more beautiful place to make your first jump.
Dance to The Music
When on Reunion Island – Dance. Maloya is the rhythmic music on which plantation workers have been singing their joys and woes since the days of Isle de Bourbon. Today the focus has shifted from the political voice of slaves to a message of peace and hope for the environment under the guidance of legendary Creole musician, poet and activist Danyèl Waro, who is determined to keep the tradition alive.
The annual Festival Liberté Métisse or Mixed Festival of Freedom in December each year celebrates the abolition of slavery and invites all to come together on the Etang Salé les Bains beach and soak up the very rhythm. I was lucky enough to experience this last year and will always hold on to the memories of barefoot dancing and the freedom and warmth of the people.
This brings me to the premise that it is better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times. This certainly applies to Reunion Island and her uniquely evocative adventurous spirit.
My Reunion Island travel pointers
– Air Austral offers direct four hours flights between Johannesburg and St Denis on Thursdays and Sundays.- South Africans Passport holders do not need a visa to visit Reunion.
– You can hire a car and drive yourself, but as an advocate for local knowledge, I recommend you contact Tours Reunion to book a guide on a few of the days.
– Allow yourself at least a week on the ground.
– Pack for all seasons, it is very hot and humid on the coastline yet can be cool inland and on those mountains. Summer is from November to April with temperatures peaking in the high 30s. Winter from May to October is slightly milder. All year round the water temperature stays at around 25°C.
– Everywhere there are inviting beaches to be enjoyed, yet know to only swim in the safe bathing areas, as there’s a high density of sharks in the surrounding waters.
The Essential Details
- Reunion Island Tourism Board is represented in South Africa by Atout France. For more information about Reunion Island visit en.reunion.fr, follow their blog posts on blog.welcometoreunionisland.com and find them on social media.
- Read about my other visits to Reunion Island.
- I was invited by the Tourism Board to experience Reunion Island on two occasions and can’t recommend it enough as a holiday destination.