Set adrift in the vast Indian Ocean, Réunion Island – which belongs to France – is actually closer to Madagascar (and Mauritius) than it is to anywhere in Europe. And as an island destination, its selling point is not about sandy beaches or stilted cha- lets above the water – this is because Reunion has what most other islands lack: adventure. When approaching the island, it’s easy to see why – rugged cloud-covered mountains blanket much of the island, relegating most of the human habitation towards its coastline. And it’s these mountains that basically provide much of the adventure, whether you’re hiking along its steep trails, rappelling down its waterfalls, or canyoning along its rivers.
LAND OF THE CIRQUES
The easiest way to see the true majesty of the island is from a helicopter (Corail; €210, 25 mins) – as you rise to the mountain ridgeline, nothing can prepare you for that first glimpse of this geologic wonder. From the air, you can actually see that much of Réunion Island owes its creation to volcanoes, with the most impressive being Piton des Neiges (Réunion’s tallest mountain at 3,071m) that created 3 breathtaking cirques (bowl-shaped craters) in roughly the centre of the island: Salazie, Mafate,and Cilaos.
These 3 interconnected cirques look like a 3-leaf clover from the air, each encircled by a ridgeline of tall cliffs (remparts). Rugged mountain scenery is interrupted by the occasional canyon where waterfalls reside, and isolated villages sprinkled onto random plateaus.
These hamlets were established mostly by slaves who managed to escape in
the late 18th century. Unsurprisingly, a great way to explore the cirques is via a number of footpaths and hiking trails, where hikers can fuel up and overnight in gîtes (dorms) along the way. From casual afternoon walks
to multiple-week treks, Réunion has no shortage of trails. In addition to a number of footpaths, there are 3 long-distance trails: the GRR1 loops around all 3 of the cirques, the GRR2 traverses the entire island from St. Denis in the north to St Philippe in the south (traversing all 3 cirques and skirting Piton de la Fournaise along the way), and the GRR3 which encircles Cirque de Mafate.
CIRQUE DE MAFATE
The most remote of Réunion’s cirques, Mafate is surrounded by jagged remparts, criss-crossed with deep ravines, and studded with waterfall ridges. Thanks to its topography, there are no roads here; the sprinkling of hamlets that are scattered in this giant extinct volcano are only accessible on foot (or helicopter).
There are more than 140 km of hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty. All of Reunion’s long-distance hiking trails – GRR1, GRR2 and GRR3 – as well as a number of hiking paths encircle Cirque de Mafate’s ridgeline at different points. A number of gîtes are also available along the trails for overnight options, and needless to say, you can spend a couple of hours or even a week on the trails in Mafate alone. Hiking in Mafate involves steep hikes, but the the jaw-dropping scenery – kilometre-high waterfalls, tiny villages perched on plateaus, and row upon row of jagged mountain peaks – are worth every calorie.
CIRQUE DE CILAOS
There’s also a sprinkling of hamlets in Cilaos, but unlike Mafate, its main town is accessible via the RN5 – a major road that snakes steeply up to the cirque from the coastal town of St Louis, taking you around over 400 twists and turns for an unending stream of impressively scenic views.
The town of Cilaos itself is a mountain resort at 1,200m above sea level, and a unique spa town since the 19th century. These days, it’s focused on tourism – particularly hiking and canyoning – as well as agriculture. There are two tiny villages within the cirque – Îlet à Cordes
and Bras-Sec – which are popular hiking destinations; the former is known
for its lentils which have been cultivated
here since 1835.
Cilaos is a popular starting point for over 80kms of footpaths that snake
around this cirque, ranging from easy trails around the cryptomeria forest, to more difficult ones involving a climb to the top of the Piton des Neiges, as well as the long-distance hiking paths of GRR1 and GRR2.
CIRQUE DE SALAZIE
Salazie is the easiest of the 3 cirques to access by road, and the journey
offers vistas of soaring cliffs sliced by rivers and thundering waterfalls, like the scenic Cascade Blanche. Salazie is also home to the pretty village of Hell-Bourg, a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (‘The most beautiful villages in France’). Surrounded by rugged mountains, this village consists of restored pastel-coloured Creole villas, complete with verandahs and quintessential Réunionnais details. There is also the remains of an old thermal spa not far from town.
Salazie is also the wettest of the 3 cirques, which makes it ideal for canyoning trips. The picturesque canyon of Trou Blanc near Hell-Bourg is Réunion’s most iconic canyoning spot. Beginning with a narrow gorge,the aquatic canyon opens up to a magnificent scenery. The abundance of natural slides and jumps – with names like ‘Washing Machine’ and ‘Vavavoum’ – culminate in a final abseil of 20m down a narrow
FIRE AND EARTH
While Piton des Neiges is dormant, Réunion’s only other volcano happens to
be one of the most active in the world. Occupying a large chunk on the east of the island, the Piton de la Fournaise is a large shield volcano (basically, one that emits fluid lava rather than just ash) that last erupted in January this year; to get an idea of its volatility, it erupted in 2015, 2010, 2008, 2007 and 2006. When it isn’t active, however, the area is a haven for hikers.
PITON DE LA FOURNAISE
Also known (aptly) as The Volcano, Piton de la Fournaise last erupted in
January this year, and has produced more than 150 recorded eruptions since the 17th century. Situated within the UNESCO-protected Réunion National Park, the most impressive aspect of this region is its drastically different landscape – Piton de la Fournaise is reminiscent of a red-earthed moonscape which is dotted with craters of different sizes and heights.
To get a glimpse of this expansive landscape, follow the forestry road all the way up to Pas de Bellecombe (2,311m), situated over the caldera rim cliffs, for an expansive view of the northeast part of the caldera. There is a snack shop and a gîte here. All hikers start from the car park at Bellecombe where plenty of hiking trails originate – it’s better to arrive early in the morning to avoid the thick fog that shrouds the area by noon.
A hike in the caldera begins with a stair- way path that descends from the rim to the caldera floor where the surrounding crater walls loom around you. A number of routes are marked by white paint on rock, and a hike inside the crater takes about 5 hours. The first site is the tiny 18th century
Formica Leo crater, followed by Chapel Rosemont, which is a large mound
of lava. From here, the trail forks: the right leads to the steeper Crater Bory
(2,631m) which takes 45 minutes to hike to; to the left you’ll encounter some
stunning scenery while you spiral the flanks of Crater Bory as you continue
towards Crater Dolomieu (1.5 hours).
Le Grand Brûlé
When Piton de la Fournaise erupts, the lava flows through the plain of Le
Grand Brûlé before hitting the ocean. The lower parts of the Grand Brûlé can be visited from the coastal N2 highway, which has signs documenting the lava flows in the area. Here, the surrounding landscape is a mix of barren black rocks of hardened lava, dotted with portions of greenery (volcanic rock is very fertile). Erupting lava will cut across the N2, so it has to be rebuilt after each incident. You can also visit the bowels of the earth, following the route of the lava as it flows from Piton de la Fournaise to the sea. There are a number of lava tubes in the area, and the most recent one open to the public is one from the 2004 eruption. A number of tube tours are available, ranging from 3-hour ‘discovery’ visits (about 1.6km) to 6-hour ‘sporty’ excursions.
While much of the attraction seems to be inland, the coast also offers plenty
of action. If you’re based in the west coast, considered the ‘dry’ portion of the island, the coastal waters are renowned for their coral reefs (particularly around the northwest), where you can snorkel or dive. It’s worth noting that you should only swim at signposted beaches, since the currents/waves can be dangerous in some areas. However, diving is not the only activity – at St. Gilles-les-Bains, a popular resort area, you’ll see plenty of surfers along the shoreline. The Le Saint-Alexis hotel and spa at St. Gilles-le-Bains makes a good base: it has a unique architecture – with its very accessible pool and jacuzzi baths in all rooms – and seafront location where you can observe surfers in action. Further down the coast at St. Leu, it’s a popular area for kitesurfing, as well as paragliding, thanks to its excellent
wind conditions. Numerous paragliding operators offer tandem paragliding trips as well as lessons.
A unique aspect of Reunion is its culture. First settled in the 17th century by French settlers and Malagasy slaves, Réunion today is a true melting pot of
east and west, with settlers who came here from other parts of Africa, Arabia, India, and China.
Today, multi-ethnic families are quite common, making up a third of the population, creating a unique Creole identity. Creole is more than just a widely spoken language – it manifests in dances, as well as cuisine, like the ubiquitous carri (curry) which is served with rice, and samosas. Lunch or dinner buffets offer a variety of carri dishes, which is often served with rhum arrangés (rum infused with fruits and spices).
The Grand Raid de la Réunion, also known as “The Madmen’s Diagonal”, is a mountain ultra-marathon which takes place annually in October on Réunion. The 162km route traverses the entire island – following the GRR2 trail – from Cap Méchant in the south to St. Denis in the north, climbing up to Piton de la Fournaise, as well as all 3 cirques along the way. With an elevation gain of almost 10,000m, it’s an iconically challenging race – the record holder completed the route in just under 24 hours.
To get to Réunion Island, you can fly to Mauritius (7 hours), from where there are shuttle services to Réunion (1 hour). For more on Réunion, visit www.france.fr or en.reunion.fr. Air Mauritius (www.airmauritius.com) will
celebrate its 50th anniversary this June,and is currently the most convenient way to access the islands of the Indian Ocean (like Réunion) and countries of eastern and southern Africa.