If you follow me on Twitter and Instagram, you would have seen that I recently spent a week on the ridiculously beautiful Reunion Island. It was my fourth visit to this magical Indian Ocean Island and even though I thought I’d seen it all, Reunion still absolutely blew me away with new experiences and treasures.
Reunion Island is a French department (or province) in the Indian Ocean. It is about 200km’s off the coast of Mauritius and a four hour flight from Johannesburg. South African citizens don’t need to apply for a visa to visit and can stay for up to three months. The island is famous for a warm, crystal clear lagoon and challenging and beautiful hiking trials. Not to mention an active volcano which can safely be viewed and even hiked. It’s also very famous for surfing, but recently the sport has been banned due to sharks.
The island has a very French vibe, blended with island energy. The roads and infrastructure are in perfect shape, due to the fact that the French government runs the island as if it were right in the heart of France. No potholes or shanty towns on this island.
The currency is the Euro and the food is a mixture of French and Creole flavours, with a lot of seafood thrown in. Think vanilla and coconut fish steamed in a banana leaf. The languages are French and Creole. Some people speak a bit of English, but it’s best to arrive knowing a few basic French phrases like “water” and “where can I find cold beer?”.
The island seems to run on rum, which is produced from the sugar cane crops grown almost everywhere along the west coast. It’s served in many varieties at the beginning of a meal, during a meal and after a meal. Local restaurants and bars take great pride in blending their own “rhum arrangés” or rum arrangement, which is made by infusing a bottle of the traditional Charrette rum with vanilla, coffee beans, fruits or even the fragrant leaves of indigenous orchids, called “Faham”.
The local beer is called Bourbon, after the island’s original name, but the locals call it Le Dodo, thanks to its colourful and iconic logo. It is delicious and served almost everywhere you can find food or drink. It’s legal to drink beer on the beach or walking the streets and in the humid heat, you’ll need it.
The volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and it is closely monitored around the clock by a team of experts. It’s located on the south side of the island, away from where people live. It’s boiling heart is set inside a large caldera, so lava flows straight into the ocean, making it safe for people to live on the island. In 2015 it has been particularly active, and we even had the opportunity to see it spewing lava as we flew over in a helicopter with local company Helilagon.
The vegetation ranges from lush tropical forest at the coast to almost moon-like landscapes near the peak of the volcano. In the small cirque (island within the island) of Salazie, you’ll see hundreds of waterfalls and tropical flowers you’ve never seen before. The island has more than 200 microclimates, which is a lot considering it’s only 2500 km2 big.
Visiting Reunion Island
If this sounds like your idea of the dream holiday destination, here are the details you’ll need to make your trip a reality.
Air Austral flies direct from Johannesburg to Saint Denis every week. Flight prices vary depending on availability, but you can sometimes get a return ticket for under R6000. I just want to say here that the food on Air Austral is probably the best airline food I’ve ever had. On the way to the island we had a salad of asparagus and artichokes, followed by beef fillet cooked to perfection. You’ll need your passport, but don’t need to worry about a visa.
There are a variety of accommodation options on the island. If you’re looking for 5 star, LUX Saint Gilles is right on the beach and is the final word in luxury on the island.
I’ve stayed at Les Filaos whic is basic but really close to the beach and has a pool, free wifi and easy access to a big grocery store (they also offer special rates for South Africans, so make sure you enquire about that). My favourite accommodation option is self-catering. On my last visit we stayed at a little holiday villa called Talitakoum, which had two bedrooms, but could sleep 6 if two people stayed on a sleeper couch.
Accommodation on the island is generally not very luxurious. Rooms and amenities are basic and the idea is that you spend most of your time away from home. There’s so much to do on the island that you’ll probably be out by 8am and back ready to pass out, like we were.
You can rent a small car at the airport for around 35 Euro per day. You’ll need an international driver’s license and you’ll have to get used to driving on the right (wrong) side of the road. But if I can do it, you can do it!
Eating out can cost up to about 35 Euro per person at restaurants, but you can eat for much cheaper. A plate of Creole tapas including samoosas, pork dumplings and falafels costs about 8 Euro. Baguesttes on the beach (cheese, ham, tomato) cost 4 Euro. Shopping at the grocery store for baguettes, ham, cheese, butter, fruit and salad costs about 26 Euro and will feed 8 people. Beer costs from 90 cents and the grocery store to 4 Euro at restaurants.
Most of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Park, but you won’t be paying entrance or permit fees anywhere. Hiking, swimming (in the lagoon), viewing the volcano; it’s all free. In fact, it’s legal and free to camp anywhere on the island, for one night at a time. So as long as you keep moving, you could see most of the island with very limited accommodation costs.
There are hundreds of waterfalls and rock pools all over the island, over 1000km’s of hiking trails and a free outdoor aquarium in the lagoon to choose from. The bulk of your money would be better spent on the two most exciting things to do on the island; a helicopter flip (350 Euro for an hour) and a paragliding flight (75 Euro for 40 minutes). The very best way to get some kind of idea of the many different micro climates and the scale of the island is from the air. And if your flight there is only costing you R6000, it’s worth adding the R4000 for the helicopter flight, I promise you. I even cried!
Hiking is super popular on the island and thousands of people fly over from France every year to tackle the tough, yet rewarding trails. We hiked for three days, starting at Salazie, into the remote cirque of Mafate, where 700 people live. The villages in Mafate are accessible only by foot, which makes hiking there so special. It’s a truly unique experience and even though there were times I thought I would not survive during the hike, I did and I lived to tell of its beauty.
As I said, hiking is free and you don’t need a permit. It’s a good idea to study your hiking map thoroughly and to either learn a few French phrases or keep a phrase book with you (or most likely an app on your phone). The trails are clearly marked out though, so you should be fine.
Along the way you stay in what the locals call “gites”; little mountain lodges. Accommodation ranges from hostel rooms (17 Euro per night) to private rooms and needs to be booked well in advance. Dinner is served long-table style in the early evening and consists of traditional food like choux choux gratin (a potato bake-like dish) and sausage stew served with rice and lentils. And of course, rum.
Breakfast is most often coffee and bread and each village has a little bakery where you can buy sandwiches for lunch. So if you don’t like bread, make sure you pack loads of other food.
Guides are wonderful, but pricey. If you’ve got the budget, definitely go for it, but if you’re strapped for cash, it’s not the end of the world. Guides cost around 250 Euro per day, so if you can get a group together and split the cost, that would be best. The great thing about having a guide is that you have someone to translate. They also take out special insurance in case of emergency on the mountain – which means you’re covered if a helicopter needs to fly you out. But as always, make sure you have your own travel insurance as an added safety.
This is one of my favourite things to do on the island (in South Africa it’s know as kloofing). Basically, you get dressed in a wetsuit, shoes, helmet and lifejacket, then you hike up to the top of a canyon, before jumping into it. Then you jump down waterfalls, slip through rock pools and wash your way back down to the bottom. You’ll need to do this with a company, and you can expect to pay around 35 Euro for the day. I’ve been twice with RUN Adventures and I highly recommend them.
If you’re planning a trip to Reunion and have any questions, feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them. Look out for a detailed post about our incredible hiking trip, coming soon.
Estimated costs for travelling to Reunion Island
Flights: R6000 return
Visa: Free! Yay!
Accommodation: R6000 per week, sleeps up to six people, self catering
Car: R450 per day
Helicopter flight: R4000
Eating out: R150 – R800 per meal
Shopping at a grocery store: R400 for a basic meal that feeds eight people
Wine: Around R150 per bottle from a grocery store. More at a restaurant, but it depends on the quality
Rum: Around R165 per bottle from a grocery store and R60 per serving at a restaurant. Often the aperitif and digestives are complementary as part of a set menu
Accommodation: R250 per night (hostel beds)
Permits: Free! Yay!
Dinner: R375 per night (huge dinner plus water and rum)
Breakfast: R120 per day (bread, coffee, juice)
Lunch: R60 per day
Guide: R3000 – R4000 per day