I used to think that it was impossible to identify the most beautiful place we’ve visited this year. There’s just too much beauty in the world. How do you judge the beaches of Mauritius against the limestone peaks of Halong Bay or the stunning countryside near Lalibella? That was before we arrived on the remote island of Reunion, one of the farthest-flung outposts of France.
As our bus left the coastline highway bordering the sapphire ocean and began its arduous climb around hills covered in deep green vegetation and shrouded in mist, I realized I had been wrong. I had found the most beautiful place of the year: Reunion. Not its beaches, which pale in comparison to those of Mauritius, but its green hills and mountains that play hide and seek in the clouds, coming out to show off in the early morning sun before slipping away coyly behind layers of fluffy vapor. The place is magical.
It is also rarely visited by Anglophones, particularly Americans. The small jewel of an island gets about 400,000 tourists per year, but the majority are French, while the rest are mostly Continental Europeans. “You’re American?” Our taxi driver asked curiously. “We don’t get many of those. I’ve met three or four in the past ten years.”
There are good reasons for this dearth of Anglophones. Reunion is far from the US, and expensive to reach. As a part of France, its official language is French, and you’re much less likely to find English-speakers here than in Paris or Versailles. And if you want to prepare for your trip with online research, most of what you find will be in French.
But if you like hiking, have a minimal grasp of French, and are prepared to fly a seriously far distance, then put Reunion on your travel bucket list. And to aid any Anglophones out there planning a trip to Reunion, here’s our short guide to the island.
Getting There and Around
You’ll fly into Roland Garros International Airport near Saint Denis, the capital.
The pros and cons of renting a car: Is it necessary to rent a car? Nearly everyone writing online says to rent a car, and Lonely Planet highly recommends it. There are many benefits to having a car on the island: the public transportation system won’t get you everywhere (including to Piton de la Fournaise, the volcano that is Reunion’s largest tourist attraction); taxis are excruciatingly expensive; and a car provides greater flexibility with timing and destinations.
However, if you plan carefully, don’t mind skipping some smaller towns, and aren’t intimidated by multiple bus transfers, then it’s not necessary to have a car and you will almost definitely save money. You’ll also avoid the aggravation of driving on tight mountain roads and of searching for parking spots, and you might even free up time for hiking, since you’ll be less tempted to move around every day or two. And since you often have to book accommodations far in advance, you won’t lose too much in schedule flexibility by not having a car.
If you’re not renting a car, just make sure that you plan carefully before you arrive. In our case, we decided to not rent a car, so after carefully scouring the Lonely Planet guidebook, we picked two places – Cilaos and Hell-Bourg – that we thought we could access by bus and minibus. It turns out that the poorly worded explanation in the guidebook was misleading. Although we could reach each town on multiple buses from Saint Denis, we couldn’t take a minibus between the two cities: despite their close proximity, no road goes between them, so you either have to embark on a two-day hike or take the road that goes around the island, requiring either 5 separate buses or a very expensive (170 euros!) taxi. To save time, we opted for the taxi. Despite its painful price tag, this combination of public buses and one private taxi actually ended up being cheaper than had we rented a car for the entire week we were on the island. (And if we had only used public transportation, our transportation costs would have been much cheaper. To get from the airport to Cilaos, we took one shuttle and two buses, with the combined price of less than 10 euros per person.)
Renting a car: If you plan to rent a car, you can book online before you arrive and pick it up at the airport. If you do not have a European license, you must bring a copy of your International Drivers Permit with you. Also, Americans, note that cars with automatic transmission are generally more expensive to rent, so you’re better off if you know how to drive manual!
Public transportation: From the airport, your best option for getting to Saint Denis’s Ocean bus station or into the city center is taking the shuttle (“navette”) for 4 euros/person. The schedule is available online here. To find the shuttle stop, walk out the main doors of the airport and turn to your right; you’ll see a sign for the navette stop at the end of drive. Once on the navette, the Ocean bus station is the first stop, while the city center is the second (and last) stop.
To get out of Saint Denis, take a Car Jaune public bus from the Ocean Bus Station. You can find their schedules online here. To use the schedules, you have to figure out which line you’ll be on, which can be slightly confusing because several different lines might stop at the same cities. Alternatively, just show up at the station, say where you want to go, and the ticket seller will tell you which line to take and when the next bus is leaving.
To get to certain cities, you may have to switch to a different bus company in a connecting city, where you’ll buy your onward ticket. For example, our first trip was from Saint Denis to Cilaos. We purchased our Car Jaune bus tickets from Saint Denis to Saint Louis for about 3.20 euros/person. Once in Saint Louis, we bought tickets from a separate company to get to Cilaos; each cost about 1.40 euros. You can find an overview of these smaller bus companies here.
Main Attractions and Where to Go
Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano, is one of the biggest tourist attractions on the island. It’s also difficult to reach without your own car, unless you’re willing to try your luck with hitchhiking, which a few people on travel forums say they have done successfully.
Hiking is the real draw here. Your best bet is to head to one or more of the three “cirques,” beautiful canyon areas carved from ancient volcanoes. All are filled with excellent hiking opportunities, meandering through forests, past rivers, and over steep ascents. Cirque de Cilaos and Cirque de Salazie are accessible by road, whereas Cirque de Mafate can only be reached on foot. We met a man who was born and raised in Cirque de Cilaos, but who had never visited the neighboring Cirque de Mafate because he didn’t like to walk!
The Office of Tourism in each town can give you a map and/or directions for local hikes. While some people hike from town to town, most seemed to do day hikes. (Our one specific hiking tip that we wish someone had given us: if you hike from Hell-Bourg to Trou de Fer, you have the option of taking the sentier or the piste to Trou de Fer once you arrive at Gite de Belouve. The sentier, which goes through the forest and much more mud, is slightly more scenic but definitely more difficult than the piste.)
Looking for even more activity? There are a number of other sports you can try out as well. Depending on where you go, you can find canyoning, hang gliding, white water rafting, and surfing.
The island has beaches, of course, but I wouldn’t fly all the way here just for the sand. The neighboring island of Mauritius, less than 45 minutes away by plane, is a better beach destination.
The most important thing to know about finding accommodations is that, if you want to have the best choices and don’t want to stay in a dorm room, then you should to book far in advance. We failed to do this, assuming wrongly that since it wasn’t during the French holidays, we wouldn’t have a problem. This is one place where we feel like we screwed up; contacting places only 3 weeks in advance, we struggled to find good value, non-dorm options that weren’t fully booked. On some French forums, I found people who said they had booked five months in advance! But don’t worry: if you fail to book far in advance, rest assured that you’ll likely be able to find something; we noticed some last-minute cancellations that freed up rooms at both gites where we stayed.
Tripadvisor and Reunion’s official tourism site both list a range of accommodation options. Some towns also have their own website listing accommodation options, though not always in English. For example, Cilaos lists local accommodation options here (under “herbergements”).
Eating and Drinking
Reunion’s food did not impress us, though if you’re a fan of French food (which we’re not), you might have a better time. The food is generally a mix of French and local Creole, with many imported ingredients.
Restaurant prices are generally high, and we found that it was much more economical to buy groceries and self-cater as much as possible – particularly for breakfast. (Since we didn’t have kitchens, bananas, granola, and peanut butter, which I brought from Mauritius, were my go-to staples). Boulangeries generally offer baguette sandwiches, which are great for cheap lunches or hiking picnics.
Local wine has been improving, but if you order traditional local wine, be ready for something that is so sickly sweet that it tastes like fake grape juice. Someone told me that they add 50 kilos of sugar to each wine barrel to make it drinkable. Not sure if that’s true, but diabetics (and everyone else) beware.
Of everywhere we ate, there are three places I’d recommend: the bakery in Cilaos on rue du Père Boiteau across the street from the Tsilaosa Hotel (check out their pain chocolat banane!) and the creperie in Hell-Bourg. Both were excellent and good value. Ti Chouchou, also in Hell-Bourg, was another good option.
If you don’t speak any French, you might struggle. If so, head to the tourist office in each city or town that you visit; one employee generally speaks English and will get you sorted out. (As a general note, the tourist offices were very helpful; we stopped by in each city we visited to ask advice about hiking, transportation, etc. In Saint-Denis, they even called a taxi for us when we failed to find one on the street!)
Want more pictures? Check out our album here.