If you’re looking for something extraordinary and you need a change from the all-inclusive resorts of Mauritius, you need to put Réunion on your bucket list. The island offers visitors an astounding range of attractions. You can brave a visit to the Piton de la Fournaise, Reunion’s active volcano, or you can visit the three spectacular cirques (natural amphitheaters) which flaunt idyllic Creole villages. There are endless opportunities to relax on one of the 17 km of beaches, and if you feel like more action you can lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails. Travelstart’s Candice May recently returned from a 10 day self-drive holiday with her family and has put together her top 10 reasons why you need to make Réunion your next destination.
1. Ease of Access
Réunion is one of the overseas departments of France, but as it’s not part of the Schengen treaty South Africans can visit visa-free. It’s very accessible at about a 4-hour flight from Johannesburg. Air Austral offers direct non-stop flights twice a week on Thursdays and Sundays. Located in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and about 200 km southwest of Mauritius, the island covers a surprisingly large area of 2,512 square kilometers. The official language is French with Creole widely spoken as well. Before you go, brush up on your high-school French as besides the St-Gilles area English is very rarely spoken. The Euro is the local currency and the best time to go is late April until November when it’s cooler and drier.
2. It’s Not a “Stay-in-your-Hotel” Kind of Place
Ile de la Reunion by Aleix Cabarrocas Garcia on Flickr
Reunion is not a place where you’ll spend your days lounging around the hotel pool or munching your way through the all-you-can-eat-buffet. It’s the kind of place where you will be getting up with the birds and hitting the road to explore this magical island.
3. Easy to See the Island on Wheels
Image by 974 on Flickr
Many of the top attractions are located inland in the mountains so I’d recommend hiring a car. Don’t stay in one place when visiting Réunion- there’s so much to see! Although the island is relatively small (63 km long and 45 km wide) and has excellent roads and highways (which are very well sign-posted), when you move inland into the mountains your travel time will escalate due to the many hair-pin bends, steep hills, sheer cliffs and spectacular scenery. Petrol stations are plentiful and petrol costs about €1.60 per litre. Buckle-up because you’ll be driving on the right-hand side of the road and don’t forget to pack your International and South African Drivers Licenses.
4. Awesome Self-Drive Itineraries
Map of Reunion on Aspiring Writer
To get a good feel for the island I’d suggest at least a 7-10 night stay. With the Air Austral flight arriving just after 5pm it’s advisable to stay quite close to the airport in the capital city of St Denis for your first night. This minimises the stress of having to navigate through the rush-hour city traffic and coming to terms with driving on the right-hand side of the road on arrival. You can easily arrange a taxi or pre-paid transfer from the airport to your hotel and then have the car hire company drop your car off at your hotel the next morning. Here is a suggested self-drive itinerary which will give you a very good overall idea of the island: Day 1 St Denis Day 2 Hell-bourg (Salazie) Day 3 St Philippe Day 4 + 5 Le Tampon / La Plaine des Cafres (Volcano) Day 6 + 7 Cilaos Day 8-10 St Gilles-les-Bains
5. Picturesque Creole Mountain Villages
Réunion’s most enticing natural formations are its three cirques (Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate) which were formed inside of the “Piton des Neiges”, the volcano that gave birth to Réunion Island. These canyons attract visitors looking for adventures ranging from hiking the hundreds of kilometers of trails, to canyoning, mountain biking and for the-not-so-adventurous there’s exploring the quaint Creole mountain villages. Mafate is only accessible by helicopter or by hiking, however if you can stomach the hairpin bends there is a magnificent look-out point of Mafate a short drive from St Gilles.
Located on the edge of Cirque de Salazie, Hell-bourg is deserving of France’s “most beautiful French village” award. Visitors spend their time strolling through the town and taking photos of the enchanting Creole houses and colourful flower gardens. Treat yourself to a café au lait and a delicious chocolate and banana crepe at the local crêperie. Accessing the village of Cilaos is not for the faint-hearted. The memorable road to Cilaos is a long series of hairpin bends (420 of them) winding up for about 40 km into Cirque de Cilaos. It’s well worth the nail-biting drive as Cilaos is surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges that lend it its charm and character. You can wander the streets sampling the local lentil dishes or pop in at the local market to buy some rum and vanilla or visit the thermal baths. For the more adventurous there’s canyoning, climbing, hiking and mountain biking.
6. So Many Beds to Choose from
Goldilocks would have been thrilled with the wide variety of accommodation Réunion has on offer. I’d suggest you mix it up with high-end beach hotels and comfy middle-of-the-road country bed and breakfasts in the mountains. The bigger cities like St Denis offer 3 to 5 star hotel options (we stayed at the Mercure Creolia Ile de la Reunion with gorgeous views and a huge pool). Les Jardins d’Heva in Hell-bourg offers a 2-star mountain village experience set in lush gardens. As it’s located a short walk out of town I would suggest you choose the dinner and bed and breakfast option. Réunion offers a wide range of bed and breakfasts from which to choose, sometimes as an extension of the owner’s home. A great recommendation would be comfortable Le Rosier in the village of Pont d’Yves near Le Tampon which provides a good base from which to explore the volcano. Our stay in Cilaos was at Hotel le Vieux Cep. Although the hotel needs a fresh coat of paint, the rooms are comfortable with picturesque mountain views. There’s a huge, heated pool and it’s situated a short walk from the village. Request one of the renovated rooms with a shower. You will be spoilt for choice for accommodation options in St Gilles. We stayed at the LUX* hotel which is a fabulous, LUXurious way to finish your holiday. Boasting the biggest pool in Reunion and easy access to the coral-sheltered lagoon, the hotel is tucked away in acres of beautiful tropical gardens with its creole villas sitting in the shade of coconut palms. I would recommend having breakfast at the hotel but eating out in the evenings as there are many fabulous restaurants nearby. Boucan-Canot is a vibey beachfront strip with many eating options and the most divine ice-cream in Reunion.
7. Mouthwatering Local Cuisine
Whether you are staying at a 5 star hotel or a local gite (bed and breakfast) rates usually always include breakfast. This generally consists of coffee, tea, juice, French baguette, pastries, cheese, ham, salami, yoghurt and fruit. “Le Picknique” is a very popular Réunion pastime and there are plenty of places to picnic on the island. Lunch options range from cheap and fuss-free road-side food trucks offering whole braaied chickens, pizza and sandwiches, to the fabulous patisseries selling delicious French pastries and breads. There are also huge French supermarket chains like Carrefour and many sit-down restaurant options. The average cost of a meal at a sit-down restaurant is €18 – €25 per person. Réunion cuisine is a real melting pot of cuisines from India, China, France, Madagascar and the African mainland. The regional specialty is ‘cari’, a truly Creole dish in which many ingredients such as Indian spices, meat, poultry, fish, garlic, onion, plenty of tomatoes, turmeric, cloves and ginger are all simmered together. There is a wide choice of French and South African wines, beer and soft drinks. You can drink the local tap water but reasonable priced bottled water is widely available. It costs about €1.80 for a big bottle of water and €2 for a coke in a supermarket, though drinks in restaurants are pricier – beers and cooldrinks cost around €3.50 each.
Réunion is a very fitting destination if you are travelling with children. With its beaches, swimming pools, picnic spots and abundant choice of outdoor activities as well as healthy food options it provides a hassle free travel destination for families. Many hotels and bed and breakfasts provide an additional bed or cot in the room to share with parents at a small extra cost (some of the hotels we stayed in often did not charge us for my 11 year old daughter’s accommodation, as long as she was sharing in our room). Most restaurants have children’s menus with reduced prices. St Gilles offers a fabulous aquarium as well as the Jardin d’Eden with interesting plants, flowers and curious chameleons. Kids clubs at the bigger hotels are very small and limited and don’t provide the facilities and programs that neighbouring Mauritius does.
9. Piton de la Fournaise
Situated in the southeast corner of Réunion Island, Piton de la Fournaise is one of the world’s most active volcanoes having erupted over 190 times since first being recorded in 1640. The most recent eruption was in Februrary this year. You can view the volcano from the car park, walk to the base or if you’re feeling intrepid you can hike the two and a half hours up to the top of the volcano along a clearly-marked path. The landscape is other-worldly and feels as if you’re walking on the moon. You can also view it from a helicopter tour. It’s a major tourist attraction and volcanic activity is constantly monitored.
10. There’s Always More to Discover
Réunion provides you with the unique experience of walking underground through these impressive tunnels. They were formed when the outside skin of a molten-lava flow solidified. After a short walk from the car park along the hardened lava you will enter through a lava tunnel cave and be briefed by your guide. You’ll be given head lamps, helmets and knee pads and a fascinating 2 hour trip will begin. It’s surprisingly hot inside the tunnel with high humidity levels. The tunnel is wide but not always very high so brace yourself for some crawling. Definitely not for those with claustrophobia or back and heart conditions.
St Paul’s Market
Located on the west coast of the island and a short drive from St Gilles, St Paul provides the weekly setting for one of the most fascinating street markets in Réunion. Open all day on Friday as well as on Saturday mornings, dozens of stalls are set up on the seafront esplanade selling an array of goods including arts and crafts, basketwork, hats, homemade bread, exotic fruit, jewelry and clothing. Be sure to check it out.
This is where you will find Réunion’s premium sunbathing destination. It’s a 20 km stretch of lagoon with beautiful golden sand, rare for an island where most of its sand is of the black volcanic variety. Scuba diving, deep-sea fishing on charter fishing boats, snorkeling and swimming are some of the many outdoor activities you can do at St Gilles. A 1 hour drive from St Gilles is Le Maido which offers a panoramic view of Cirque Mafate.
Take a Helicopter tour
Corail Helicopters offers 8 sight-seeing helicopter tours ranging from 15-55 minutes at a cost of €95 – €320 per adult. There are 2 bases – one at St Pierre and the other at St Gilles. With six passenger seats this helicopter tour gives you the unique opportunity to view Réunion’s dramatic scenery and landscapes from the sky. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnETIG4DiIE