GUEST ARTICLE: Reunion Island is a small French island situated way out in the Indian Ocean, the nearest island is Mauritius and then to the west the island of Madagascar. It is only 63kms long and 45kms wide but has an impressive mountain range. The population falls just under 1 million and is a multicultural society with French being the main language along with Réunion Creole.
We flew to Reunion via the adjacent island of Mauritius. We were fortunate to sail through clear blue skies but as we neared the island we could see thick clouds lingering above the center and permeating to the outer corners of the island (typical weather pattern for islands). We crossed our fingers that we’d experience good weather once on land.
As we passed through Reunion’s tiny immigration I was propositioned with an offer to have one of the officers act as my personal guide while I was there. With a kind smile I solely stuck up my wedding finger and politely declined the offer ~ naughty Frenchmen lol!
After collecting our bags we got our rental car. We brought our own car navigator and were glad that we did because there was quite a winding network of roads and the signage wasn’t always the best. Our first port of call was the little town of Saint Gilles where our hotel was located.
Along the way we drove through some beautiful well-kept towns situated beside the ocean. The main highway was excellent and offered some spectacular views of the ocean and towering mountains. The town of Saint Gilles was pretty small but you could see it had the potential to overflow with holidaymakers during the right season thankfully we hadn’t booked during that time.
Our hotel the Novotel Saint Gilles was nice and according to TripAdvisor it was going to be our best bet for our 3-night stint. At the back of the hotel was a beach called Plage de L’Hermitage. That was a really nice spot to walk around and also to watch the sun go down. Unfortunately at the time the water looked dark and choppy, not really inviting but it was still beautiful to look at.
The next morning we awoke to a spectacular day. The sun was out and the sky crystal clear so we decided to take full advantage of it. We’d heard there were some excellent hiking trails in Reunion so we rugged up in the event of bad weather and headed off into the mountains for some sightseeing and specifically to a little town called Cilaos.
We drove south until we arrived at the city of Saint Louis. From there were headed inland and thus began our winding ascent through Reunion’s majestic mountains. The road was narrow and weaved through deep rocky valleys surrounded by giant lush green mountains. The scenery was absolutely stunning and would have to rank up there with one of the most beautiful drives we’ve been on.
It took us a few hours before we arrived in Cilaos. Its quaint surroundings were picturesque with one main street lined with nice little shops and eateries. We parked our car and went for a little stroll. A farmers market happened to be on at the time so we got a chance to see some of the local goods.
For lunch we had a nice French beef stew then afterwards we ventured further into the mountains in search of a good hiking trail we’d heard about called Col Du Taibit. It was about two in the afternoon by this time and unfortunately we had underestimated our time so we had to make a move on it in order to finish the trek before sundown.
It didn’t take us long before we found the trail and its sign saying it would take us 2 1/2 hrs just to climb to the top. So with water bottles in hand we began our climb. It was pretty steep but there was a good path which made it a bit easier. We passed quite a few people coming down all looking pretty relaxed with big smiles, so that was encouraging.
After an hour of trying to keep a steady pace my legs really started to feel the burn. Because we were weaving throughout the bush I wasn’t sure where this trail was going to peak or even what payoff was at the end. From the pain in my legs I was hoping for something nothing short of spectacular!
About half way up we ran into a guy carrying a massive backpack who was also climbing up (with the way my legs were feeling there was no way I would ever dream of doing that!). He had been up the mountain before and said that we still had a ways to go and if we wanted to make it down the mountain before sundown we had better hurry (oh great!).
I tried my best to keep up with Rob but with these little legs it was fruitless so I just kept as best a pace as I could and ventured on. I have to admit there were times I felt like giving up but after taking a breather and having a good look at my surroundings I knew it was all going to be worth it (or at least I hoped).
After 2 hours I couldn’t believe how high we had climbed! Those massive mountains we were driving through were exactly what we were climbing – frigg!! If I would have known that I’m not sure I would have been so eager to do this climb. You have to realize that from below they look impossible but here we were scurrying up one of them, go figure?!
There were a few spots along the way that overlooked massive undulating valleys for as far as my eyes could see. I couldn’t help but give out my biggest “Yahoo!!” at the top of my lungs. It felt amazing to be surrounded by such majestic beauty and it overwhelmed me. And to know that I was actually attempting such a feat felt really good.
Rob had reached the top 15 minutes ahead of me and came back down to let me know that I had almost made it and that there was a magnificent sight to behold at the top. He said there was a massive cauldron that looked down on a beautiful little village way down below and gigantic sharp mountains encased the area. So with everything I had I made it up as fast as I could.
Unfortunately for me the same sight didn’t appear before me but rather a mass of clouds obscuring the scenery – noooo!!! There was a little bench at the top so we sat there for a few minutes in hopes the clouds would go away but unfortunately it was not to be. It was still beautiful all the same and I was happy that I had at least made it to the top. Now the hard part…getting back down and before dark.
We had exactly a little over an hour to make it back down before we would be stuck in total darkness, which would not have been pretty. So like a couple of mountain goats we made our way down as fast as we possibly could. The path was really rocky at times and steep which made it pretty hard going. Sometimes going down can be harder than going up, that was definitely so in this case.
About an hour later it started to get dark which I have to admit scared the hell out of me. I really didn’t want to have to feel our way down this narrow trail. There were no lights whatsoever and the trees obscured the moonlight. My legs felt like jelly by this point and my joints were aching with every step. Rob’s legs actually gave way and sent him tumbling. He said it felt like all of a sudden they just buckled up like Bambi and said, “we’re done.” I too had a slip up and stubbed my toe so hard on a rock that it sent me flying through the air. Luckily I landed on my feet but my toe didn’t fare so well and immediately turned black and blue. So after that wonderful episode it was complete torture the rest of the way.
Thankfully we just made it down in the nick of time. We could barely see the path in front of us. That was way too close for comfort! Admittedly we weren’t looking forward to the ride back home but cruised back as fast as we could to sate our ravenous bellies. Once back in Saint Gilles we spotted an Italian restaurant and both hobbled on peg legs looking every bit like we’d just climbed a mountain. After a bottle of vino and a great meal we were completely spent. What a day! We weren’t even thinking about the next day but we knew one thing for sure, climbing was going to be out of the question!
The next day we awoke to another fabulous sunny day. Unfortunately for us we were both in dire straights physically and I had to fight back a small scream with every step I took. But the tour du jour had to go on so we slowly but surely made it to our car (not without a lot of whimpering along the way mind you) and headed out on a trip around the island.
We drove south along the coast until we hit Saint Pierre. The drive was really scenic and had some great views of the beautiful Indian Ocean. From Saint Pierre we drove inland. Our first stop was at the Le Nez de Bœuf which is a massive mountain overlooking an enormous valley and the Rivière de Remparts. The deep green valley was covered in fog but every now and again we got a glimpse of the beautiful river and little villages below.
Afterwards we kept driving until we came across La Plaine des Sables at an elevation of 2260m. It was a vast area covered in various shades of deep red soil and had a lunar like appearance with just a wisp of fog sweeping the area. Not far from there was one of Reunion’s main attractions and also one of the world’s most active volcano’s called Piton de la Fornaise. Unfortunately when we arrived the whole crater was covered in a thick fog and drizzle so we weren’t able to see a thing. We later heard that in order to get the best chance of seeing the volcano you had to be there at the crack of dawn.
We resumed our journey back the way we came until we got back on the main road then we headed east across the mountains towards Sainte Anne. For lunch we saw a little eatery on the side of the road where delicious wafts of BBQ permeated the air. The people were really nice and the proud chef whipped us up some of the best barbequed chicken and pork skewers ever.
After lunch we ventured on to the city of Sainte Anne and then continued back up north and around the island until we hit Saint Paul. Along the way the highway meandered through lush mountainside, rolling green hills and beautiful little villages until it hit the seaside. It was such a lovely drive and well worth it.
Our last sightsee was up another windy road to a spot called Le Maido which overlooked another one of Reunions massive canyons called the Cirque de Mafete. There was a mass of fast moving fog at the top but at least it wasn’t raining. Thankfully the swift moving fog gave us views every now and again of the deep canyon below – it was a magnificent sight.
We were pleasantly surprised by our trip to Reunion Island. What a little gem of a place!
I suppose Reunion is a popular destination for French people but to the rest of the world it is somewhat unknown. Flights operated by Air Austral have opened the island up to tourism from Australia and other parts of the world. For example I notice that Reunion is marketed in Australia as a neat stopover for people travelling on to Paris, Mauritius and other Air Austral destinations. (If I were flying to Paris from Australia I would definitely use Reunion as a stopover each way.)
There are so many breathtaking sights and places to explore it definitely warrants a stay longer than we spent. We’ve put this amazing little island on our “Return To” list but next time we’ll make sure we’re more ‘mountain fit!’ Reunion Island is incredible and a definite must see! (Note – in my opinion, to do it justice, you need a minimum stay of 3 nights and a rental car is required)
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!