Reunion Island feels different, authentic, and it is clear that here is an island that belongs first and foremost to its proud people. The Incidental Tourist Dawn Jorgensen shares 19 reasons to add it to your list in 2019.
Reunion Island is found off the coast of Africa, with Madagascar its closest neighbour. A Department of France, the island falls under French rule with the citizens holding mainland residency.
They refer fondly to the Metropol when talking about France as though it were just up the road and not a continent away. French is spoken, the Euro is used.
The food is very good too. Reunion forms parts of the Vanilla Island collective, an alliance that promotes Madagascar, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Mayotte, Comoros and the Maldives as a region, encouraging a focus on responsible and sustainable tourism.
19 reasons why you should visit Reunion Island in 2019
1. That volcano
Reunion Island is known for the spectacular Piton de la Fournaise, an active basaltic volcano. When not erupting, which it does a few times each year, the landscape is popular for hiking to view the crater and open volcanic plains. Residents celebrate the Piton de la Fournaise’s eruptions and are seen collecting at viewpoints simply to savour the force of it. For the best views visit the Grand Brûlé region, a rugged stretch of coast. Or drive to the viewing point in Le Pas de Bellecombe through typical Reunion mountainside that winds through rain forest, over hills and barren landscape, taking on endless hairpin bends.
Some Facts about the Volcano on Reunion Island – Piton de la Fournaise’s highest point is 2632m above sea level. The Volcano is located inside the Reunion National Park and is also a World Heritage Site. Reunion was initially one giant volcano and is about 3 million years old.
Le Volcan is one of the most active volcanos in the world with more than 150 eruptions since the 17th Century. This volcano is actually one of two on the island and is an estimated to be 530 000 years old.
2. Helicopter flights
The best way to get a perspective of the island, its varied landscape, size and offerings is from the air. I recommend a 45 minute flight with one of the operators out of Saint-Gilles. A flight allows you to discover the Cirques of Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie and the stunning National Park, villages and farm land. Fly over the Piton de la Fournaise, and on your way back, get a good look at the the azure blue lagoons. A unique and magical experience. I recommend Corail Helicopters for this. Look out for the waterfalls cascading into pools throughout.
(Photo: Dawn Jorgensen)
3. Hiking trails
There are 1000kms of hiking trails through lush forests, rocky volcanic mountains and desolate landscape. The best part is that there is no entrance fee to any of the national park and anyone can camp anywhere around the island. With 42% of the area protected national park and Reunion National Park covering virtually the entire middle part of the island: the Circus, the Massif de la Fournaise and the High Plains – it begs for exploration. Established in 2007, the park protects and regenerates the exceptional biodiversity of the island.
4. The three circuses: the spectacular inhabited canyons
Cilaos, Salazie and Mafate, the three canyons, are home to inhabited villages in the centre of the island around the Piton des Neiges. The first two, Cilaos in the Southwest and Salazie in the east are accessible by car through highways and very windy roads, while Mafate is not accessible to land vehicles, and is accessed only by a network of hiking trails. One of the more popular activities is to hike there for an overnight stay.
5. There’s great scuba diving
Diving in Reunion island will reward divers with some of the bluest and clearest waters and the chance to spot 150 different species of coral and 500 species of fish. Keep in mind though that even with numerous dive spots around the island, only certain areas are suitable all year-round. For the best and easiest diving, head to the west coast off Saint Paul or Saint Pierre. Strong winds make the east coast more challenging, but, when possible are worth exploring as they house some incredible underwater lava flows. It is advisable to book with an organised tour to be best directed.
6. The coral reef and watersports
Reunion Island’s coral reef is where the sun seekers flock for time in the calm warm waters and lounging on the white beaches. The Natural Marine Reserve extends along 40km of coastline of which 20 km is protected reef, from Cap La Houssaye in Saint-Paul, to la Roche aux Oiseaux in Etang-Salé. A rich habitat for soft and hard corals that provide food for an abundance of fish and shellfish, making it an excellent spot for snorkelling, kayaking, and stand up paddling.
Explore the coast for all means of watersports, or simply for swimming and tanning at the beach.
7. Turtle sanctuary
The Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory is dedicated to the study and preservation of Réunion’s marine turtle species. Tour the exhibits at leisure and watch marine turtles swimming in indoor and outdoor tanks. Kelonia also has an outdoor area that features two species of land tortoises, as well as a research and treatment centre. But most of all, there is a strong conservation theme and it is important to note the work being done to protect the species, as well as the rehabilitation and release program that they follow.
(Photo: Dawn Jorgensen)
8. Decadently delicious rum
You can't go to Reunion without drinking some of the island produced Rum. Produced at numerous distilleries around the island, with the option of self-blending with herbs and spices for your own preferred flavour. Styles vary from ginger and lemon to coffee and vanilla, my favourite being tamarind. Visit La Saga du Rhum in Saint-Pierre, a museum entirely dedicated to rum, which also has the smallest distillery on the island.
9. Geranium distillery
Many years ago the greatest perfumers travelled to Reunion Island to hunt down the best geranium essential oil in the world. The perfumeries swore by geraniums grown on Reunion Island for their exceptional quality and at the time it was one of the great treasures of the island. Today geranium is still grown and there are 30 or so craft distilleries. You can visit these and the farmer will passionately explain all the production steps. The plant is grown all year long, with harvesting taking place before the flowers bloom in May to September. It takes 300-400kg of leaves to get between 0.5 and 1 litre of essential oil. Take a look at and the Maison de Geranium distillery.
10. The artisans and their craft
There are artisans for fabrics, items made from recycled goods, jewellery, baskets and macramé’s. Some of the favouirtes I've encountered are the Vanilla Co-Operative, Noute Kafé for hand ground and roasted coffee. This is an island of self-sufficient and creative people.
11. Canyoning down waterfalls
Among the high-adrenaline sports, canyoning or aqua hiking is one of the most popular in Reunion. There are more than 100 diverse sites, spectacular waterfalls, slides and ziplines to enjoy, with the Fleurs Jaunes the most legendary. With a guide showing you the way, in your wetsuit and helmet, you will swim, slide and jump as you head down the river. It is great fun and an activity that can be enjoyed by all, as long the 10m drop and diving under rocks isn't too much of a challenge. The scenery is incredible with lakes and waterfalls to appreciate.
12. Crawling in lava tunnels
This is something incredibly special, a tour of the volcanic tunnels that have formed throughout the centuries of eruption and lava movement. You will be led by a guide through a small opening in the ground into a network of majestic and natural tunnels that have been formed by the pressure of the volcanic lava. Formed when ribbons of red hot lava drain from a volcano, the edges cool down and thicken into an insulating crust, creating a roof over the still-flowing lava. In some areas you'll be in a cathedral size hall, and in others crawling from one point to the next. The colours change and with your headlamp you are able to catch the folds that are still forming. You need to book a tour for this.
13. Botanical gardens or Jardin de l’Etat
The botanical gardens reflect the diversity of Réunion's plant life. At the heart of this lush vegetation - which they have their volcano to thank for, you find the tamarind on Les Hauts, as well as the latanier and the screwpine, all endemic to Reunion. All plants that make Réunion something of an earthly paradise. Discover a number of exotic trees at the Jardin de l'Etat, including the talipot palm and keep an eye out for the chameleons while taking time out to appreciate the orchids. There's a wonderful shop with excellent coffee and lovely souvenirs here too.
14. The food
Be sure to feast on the traditional cuisine of Reunion, the 'carri'. A truly Creole dish with ingredients simmered to perfection using Indian spices and local ingredients like meat, poultry, fish or seafood, as well as garlic, onion, plenty of tomatoes, turmeric, cloves and ginger. It's available throughout, so do try more than one type while there. Given the french influence, feast on buttery-pastries and petit-fours. Local coffee and cold Dodo beer. Dragon fruit, curried lentils and fresh crispy salad - whatever it is, you can't go wrong.
(Photo: Dawn Jorgensen)
15. The markets
There are markets to shop at throughout, but I recommend the Saturday morning Saint Pierre market that bursts with fresh fruit and veg, local speciality cuisine, crafted goods, woven baskets, photography, jewellery and hand produced clothing. Mention must be made of the litchis and annanas especially. Be sure to chat to the growers about where they are producing their goods. The market is right on the coastline, with a skate park next door.
16. Festival Liberté Métisse and dance
Initially launched by Reunion Island in 2010, the Liberté Métisse Festival is a colourful cultural event that celebrates the abolition of slavery whilst honouring this unique French Indian Ocean island’s rich history, roots and cultural mix. It is a jointly celebratory collaboration with the Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius, Mayotte, Madagascar and the Seychelles – collectively known as the vanilla islands. All the nations put on their spectacular vibrant dances as entertainment, with stalls selling local food and drink.
17. Maloya music and Danyel Waro
On my visit I was lucky enough to be invited to enjoy an evening of dance and music at Danyel Waro's home. A descendant of French colonists, he is the most renowned advocate of the Maloya, a genre of music with its origin in chants of slaves that worked on the sugar cane plantations. Maloya is seen as a strong force of Réunion identity and was at times banned by the French authorities. Initially Maloya consisted of chants sung over traditional percussion instruments, and it is Danyel Waro that expanded it to convey a message through his soulful lyrics. With songs mostly in Creole, his powerful high voice is haunting and his songs like poems that address modern day problems, political issues, as well as environmental causes and education. Listen to his unique sound here.
18. The architecture
Reunion's architecture has seen various periods that match the history or economic circumstances of the era. Following the initial colonisation, the sugar and coffee plantations saw the rise of large estates where the master's house dominated, while the accommodation of the slaves were placed in clusters that went on to form small, self-sufficient towns. An example of this is the Villèle Museum, located in the mansion of one of Reunion's iconic families, the Panon-Desbassayns, in Saint-Paul. The capital city has many finely preserved buildings in the capital, and the Post Office is one that draws visiting photographers.
19. The Reunionnais
Above all else, the multi-cultural, interesting and ever welcoming Reunionnais people. As the island was once uninhabited, the population is grown from a mix of immigrants who arrived from African, Indian, European, Malagasy and Chinese origin resulting in a population with a mixed "Creole" culture.
The Essential Details
- South African don’t need a visa to visit. All we need to do is fill in an arrival forms on landing and you’ll automatically qualify for a 90 days tourist stay.
- It's only a four hour flight from Johannesburg to Saint Denis, Reunion Island on Air Austral.
- Allow yourself plenty of time. There is much to see and experience. You can hire a car and drive yourself, but as an advocate for a guide, I suggest that you contact Tours Reunion who took care of me while I was there.
- Pack for all seasons, it’s very hot and humid on the coastline in Summer, yet cool when you go inland, especially in the mountains.
- As much as there are inviting beaches to be enjoyed, you should stick to the safe bathing areas as there is a high density of sharks in the surrounding waters.
- If you have an interest in street art, look out for pieces by Kid Kreol and Boogie in the vibrant capital St Denis. As well as under bridges and on walls as you explore by foot and road.
- For more information about Reunion Island visit en.reunion.fr.