The best of Reunion Island – guide and itinerary

The phenomenal view of Piton de Neiges from Le Maïdo.

Réunion Island is located in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and southwest of the island nation of Mauritius. Known for Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and its breathtaking mountains and calderas, Réunion Island is home to an incredible diversity of landscapes and micro-climates, a melting pot of cultures, bustling towns and stunning beaches. The main entry point is the Roland Garros International Airport in St. Denis, the capital city. From here, many adventures await for those who want to explore this diverse island! I’ve explored the length and breadth of this island and based on my trips, I’ve compiled this guide of the best places to visit in Reunion Island. These places can be visited on a comfortable 10-day self-drive itinerary – scroll down for a day-by-day overview of this suggested Reunion Island itinerary.

Best Places to Visit on Reunion Island

This Réunion Island guide contains links to three services I often use myself and can recommend: Booking.com (for hotel bookings), Rentalcars.com (for car hire) and GetYourGuide (for easy-to-book tours). If you make a booking via one of these services, I will receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). These commissions help me to maintain my blog and share more travel experiences with you.

The Roland Garros Airport in Saint Denis is Réunion Island’s main point of entry. The car rental agencies are all located in a separate building opposite the main terminal.

Roland Garros Airport

I recommend kicking off your Réunion Island itinerary by heading for the west coast on the N1 highway, bypassing Saint Denis. In less than an hour, you can be at the beach in Saint-Gilles or L’Ermitage-Les-Bains! Just past Saint Denis, you’ll experience what has to be a masterpiece of modern engineering: a long section of the highway is basically suspended above the ocean!

Read about things to do in Reunion Island

West coast

The west coast, with its beautiful lagoons, sandy beaches and laid-back towns, is a lovely area to recover from a long journey to Réunion Island. Notable towns to visit in this area are Saint-Paul, Saint-Gilles and Saint-Leu. Spend a few days in this area exploring the coastline. The coastal road (N1A) from Saint-Paul to Saint-Gilles offers beautiful views of the ocean and the cliffs. The west coast is also the best area to go scuba-diving and/or whale-watching (June – October are the best whale-watching months). There are various tour operators based in towns like Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains and Le Port.

The promenade in Saint-Paul.

Street art in St. Paul.

The crafts market in Saint-Paul.

The beach at St. Gilles.

Saint-Gilles is arguably my favourite town in this area. The town centre is compact, with many shops, cafés and restaurants. There’s also a marina and a lovely beach. I recommend parking at the large parking area at the marina and walking across the pedestrian bridge to the town centre. At the marina, you’ll find Chez Marie, a seafood restaurant which I can certainly recommend!

Fresh seafood dish at Chez Marie.

Relax at a café with an ocean view at St. Gilles.

Just south of Saint-Gilles is L’Ermitage-Les-Baines. This beach community has numerous hotels, shops, cafés and restaurants. There’s also the Jardin d’Eden (Garden of Eden botanical gardens) which is quite small but has some unusual plants and trees. One place that’s great for dinner in this area is Le Manta. Set in a beautiful garden, the restaurant serves local seafood and Creole specialties.

The beaches at L’Ermitage les Bains.

Dine in a garden setting at Restaurant Le Manta.

Follow the N1A coastal road down to Saint-Leu. Home to several historic monuments such as the Church of Colimacons and Hôtel des Postes, Saint-Leu is also a popular paragliding area. Another place worth a stop is Kélonia, a turtle conservation centre just outside Saint-Leu.

The N1 road to Saint-Leu.

Paragliders landing on the beach next to the Kelonia centre outside Saint-Leu.

South of Saint-Leu, the N1A road passes rocky cliffs with blowholes.

West coast beaches

The west coast boasts some of the best beaches on Réunion Island. The stretch from Saint-Gilles to L’Ermitage-Les-Bains and down to La Saline-Les-Bains has long, sandy beaches, protected by reefs. You’ll also find numerous beach cafés and restaurants. There’s also a beautiful black sand beach at L’Étang-Salé, southeast of Saint-Leu.

Caution: Réunion Island has a history of shark attacks. I enjoyed the beaches on the west coast but restricted my water activities to cooling off in knee-deep water or rock pools.

reunion-lagoon-beach-photo

The beach at La Saline-Les-Bains.

Inland from the west coast

From the west coast, it’s also easy to head into the mountains for some incredible scenery and hikes. You can opt for a 5-6 hour hike into Cirque de Mafate (a caldera that’s only accessible on foot or by helicopter), visit the Cap Noir viewpoint or you can drive up to Le Maïdo, which offers breathtaking views of Cirque de Mafate and Piton de Neiges (at 3,069 meters, the highest mountain on Réunion Island). If you only have time for a drive to a viewpoint, I recommend Le Maïdo, arguably one of the best places to visit in Reunion Island! If you’re interested in taking a ultra-light flight across Réunion Island, the operator of these scenic flights is based in Cambaie, a short drive north of Saint-Paul.

Hike into Cirque de Mafate. This cirque is only accessible by foot or helicopter.

The road up to Le Maïdo takes you past a myriad of flora and panoramic viewpoints.

Drive up to Le Maïdo for jaw-dropping views of Cirque de Mafate and Piton de Neiges.

Flying over the island in a microlight is an unforgettable experience!

There are numerous hotels, B&B’s and holiday rentals on the west coast. I stayed at Relais de l’Hermitage, a comfortable, albeit somewhat dated hotel, with fabulous staff. It has two pools and is literally a stone’s throw from the beach. Other nearby hotels include Hôtel Les Créoles and Hotel le Recif.

Relais de l’Hermitage is surrounded by lush gardens and is a stone’s throw from the beach and restaurants.

Search for accommodations in Saint-Gilles and L’Ermitage-Les-Bains on Booking.com.

Cirque de Cilaos

Cirque de Cilaos is one of three cirques on the island. These cirques were created when the Piton de Neiges shield volcano collapsed during an eruption a long time ago. What remains today are three huge caldera-like formations or cirques: Cirque de Mafate (there are no roads here), Cirque de Cilaos and Cirque de Salazie (both accessible by road). Of the three, Cirque de Cilaos is arguably the most majestic, with verdant forests, jagged peaks, towering walls (or ramparts) and waterfalls.

The majestic Cirque de Cilaos.

From Saint Louis, take the N5 road towards Entre-Deux (also a lovely place to visit) and Cilaos. The road into the cirque and up to Cilaos is winding (I call it the road of a hundred hairpin bends! Haha!), narrow at times and there are a few one-way tunnels to navigate, so drive carefully. The scenery is simply mind-blowing (it really feels like you’ve entered ‘The Lost World’!) but don’t take your eyes off the road. There’s a lovely café you can stop at for a coffee and it offers stunning views of the peaks.

The road to Cilaos – it feels like you’re entering the ‘Lost World’!

Stop at the roadside cafe (you can’t miss it) for a coffee and to enjoy this view.

On the way to Cilaos, you’ll also have to navigate several tunnels like this one. If you look carefully at the photo, you’ll spot a bus driving through (with inches to spare on both sides!).

Cilaos

Cilaos is a small town with a variety of accommodation options, from hotels to B&Bs and holiday homes, restaurants and shops. If you’re an avid hiker, I recommend spending a few days here as there are many trails to explore, including one that leads to the top of Piton de Neiges (3,069 meters). Alternatively, you can simply stroll around the town or follow one of the easier trails and enjoy the fresh air and mountain scenery, visit the hot springs and taste some local wines. Drop by at the tourist office in the town centre for the latest information and maps.

Main street in Cilaos, with Piton de Neiges as the backdrop.

A church in Cilaos.

There’s some beautiful street art in Cilaos too.

Stroll around Cilaos to enjoy the mountain scenery and beautiful gardens.

Restaurants in Cilaos I can recommend include Chez Noé, Chez Lucay and Restaurant Ti’ Bonheur de la Mare. Most of the restaurants serve local Creole fare (with Cilaos lentils). Ask for ‘piment’ (salsa) on the side if you like it spicy! In my book, Réunion Island has salsas which easily rival Mexican or other Caribbean varieties.

Chicken cari (curry) with Cilaos lentils.

Hotels in Cilaos I can recommend are Hotel des Neiges (with easy parking, airy rooms and it has two pools) and Hotel Le Tsilaosa. There are also numerous apartments, chalets and holiday homes available.

Hotel Le Tsilaosa (left) in the centre of Cilaos.

South coast

The south coast region stretches from Saint Pierre to Saint-Philippe. Saint Pierre is the largest town here and is perhaps my favourite town on Réunion Island. There are many hotels, shops, restaurants and cafés in the town centre and along the boulevard that runs parallel to the beach. What I particularly like about Saint Pierre is its melting pot of cultures, the Saturday market and the stunning lagoon at its doorstep.

The Town Hall in St. Pierre.

The Saint Pierre Saturday morning market (till 1pm), in particular, is a great place to experience the ‘couleur locale’, try various local food and stock up on spices, salsas, vanilla and souvenirs. I recommend approaching the market via Rue de la Poudriere and parking at either the Jumbo-Score supermarket or the field in front of the Narassigua Péroumal Hindu temple.

The Saturday morning market in Saint-Pierre is a great place to visit in Reunion for food, spices and handicraft.

Yummy grilled chicken at the market.

A great thing to do in Saint Pierre is to stroll along the path which runs above the beach. There are various kiosks where you can stop for a drink or a snack while you gaze out across the lagoon.

The beach path runs the length of St. Pierre’s beaches.

Chilling on the beach in Saint Pierre.

Restaurants in Saint Pierre I can recommend include Le D.C.P. (very fresh seafood) and Ancre Terre et Mer. Hotels I checked out and can recommend are Villa Delisle (in the town centre across the road from the beach), Maison d’hôtes Côté Lagon (about 10-minutes’ walk to the town centre) and Le Battant des Lames (at the beach, about a 15-minute walk to the town centre).

Deliciously fresh tuna tartare at Le D.C.P.

Inland from Saint Pierre

Just north of Saint Pierre, you’ll find the Saga du Rhum, a historic rum distillery that’s worth a visit. There are also many inland attractions close to Saint Pierre. You can go on day trips to the Piton de la Fournaise (one of the world’s most active volcanoes) along the Route du Volcan, drive up to the Belvedere of Fenêtre des Makes (D20 road) or visit the Belvedere of Bois Court (D70 road). These drives offer incredible scenery but if you don’t have sufficient time, I recommend driving to the Piton de la Fournaise, passing the spectacular Riviere des Remparts and the Martian landscapes of Plaine des Sables. I recommend going in the morning before the clouds roll in.

Driving up to Piton de la Fournaise on a clear day is an incredible experience! This is the view across the Rivieres des Remparts.

To get to the volcano, you’ll first have to cross this Mars-like landscape called Plaine des Sables. Check out my video below:

A panoramic view of the caldera of Piton de la Fournaise.

Read about the Route du Volcan drive

If you love waterfalls, I recommend visiting the Cascade de Grand Galet. From St. Pierre, drive along the N2 past St.-Joseph to Langevin. Just before Langevin, turn left and follow the road up to the falls. The road starts off relatively easy but beware towards the end: you’ll have to cross a narrow bridge several times, and near the final stretch, the road becomes very steep, with tight hairpin bends. The view of the elegant falls is worth the effort though! It’s possible to hike to the pool at the base of the falls but I don’t recommend it if you don’t have proper hiking shoes.

The gorgeous Grand Galet waterfalls.

Further along the South Coast, visit Cap Méchant. The coast here is jagged and rough, with the black lava cliffs dropping steeply into the ocean. The relentless pounding of the waves have created many interesting rock formations, caves, little canyons and blowholes. Go for a walk along the cliffs to see and hear the booming waves, and enjoy a Creole lunch. There are three restaurants here: Restaurant Le Cap Méchant, L’Etoiles des Mers and Le Pinpin – all three are popular with locals, especially in the weekend.

The wild coast of Cap Méchant.

You can also opt to keep driving along the N2 road towards Saint Philippe. Along the way, you’ll be treated to beautiful coastal scenery and you can stop here for a drink or a meal – a variety of restaurants offer ocean views and Creole cuisine. You’ll also find the Jardin des Parfums et des Épices (Perfume and Spices Garden) just off the N2, an interesting stop for plant lovers.

Lava Route

The Lava Route (N2 road) stretches from St. Philippe on the southeast coast to Saint-Rose on the east coast. This road hugs the east coast and passes old lava flows from past eruptions of Piton de la Fournaise as well as patches of forests.

On the Lava Route, you’ll pass numerous old lava flows from past eruptions.

You can also opt to go on a hike through a lava tunnel (only with a guide). Under the old lava flows are large networks of tunnels, with bizarre formations. This tour is not recommended if you have (even mild) claustrophobia.

It’s a surreal sight to drive along this road that’s been rebuilt on numerous occasions. Look out for signposts which mark the year of each eruption and resulting lava flow. You can stop at various points along the way for photo opportunities. The Anse waterfall makes for a relaxing pitstop – there’s a café and WC facilities.

The Anse cascades aren’t spectacular but the verdant surroundings make for a soothing stop.

The Lava Route ends in Saint-Rose. In the hamlet of Piton Saint-Rose, I recommend stopping at the Notre Dame des Laves. Located along the N2 road, this church is perhaps the most famous on the island as it survived a destructive volcanic eruption in 1977. The church is completely surrounded by hardened lava. Across the road, there’s a little museum dedicated to that particular eruption with a photo exhibition and a video show, which are absolutely worth seeing.

The Notre Dame des Laves church in Piton Saint-Rose.

North coast

From Saint-Anne, the N2 road continues in a northwesterly direction towards Saint Denis. At La Rivière de l’Est, you’ll see the historic suspension bridge which crosses the gorge. You can make a quick photo stop here (look for the side road on the northern side of the gorge) but the bridge is closed to the public.

Rivière de l’Est suspension bridge.

In Saint-Benoît, you’ll find the striking Eglise Sainte-Anne (St. Anne’s Church). Southwest of Saint-Benoît, the long and winding D53 road leads up to the Takamaka viewpoint. This viewpoint offers awe-inspiring views of the Takamaka Valley, the lush forests on the steep mountainsides and beautiful cascades.

St. Anne’s Church

The stunning falls in the Takamaka Valley basin (image courtesy of Reunion Tourism/Serge Gelabert)

The Riviere des Roches, formed by old lava flows, is a popular canyoning spot. Bassin la Paix, part of the canyon, is a gorgeous lake with crystal-clear water, a lovely waterfall and surrounded by basalt columns. It is accessible by car.

Canyoning in Riviere des Roches is a very cool experience!

The north coast between Saint-Benoît and Saint Denis is characterised by mile after mile of sugarcane fields, small settlements, industries and large outlet stores and hypermarkets. Around Sainte-Suzanne, points of interest include the Sainte-Suzanne lighthouse, the island’s oldest, and the Niagara waterfalls.

Cirque de Salazie

From the N2 road, you can venture into Cirque de Salazie, the most accessible of the three cirques, on the D48 road. This verdant cirque is most famous for its many waterfalls, such as the Cascade Blanche and the Voile de la Mariée, or Bride’s Veil waterfall. Both these falls are accessible from the D48 road but require a hike to get closer. Cascade Blanche is about a 40-minute hike from the car park. Find accommodations in Salazie.

Voile de la Mariée or Bride’s Veil waterfalls (image courtesy of Reunion Tourism).

The colourful post office in Hell-Bourg (image courtesy of patano; creative commons).

Continue to the Creole village of Hell-Bourg – with its colourful façades and surrounded by lush greenery, it’s been voted as one of the prettiest villages in overseas France. You can opt to spend some time in Hell-Bourg to go hiking – its higher altitude and cooler climate makes it a pleasant area for hikes – or you can spend a day exploring the village with its cheery buildings and flower gardens. A popular hike is the 600+ meter ascent to the Bélouve plateau through primary forest to the viewpoint, which has stunning views of Cirque de Salazie and Piton de Neiges. Along the way, you’ll pass exotic plants and towering tree ferns. The Bélouve plateau can also be reached by car via the Bébour Forest with the F2 road from Plaine des Palmistes. There are guided hikes of the Bélouve forest to Trou de Fer waterfall.

Scenery on the hike from Hell-bourg to Belouve (image courtesy of Reunion Tourism).

Saint Denis

Saint Denis is the largest town and capital of Réunion Island. You can stroll along the Barachois promenade (look out for whales during the winter months), see colourful Creole houses and admire the historic buildings along the elegant Rue de Paris. Another great thing to do in Saint Denis is visit its markets. I recommend Le Petit Marché with its vegetable, fruit and spice stalls, and Le Grand Marché, which sells handicraft and souvenirs. When strolling around Saint Denis, look out for cool street art by some of the island’s most famous artists. Search for accommodations in Saint Denis.

The coastal promenade in Saint Denis, with its historic canons. During the whale season (winter months), look out for whales. There’s also a speaker which transmits sounds of passing whales.

Beautiful architecture in downtown Saint Denis.

There’s also some fantastic street art in Saint Denis. Here’s a mural by Jace, one of the island’s most famous artists.

Read about street art in Réunion Island.

Check out the Velvet Escape Travel Planning page.

10-day Best of Reunion Island Self-Drive Itinerary

This 10-day self-drive itinerary takes you past the best places to visit in Reunion Island as described in the guide above.

You can start the trip at Reunion Roland Garros Airport and follow the entire itinerary or concentrate on 2-3 areas, depending on your interests or the length of your stay. I’ve included a suggested length of stay per place/area. The itinerary is as follows:

3 nights: West coast. Suggested base: Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains or L’Ermitage-Les-Baines. Suggested activities: drive to Le Maïdo, go whale-watching, hike into Cirque de Mafate, go on an ultra-light flight, visit the towns like Saint-Gilles or Saint-Leu, or laze on the beach.

2 nights: Cirque de Cilaos. If you’re not here to hike, I suggest spending a night in Cilaos to enjoy the amazing scenery. If you opt for a one-night stay in Cilaos, you can choose to spend the next night in Entre-Deux (a colourful Creole village) or La Plaine des Cafres.

3 nights: South coast. Suggested base: Saint-Pierre or surroundings. Suggested activities: drive the Route du Volcan to Piton de la Fournaise, wander around Saint-Pierre (check out the markets and relax on the beach), and visit the Grand Galet waterfalls. At the end of the two days, continue along the N2 road from Saint-Pierre onto the Lava Road and on to Saint Denis, a long drive but do-able at a leisurely pace.

1 night: North coast (optional). You can also shorten your stay on the south coast in order to spend a night in Hell-Bourg in Cirque de Salazie, or to explore the Takamaka Valley.

1 night: Saint Denis. End your one week itinerary of Reunion Island in the capital. Stroll around the historic town centre and along the Barachois promenade. The next day, drive to the airport (15-minutes) for your car return and departure.

General info

Réunion Island is 2,511 square kilometers in size and has a population of under 1 million. A French overseas department, French is the main language and the Euro is the currency used. If you have a European Union mobile phone subscription (with EU-wide coverage), your voice and data plan is valid on the island as well with no extra charges.

How to get to Réunion Island

There are daily flights from Paris CDG and Orly airports to Réunion Island with Air Austral (the airline of Réunion Island, and a very good one I must add), Air France and French Bee (French LCC). There are also frequent daily flights from nearby Mauritius (45-minutes away). Air Austral also connects Réunion Island with cities in South Africa, India and Thailand. Search for flights with Skyscanner.

Roads and car hire

The roads are, in general, in very good condition, making it relatively easy to drive around the island yourself. However, the mountain roads, with their countless hairpin bends, can be a challenge to navigate, so if you’re not accustomed to manual (stick-shift) transmissions, I highly recommend hiring a vehicle with an automatic transmission. As in continental Europe, you drive on the right side of the road.

Accommodations

Accommodation options consist of small hotels, B&B’s, guest houses and holiday rentals. Luxury accommodations are sparse – the accommodations are mainly in the 1-3-star categories.



Booking.com

Weather and clothing

Réunion Island has a tropical climate. Winter is in July-August (opposite to the northern hemisphere) and is slightly cooler (18-24 degrees Celsius) and wet.  Summers are hot (28-32 degrees Celsius) and humid. The west coast tends to be drier than the east coast. Note that it is colder up in the mountains (such as in Le Maïdo and Cilaos) so it’s advisable to bring a light jacket or sweater/hoodie. If you intend to go hiking, please ensure you have proper hiking clothes, shoes and other equipment, as well as sufficient water and food. The paths can be quite treacherous, especially after a rain shower.

Shark warning

There have been numerous (fatal) shark attacks on Réunion Island in the past years. It’s relatively safe (i.e. low risk) to swim or practise water sports within the confines of a lagoon such as at L’Ermitage-Les-Bains or Saint-Pierre, however, it’s not advisable (in some cases, it’s prohibited) to swim or surf in open-ocean areas. If you’re not sure, please check with the local authorities or tourism office. My personal advice is to relax at the beach, cool off in shallow areas (of a lagoon) and be active inland – the mountainous interior just begs to be explored!

One of many shark warning signs along the coast.

There you have it! My guide to the best places to visit in Reunion Island! I hope this guide is helpful for anyone planning a trip there. Travel safe and enjoy this magnificent island!

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