Most Americans are unfamiliar with Réunion. Officially one of the four overseas departments (regions) of France, Reunion Island is a tiny, three-million-year-old volcanic island, in the Indian Ocean, just off the east coast of Madagascar. Its close neighbor to the west is the island of Mauritius.
Inhabited since the 16th-century when people from France and Madagascar settled there, in 1946 the island became one of the current 18 departments.
It’s all about nature in Reunion Island, with nearly half the island declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highly varied terrain includes the crystal-clear lagoons of the black volcanic-sand beaches to the panorama of the towering mountains, canyons, and emerald forests; the flora, and fauna of this pristine island will not cease to amaze. There are waterfalls everywhere. It’s a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts or for those seeking stunning Instagram-worthy landscapes.
The island is a melting pot of French, African and Indian cultures. Trying the Creole cuisine and the rum should not be missed.
We arrived at Reunion on the Costa Cruise of the Indian Islands. I highly suggest renting a car for the day and driving around the island. The roads are well-paved and the signage is good. There are Reunion Island tours that will take you around by bus, but much to our dismay, they drove right by adorable little colonial villages, like Hell-Bourg, where we wanted to stop and explore. Oh well…..a reason to go back!
Reunion Island’s Interior
Piton de la Fournaise
The name literally means “Peak of the Furnace.” 8,632 feet above sea level, the shield volcano on the eastern side of the island is one of the world’s most active yet accessible volcanoes. The landscape of Piton de la Fournais is remarkable. A highly sought-out tourist attraction, even the drive up to the volcano is striking, crossing a barren landscape whose ruddy brown rocks have often been compared to the terrain on planet Mars.
Tours are offered that hike into an old lava tube which is quite intriguing but definitely not for the claustrophobic.
The volcano has erupted more than 100 times since 1640, but don’t worry….Piton de la Fournais is monitored around the clock by seismic experts!
Piton des Neiges
Rising to almost 10,000 feet, Piton des Neiges is the highest point in the Indian Ocean. Located in the center of the island, the volcano has been extinct for 120 centuries. Although the name “neiges” means snow, snowfall is rare on the heavily-forested volcano, even at the peak.
Cirque de Salzie
If you’ve ever wondered what a caldera – a collapsed volcano – would look like, this is it. The natural amphitheater surrounds the island’s highest peak, the imposing Piton des Neiges. Cirque de Salzie is one of Reunions three calderas (called cirques in Reunion). The spectacular vistas of the lush vegetation on this natural wonder left us speechless.
Mare à Poule d’Eau
Located in the heart of the natural Cirque de Salazie, the enchanting pond and island still houses remains of ancient Creole buildings and is frequented by fishermen who seek to catch tilapia and eels, hikers, and picnicking families.
Waterfalls abound in the lush interior. One is the Voile de la Mariée, a very high series of waterfalls that is said to look like a bride’s veil. (Like my hat? It’s totally packable and yet cute, right? You can get one here.)
For the more adventurous, canyoning is an adventurous water-based activity that involves floating or tobogganing down river rapids and often jumping off waterfalls that cascade into the pools below. Often you have to climb up the waterfall, assisted by ropes if necessary.
Reunion enjoys a tropical climate and an average year-round water temperature of around 79-degrees Fahrenheit, making it perfect for water-based activities.
Cape La Houssaye
Located on the west coast in the Bay of St. Paul, you can’t swim here, but it’s popular with anglers and divers. The combination of cliffs, sea, ravines, black rocks and savannah produce a unique panorama. Catching the magnificent sunset is reason alone to visit this spot.
Mostly located on the west side of the island, there are a variety of beaches to choose from. Some beaches sport typical white sand while others have the rarer volcanic black sand. The areas around the beaches tend to be touristy and watersports like windsurfing, snorkeling, stand-up paddle boarding, and transparent kayaking are available.
Some beaches to visit include on your visit are Boucan Canot Beach with lots of restaurants that cater to tourists; L’Etang-Salé is a black-sand beach on the west coast; Hermitage Beach with a white sand beach and casuarina trees, with best-preserved lagoon fringed by a coral reef.
If scuba is your thing, Reunion Island offers a rich and diverse marine life. The underwater ecosystem has been protected by the Natural Marine Reserve since 2007.
There are a variety of tours that run excursions to see marine life off the coast. Spotting whales and wild dolphins is a daily event.
There are a variety of Reunion Island tours that are not adventure or nature-based. At the Vanilla Plantation, we walked through rows of vanilla bean plants. The grounds were beautiful, with stunning views. At the end of the tour, we were treated to freshly-made vanilla coffee and homemade vanilla-and-coconut rum that was absolutely delicious.
Visitors can tour the La Saga du Rhum Museum to see how locally-grown sugar is distilled into rum. The museum is in the Isautier Distillery, the oldest distillery on the island, built in 1845.
If you’re on the island on Friday or Saturday, go to the colorful St. Paul Market. The large market has more than 300 stalls welcoming visitors to taste their local, French and Creole street food such as poulet la route (translated “road chicken” that has been marinated and grilled), rougail saucisse (pork sausage), or samosa (a pastry filled with potatoes, onions, or lentils). The market also sells freshly baked bread, cheese, and locally-grown fruits like passion fruit, pineapple, and guava, as well as art and handicrafts.
The Parisian architecture and European culture of the capital are worth a day of exploration. The Natural History Museum displays exhibits of Indian Ocean flora and fauna. Colorful murals and street art surround the boutiques in the square. And don’t miss the gorgeous Hindu temple just outside of the city — you can’t miss it, it’s literally right on the road.
We were so happy to find authentic souvenirs and handicrafts in the marketplace here. Having arrived after just visiting the Seychelles and Madagascar, we did not find anything locally-made in those destinations. It was pretty much the same things everywhere you looked. We had a great spending spree in St. Denis!
Euro is the currency; there’s no bargaining but the set prices were very good.
For Costa Cruises stopping in Reunion Island, the ship docks in Le Port with a gorgeous view of the distant green hills and volcanoes beyond. The immediate area is commercial with not much to see other than endless rows of cargo containers and warehouses.
There aren’t any good beaches in the area. But for 5 Euro, passengers can hop on a bus into the town of Le Port.
On our Reunion island tours, we had a chance to explore this small town. It’s a pleasant place, somewhat picturesque cradled by the mountains with a few cafes. There were also some interesting-looking shops but most were closed the afternoon we were there which was curious since it wasn’t a Sunday.
If you’re looking for a fabulous place to stay in Reunion, take a look at Le Battant Des Lames. Located in Saint Pierre on the south-western coast of Reunion the boutique hotel offers sea views, a terrace, and bar.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Patti has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.