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Reunion island is not in Africa, but you can travel to ‘Mars’

Awe-inspiring mountain scenery!

Editor’s Note: Even though Réunion is technically an insular region of France, both its geographical position and rich African heritage make it highly pertinent to all “Africa Freaks” out there. Here’s Keith’s top 11 things to do in Reunion island, and why you don’t have to spend billions of dollars to travel to ‘Mars’. Enjoy! 😉

Réunion Island looks like a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean on Google Maps but zoom in and you’ll find a spectacular island with towering mountains, breathtaking canyons, aquamarine lagoons, colourful towns and villages and stunning waterfalls.

An overseas French department, Reunion is a gorgeous mix of French, Asian and African influences. It truly is an enchanting island; a mecca for adventurers and hikers or for those seeking an active holiday infused with lovely beaches, awe-inspiring scenery and fascinating cultures.

If you’re visiting for the first time, here are eleven things to do in Reunion which I can highly recommend. I tried each and every one of them and the experiences I gained were unforgettable!

1. Gawk at the most incredible scenery

The scenery on Reunion is absolutely spectacular. I suggest hiring a car and driving around the island. It’s a large island so you may want to pace yourself. Drive the Route du Volcan or into the Cirque de Cilaos for some of the most astounding scenery. The coastal stretches offer charming views of colourful villages, lagoons and beaches whilst the interior is characterised by impressive mountains, canyons, forests (from pine forests to thick shrubs and sub-tropical tree ferns!) and grassy highlands.

We stood at the very edge of the canyon to get this amazing view!

The caldera of Piton de la Fournaise.

2. Visit ‘Mars’ and the smouldering Piton de la Fournaise

A visit to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, is a must in my book. The scenery along the way is jaw-droppingly beautiful and on the approach to the volcano, the road takes you through the Plaine des Sables, an area that looks very much like Mars!

Comparing the landscapes of Mars and Plaine des Sables.

We did find some signs of life!

If you’re really into volcanoes, I can recommend the hike inside an old lava flow of the Piton de la Fournaise. Organised by Aparksa Montagne, the lava tubing tour is a wondrous journey that will take you past intriguing formations and tunnel systems. I don’t recommend it if you’re prone to claustrophobia.

Hiking under an old lava flow.

3. Hike in the cirques

Réunion is famous for its three cirques (Mafate, Cilaos and Salazie), three large calderas formed by the collapse of a shield volcano. Of the three, Mafate is inaccessible by roads, making it ideal for hikers wanting to enjoy the impressive nature in total solitude. There are several villages inside the Cirque de Mafate which are accessible only by trails (and helicopters). Reunion Mer et Montage organises guided hikes (including the one I did: a 3-hour hike into the Cirque de Mafate and a helicopter flight back to the coast) and other adventure activities like mountain biking around the island. Whichever route you choose, you’ll be guaranteed mind-blowing vistas, gushing rivers and waterfalls and lush forests.

The scenery inside the Cirque de Mafate.

4. See Reunion from above

If you enjoy microlight or helicopter flights, I highly recommend seeing Reunion Island from above. Only then will you be able to truly appreciate its impressive and varied topography. From the volcano to the amazing cirques, verdant forests and elegant waterfalls, this is one experience you won’t easily forget! FelixULM offers microlight tours of the island from its base in Le Port.

A majestic view of Piton des Neiges on Reunion Island.

5. Stroll around the towns and their markets

St. Denis is the capital and largest town. It’s great to stroll around this lovely town – don’t forget to check out its beautiful architecture and visit its markets.

St. Denis.

Another market town to visit is St. Pierre on the south coast, with its lively Saturday market. It’s a great place to taste local specialties like Bon Bon Piment and a variety of rhum, buy top quality vanilla (Reunion produces some of the best quality vanilla in the world) and pick up some souvenirs. One other town I really liked was St. Gilles les Bains, with its colourful shops and sandy beaches.

The colourful market in St. Pierre. Don’t forget to get some high-quality vanilla!

6. Laze at the lagoons

Most of the island’s most beautiful lagoons are found on the west coast between St. Paul and St. Leu. Here you’ll find wide expanses of sandy beaches ranging from white to black! The most popular beach areas are around La Saline les Bains – here you’ll find a variety of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and bars, such as at Coco Beach. You can choose to laze on the beach, go on long walks, or indulge yourself in a variety of watersports like snorkeling, windsurfing and stand-up-paddling.

The gorgeous Coco Beach near La Saline les Bains.

Enjoy an alfresco dinner at Coco Beach with local bands and stunning sunsets.

7. Go canyoning

This was one of my favourite experiences in Reunion. Run Adventures organises this amazing canyoning experience down the Rivière des Roches from Bassin la Mer to the Bassin la Paix on the northeast coast near the town of St. Benoit. An old lava flow had been carved into a canyon by the river, with astonishing walls on each side, tranquil pools, followed by rapids and waterfalls. It was an incredible experience, jumping off the walls (some up to 12 meters high) into the pool below, tobogganing from one pool to the next or floating down the river.

I went canyoning through this gorge formed by an old lava flow.

8. Indulge yourself in food and dance

Reunion presents a fascinating mix of French, African and Asian cultures, resulting in a wide array of delicious food and performing arts. Go on a ‘food tour’ at one of the markets (such as my favourite, the Saturday market in St. Pierre) and indulge yourself in Creole cuisine. If you can, ask around for places to witness stunning performances by a méringue troupe (méringue is a local martial arts dance somewhat similar to capoeira that can be found in Brazil) and the lovely Mahoya dancers. And don’t forget to taste some of the island’s famous rhum!

Colourful Mahoya dancers.

9. Spot street art

You’ll find many vibrant examples of street art throughout Reunion, and especially in the capital, St. Denis. In fact, Jace, one of the most famous street artists, hails from Reunion. It’s fun to try and spot his works around the island – his faceless characters are easy to recognise.

Street art by Jace in St. Denis.

Another striking example in St. Denis.

Editor’s Note: Can you find the “chameleon” dog? 🙂

10. Go whale/dolphin watching

Reunion is a great place to to experience marine life up close. There are various dolphin- and whale-watching tours but one that stands out is run by Excursia Voyageur Curieux on board Hnoss, an old Norwegian whaling boat. This is an opportunity of a lifetime to join scientists from the Dare Win project as they research the complex communication systems of dolphins and whales. IF you’re lucky, you can even go free-diving with dolphins and whales with the researchers!

Spot dolphins and whales (image courtesy of Matthew Karsten)

And relax in the hammock on the Hnoss!

11. Relax! You’ve earned it!

After all those action-packed activities, you deserve a bit of a rest. You can head back to the beach OR up into the hills to the gorgeous Lodge Roche Tamarin. Set amidst a dense jungle, the lodge comprises spacious wooden bungalows connected by wooden walkways, a beautiful spa and an excellent restaurant. After a week full of adventures, I indulged myself with an afternoon in the spa and a terrific massage.

The gorgeous Lodge Roche Tamarin.

There you have it! My recommendations for things to do in Reunion Island. It really is an amazing island which I can’t stop gushing about. Check out the fabulous video below and see for yourself!

You can fly direct to Réunion Island from Paris or Johannesburg with Air Austral – an excellent airline to fly with I must add! Their Premium Economy seats were very comfortable and the service and food were simply top-notch. If you’re looking for an experienced tour guide, I can recommend Nicholas from Tours Reunion who was my guide and driver in Réunion. His knowledge of the island and enthusiasm made my stay truly special!

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