Reunion Island is a French department in the Indian Ocean. It’s located just off the east coast of Africa, about 175km from Mauritius. What makes it different from a French settlement or colony, is that it’s currently run by the French government as a part of France. Everything from the zip code to the infrastructure and currency (the Euro) is exactly as you would find in France. So while you may be imagining rural villages and dirt roads, in reality, you’ll find an island with well-maintained highways and a very distinct French culture. Here’s the ultimate guide to Reunion Island, to help you plan your trip.
The Ultimate Guide to Reunion Island
The island is 2500km² big, and home to just over 800 000 people. Much of the eastern side of the island is taken by the Piton de la Fournaise – one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The island itself was formed through an eruption, and the volcano has erupted regularly since the 1600’s, with the most recent eruption happening in September 0f 2016. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is closely monitored by seismic experts around the year. It poses no threat to inhabitants, who all live in the north, south and west, protected by the shield of the volcano in the east.
What to expect
For such a small island, Reunion is unbelievably diverse. With 200 microclimates across the island, the vegetation and landscape change around every bend. From the desert island-like beaches in the west, to a rainforest climate in the interior, and a moon-like landscape at the volcano in the east.
If you’re expecting another Mauritius-like resort island, think again. There is heaps to do outside of your accommodation and visitors and locals are often exploring from sunrise to sunset. Hiking, cycling, paragliding, snorkeling and diving, kayaking – pretty much any activity you can think of is on offer really. The climate is pretty great all year, with the hot and dry months being May to November and the hot and wet months being November to April.
The culture is very French, with cute bakeries and patisseries everywhere. The grocery stores are stocked with French cheese and cured meat, and incredible fresh produce (volcanic islands make for some seriously fertile soil). There is also a very strong Creole influence, with people of African, Indian, European, Malagasy and Chinese heritage living together in absolute peace. The restaurants normally offer a variety of French and Creole cuisine, ranging duck l’orange to Creole stews.
I definitely recommend spending a night in the capital of Reunion Island, Saint Denis. It’s the part of the island that feels most like France, with lots of shopping and a great little square where you can have drinks and enjoy the vibe. We just found a place that looked decent and affordable on Booking.com, since it was only one night. Try go on the weekend, when there will be lots of people around. If your flight is on a weekday morning, definitely stay over in Saint Denis the night before, since peak hour traffic from the west can take hours.
When to go
The island is normally packed with visitors from the Metropole (mainland France) during the European summer holidays, so it’s ideal for South African visitors to go in the shoulder periods in early July or late August. The Christmas/New Year period is also jam-packed, with the island’s New Year’s Eve party regarded as one of the biggest and best in Europe. Personally, I love a little mid-winter break to a tropical climate, so I loved going at the end of August. This is also a more budget-friendly time of year, with accommodation being more affordable for South African visitors. If you want to go in peak season, make sure you book your accommodation and especially your car well in advance.
What to budget
Because the currency is the Euro, South Africans often automatically expect the island to be expensive. But we found the prices to be on par with – and sometimes even below – Cape Town prices. Beers ranged from 1,5€ to 3€ based on whether we were at a fancy beach bar or a local market. Meals were sometimes as low as 7€ for a Creole feast of rougail saucisse (a delicious sausage stew) with lentils or beans and rice. As with any destination, shopping at a grocery store and self-catering is a super affordable way to holiday. We spent around R15 000 – R18 000 each, split between 5 of us, sharing the cost of accommodation, car hire, fuel, and food for the house. We each put money into a kitty at the beginning of the holiday, which we used to shop for food and drinks for the house and fuel, topping it up whenever it ran out.
As with any destination, shopping at a grocery store and self-catering is a super affordable way to holiday. We were self-catering, and our first big household shop, for a trolley full to the brim, cost around R1500. In total, we spent around R15 000 – R20 000 each, split between 5 of us, sharing the cost of accommodation, car hire, fuel, and food for the house on a 10 day holiday. We each put money into a kitty at the beginning of the holiday, which we used to shop for food and drinks for the house and fuel, topping it up whenever it ran out.
Here’s what we each spent:
Flights: R5500 (On board Air Austral, direct from Johannesburg *My flight was sponsored by the Reunion Island Tourism Board)
Car hire: R1900 (On a big 8 seater car that could fit all our luggage from the airport)
Accommodation: R6500 (for 9 nights in a 3 bedroom house on the beach with a pool and loads of room for entertaining)
Fuel: R500 (we did a lot of driving, but our car was relatively light on fuel)
Activities: R3700 (for an overnight hike, a half-day of guided canyoning and a helicopter tour *My helicopter flight was sponsored by the Reunion Island Tourism Board)
Food and other costs: R3000
Most importantly, South Africans don’t need a visa! So even though you’re technically visiting Europe, you’re saving almost R2000 on that Schengen. You can fly direct from Johannesburg on board Air Austral twice a week. My top tip for finding cheap flights is to follow the airline on social media and sign up to their newsletter, so you’re the first to know about special deals. Flights go for a steal several times a year, so you don’t want to miss out. You’ll also need to book a car, so make sure you get your international drivers license. This is super easy to do and you can actually apply online through the AA.
Where to stay
There are a few resorts on the island, but you won’t find the kinds of all-inclusive packages that made Mauritius famous in Reunion. The LUX* Saint Gilles is right on the beach and has some incredible long-stay rates for shoulder season periods, if you’re looking for a little luxury. If you’re travelling in a group, self-catering is the way to go. I’d recommend booking in the west, in Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains and surrounds. This is the beachy part of the island, with a local weekend market, a few stunning beach bars and some great restaurants. We stayed in this awesome Airbnb that had everything we needed and gave us the opportunity to live like locals. Check out the other properties I added to my Reunion Island Airbnb Wish List here.
Planning your trip
After 5 trips, I’ve done almost everything there is to do on the island. This was my first trip with a group of friends, so I couldn’t wait to put together an itinerary that shows off the best the island has to offer. I like a good mix of relaxing and exploring, so this itinerary will give you some time to soak up the sun between seeing the island hi and low.
Day 1: Travel Day
Day 2: Beach Day
Breakfast at home and an early morning dip in the pool. Beach day at l’Hermitage in Saint-Gilles. Light lunch on the beach – sandwiches cost around 4€ each from a beachfront restaurant. Shop for groceries for the house at Score in Saint Gilles. Easy dinner and drinks at home.
Day 3: Volcano and the Wild South
Early breakfast at home. Drive up to Piton de la Fournaise (the peak of the volcano) for views and lunar landscapes. You need to arrive before midday in order to see the landscape before the clouds roll in. Enjoy a Creole lunch at Panoramic in Bourg Murat. Lunch costs 25€ for a starter, main & dessert and 5€ for wine. Drive home along the Wild South and stop for views and photos along the way.
Day 4: Saint Paul Market (open on Fridays and Saturdays)
Skip breakfast and head to the famous Saint Paul Market to shop for souvenirs and taste local and French food. Definitely, try the bouchon gratiné – a local specialty of steamed dumplings on a bread roll, covered in cheese sauce and grilled. Shop for a potluck dinner where each person spends a set amount on what they’d like to see on the dinner table. Relaxed afternoon and sunset drinks at Coco Beach or Bucan Canot. The locals all come to the beach for sunset on the weekend so there is a great vibe. Dinner made from local ingredients at home.
Day 5: Canyoning
Drive to Langevin to meet the canyoning guide and get dressed up in wetsuits, helmets and life jackets. Spend the morning jumping off cliffs and waterfalls, and swimming in icy rock pools. Dinner at Chez Herman in Saint Gilles (don’t miss it!)
Day 6: Beach Day & Traditional Dinner
Breakfast at home. Relaxed morning of snorkelling and swimming in the lagoon at l’Hermitage in Saint-Gilles. Traditional dinner at La Bonne Marmite – a buffet restaurant featuring 15 different traditional and local dishes to choose from. Dinner costs €32 for a huge buffet, a couple of alcoholic or soft drinks, coffee and dessert. Lunch is cheaper, if you’re trying to save cash for more rum.
Day 7: Hike to Mafate
Wake up early to leave by 7am for the two-hour drive to the starting point of the hike to Mafate at the car park called Col des Bœufs. Leave your car here for a cost of 10€ for 24 hours. Hike for 2,5 hours to La Nouvelle. Spend the night in La Nouvelle in Mafate. Hike out the next morning. Drive back to the West Coast through Salazie and Hell-Bourg Village (classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France). Read my full guide to hiking on Reunion Island here.
Day 8: Transparent Kayaking at La Saline les Bains
Wake up early and head to the beach at La Saline les Bains for a guided kayaking experience in a transparent kayak. Those people who have their own kayaking equipment might be interested in looking at different types of kayak trailer for sale, so you can enjoy this beach and other beaches around the island. However, with this experience day, we were also given lunch on the beach.
Day 9: Helicopter Experience and exploring Saint Denis
Head to the Corail Helicopter airport for the experience of a lifetime flying over the island. We were so happy we got a helicopter tour, it was just as amazing as my friend told me when she got one from somewhere similar to this Self Fly helicopter hire, but I digress. Drive to Saint Denis and check into your accommodation. There’s a great market to pick up some last-minute souvenirs and grab a beer, but bear in mind that pretty much everything is closed between 12pm and 2pm. Check out the square behind the cathedral for drinks and then head to Apoteek for dinner.
Day 10: Travel day
You can read more about the top 10 things to do in Reunion Island, with more detail about each activity, here.
I hope you’ve found my ultimate guide to Reunion Island helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below.