The accent in ‘Réunion Island’ marks it as French. Yet the lush volcanic island sits on the Indian Ocean, about 500km east of Madagascar and half the world away from Paris. Still, the island is proudly a region of France – Euro, right-hand drive, and cobbled streets included – a delightful paradox for the first-time visitor.
It’s unfortunate that the island is best known for its connection to MH370 when, in 2015, a piece of debris from the doomed flight washed up on its shore, making Réunion seem far more remote than it really is. The reality, however, is more exciting. With luxurious beachside stays, mountainous trekking and a very active volcano, Réunion is known among locals as ‘a wilder Hawaii’ – here’s why the nickname’s an apt one.
View of Cirque de Salazie from the helicopter
Réunion’s mountainous landscape is obvious on approach to Roland Garros airport, at the foot of Piton des Neiges, altitude 3,070m.
But to get a real sense of the scale of these peaks, strap into a helicopter seat, Jurassic Park-style, and fly across the island (theme tune optional). Corail Helicopters, based in the coastal village of Saint-Gilles, runs daily flights from sunrise, and we recommend an early start as the angled morning light beautifully paints steep volcanic slopes.
Sit speechless while the pilot points out Cirque de Mafate and Cirque de Salazie, two massive prehistoric calderas. Large communities sprawl out in this wild, gorgeous terrain, as well as odd, solitary homes at the foot of the valleys. There’s a quick swing around the Trou de Fer waterfalls before heading back to base, which on a clear day offers views from the coast right out to the horizon.
Hell-Bourg, a town in the volcanic caldera, about 1300m up in the hills of Réunion Island
Run to the hills
An hour of gut-wrenching turns on a mountain road is all it takes to transition from windswept beaches along the coast to the dense Cirque de Salazie. The green amphitheatre, 45km from Réunion’s capital St-Denis, is filled with rugged gorges, dramatic valleys and more than 100 waterfalls.
Perched at 1,300m high in Cirque de Salazie is the fairy tale town of Hell-Bourg, one of 150 officially titled ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’. This Creole hamlet seems to be frozen in the late 19th century. Its architecture is tinged with colonial influences like vaulted ceilings and wraparound verandas, and façades are daubed in pastel hues.
For those who need a bit of sweat on the brow, Hell-Bourg is the start of two major trekking routes: the six-hour journey up to the caldera peak, or the challenging two-day round trip up to Piton des Neiges. Either way, cap off the hike with a night at Les Jardine D’Heva, which comprises five homely cottages hemmed in by blue orchids and pink begonias.
Creole cuisine – a happy marriage of African, Indian, French, and Chinese influences
It should come as no surprise that Réunion is awash with French food. But there will be another time to enjoy croissants and fromage – focus instead on the vibrant local cuisine known as Creole cooking. A typical Creole meal distils its homeland’s rich ethnic history: from African slaves forced over in 1665 to indentured Indian labourers who arrived 200 years later all the way to the French landowners who ran the economy.
One of Réunion’s best-known restaurants can be found in the Sainte-Rose commune, on the east coast of the island. L’Anse de Cascades has been frequented by locals for half a century, and it’s easy to see why.
The spread is intimidating. Rice is served with a broad selection of dishes like lentil stew, fish- or cheese-stuffed samosas, brede (Chinese-style stir-fried leaves and stems), and a fiery side dish of rougail (tomatoes, pistachios, chilli and lemon). The flavours are mostly familiar until the cari comes out of the kitchen, steaming up the windows. This gravy-based dish looks like a typical Indian curry, but the pungent flavours of stewed jackfruit and sweet pork flavoured with fresh vanilla make this a uniquely Réunion dish.
Cooled volcanic lava by the south coast of Réunion Island
Climb an active volcano
The south of Réunion is dominated by Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It blew as recently as February this year, one of 150 eruptions since the 17th century.
Like Anne Hathaway jumping in and out of the dresser at the Oscars, the drive up from the coast involves several drastic changes in the landscape. Stop first at Le Pas de Bellecombe, a viewpoint at 2,050m up that feels like a pastoral European countryside with cattle grazing the rolling hills.
The yellow genet flowers that colour the landscape disappear as the road curves around to Le Plaine des Sables, a vast area that surrounds the peak of the active volcano. From a distance, the barren plains look like a photo beamed back from Mars – and up-close, the ground is thick with red and brown basalt rocks.
Hikers look like pixels on the slopes leading up to the peak – leave them to their misery and head down to the coast instead, to walk on cooled lava flows. Reunitours in Sainte-Rose does a four-hour tour deep in the bowels of the volcano, along (hopefully) emptied magma chambers.
Air Mauritius flies to Réunion Island from $1,200 return (one stopover).