Expert Reviews – Réunion
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
France’s tropical island Department
Réunion is not your typical beach destination. The most westerly of the Mascarene Islands boasts its fair share of idyllic seaside resorts, but unlike its better-known neighbour Mauritius, it stands out more for its volcanic scenery and outdoor activities, such as hiking, canyoning, canoeing and rock climbing. Indeed, for every tourist you see catching a tan at popular beaches such as Saint-Gilles or Saint-Pierre, you'll find many more exploring the mountainous interior.
Geologically, Réunion is essentially a massive volcano, one that erupted from the seabed 2 million years ago to become what is now the highest peak in the Indian Ocean. Its centrepiece Piton de la Fournaise ranks as one of the world’s most active volcanoes, having erupted dozens of times over the course of the last century, and the highest peak is the 3,069m Piton des Neiges.
Réunion’s fertile volcanic soils support everything from misty evergreen forests to grassy meadows studded with wildflowers. For me, however, the scenic highlight is the ascent via the eerily flat and bleak Plain des Sables to Pas de Bellecombe, a viewpoint from where you can walk through a purgatorial moonscape of solidified lava flows and subsidiary cones to the base of Piton de la Fournaise’s main caldera.
Because it was uninhabited prior to 1649, Réunion is unusual in that it was never a colony as such. In the early days of French settlement, many slaves were transported to the island from Africa, Madagascar and Malaysia, but all were granted full French citizenship when slavery was abolished in 1848. As a result, Réunion today remains a remote Department of France, as evidenced by its egalitarian vibe and liberal scattering of continental cafés-cum-bars where we enjoyed a simple menu of crisp baguettes, delicious confectionaries and carafes of French red wine.