Reunion Island. Geographical Grandeur, Botanical Wonders, Distilled Magic.
A scenically captivating island that juts magically out of the ocean, Reunion Island enjoys an astonishing diversity of landscapes. Dramatic mountains, emerald forests, tumbling waterfalls, scenic coastal cities and a scattering of white and black-sand beaches — not to mention the formidable Piton de la Fournaise volcano.
With a surface area of around 2500km² of earthly paradise, the abrupt mountains give Reunion a truly unique geographical identity. There is a 210-kilometre coastline made up mostly of cliffs and rocky beaches eroded by the Indian Ocean waves. Most popular are the sandy beaches running from the west to the south of the island where Grand’Anse, Trou d’Eau, De Boucan Canot, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Leu and Saint-Gilles are found, some benefitting from the gift of the coral barriers that form the Hermitage lagoon.
Follow my guide to Geographical Grandeur, Botanical Wonders, Distilled Magic.
Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory
The Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory is dedicated to the study and preservation of Réunion’s marine turtle species. Tour the exhibits at leisure and watch marine turtles swimming in indoor and outdoor tanks. Kelonia has an area that features two species of locally found land tortoises, as well as a research and treatment centre. There is a display that highlights the exploitation of the species over the years, something that has left them endangered and vulnerable. It is important to note the work being done to protect the marine turtles, as well as the rehabilitation and release program that Kelonia follow in partnership with global conservation bodies. There are numerous free guided tours offered throughout the day.
Botanical Gardens or Jardin De l’Etat
The Jardin de l’État, formerly known as the Jardin du Roy, is a historic botanical garden found in the capital Saint-Denis. Planted with trees and spices taken from around the world by Pierre Poivre, who together with a group of 19th-century botanists we have to thank for the impressive baobabs, sausage trees, fountain palms, and looking-glass mangroves to be enjoyed here. At the heart of the diverse and lush endemic vegetation — which they have their volcano to thank for, you find the tamarind on Les Hauts, as well as the latanier and the screwpine.
Discover a number of exotic trees at the Jardin de l’Etat, including the talipot palm, and keep an eye out for the chameleons as you take time out to appreciate the myriad of orchids. Visit the onsite natural history museum, which opened on the premises of a former colonial council in 1855. There’s also a wonderful shop with excellent coffee and lovely souvenirs here too.
Decadently Delicious Rum
You can’t go to Reunion without sampling (read drinking) some of the locally distilled rum. With the island an exporter of sugarcane and rum since the 17th century, there are small-scale distilleries to be found throughout, with the option of self-blending the herbs and spices to your own preference at some. Styles vary from ginger and lemon to coffee and vanilla; my favourite is definitely tamarind. La Saga du Rhum in Saint-Pierre is a good place to visit, there’s a museum entirely dedicated to rum and it is home to the smallest distillery on the island. Local favourites include ginger and lemon, vanilla and coffee — the island is, after all, a huge producer of Bourbon vanilla — and even passion fruit and lychee.
Many years ago, the greatest perfumers travelled to Reunion Island to hunt down the best geranium essential oil in the world. The perfumeries swore by geraniums grown on the island for its exceptional quality, and at the time it was one of the great assets of the island. Today geranium is still grown, mainly above an altitude of 1000, and there are 30 or so craft geranium distilleries. You can visit many of them, and on a tour, the farmer will passionately explain the detailed production steps. The plant is grown all year long, with harvesting taking place before the flowers bloom in May to September. As a matter of interest, it takes 300–400kg of leaves to get between 0.5 and 1 litre of essential oil. Treasure, indeed.
Be sure to feast on the traditional cuisine of Reunion, the ‘carri’. A truly Creole dish with ingredients simmered to perfection using Indian spices and local ingredients like meat, poultry, fish or seafood, as well as garlic, onion, plenty of tomatoes, turmeric, cloves and ginger. It’s available throughout, so do try more than one type while there. Given the French influence, feast on buttery-pastries and petit-fours. Local coffee and cold Dodo beer. Dragon fruit, curried lentils and fresh crispy salad — whatever it is, you can’t go wrong.
There are markets to shop at throughout, but I recommend the Saturday morning Saint Pierre market that bursts with fresh fruit and vegetables, local speciality cuisine, crafted goods, woven baskets, photography, jewellery and hand-produced clothing. Mention must be made of the lychees and ananas or pineapple especially. Be sure to chat with the growers about where they are producing their goods, many high in the mountains — this is an island of self-sufficient and creative people. The market is right on the coastline, with a skate park next door and a good shopping mall should you need anything specific. My recommendation is that you go hungry, as the food stalls will leave you spoilt for choice and indulging.
The Architecture and History
Reunion’s architecture has seen various periods that match the history or economic circumstances of the era. Following the initial colonisation, the sugar and coffee plantations saw the rise of large estates where the ‘master’s house’ dominated, while the accommodation of the workers (or slaves) was placed in clusters that went on to form small, self-sufficient towns. An example of this is the Villèle Museum located in the mansion of one of Reunion’s iconic families, the Panon-Desbassayns, in Saint-Paul. Slavery on Reunion Island was abolished on 20 December 1848, a day that is celebrated with the annual Festival Liberté Métisse. The capital city has many finely preserved buildings, with the Post Office drawing visiting photographers.
There are some ultimately high-end resorts in St Gilles, among those that I’ve had the pleasure to experience is the LUX* Saint Gilles. Other’s that I have enjoyed and recommend are the Palm Hôtel & Spa, Ile de la Réunion for its coastal location and Hôtel le Juliette Dodu in the heart of the capital of Saint-Denis. On the lava black beach I stayed in the charming and more middle-market Floralys Excel hotel. Know that even luxury accommodation comes at an affordable rate on Reunion Island, and if you’re on a budget, you’ll do well to look into homestays as an option, which will give you a true insight to local living.
The Essential Details
- South Africans don’t need a visa to visit.
- It’s only a four-hour flight from Johannesburg to Saint-Denis, Reunion Island on Air Austral.
- See my An Adventurer’s Guide to Reunion Island for more info on what to do when there.
- For more information on the ultimate island, please visit https://bit.ly/LaReunion-TheIncidentalTouristBlog
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