Réunion Island looks like a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean on Google Maps but zoom in and you’ll find a spectacular island with towering mountains, breathtaking canyons, aquamarine lagoons, colourful towns and villages and stunning waterfalls. An overseas French department, Reunion is a gorgeous mix of French, Asian and African influences. Situated in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar and the African mainland and southwest of Mauritius, it truly is an enchanting island; a mecca for adventurers and hikers or for those seeking an active holiday infused with lovely beaches, awe-inspiring scenery and fascinating cultures. If you’re visiting for the first time, here are ten things to do in Reunion Island which I can highly recommend. I tried each and every one of them and the experiences I gained were unforgettable!
1. Gawk at the most incredible scenery
One of the best things to do in Reunion is to simply admire the scenery, which is absolutely spectacular. I suggest hiring a car and driving around the island. It’s a large island so you may want to pace yourself. Drive the Route du Volcan, the road to Le Maïdo or into the Cirque de Cilaos for some of the most astounding scenery. The coastal stretches offer charming views of colourful villages, lava cliffs, lagoons and beaches whilst the interior is characterised by impressive mountains, canyons, forests (from pine forests to thick shrubs and sub-tropical tree ferns!) and grassy highlands.
Search for rental cars in Reunion Island (Rentalcars.com).
Check out my guide to the best places to visit in Reunion Island (includes a 10-day self-drive itinerary and suggestions for where to stay and eat).
2. Visit ‘Mars’ and the smouldering Piton de la Fournaise
A visit to Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, is a must in my book. It’s arguably the most popular day trip in Reunion Island. The scenery along the way is jaw-droppingly beautiful and on the approach to the volcano, the road takes you through the Plaine des Sables, an area that looks very much like Mars!
If you’re really into volcanoes, I can recommend the hike inside an old lava flow of the Piton de la Fournaise. Organised by Aparksa Montagne, the lava tubing tour is a wondrous journey that will take you past intriguing formations and tunnel systems. I don’t recommend it if you’re prone to claustrophobia.
3. Hike in the cirques
Reunion is famous for its three cirques (Mafate, Cilaos and Salazie), three large calderas formed by the collapse of a shield volcano. Of the three, Mafate is inaccessible by roads, making it ideal for hikers wanting to enjoy the impressive nature in total solitude. There are several villages inside the Cirque de Mafate which are accessible only by trails (and helicopters). Reunion Mer et Montage organises guided hikes (including the one I did: a 3-hour hike into the Cirque de Mafate and a helicopter flight back to the coast) and other adventure activities like mountain biking around the island. Whichever route you choose, you’ll be guaranteed mind-blowing vistas, gushing rivers and waterfalls and lush forests.
Check out this 5-6 hour hike into Cirque de Mafate.
4. See Reunion from above
If you enjoy microlight or helicopter flights, I highly recommend seeing Reunion Island from above. Only then will you be able to truly appreciate its impressive and varied topography. From the volcano to the amazing cirques, verdant forests and elegant waterfalls, this is one experience you won’t easily forget! FelixULM offers microlight tours of the island from its base in Le Port.
5. Stroll around the towns and their markets
St. Denis is the capital and largest town. It’s great to stroll around this lovely town to check out its beautiful architecture and visit its markets.
Another market town to visit is St. Pierre on the south coast, with its lively Saturday market. It’s a great place to taste local specialties like Bon Bon Piment and a variety of rhum, buy top quality vanilla (Reunion produces some of the best quality vanilla in the world) and pick up some souvenirs. St. Pierre also has a gorgeous beach right at its doorstep, with a lovely boulevard! One other town I really liked was St. Gilles les Baines, with its colourful shops and sandy beaches.
6. Laze at the lagoons
Most of the island’s most beautiful lagoons are found on the west and south coast between St. Paul and St. Pierre. Here you’ll find wide expanses of sandy beaches ranging from white to black! The most popular beach areas are around La Saline les Baines – here you’ll find a variety of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and bars. You can choose to laze on the beach or indulge yourself in a variety of watersports like windsurfing and stand-up-paddling. Around St. Leu, you can engage in more active sports like paragliding.
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 in the lagoons.
7. Go canyoning
This was one of my favourite experiences in Reunion. Run Adventures organises this amazing canyoning experience down the Riviere de Roche from Bassin la Mer to the Bassin la Paix on the northeast coast near the town of St. Benoit. An old lava flow had been carved into a canyon by the river, with astonishing walls on each side, tranquil pools, followed by rapids and waterfalls. It was an incredible experience, jumping off the walls (some up to 12 meters high) into the pool below, tobogganing from one pool to the next or floating down the river.
8. Indulge yourself in food and dance
Reunion presents a fascinating mix of French, African and Asian cultures, resulting in a wide array of delicious food and performing arts. Go on a ‘food tour’ at one of the markets (such as my favourite, the Saturday market in St. Pierre) and indulge yourself in Creole cuisine. If you can, ask around for places to witness stunning performances by a méringue troupe (méringue is a local martial arts dance somewhat similar to capoeira that can be found in Brazil) and the lovely Mahoya dancers. And don’t forget to taste some of the island’s famous rhum!
9. Spot street art
You’ll find many vibrant examples of street art throughout Reunion. In fact, Jace, one of the most famous street artists, hails from Reunion. It’s fun to try and spot his works around the island – his faceless characters, called Gouzou, are easy to recognise.
Read more about street art in Reunion Island.
10. Go whale/dolphin watching
Reunion is a great place to to experience marine life up close. There are various dolphin- and whale-watching tours, some even offer snorkelling or free-diving with dolphins and whales!
There you have it! My recommendations for things to do in Reunion. It really is an amazing island which I can’t stop gushing about. Check out the fabulous video below and see for yourself!
Getting to Réunion Island and car rental
You can fly direct to Réunion Island from Paris or Johannesburg with Air Austral – an excellent airline to fly with I must add! Their Premium Economy and Business Class seats were very comfortable and the service and food were simply top-notch.
Self-drive in Réunion
Alternatively, you can hire a car and drive around the island at your own leisure. The roads are good and well-posted, and driving is on the right hand side of the road. I used Rentalcars.com to compare prices and book a car. The rental car offices and pick-up/drop-off location are directly outside the main terminal of Roland Garros La Réunion Airport. If you’re not accustomed to winding roads or manual transmissions, I recommend booking an automatic transmission. A small car (like a Toyota Yaris) is sufficient to navigate most of the mountain roads. Read about the Best Places to Visit in Reunion Island on a self-drive itinerary.