Everyone’s heard of Mauritius haven’t they. But Reunion Island? Where pray tell is that? The French have kept this little secret to themselves. To the east of Madagascar and a mere 120 miles southwest of the well-known Mauritius, the dinky island of Reunion is an overseas department of France and offers everything your adventuring, tropical isle, beach-loving, sun-worshipping soul could wish for.
As a student of French at Bristol University, I leapt, soaring through the air, at the opportunity to spend part of my year abroad in this nook of paradise. Thanks to the ERASMUS programme, I even got paid for my troubles. When I ventured to La Réunion back in 2004, the only way to get there was via Paris and I believe the same is still true. On the flight, shortly before arrival the pilot informed us that the volcano was erupting – my fellow Erasmite and I took this as a sign of good things to come on this little lump of land mass, bubbling away quietly in the Indian ocean.
An island of intense extremes, superb surf, dramatic landscapes, a melting pot of cultures and a blend of quintessential French with Creole, Reunion is worthy of many more guide book column inches than it currently receives. I hope it stays this way, as a destination with a deep-seated air of mystery.
There isn’t a huge amount written for English-speaking tourists about what to do on the Island, so I’ve put together a list of my recommended pick of things to do on Reunion Island:
1. Bathe at waterfalls, Bassin Aigrettes (near St Gilles les Bains)
The waterfalls are hidden away from the road and half the fun is in finding them. Wind and wend your way alongside waterpipes, shimmy under gratings, feel your way through dark tunnels and squeeze yourself against crannies of rock until you reach the spectacular basin of iridescent emerald water. When we visited, water was in short supply, so the falls weren’t in full flow. However there’s great jumping to be had if you’re brave enough! A beautiful spot to chill out.
2. Visit a live volcano!
The Piton des Fournaise – meaning ‘Peak of the Furnace’ in French, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and conveniently deposits its lava flow into the sea, out of human harm’s way (the area in uninhabited), creating a stunning fiery spectacle as a result. A drive to the volcano feels like an inter-planetary exploration. Climbing above the clouds towards the sun, civilisation disappears and the red earth stretches out Mars-like, cratered and desolate before you. A small gite offers a base from which to begin your early morning trek (note to self – take food! We had not thought of this small life necessity, but thankfully managed to scrounge and beg from other guests!). It’s a fairly easy hike to the cone-like mass in the distance and the views from the top into the crater are immense.
3. Go on a Randonnée! Get your hike on
Rolling with hills and volcanic landscapes, crawling with valleys, steep rocky cliffs that drop sharply into the ocean and white sandy beaches, Reunion Island is bursting with scenic hikes (1000km worth). The Cirques de Cilaos and Cirque de Mafate offer some of the best aside from the volcano. Navigate tiny mountain roads to find forests, canyoning expeditions, views from coast to coast, thermal pools, iron-oxide coloured water attractions, flowers and greenery.
4. Party the night away
Without a doubt, St-Gilles-les-Bains is the party town of the island. This is where we based ourselves as residents for 5 months… Cocktail bars filled with giant fish tanks, fresh sushi, delicious restaurants serving creole dishes (I highly recommend giving the Poulet Cari a whirl). No trip to St Gilles is complete without a visit to the iconic creole boulangerie, Chez Loulou selling yummy bitesize treats, classic French pastries, cakes and sandwiches – nibble on maciatas, samosas and battered crab claws – dreamy!
At sundown, (around 6pm every night), the beach fills with residents keen for an after-work surf, or simply to watch the sunset. Grab a tequila sunrise edged with dessicated coconut, deliciously sweet rum arrangé, or a dodo beer at a beachside restaurant, some bouchons with soy sauce or a galette from a beachside stall and join in.
Street parties are a recurring feature and it’s not uncommon for the main street to be closed for the evening for big celebrations – my favourite was Grand-mère Kal, held around halloween. Tales of spirits are a strong theme amongst locals, this festival celebrates this legendary character, associated with the volcano, slavery, and supposedly married to the devil.
If it’s dancing you’re after, there are several clubs nearby, dancehall nights are put on regularly. Menfolk beware, depending on the night, women often go free whilst boys can be asked to stump up to 15 euros.
5. Be extreme
Reef surfing, body boarding, canyoning, paragliding, deep sea fishing, jet skiing are all on offer for those of you yearning for something extreme to do in stunning surroundings.
6. Surf – NO DON’T SURF!
Since I wrote this piece, I’ve been made aware that surfing and boogie boarding on Reunion Island has been banned due to an increase in shark attacks. Although it’s a massive shame, i’m sure you’ll agree, it’s probably best to avoid those gnarly waves for the time being if you want to avoid being eaten. According to various sources, plans are afoot to cull around 90 sharks in the area. Ignore this ban and you face a fine. See the Surfer Mag website for more info.
What I had previously written (from my time on Reunion Island in 2004)…No wetsuits needed! You might want to get some reef boots however, depending on how experienced you are…Likened to a mini version of Hawaii, Reunion Island consists mainly of reef breaks and sea urchins line the seabed. I should know – I destroyed my feet and board on both regularly. If you’re up early enough, you’ll have the waves to yourself and on blissful occasions the odd sea turtle may even join you. Look out for the odd shark… The best breaks? My favourite was a fairly chilled, beginner/Intermediate-friendly patch of waves directly in front of our apartment in St Gilles Les Bains – where ridiculously good kids tore it up and old geezers oozed cool hanging ten on their giant longboards. For the advanced, the world-class, famous lefts of St Leu await.
7. Take a Road trip
Don’t make any plans and see where the open road takes you! There is only one motorway which goes around the edge of the island with smaller roads leading off inland. You can drive around the entire island in under half a day, so make stops willy nilly, as your fancy takes you and explore the island at your own pace. Stop at tropical gardens, scenic coastal spots to watch the waves crash, impressive bridges, ornate churches…