After a long-haul flight, you step off the plane and you’re greeted with a bonjour. Then you breakfast on croissants and chocolat chaud (hot chocolate).
At first glance, Réunion is like a chunk of France teleported to the tropics. But beyond the Gallic panache, you’ll soon realise it’s a resplendent tapestry, which also blends Indian, African and Chinese influences.
Jutting out of the ocean like a basaltic shield cloaked in green, Réunion is a mini-Hawaii, with astounding geographical diversity. Within an hour or two, the landscape morphs from lava fields to lush primary forest, from jagged peaks to sprawling coastal cities.
The West is Réunion's Riviera, a long string of beach suburbs and resorts towns, including glitzy Boucan Canot.
Mapa Isla Reunión
Saint Denis, Reunión
Some say Boucan Canot (the final ‘t’ is pronounced), dubbed the Réunionnais St-Tropez, is très branché (very hip) and fashionable. We think it’s parvenu and pretentious. But hey, after (or before) roughing it in the Cirques, a whiff of pose and glitz doesn’t do any harm. Whatever your verdict, bring your designer sunglasses in this attitude-fuelled little resort town.
The obvious focus here is the beach. It’s been listed as one of Réunion’s best, and once you get a glimpse of the gentle curve of the bright white sand, lined with palms and casuarina trees and framed with basalt rocks and cliffs, you’ll see why. It gets packed on weekends. Caveat: currents can be strong.
Since the good old days of the sugar industry ended, forward-looking St-Leu has transformed itself into a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. This is the place to get high – legally: no doubt you’ll be tempted to join the paragliders who wheel down from the Hauts to the lagoon. Scuba divers swear that the drop-offs here are the best on the island and surfing fiends rave about the tremendous Gauche de St-Leu.
And culture? St-Leu has a smattering of handsome stone buildings dating from the French colonial era, such as the mairie (town hall) and the church opposite. Other attractions are the shady park along the seafront and a protected beach that is popular with families.
St-Leu is also optimally placed for explorations of the coast and forays into the Hauts.
Francophiles will feel comfortable in St-Denis (san-de-nee), the capital of Réunion. Except for the palms and flamboyant trees to remind you that you’re somewhere sunnier (and hotter), St-Denis could be easily mistaken for a French provincial enclave, with a flurry of trendy shops, brasseries, bistros, and boulangeries (bakeries). Mmmmm…those little pains au chocolat (chocolate-filled pastries) will linger long on the palate!
With most of Réunion’s tourist attractions located elsewhere on the island, most visitors only stay long enough to book gîtes de montagne (mountain lodges), pick up a few tourist brochures and rent a car before dashing off to more magnetic locations. But St-Denis warrants more than a fleeting glance. Scratch beneath the French polish and you’ll soon realise that the city also boasts an undeniably Creole soul, with a portfolio of delightful colonial and religious buildings and a casual multi-ethnic atmosphere.
St-Giles les Bains
Robinson Crusoe–style beaches and pristine wilderness, oh no no! The tourism machine shifts into overdrive in the large resort complex of St-Gilles and L’Hermitage (as they are usually known), with white sands, restaurants, nightclubs and a boisterous atmosphere on weekends. St-Gilles and L’Hermitage are where the real action is, if by ‘action’ you mean pretty beaches, pretty people and pretty dreadful hangovers. During the week, however, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and you shouldn’t have to fight for a space to lay your towel. There are numerous water activities on offer, from diving to deep-sea fishing. The surf here isn’t bad either; many amateurs hone their skills in St-Gilles before attempting the more challenging swells at St-Leu.
Let’s be frank: it’s got that generic resort feel and there’s no discernible Creole character. Those travellers seeking traditional Creole flavour might come away slightly disappointed.
Don’t get us wrong, though: plenty of people do enjoy themselves in St-Gilles, and it’s a great place to meet Zoreilles from every corner of, well, France. But if a beachfront full of Gallic passers-by isn’t your thing, here’s the antidote: clunk your safety belt, jump on a serpentine country road and drive up to some rustic and authentic villages in the Hauts!
Saint Gilles les Bains, Reunión
Lively if not jaw-dropping in beauty, Réunion’s second-largest commune after St-Denis deserves a quick stop if you’re into history. It’s also an obvious transit point if you plan to reach Le Maïdo by public transport.
Most tourists who do come here visit the bright and well-kept Cimetière Marin, the cemetery at the southern end of town. It contains the remains of various famous Réunionnais, including the poet Leconte de Lisle (1818–94). The cemetery’s star guest, however, is the pirate Olivier ‘La Buse’ Levasseur (The Buzzard), who was the scourge of the Indian Ocean from about 1720 to 1730, when he was captured, taken to St-Paul and hanged. People are still searching for the location of La Buse’s treasure in Mauritius, Réunion and the Seychelles. The grave is marked by the pirates’ trademark skull and crossbones.
Make sure you save energy for the animated market on the seafront promenade. It’s held all day on Friday and on Saturday morning. With its heaps of local vegetables, fruits and spices, it makes for a colourful experience.
Cilaos is ensnared by scenery so mind-blowingly dramatic it’s practically Alpine. One word says it all: Piton des Neiges (3069m). The iconic peak towers over the town of Cilaos, acting like a magnet to hiking fiends. But there’s no obligation to overdo it: a smattering of museums, a slew of underrated vineyards, regenerative thermal baths and plenty of short walks mean this incredible dose of natural magnificence can also be appreciated at a more relaxed pace.
The largest settlement in any of the Cirques, Cilaos sits 1200m above sea level. Developed as a spa resort at the end of the 19th century, the town’s fortunes still rest on tourism, particularly hiking and canyoning, backed up by agriculture and the bottled mineral-water industry. The area is known for the production of lentils, embroidery and, increasingly, palatable red and white wines.
Cilaos fills up quickly on weekends. But despite its popularity it manages to stave off changes that would detract from its appeal as an ‘ecotourism’ destination – there are no massive hotels or blaring discos, only low-key, small-scale operations. Enjoy it to the hilt.
Cirque de Cilaos
The setting couldn’t be more grandiose. Think snaggle-toothed volcanic peaks, deep ravines and forests that are straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. At times, swirling banks of cloud add a touch of the bizarre. A sweet sprinkling of secluded hamlets top off this area’s indisputable ‘wow!’ effect.
Thrill-seekers, rejoice: the Cirque de Cilaos is the mother of all canyoning experiences on the island, with three iconic canyons that are set in some of the most impressive scenery in Réunion. Hiking is also extraordinary. Another pull is the smattering of well-priced hotels and B&Bs.
To get here, clunk in your safety belt and take a deep breath: the RN5, which connects St-Louis with Cilaos, 37km to the north, is Réunion’s premier drive (and that is saying a lot!). Snaking steeply around more than 400 twists and turns along the way up into the amphitheatre, it provides vista-point junkies with a steady fix.
Circo de Mafate, Isla de Reunión
Cirque de Salazie
If you need a break from beach-bumming and want to cool off in forested mountains, head to the Cirque de Salazie. Like the Cirque de Cilaos, the Cirque de Salazie has bags of natural panache, with soaring peaks, soul-stirring vistas, thundering waterfalls, tortuous roads and a spattering of rural hamlets thrown in for good measure.
The winding mountain road that slithers into the Cirque from St-André on the northeast coast offers awesome views and is reason enough to make the trip. Yet the prize at the end of it is golden too: with its Creole colour, Hell-Bourg is the crowning glory of the Cirque.
The Cirque de Salazie is a bit ‘flatter’ (although ‘flat’ is not the first word that will spring to mind when you see it!) than the Cirque de Cilaos, but the scenery as you approach is nearly as awesome. The vegetation is incredibly lush and waterfalls tumble down the mountains, even over the road in places – Salazie is the wettest of the three Cirques.
The wild South
where the unhurried life is complemented by the splendid scenery of fecund volcanic slopes, occasional beaches, waves crashing on the rocky shoreline and country roads that twist like snakes into the Hauts. In both landscape and character, the south coast is where the real wilderness of Réunion begins to unfold. Once you’ve left St-Pierre, a gentle splendour and a sense of escapism become tangible. The change of scenery climaxes with the Grand Brûlé, where black lava fields slice through the forest and even reach the ocean at several points.
The Wild South has charming treasures and enough elbow room to make it special. A car is the ideal way to cover the region, but it’s possible (if not expedient) to get from town to town by bus. It’s a great area to sidle down for a few days, ditch your guidebook (but not your map) and poke around, but don’t tell others where you’ll be!
Welcome to Réunion’s Sunshine Coast, or Réunion’s Riviera, or the leeward coast. However you label it, say hello to this 45km-long string of seaside resorts and suburbs running from St-Paul to St-Louis. Truth is, there’s a bit of a Groundhog Day feel about this series of getaways along the RN1, and tourist development has got a little out of hand to the south of St-Paul. But this region does have a wealth of developed tourist facilities and attractions, including the best of the island’s beaches (which is not saying a lot). It’s an easy introduction to Réunion, but traffic jams on the coastal road go pretty far toward shattering any illusions of a tropical paradise.
Sea, sand and sun are not the only raison d’être on the west coast. There’s also a superfluity of activities on land and sea. Big surf breaks issue a siren’s call to surfers, steep drop-offs tempt divers, spectacular slopes beckon mountain bikers, while paragliders soar over the lagoon.
But while the west is synonymous with beach culture and traffic snarls, it also contains the antithesis to these. In this most populous, most visited region there remain hidden corners of untouched wonder, where you can soothe your soul. Despite the new, monstrous Route des Tamarins that zips along the flanks of the mountains down to Étang-Salé-les-Bains (due to be completed in 2009), it’s easy to leave behind the coastal hedonism and explore the glorious hinterland and its bucolic offerings – think sugar-cane fields, lush orchards, geranium plantations and cryptomeria forests swathing the slopes of the mountains, studded with character-filled villages that retain a palpable rural air. Oh, and charming chambres d’hôtes where you can retreat in homely comfort.
With the exception of St-Louis and the Hauts (hills), this region is predominantly Zoreilles (the name used in Réunion for people from France) territory and feels closer to mainland France than South Africa.