The capital Saint Denis is the main entry point and it’s a pleasant university town with sea front promenade, cathedral, museums, bars, restaurants and quaint Creole architecture. Along with its lively nightlife, there is plenty to fill a day or two here at either end of a trip.
Driving east from the capital the landscape is lush, cultivated and sparsely populated. A few roads lead to the scenic interior, including to Cirque de Salazie, Forêt de Bébour and Takamaka. Quaint villages such as Ste-Anne with its unusual church are worth a stop as is Ste-Rose. The east coast eventually gives way to the black lava flows of the active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, and here the ocean seems wild and forbidding.
At 2,631 metres above sea level, Piton de la Fournaise dominates the southeast of the island. Although currently in a quieter phase, the volcano is one of the world’s most active and is a major attraction on Reunion Island holidays. The route to the volcano takes you inland through La-Plaine-des-Cafres, a scenic alpine like plateau, and across the barren lunar-like Plaine des Sables to Pas de Bellecombe. From the car park there are a variety of hikes to the volcano rim but whichever you choose, it is always best to go early in the day when the spectacular views are at their clearest.
Nick-named the ‘wild south’ the southern area of Reunion is full of character with colourful creole style houses, the magical Rivière Langevin with its stunning waterfalls and the lively coastal town of St-Pierre. Here the seafront provides a focal point with bars, ice cream parlours and a casino. Although the town has had something of a makeover it has retained its authentic Creole roots and has a great fruit and veg market and arguably the best nightlife on the island. On the RN2 between St-Pierre and St-Joseph, Grand Anse is a stunning bay with steep wooded slopes and sand beach. It’s a lovely place for a picnic, although it can be busy at weekends.
Most Reunion Island holidays will include at least a few days exploring the cirques – Cirque de Salazie, Cirque de Cilaos and Cirque de Mafate. The climate is cooler in the mountainous interior and the small town of Hell-Bourg in Cirque de Salazie is a centre for hiking, with nature and hiking trails to cater for all levels. Waterfalls are plentiful (over 100) including the famous ‘Bridal Veil’ and there are relatively easy hikes to Les Trois Cascades and Source Manouilh. Zip-lining, canyoning (abseiling down waterfalls), horse riding and mountain biking are also popular activities in the cirques.
The Cirque de Cilaos is the driest of the three cirques and you’ll see vineyards, tobacco and lentil fields. The uphill road from St-Louis on the south coast to the charming town of Cilaos is infamous, due to its many hairpin bends (allegedly 200!). The Piton des Neiges at 3,070 metres is the highest point on the island and separates the Cirque de Cilaos and Cirque de Salazie. There are hiking trails from both cirques to the Piton. In contrast the sparsely populated Cirque de Mafate can only be reached on foot or by helicopter. If you are looking to genuinely get off the beaten track, hiking with a qualified guide is the best way to experience the beauty of remote Mafate.
While Reunion is much more than a beach destination, its west coast is a lovely spot to relax after exploring the rest of the island. Here there are over 15 miles of white sandy beaches with Boucan Canout, L‘Hermitage and Roches Noires three of the best, although these are not comparable to many of those on Mauritius. Reunion’s premier beach resort is the chic St-Gilles-les-Bains. Popular with French tourists, St-Gille is packed with restaurants, bars and cafés and has a distinctly European feel. All manner of water sports are offered from water-skiing and diving to paddle boarding and surfing.
Inland from the west coast there are some pleasant walks to waterfalls and a short drive from St-Gilles takes you to Piton Maido for one of most stunning views of the island, overlooking the Cirque de Mafate. It almost goes without saying that this land of peaks is a paragliding paradise but for those who don’t crave adrenaline pursuits, an exhilarating helicopter trip over the verdant cirques and volcano is an unforgettable treat and highly recommended.