A little speck in the Indian Ocean, Réunion Island offers so much more than powdery white-sand beaches. Home to sweeping mountain vistas, awesome aquamarine scenes and an active volcano, La Réunion is a dream destination for South Africans.
My favourite things to do in Réunion
Just 4000 South Africans visit this island for holiday each year, while neighbouring Mauritius receives 10 times the travellers. Package holidays have their place, but after spending a week on the island, I came to realise that Réunion is an island vacation that offers a little more beyond the beach. Here are some of my favourite ways to explore this unusual island.
1. Visit an active Volcano
Piton de la Fournaise is an active volcano and easily the island’s main tourist attraction. It's also one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes, free to visit and has erupted almost 200 times over the last 350 years. Hike right up to the crater rim and peer down into the crust of the earth.
There are various ways to experience the volcano. Choose from an unusual meditative hike, go underground into the lava tunnels or learn everything there is to know about eruptions at the Citédu Vulcan (Volcano Museum).
2. Walk around sweet Cilaos
I loved the traditional creole architecture and surrounding landscapes in Cilaos. The charming mountain village rests in one of Réunion’s three cirques (circular volcanic mountain peaks) at the heart of the island. It's the highest settlement too and a hairy, but exhilarating road is the only way to get there.
Read more about Réunion's unusual roads and the story of Cilaos here.
3. Conquer fears by canyoning
I put on a brave face, but I won't lie. I was a scared at first when faced with abseiling down one of Cirque de Cilaos' plunging ravines. Dressed in ropes, ratchets and a thick wetsuit, my guide gave step-by-step instructions on how the climbing kit would lower me to safety. My heart thumped heavily all the way down, but once I conquered the landing my anxiety transformed into euphoria. Canyoning was fun! A mixture of rock jumps, swimming through mountain streams, climbing and abseiling across sublime landscapes, this is easily the prettiest adventure can get.
There are a couple of operators, but I felt totally safe and at ease canyoning with Cilaos Adventure.
4. Wallow in island lagoons
Swimming in many areas is mostly prohibited due to sharks, but there are some gorgeous lagoons (mostly on the West Coast of the island) where it's safe to swim, snorkel and paddle out in a glass boat. And it's as idyllic as it looks!
Read about which coastal area of Réunion Island is right for you here.
5. Get curious about Creole cuisine
The sugarcane towered above our tourist bus. Over two metres tall, the grass-green tubes left little room to manoeuvre down the steep route that led to Philippe Morel's farm, where pots of delicious creole cooking awaited us.
One of France's 18 regions, croissants, baguettes and other symbolic elements of the mainland are a reminder that La Réunion is entirely French. However, an agricultural walk with Philippe details the many differences between Europe and this African region. I loved learning all about Creole flavours, from field to the plate.
Another great way to taste your way through creole culture is by visiting the weekly market in Saint Paul.
6. See the island from sea and sky
The best way to appreciate the vast diversity of Réunion Island is by taking to the sea or sky. For an unforgettable morning, fly across the island in a helicopter. I advise doing this at the end of your trip, so it's easier to spot where you've been down on land. The volcano and the deep emerald ravines are the most impressive features of the island and it's magical to see the scope of everything from the sky.
Contrast this with a sunset cruise on a catamaran. From the ocean, it's astonishing to realise how small the island is despite the variety on offer. For something really unique, book a stargazing cruise narrated by a guide who specialises in astronomy.
Where to stay on Réunion Island
Near the beach: Ness by d’Ocean Hotel is the newest addition to the west coast and opened its contemporary doors onto a blue lagoon in January 2019. It’s a quiet sanctuary but close to hubbub too, being just 5km from the centre of Saint-Gilles-Les Bains, with its aquarium, restaurants and bars. www.nessbydocean.com
In the mountains: Tsilaosa Hotel is impossibly quaint. Painted yellow and adorned in the Creole lambrequins (Reunion’s own style of broekie lace), the hotel overlooks the sweeping valleys of Cilaos in a central street with plenty of eating options. www.tsilaosa.com
Near the volcano: Villa Delisle Hotel and Spa in Saint-Pierre is within walking distance of the beach and picturesque harbour. The town (the “capital of the south”) is vibey, has a great market and remains distinctly Creole. www.villadelisle.re
Near the chopper and catamaran base: Lodge Roche Ramarin and Spa Village is a real treat with spa baths built into the deck of timber chalets and overlooking the Indian Ocean. www.lodgetamarin.com
Self-catering stays: There are plenty of affordable options on Airbnb for travelling on a budget. It's easy to enjoy French cuisine using the affordable markets (visit the Saturday market in Saint-Paul for a great haul) and supermarkets (where you pay about €1 for a local beer). www.airbnb.com
Plan your trip to Réunion Island
The best South African Blogs About Réunion
There is plenty of beautiful inspiration out there on the web. I found these local blogs by South Africans seriously useful when researching Réunion Island adventure.
I was a guest of the Réunion Island Tourism Board. For more information, contact the Reunion Island Tourism Board South African Office.