The beach and perfect ocean waters near Saint Gilles is an enticing destination for snorkeling adventures. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL
The beach and perfect ocean waters near Saint Gilles is an enticing destination for snorkeling adventures. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL

Although geographically African, lying 220km away from Mauritius and a four-hour flight from Johannesburg, Réunion island is unequivocally French. An overseas department and one of France’s 18 regions, Réunion essentially enjoys the same status as the mainland in Europe but entertains far better year-round weather.

The tropical destination boasts exciting snorkelling, gem-coloured bays and major hiking adventures, but in European packaging. This includes everything from the euro currency and crispy croissants to yellow vest protests and functional First World infrastructure. In fact, much can be learnt about Réunion by its roads. Or the distinct lack thereof.    

Cilaos was once entirely isolated with no streets at all, but today there’s access via a steep tarred route that famously scales over 400 hairpin bends. Look closely at a map. Unlike other areas of the island, there are no holy names up here (every other town is Saint-something).

Cilaos gained its title from slaves who found refuge on Réunion’s highest and hardest to reach peaks and originates from the Malagasy word tsilaosa, which means “country you don’t leave”.  The island was uninhabited by people before the 17th century, and today Réunion is one of France’s most culturally diverse regions.

During the 1600s, French sailors claimed the island, naming it Bourbon and it was first used as a penal colony. Slaves from East Africa were then brought in to work on coffee plantations, and later, in 1794, the island came under the French crown as Réunion.

Cilaos rests in one of Réunion’s three cirques (circular volcanic mountain peaks) at the heart of the island. Just 37 short kilometres connect this village with the coastal town of Saint-Louis via the asphalt N5, but the bends will test even the most daring drivers. (Google advises at least an hour for the ascent.)

It’s the sort of road that will have you squeezing your butt cheeks with hopes it’ll prevent two cars meeting in an accident. However, once over the terror of doing endless twists, the N5 is also a highway to heaven. The road is only as sweeping as the scenic topography it’s built on.

Cilaos rests in one of Réunion's three circular volcanic mountain peaks at the heart of the island. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL
Cilaos rests in one of Réunion's three circular volcanic mountain peaks at the heart of the island. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL

The jagged relief was designed by erosion, painted in an emerald (foliage) drape and is often iced with candyfloss clouds. In keeping with the artistic associations, the charming village of Cilaos (the highest settlement on the island) is a pastel-pigment vision. Over 40% of the island is listed and protected as a UNESCO world heritage site, and Cilaos perches on the very edges of Réunion’s only national park.

If the drive up doesn’t usurp your daily adrenaline allowance, plunge right into the landscape on a canyoning adventure. The combination of abseiling, leaping and swimming takes you back to the time before roads opened the ravines.

Réunion began life as three distinct volcanoes, but many millennia of molten magma later, the mega-structures merged. Older volcanoes burped up the last lava a long time ago, but Piton de la Fournaise is still very much alive. The active volcano is easily the island’s main tourist attraction and has erupted almost 200 times over the last 350 years.  

The road (RF6) that takes you towards Piton de la Fournaise was built back in 1950. “Before that, it took a week to walk up with a local village guide. Only scientists and rich people from the coast came up here to visit. Old ox paths created the route we use now”, explains Claire Rivas, a hiking guide from the Réunion Mountain Bureau.

To stand at the crater edge, you first have the drive across a Martian mural named Plaine des Sables, the most striking contrast to the verdant valleys of Cilaos. The combined effects of climate and altitude make the natural beauty of this island staggering in its diversity. In a matter of moments, travellers move from lush tropical forest to white-sand shores to these stony wastelands. The charcoal terrain and dark volcanic scorch marks of Plaine des Sables (which means “plains of sands”) reinforce the island’s undeniable energy. With lava bubbling just below your feet (and the earth’s crust) it’s positively primordial.

Embrace this curious circumstance and visit one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes a little differently. Réunion Tourism offers locally led experiences for visitors (much like the Airbnb version) and categorised under “Flights of Fantasy” is a meditation hike hosted by Claire.

The Plaine des Sables, or plains of sands, bear the scorch marks of volcanic eruptions. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL
The Plaine des Sables, or plains of sands, bear the scorch marks of volcanic eruptions. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL

She shares an innovative approach to hiking, combining the benefits of walking with those of meditation.

Sceptical? Close your eyes. Wind whips across your face (Piton de la Fournaise lies 2350m above sea level) and the fresh vapour of mist rising up from the nearby sea cools your hands. Hear the crunch of coarse gravel as you trudge. It’s a beautiful way to feel the volcano’s vigour.

“This is nature for free, from God,” Claire says of the unusual walk. She’s right, of course.  There are no admission fees for the park, even to visit the viewpoint of the active volcano.

The lava from this volcano tends to flow southwards during eruptions, and you can drive these ashen slopes on the appropriately named N2  Lava Road. Here, hard evidence of Réunion’s geological intensity is best appreciated at Notre Dame des Lavas (the Lava Church) in Sainte-Rose.

After one particularly plentiful eruption in 1977, the orange sludge spilled south and ate up everything in its path. However, the lava inexplicably (divine intervention?) stopped right at the entrance of the church and flowed around its edges instead. Inside, unique stained glass windows portray the eruption. Hardly your usual holy subject matter.

The “savage south”, as it’s been rightly dubbed, bears single-lane roads only. After every eruption they have to be rebuilt, and that starts to get pricey.

At the opposite end of the island, the capital, Saint-Denis, is home to the island’s newest road. Réunionnais tour guide Sully Chaffre shares the estimate that “Réunion’s population will reach 1-million by 2030”. Currently, about 800000 people live on the island and traffic in town is a nightmare.

To satisfy the growing population (and mitigate risk of rockfalls from the sheer cliffs on the N1 between Saint-Denis and the port), a new 12km road is near completion. An engineering masterpiece, the six-lane highway is constructed on pillars that emerge from the surging Indian Ocean and is built to survive hurricane winds. As it should, given the €1.66bn price tag.

Perhaps it is divine intervention that kept the Lava Church in Sainte-Rose from being consumed by angry flows of lava in 1977. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL
Perhaps it is divine intervention that kept the Lava Church in Sainte-Rose from being consumed by angry flows of lava in 1977. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL

Holidaymakers should stick to the more sedate waters of the island though. The core zone of La Réunion national park covers more than 100,000ha (including the volcano and savage south) and extends into the ocean, making it a marine reserve too. Set up relatively recently in 2007, the park stretches along 40km of coastline (20km of which is coral reef) from Cap La Houssaye in Saint-Paul to Etang-Salé, and provides sanctuary to more than 3,500 marine species. Swimming and snorkelling are only safe in the sheltered lagoons, so pay close attention to the warning signs.

Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains straddles the centre of the marine reserve and is the most popular beach destination on the island. Even on a late June afternoon, it’s balmy enough for a summer dress. On weekends, beach bars buzz and locals sip golden Bourbon Le Dodo beer. Both the palm-lined scene and the bird are better associated with another island, as are tropical holidays.

Mauritius receives more than 100,000 South African holidaymakers every year. A mere 220km away, these substantial visitor numbers dwindle to just 4,000. Maybe it’s time more South Africans consider an island holiday with a twist — or 400?

The lovely Tsilaosa Hotel. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL
The lovely Tsilaosa Hotel. Picture: MELANIE VAN ZYL

PLAN YOUR TRIP TO REUNION ISLAND

  • South Africans don’t need a visa. Fill in an arrival form on landing and you’ll automatically qualify for a 90-day tourist stay.
  • Air Austral offers direct flights between Johannesburg and Reunion on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
  • Reunion Island is ideal for a self-drive holiday. Get an international driver’s licence (apply online through the AA), download Google Maps (you can use the app offline too), rent a Renault and remember to stick to the right-hand side of the road.
  • Although it’s a tropical island, at altitude temperatures can drop drastically. Pack a raincoat, warm jacket and gloves when visiting the volcano and hiking.
  • Follow lifeguards’ instructions when swimming in the sea and follow all safety precautions as there is a shark risk around the island.
  • For more information about Reunion Island or to book an unusual locally led experience, such as the meditative hike, visit reunion.fr.

WHERE TO STAY

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 

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

  • The author was a guest of the Réunion Island Tourism Board.
  • For more information, contact the Reunion Island Tourism Board South African Office on +27 10 205 0201/reunionisland.za@atout-france.fr.