I’ve just returned from 10 days on Réunion Island with friends and I’m so excited to share this post and my experience with you, mainly because I now know that I knew nothing about Réunion. What I know for sure is South Africans have made assumptions about Réunion based on anecdotes and inaccurate information in bucket-loads. Okay, so Réunion has only been marketing itself to the African continent for 4 years which is nothing in brand years, so they’ve got a long way to go and will indeed get there as more people travel to this majestic island and inspire others. I really hope I do it justice, because it deserves it.
What I need to state off the bat is this: Réunion is not Mauritius’ poor little cousin. It’s bigger, and better in its own unique way.
There’s this gross misconception (and full disclosure, I was in that camp too until now) that Réunion is rural, under-developed and more like Madagascar. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Réunion Island is a Department of France and is considered a French region; this status means the island is fully funded and supported by France, and evidence thereof is everywhere. Landing in the capital St. Denis and hopping straight onto the highway to the western part of the island where we stayed, one is immediately impressed with the infrastructure and ease of access, not to mention the scale of the engineering of the bridge that’s being built in the ocean beside the highway as a means to alleviate traffic congestion from the capital. It took about 10 minutes for me to realise I was wrong about everything I’d assumed prior to the trip.
Réunion Island was inhabited in the 17th century by people from France, Africa and Madagascar and today is home to 850 000 people. The island is relatively small at 2500 square kilometers (63km long by 45km wide), but travel across the interior can take some time due to the winding mountainous roads. Réunion is home to two volcanoes, Piton de la Fournaise (active) and Piton des Neiges (extinct); the slopes of both volcanoes are heavily forested and really pretty to venture out to and explore. Cultivated land and cities like the capital city of St. Denis are concentrated on the surrounding coastal lowlands. Offshore, part of the west coast is ensconced by a coral-reef system which keeps the pesky sharks at bay. Réunion also has three calderas: the Cirque de Salazie, the Cirque de Cilaos and the Cirque de Mafate. The last is accessible only on foot or by chopper.
Now that you’ve got the lay of the land and a little background, here are my 10 reasons you need to go to Réunion:
- It’s Really Close
St. Denis is a short 3 hour 50 minute flight from Johannesburg. You can fly direct on Air Austral; I suggest subscribing to their newsletter for deals and promotions, or checking their special offers regularly as deals on flights from South Africa to Réunion do pop up regularly. Air Austral flies to Réunion from around the world, so you’re in luck if you’re an international reader. As a South African you don’t need a visa to travel to Réunion.
2. The Climate
If you’re looking to escape the cold wherever you are, Réunion Island is a great option as it’s pretty much summer all year round. Unless you’re a local, that is. We had a laugh at the locals we encountered who complained about the ‘winter weather’ at 26 – 30 degrees celsius. The benefit of traveling to the island in the southern hemisphere winter is it’s not rainy season, so you’re pretty much ensured warm, dry days. We were there mid September and the climate was perfect, no warm clothing needed unless you’re hiking or heading for the mountains. Click here to check out the weather forecast in St. Denis right now.
3. The Infrastructure
The infrastructure on the island is similar to what you’d find in France, so if you’re happy with seeing a doctor in France, for example, you can be comfortable with what’s on offer on the island. Schools, hospitals, pharmacies, highways, construction etc. are all first world and in excellent shape. I travelled to Réunion 20 weeks pregnant and felt completely safe and comfortable doing so. The only activity I tapped out of was the canyoning which I’m super bummed I missed, but will just have to do it the next time I visit.
Réunion is not a resort island like Mauritius, and although there are hotels and resorts one can stay at, there’s a lot on offer by way of apartments, houses and villas to rent via AirBnB and the likes. We rented a 6-sleeper villa on the beach in St. Gilles les Bains which I can highly recommend; the area has a great beach just 5 minutes south (Plage de l’Ermitage) and the town has everything you need in terms of groceries, pharmacies, patisseries, restaurants, boutiques etc. There’s a lovely little harbour which I walked to one day; I found myself a spot at a coffee shop on the docks and sat and did some writing for a while. Heaven! The towns along the west coast are all a short 5 or 10 minute drive from each-other, so it’s easy to hop from one to the next. We found St. Gilles les Bains to be really central and I will stay in the same area on my next trip. Be sure to rent a car so you can get around easily and explore the interior.
We spent our final night on the island in St. Denis in order to explore the capital and get an early start in the morning to catch our flight which I’d recommend. We were there on a Saturday and it was buzzing; grab drinks at one of the many bars adjacent to the Cathedral and treat yourself to dinner at Apoteek.
- The Food and Fresh Produce
What I loved about renting a villa and living like a local for 10 days was shopping at the local supermarkets and markets (OMG) and really settling into island life for a while. Most of the goods at the supermarkets are from France, so prepare to overdose in French cheese, bread, meats etc. Most evenings we made ourselves cold platters that kings would be proud of, complete with piles of olives, artichokes, capers and cornichons; my best! Fruit and veg is abundant and the fresh markets are something to behold. We visited the Friday market in St. Paul twice to stock up on fruit, salad goods, spices, cheese and meats. We bought two incredible tuna steaks at the pecherie there that we chucked onto the braai (BBQ) and feasted on for days. Surprisingly the prices at the supermarkets were really competitive, even in Euros. I was expecting death-by-exchange-rate but much of what we bought was in fact cheaper than the equivalent back home in South Africa.
We went out for a few meals to local Creole restaurants (make a bee-line for the ones on the side-walk packed with locals; you know they know what’s good!) and the fare is not only cheap, it’s delicious. They certainly know how to spice their food in Réunion and the flavours are incredible. There are of course a ton of beach bars, restaurants, cafes and coffee shops dotted along the coast line and within the villages, so good food is not hard to come by. In this regard Réunion has a hell of a lot more to offer than Mauritius; because you’re not eating 3 meals a day at a resort, there are heaps of restaurants and patisseries to choose from.
- The Hiking. Biking. Climbing. Riding. Canyoning. And more.
Réunion Island is perfect for travelers and holiday-makers looking to do more than just lie on the beach. The lush green, mountainous landscape makes for an adventurer’s paradise! I’ll write a separate blog post about our overnight hike to the rural village of *Mafate, situated in the mountains and accessible only by foot and chopper. Here’s a brief list of the hikes on offer, boasting over 900km of immaculate marked trails and three long-distance hiking routes:
- The Piton de la Fournaise volcano (one of the world’s most active volcanoes, many of the trails can be done in a day)
- Bélouve (one of the island’s breathtaking tamarind forests with plenty of designated picnic areas)
- Piton des Neiges (the highest point across the vanilla islands and ideal for an overnight stay to watch the sun rise over the island)
- Maïdo (popular for family excursions, the tamarind forest and geranium fields are harvested and distilled to make perfume)
- *Les Cirques (Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate are 3 vast amphitheatres which form a part of the National Park; a variety of trails and refuges make it possible to hike for several days)
- The Dimitile (breathtaking views of Cilaos, L’Entre-Deux, Piton des Neiges and the Piton de la Fournaise)
- Sainte-Rose (a range of easy trails both long and short, along cliffs, volcanic trails and the coast)
- The North (Dos d’Âne and La Roche Ecrite offer exceptional views, the latter is home to Réunion’s cuckoo shrike)
- L’Étang-Salé (divided between a black volcanic beach and a state-owned forest)
The island is peppered with jaw-dropping waterfalls, many of which one can experience first hand through a unique canyoning experience. If you like swimming, jumping and sliding, then this is your jam!
These are some of the waterfalls you can canyon through:
- Trou Blanc (considered the island’s canyoning jewel and famous for its slides)
- Trou de Fer (ranked among the planet’s most spectacular locations, a two-day expedition)
- Takamaka (a technical route surrounded by lush tropical vegetation)
- Maïdo (hot-water springs spurt from the river-banks reminding you of the island’s thermal core)
- Rivière Langevin (this is the one our group did, perfectly safe for beginners)
- Rivière Sainte-Suzanne (located a stone’s throw from the coast and the capital, between fields of lush sugar-cane)
Other activities one can do on Réunion Island include:
- Mountain biking
- High-wire courses
- Potholing (exploring the island’s lava tubes)
- White-water rafting
- Sea kayaking (in a transparent kayak)
- Stand up paddleboarding
I mean. You’d need a lifetime to get through this list of activities. There really is no reason for boredom whilst on holiday in Réunion. You’ll also be glad to burn off all the baguettes you’ll be eating.
6. The Nightlife
The capital and coastal towns are vibrant with a variety of bars, restaurants and clubs. The sunsets along the west coast are breathtaking, so staying in an area like St. Gilles les Bains is ideal. We spent time at the beach bars on Plage de l’Ermitage and Boucan Canot, all high-end and perched at the water’s edge. Drinks at bars are relatively expensive (E6 for a cocktail, E3 for a beer), so make the most of your local supermarket and stock your home bar-fridge like we did. Réunion is famous for its rum arrangements (flavoured rums), so embrace the island and treat yourself to some of the delicious tropical flavours. You’ll find spice and flavouring packs at all of the markets and supermarkets; the intention is that you buy yourself a bottle of unflavoured rum and then customise it at home. I’m brewing up a batch of banana-caramel rum to enjoy in 2018 when the baby has arrived.
7. The Beaches
When I arrived home a friend questioned me on the quality of Réunion’s beaches as she’d heard a rumour that they weren’t that great. Okay, so I haven’t been to all of the beaches on the island but the lagoons we sunbathed at along the west coast (particularly Plage de l’Ermitage) were perfect. We hired deck-chairs and umbrellas for E5 per person for the day and enjoyed white beaches and turquoise waters. As the ocean around the island is protected, the waters are teeming with shark-life which means swimming is only allowed in the natural lagoons and areas with nets and lifeguards.
8. The Helicopter Excursions
A flip over the island in a chopper is an absolute must! Sightseeing via helicopter really brings the island’s tropical vegetation, majestic mountains and breathtaking blue waters into perspective from above. We flew up into the mountains over Mafate which was amazing as we got to see the route and location we’d hiked to a couple days prior. We booked our flip through Corail Hélicoptères, based 10 minutes from St. Gilles les Bains. Be sure to book your flight early (around 7AM) as the weather rolls in fast and certain routes may be affected.
9. The People
Having traveled to France a few times, I’ve encountered a fair share of *those* Parisians and I wasn’t expecting much by way of friendless on the island. I’m pleased to say we were all proved wrong and the friendliness and kindness we encountered over the holiday was remarkable. Nothing was too much for anyone, language barrier and all! And yes, you’ll need to resort to your best sign-language sometimes, particularly in the remote areas where absolutely no English is spoken.
10. The Island’s Eco Drive & Ecotourism
Réunion is paradise for nature-lovers who are able to visit the island while endeavouring to protect the environment and its rugged terrain, varied landscapes and contrasting microclimates. Ecotourism in Réunion has now gained international consecration and has been named as one of the 30 world biodiversity hotspots. Unesco listed the island’s pitons, cirques and remparts as a World Heritage Site in 2010. These sites are protected by the Réunion National Park, which accounts for 40% of the island’s surface area. You get the sense that the people of Réunion really care about their special island and its waters, a rarity these days.
I hope this inspires you to consider Réunion Island when planning your travels. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to experience this exciting new place and one thing’s for sure, I’ll be back there soon. Be sure to check out Natalie Roos’ blog for more Réunion Island travel inspo. She’s also going to be putting together an all-inclusive trip for 10 to Réunion in March 2018; this was her 5th trip to the island and travelling with her is like travelling with a local. Get in touch here if you’d like to find out more about the trip she’s planning.
Thanks to Natalie Roos and Keenan Mulvaney for the aerial drone shots I’ve used within this post; I cannot wait to get my paws on a little (and I mean little!) DJI Spark from weFix.
If you have any questions or want any advice, feel free to comment on this post and I’ll get back to you.