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It was dark when our plane descended through the clouds and landed on Réunion Island. It was slightly disconcerting arriving after dark. I couldn’t see the beaches, the mountains, or anything that looked remotely tropical. Instead, aside from the humidity, I could very well have arrived in Europe, which technically, I had. Réunion is a tiny little piece of France in the Indian Ocean! I somehow made my way through customs and immigration, collected my bag, and found my taxi, all without speaking a word of English; before setting off into what, for me, was a completely unknown destination.
I’d gone to Réunion Island to take part in Xterra Réunion, an off-road triathlon race, and had done absolutely no research about my destination before I boarded my flight. I’m here to tell you now some of the things I wish I’d known before I’d got there. But first, some basic facts:
Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean is an overseas department/region of France. It is located approximately 340 miles east of Madagascar and 109 miles southwest of Mauritius.
As of January 2021, Réunion had a population of 858,450.
As in the rest of France, the official language of Réunion is French. In addition, a majority of the population speaks Réunion Creole.
Little was known about the island, which was uninhabited prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, who landed here in 1513. In the 1640s, the island was occupied by the French, who claimed it as their own, renaming it Ile Bourbon. The island was renamed Réunion in the 18th century, and became prosperous, along with the nearby island of Mauritius, because it was on the shipping routes between Europe and Asia. Sugar plantations, worked by slaves imported from Africa, formed the major sector of the island’s economy. Slavery was abolished on December 20, 1848 (a date celebrated annually on the island), though indentured workers continued to be brought to Réunion from other places, predominantly South India. The island was a French colony until 1946 when it was granted the status of “Overseas Department.” Réunion is now one of the most far-flung parts of the European Union.
It isn’t easy to get to Réunion; there are few travel options and most of those are expensive.
One option is to fly from Mauritius; the flight is only 45 minutes. A one-way ticket from Mauritius to Réunion costs around 80 euros (around $93).
Option two would be to take an Indian Ocean cruise. That way you could combine Réunion with Madagascar, Seychelles, and Mauritius, though this would mean you wouldn’t have much time to totally experience the island.
The third option would be to look for a cheap flight. The cheapest is usually via Paris. A one-way ticket can be as little as 150 euros (around $175), which isn’t much for a 12-hour flight!
The best time to visit Réunion Island is May–November when the weather is generally dry and cool. It starts to get hot and rainy from November–April. Réunion is known for its torrential rainfall, so it’s advisable to avoid the monsoon season.
Possibly the most daunting experience of my entire Réunion visit was collecting my rental car on day one! Unaccustomed to driving on what was, for me, the “wrong” (left) side of the road and the “wrong” (left) side of the car, I was nervous as I took possession of the little white Peugeot that was supposed to get me around for the next few days. I don’t have a great reputation with my family for certain aspects of my driving, particularly reverse! While I think their comments about my driving are vastly exaggerated, I was still rather apprehensive when it came to getting behind the wheel. For those of you not used to left-hand drive, be forewarned.
Réunion offers a wide range of exotic food and drink. Eating is one of the favorite Réunionese activities and mealtimes are family occasions. The island is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Indian, Chinese, French, Malagasy, and mainland African dishes have all been absorbed into and contributed to the island’s cuisine, making the local food interesting and exotic, but not too spicy or bizarre.
My top suggestions for what to eat and drink on Réunion include:
Located within the Réunion National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), you will find Piton de la Fournaise (The Peak of the Furnace), one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The volcano has had more than 150 recorded eruptions since the 17th century, with the most recent in April 2021.
Piton de la Fournaise is one of Réunion Island’s most popular tourist attractions and about 400,000 people visit every year. It is pretty accessible to all, whatever your age or fitness level. You can drive to the rim of the external crater and simply gaze at the peak in the distance. Or, if you have the time and inclination, you can climb it, starting from the waves lapping at its base in the Indian Ocean, and ultimately reaching its summit, which is often in the clouds.
A huge part of Réunion’s appeal is found high above sea level, inside the towering volcanic calderas left behind from the island’s violent volcanic history. These calderas, or cirques, offer amazing hiking opportunities and have more than 600 miles of hiking trails.
Piton de Neiges, or snow peak, was formed by the Réunion hot spot and emerged from the ocean about 200,000 million years ago. Now deeply eroded and inactive for the last 20,000 years, it is surrounded by three massive crater valleys: Mafate, Cilaos, and Salazie, all famous for their hiking routes. Of these three, Mafate is the most challenging, as it is completely inaccessible by road. The trails are definitely not for those suffering from vertigo and should not be hiked alone. Fortunately, I was accompanied by Nicolas Cyprien, a local Réunionese guide, who not only knew the way but also filled me in on all kinds of information as we headed off into the wild heart of the island.
Whilst hiking and the outdoors may be the most popular reasons for visiting the island, you will inevitably end up on the beach at some point in your trip. Réunion has its fair share of idyllic beaches, here are a few spots to get you started:
Pro Tip: A word of caution about swimming. Réunion Island has become so notorious for shark attacks, that swimming and surfing are banned outside the coral lagoon. Eleven people have died in shark attacks since 2011.
Once you’re done with the beach and are looking for some culture, St. Gilles is the place to be. Situated on the western side of the island, the town is known for its eclectic mix of art and cultural shows. The streets are lined with numerous bars and nightclubs, playing an array of music from jazz, rock, and dance music to traditional local music.
Saint-Paul Market runs from Friday morning to Saturday morning — a full 24 hours — and sells some of the most exotic fruits and vegetables you have ever seen. Food is not the only thing sold here though, the market is also famous for art and souvenirs.
Langevin, a waterfall in the south of the island, is one of Réunion’s best-kept secrets. Alternatively, rent a canoe and head to Trois Bassins on the west coast. These are two of the island’s ultimate picnic spots and are well worth a visit.
So there you have it, my round-up of things to know about Réunion, and what to do while you are there. Have a great visit and enjoy!
Other islands to consider exploring:
Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, before moving to Africa at the age of 21, Sarah Kingdom is a mountain climber and guide, traveler, yoga teacher, trail runner, and mother of two. When she is not climbing or traveling she lives on a cattle ranch in central Zambia. She guides and runs trips regularly in India, Nepal, Tibet, Russia, and Ethiopia, taking climbers up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro numerous times a year.
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