Seven hundred kilometers off the coast of Madagascar, a tiny French outpost flush with dramatic volcanic scenery offers a staggering amount of diversity in one destination. Welcome to the island of Réunion.
Photographs by Christopher P. Hill
For the longest time, I had supposed that the Indian Ocean island of Réunion would be much like nearby Mauritius, a place I have visited on half a dozen occasions. On a map, both are of a similar size and shape, looking like two peas in a big blue pod somewhere to the east of Madagascar. Both are volcanic in origin, having been created eons ago by the same hot spot in the earth’s crust. They share a not dissimilar history.
So my first glimpse of Réunion is a revelation. As the Air Mauritius turboprop banks toward Sainte-Marie, I look down on an unexpected landscape. Unlike the comparatively gentle contours of Mauritius, Réunion slopes quickly up from the sea toward a jagged, mountainous interior dominated by three vast calderas, called cirques, formed by the collapse of an ancient shield volcano. Each is rimmed by sheer cliffs and sawtooth pinnacles. Piton des Neiges is the island’s highest peak; at an elevation of just over 3,000 meters, it’s also the highest point in the entire Indian Ocean.
On the ground, it becomes quickly apparent that Réunion—like Mauritius, a onetime French colony—is still very much a part of France. As a French overseas département, the island is the outermost region of the eurozone; this was, oddly enough, the first place that euro banknotes went into circulation back in 2002. Above the grand old government buildings of Saint-Denis, the capital, French tricolor flags flap in the sultry breeze. Carrefour supermarkets and boulangeries sit among the pastel-hued houses of languid west-coast resort towns such as Saint-Gilles-les-Bains and Saint-Leu. The roads teem with Citroëns, Renaults, Peugeots. And the vast majority of visitors fly in from “mainland” France, which partly explains the paucity of English speakers.
Fortunately, my hotel, the LUX* Saint Gilles, has set me up with a chauffeur privé named Jérôme Dijoux. Raised in Marseille by Réunionnais parents, Jérôme will be my driver and unofficial guide for the next four days. He explains that he moved to Réunion more than a decade ago to explore his familial roots, and fell for the place. He’s since launched a private-driver service called Astral VIP, acquired a sleek new Škoda SUV, and taught himself English, which he speaks with a tenacious proficiency.
With Jérôme behind the wheel, we set off from the Roland Garros Airport (named after the pioneering French aviator and World War I fighter pilot, who was born in neighboring Saint-Denis) and are soon on one of the most remarkable stretches of road I have ever seen. Called the Nouvelle Route du Littoral, it’s an almost-nine-kilometer-long offshore viaduct that follows the coast from Saint-Denis to the village of Grande Chaloupe, which sits at the mouth of a magnificent ravine. Supported by enormous pilings that extend 20 to 30 meters above the sea, the new four-lane highway is reportedly one of the most expensive roads ever built; when its last four-kilometer stretch is completed by the end of the decade, the final cost is expected to top US$2.5 billion.
We skim along safely out of reach of the high cliffs that line this stretch of coast. Their flanks are girded with wire netting to contain the frequent rock falls that plagued the old coastal road. Ahead of us, a luminous rainbow stretches across the sky. “Ah, l’arc en ciel. We see these every day,” Jérôme says with a certain nonchalance. “Sometimes twice a day. Réunion has much weather.”
The island’s coastline is undeniably attractive, but it is not the beach paradise that Mauritius is. Rocky, wave-dashed shores dominate. An exception is the stretch of golden sand between Saint-Gilles and La Saline, where a coral reef shelters a shallow lagoon from ocean swells—and prowling sharks. Not surprisingly, this is where Réunion’s top beach resort is located. One of only a handful of five-star properties on the island, LUX* Saint Gilles is my base for the next four nights. It’s a pretty spot. Set on seven hectares of vibrant gardens and lawns studded with coconut palms and wispy filao trees, the rooms and suites occupy a series of two-story Creole-style villas done up with suitably plush furnishings. A note on my desk advises madames et monsieurs to wear tenue de soirée chic in the bars and restaurants after 6 p.m. There’s a lovely freeform swimming pool—the island’s largest—and massage pavilions on the grass. The beach is freckled with oiled bodies.
But one does not come to l’île intense (as the island’s tourism slogan has it) to laze around all day on a sun lounger. Réunion’s calling card is its staggering inland scenery, not to mention a lineup of outdoor pursuits that takes in hiking, rafting, bungee jumping, paragliding, and all sorts of other ‘ings.’
Our first excursion the next morning is to Belvédère du Maïdo, a 2,200-meter-high viewpoint overlooking the great green bowl of Cirque de Mafate. From the coast, the road winds up through the geranium farms on the outskirts of Saint-Paul and into an elfin forest of highland tamarind trees, their branches draped with Spanish moss. We pass campsites and pique-nique areas and the occasional Lycra-clad bicyclist huffing their way up the mountainside amid swirls of chilly mist. It’s a cool 8°C when we park the car at the top and march over patches of frost to the crater rim. But my regret at having not brought a jacket is quickly dispelled by the view. Below us, Mafate looks like a lost world, its jumble of plateaus and ravines and chasms enclosed by 1,000-meter cliffs. This is the wildest and most rugged of Réunion’s three cirques, accessible only by foot or helicopter. Its name, derived from Malagasy, hearkens back to a time when runaway African slaves sought refuge here. Today’s inhabitants are a few hundred doughty Creole farmers, who live off the grid in tin-roofed houses that are forever dwarfed by the encircling escarpments.
Considerably more accessible is the Cirque de Cilaos, long popular for its spectacular setting and forested hiking trails. The drive alone is exhilarating. Above the southern town of Saint-Louis, the road enters a densely wooded mountain gorge and proceeds to zigzag along a series of tight hairpin turns—more than 400, Jérôme says with relish. I’m just glad I’m not doing the driving. At one point, we squeeze through an old tunnel barely wide enough to accommodate the pink public buses that ply this route.
The salubrious little town of Cilaos sits on a plateau at 1,200 meters under a rampart of volcanic rock knobbed with beguilingly named peaks like Piton de Sucre, Bonnet de Prêtre, Morne de Gueule Rouge, and the ever-present Piton des Neiges. It’s a touristy place for sure, but it’s indisputably pretty, with an art deco–style Catholic church, sedate little restaurants, and clapboard Creole houses painted in cheery hues. There’s even a thermal spa on hand to soothe trail-weary muscles.
When Jérôme stops to chat with some hikers on the main street, I pop into a shop selling Cilaos’s distinctive style of open-work embroidery. The nearby tourist center displays a century-old sedan chair—chaise à porteurs—which an affable young attendant says was used to carry those who could afford it to town in the days before road access was built. Sepia photographs from that era decorate the walls at L’Atelier des Saveurs, where I tuck into a lunch of locally infused French fare—lentil velouté with foie gras, magret de canard (duck breast) in vanilla sauce—accompanied by sips of sweet Cilaos wine. Delivering a vanilla crème brûlée to my table, the maitre d’ explains that the cirque’s name comes from the Malagasy word tsilaosa, meaning “the place you never leave.” It seems an apt sentiment.
Just 45 kilometers wide and 63 kilometers long, Réunion’s sharp relief packs in a staggeringly diverse topography. An hour’s drive can take you from coastal savanna through fields of sugarcane (the island’s main crop) and dense subtropical forests to high, wind-swept uplands tufted with silvery heath. It is said there are 200 microclimates here, and more than four times that number of indigenous plant species, many of which are represented at the Mascarin Jardin Botanique de La Réunion on the slopes above Saint-Leu.
My guide through the gardens is Nicolas Barniche, a descendant of the family that founded a vast agricultural estate here in the mid-1800s. Their original shingled manor house (still filled with period furnishings) is now surrounded by lush plantings of native and exotic flora, including endemic aloes and pandanus, bush plums, baobabs, and an abundance of flowers and ferns and palms. All in all, 12 hectares of horticultural bounty.
“Splendid, is it not? Imagine, all this, on an island the size of Luxembourg,” Barniche grins.
But nothing prepares me for the raw volcanic landscapes of the Piton de la Fournaise massif, which dominates Réunion’s southeast. Beyond the alpine pastures above Bourg Mourat, the road climbs through foggy heathland to a high pass overlooking the Plaine des Sables, a red desert of solidified lava that appears positively Martian. At an elevation of more than 2,300 meters, it’s even colder here than it was at Maïdo, though this time, thankfully, I remember to bring a jacket. The wind is too strong for us to linger over the view, so we’re soon back in the car and racing across the plain toward the true star of the show: a massive caldera of fissured basalt centered on the dome-like lava shield of the Dolomieu crater. This is the summit of the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. According to a placard at the edge of the escarpment, the mountain has erupted more than 160 times since the 17th century. Today it’s quiet, but no less awe-inspiring for that. A writer friend of mine once said that volcanoes make pagans of us all; he would have loved la Fournaise.
But for all the drama of the island’s interior, its coastal towns are worth exploring too. Like Saint-Paul, whose long sweep of black sand welcomed the first French settlers back in 1665. This is also where slaves from Madagascar and mainland Africa were once disembarked, a sordid chapter of history remembered with numerous memorials—including a giant unlocked manacle—along the town’s filao-lined seafront esplanade. On the Saturday morning that we visit, an open-air market is in full swing. A chorus of chipper bonjours follows us as we wander among canopied stalls selling everything from vanilla pods and pickled chilies to handmade soaps and jewelry. Under the filtered shade of the filaos, listless teenagers slouch against antique cannons that point out to the bay, where fishermen dip their lines into the sea from a long wood-decked jetty.
Up north, we spend a pleasant if hot hour strolling around Saint-Denis. Home to about a fifth of the island’s 860,000 residents, the city is notorious for its rush-hour traffic but easy enough to take in on foot. Bookended by the old, neoclassical hôtel de ville (city hall) and a neatly landscaped botanical garden, Rue de Paris is fronted by handsome 19th-century Creole villas in various states of decay or restoration; one, Musée Léon Dierx, houses an impressive collection of modern French and Réunionnais art, including pieces by Renoir and Gauguin. Elsewhere, we pass a mosque, a Tamil temple, a church, and a Chinese pagoda in quick succession. Réunion’s cultural diversity is also reflected in our meal at Lé Gadiamb, a little Creole restaurant decked out with vintage bric-à-brac. Jérôme orders smoked pork sausages in rougail, a spicy tomato-based stew; I have the coq gadiamb, a chicken dish marinated in anisette, all served with basmati rice, lentils, sautéed water spinach, and an intense green chili paste called piment écrasé. Happily sated, I decline the chef’s sweet-potato cake, but to no avail. “Goni vid tien pa debout,” he says in Réunion Creole, explaining with a wink, “It means, ‘an empty bag cannot stand up.’”
I spend my last afternoon at leisure at the LUX* Saint Gilles. The hammock on my balcony beckons, as does the lagoon, its azure waters unruffled and inviting. At the poolside bar there’s a sampling of housemade rhum arrangé, the fruit- and spice-infused spirit loved by locals. Back on the beach, I watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean, painting the sky in shades of gold and lavender. Dinner that night is in the hotel’s more formal French restaurant, Orangine, set under a massively beamed ceiling next to the pool. I order a ballotine of foie gras and a silken fillet of légine (toothfish) with carrot mousseline and saffron foam, plus a glass of something crisp and white from the Gallic-leaning wine list. Dessert is a baba au rhum that the waiter expertly douses in flaming rum. I spoon up every ounce and then wander back through the gardens to my suite, where I go to bed early in preparation for one last adventure.
At 7 a.m. sharp, the helicopter lifts off from the heights above Saint-Gilles and swoops toward the mountains. All five passengers gasp as we enter the great ravine of the Rivière des Galets, green cliffs on either side of us. We gasp again over the Cirque de Mafate, and yet again when the chopper drops down into the Trou de Fer (Iron Hole), a deep gorge laced with plunging waterfalls. Heading south, the pilot flies us over a sea of clouds to the barren volcanic zone, circling the yawning Dolomieu crater before heading back to the west coast over a tapestry of sugarcane fields and scattered villages.
Earthbound once more, I head straight for the airport, where I bid adieu to Jérôme and his remarkable island home. In no time at all I’m back in Mauritius, sipping cocktails on a palm-shaded beach on the north coast. But my mind is still on Réunion, and the many wonders that I left behind.
A Rendezvous with Réunion
From Southeast Asia, the easiest route is via nearby Mauritius, home to the largest airport in this corner of the Indian Ocean. The island nation’s flag carrier, Air Mauritius, flies twice-weekly between its home base and Kuala Lumpur using a state-of-the-art Airbus A330-200 with 18 full-flat business-class seats and 236 economy-class seats with good legroom. The airline’s Réunion service—a 50-minute hop in an ATR turboprop—operates multiple times a day. Once on the ground, rental cars are easy enough to arrange, but for a chauffeur-driven experience, you won’t do better than Jérôme Dijoux.
WHERE TO STAY
LUX* Saint Gilles
Nestled on a coral-sheltered lagoon, Réunion’s only five-star beach resort features Creole-style architecture set amid seven tree-studded hectares. Quietly elegant, it offers a welcome refuge after a day of exploring, with three restaurants, outdoor massage pavilions, and the island’s largest swimming pool (doubles from US$479, including breakfast).
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
As remarkable as it is at ground level, Réunion’s volcanic landscape can only be fully appreciated from on high. Flightseeing helicopter tours are a staple of the island’s tourism scene; the largest operator, Hélilagon, offers a variety of tours including Le Must, a thrilling 55-minute circuit over all three cirques, the Trou de Fer canyon, and Piton de la Fournaise.
Mascarin Jardin Botanique de La Réunion
These 12 hectares of Edenic abundance also host a historic estate house and an excellent Creole restaurant.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Drop in the Ocean”).