Reunion island

Reunion island

Dramatic volcanic peaks and lush tropical wilderness, with a French identity and a rich melting pot of cultures, beautiful La Réunion is quite unlike its neighbours. In fact it’s more like a glorious scaled down Hawaii or an epic real-life Jurassic Park backdrop. There’s still the chance to relax in coastal hotels, but with scenery so wonderfully diverse, you’ll want to get out and about to explore. From majestic landscapes and awesome viewpoints to attractive coastal cities and stunning forests, the island of Réunion really packs a punch.

Want to get the heart pumping and the lungs gasping? You’ve come to the right place. With its extraordinarily varied terrain, Réunion is a dream destination for lovers of the outdoors. Hiking is the number-one activity. Some of the most inspirational hiking trails in the southern hemisphere are to be found here, from simple nature trails in the forest to more challenging, multi-day itineraries and iconic summits, including the Piton des Neiges (3071m). Need some more exertion? Paragliding, canyoning, mountain biking, rafting and horse riding are readily available. And although Réunion is not a hardcore diver’s destination, it offers some cracking diving opportunities along the west coast. La Reunion is far more than a beach holiday destination, but the beaches here are still pleasant. The hotels that we’ve hand-picked are focused in one area on the west coast, around the charming villages of St-Leu and St-Gilles-les-Bains. St-Leu has a volcanic black sand beach typical of the island, while at popular St-Gilles-les-Bains the sand is unusually golden. In this area, natural lagoons formed by coral reefs provide safe places to swim, away from the sharks that inhabit the deeper waters created by the volcanic landscape. It’s not permitted to swim outside of these areas. Lux Ile de la Reunion has access to one of the best lagoons. Each of our hotels is well placed for exploring the rest of the island. On the east coast, the towns give way to sugar cane fields and vanilla plantations.

Réunion is not all about photogenic landscapes and adrenaline-pumping activities. There’s plenty to compel culture aficionados, too. This French overseas territory offers a fascinating jumble of Creole, African, Indian, Chinese and French influences that was created by centuries of immigration, and there’s a casual multi-ethnic atmosphere. Cultural diversity forms an integral component of the island’s social fabric. There’s a wealth of architectural treasures, historic sites, delightful religious and colonial buildings and vibrant festivals that are a great occasion to immerse oneself in local culture. A smattering of top-notch museums round out the offerings. 40% of La Reunion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, created to protect the island’s rugged volcanic interior. At 3,070 metres high, the dormant volcano of Piton des Neiges is the island’s most dominant feature, shrouded in lush subtropical forest. It covers most of the north-west of the island and offers a variety of sightseeing and outdoor activities. The active Piton de la Fournaise (2,630 metres) is the world’s second most active volcano. Situated in the south-east corner of the island, it’s La Reunion’s most popular attraction. Follow the forest paths, stop at various viewpoints to witness the canyons and lunar landscape, see the crater lake and walk on lava flows from previous eruptions. ‘Furnace Peak’, as the volcano’s name translates, erupted as recently as 2004 – and the island continues to grow with the lava spread.

Gourmands will be in seventh heaven in Réunion. Island cuisine is made up of a well-matched mix of Creole, Indian, Chinese and French cultures. Food lovers will revel in trendy beach restaurants serving the freshest of fish, and in snug restaurants featuring mouth-watering Creole specialties. The tastiest Creole food is often served at B&Bs, which are famous for their home-cooked meals. Markets are full of colourful exotic fruits and vegetables, from sweet bananas and huge avocados to succulent mangoes and lychees. You’ll also find plenty of bakeries and pastry shops selling baguettes, croissants and melt-in-your-mouth cakes. One thing is sure: Réunion is not a place to diet. Where the volcanoes have collapsed, ancient jungle-clad natural amphitheatres have been created, known here as ‘cirques’. Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate make up the three cirques. The Cirque de Salazie, around 30 miles from the capital St-Denis, is the largest cirque, surrounded by verdant forests and dotted with more than 100 waterfalls. It hosts one of the island’s prettiest villages, Hell-Bourg, on the edge of the cirque, with its Creole houses and beautiful gardens. Reached by a memorable winding road, the colourful Cirque de Cilaos has a thermal spa and is known for its hiking and biking trails and vineyards. The third cirque, the rugged, isolated Cirque de Mafate, can only be reached on foot or discovered by helicopter. Despite this, a population of Creole farmers can be found living in villages on top of the plateaus.

Unsurprisingly, La Reunion is a great destination for hiking and it’s a popular activity in the cirques, either on the more established trails of Salazie and Cilaos, or in the wilderness of Mafate. Mountain biking and canyoning also offer exciting yet challenging ways to discover the island’s interior. For a little more comfort, 4×4 trips are an excellent way to explore and offer the advantage of a knowledgeable driver/guide en route. This is useful when, for instance, your driver alerts you to lava tunnels at the side of the road that you can actually climb inside. You just might not spot them otherwise!

La Reunion’s main city is also the island’s northernmost, often overlooked in favour of the natural attractions. But for a spot of culture and architecture appreciation, it’s a great stop-off, with Creole houses – some open to the public – and two museums: the Musee Leon Dierx with an impressive collection of modern art and the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle. The restaurants here are also some of the best on the island. June to October is whale watching season. It’s possible to see these ocean giants from land on most days during these months, and common to see cars stop along the road when a passing whale comes into view. Hotels along the west coast offer some excellent vantage points – the higher up the better – and some hotels such as Iloha provide binoculars. If you want a closer view, boat trips are possible, when you might spot dolphins too. La Reunion is also a paradise for bird watchers, with numerous species found in the forests – particularly the mystical Forêt de Bebour-Belouve – and out to sea. With its dramatic topography and at times less accessible landscapes, La Reunion is a dream to discover from the air. An early morning helicopter flight – before the cloud cover descends – is a must-do, not only soaring over the rugged peaks but swooping through canyons and past plunging waterfalls, right over the edge of the crater. For open-air bird’s eye views, paragliding around St-Leu is popular, with gliders floating down to the lagoon close to Iloha.

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