Island of Extremes – Reunion is a dot in the Indian Ocean with an impressive offering of unusual attractions. There are curtains of waterfalls, black and white sand beaches, wild and calm coastline, vibrant markets and fiery food. All on a very small, very French, very African island. By Keri Harvey
“This island is just a big rock with three holes poked in it,” says Michelle, the attendant handing us the keys for our hire car, “but it’s quite pretty.” That would prove to be an understatement of note. Reunion Island is beautiful, diverse, dramatic, and at times otherworldly.
Because of the rugged terrain on Reunion, road building is difficult. The result is that the main road on the island is a ring road hugging the coast. Smaller roads lead off the ring road into the interior wherever the terrain permits. Even the cemeteries all hug the coastline, as it’s the only area where the ground is flat and where there is a little sand. The rest of Reunion is all volcanic rock, which is reminiscent of an Aero chocolate in appearance.
Still, the shoreline varies dramatically depending on where you are in Reunion. The Wild South has black volcanic sand beaches and inhospitable lava rocks that give it a stark and surreal appearance. Lying in the shadow of Piton de la Fournaise volcano, this rugged coastline gives dramatic displays of force and foam as waves crash directly into its volcanic cliffs in some places. Quaint Creole villages dot the coastline and provide a riot of colour to an otherwise drab coastline. This stretch of coast is also popular with sailors, scuba divers and paragliders.
The west coast is where all the tourist activity is concentrated, made easy by the white sand beaches, warm ocean and many protected lagoons. The weather is also hot and summery year-round, which makes this an all-year playground for beach lovers and snorkellers – with colourful coral reefs not far from shore. A little further out there’s deep-sea fishing and surfing too.
Piton de la Fournaise, or Peak of the Furnace, is certainly the island’s most striking attraction. At 2 631m, it is hailed as one of the world’s largest and most impressive shield volcanoes and she attracts thousands of visitors to marvel at her size and trek up her steep slopes to gaze into her smouldering crater. Of course, volcanologists particularly love the 400 000 year old Fournaise, as the old dame just refuses to grow old gracefully. Just recently, she blew her top in what has become almost and annual display of fury.
Driving to the volcano has a sense of other-worldliness. As you wind your way up the narrow mountain road from Plaine des Cafres, you have a strong sense of being in Switzerland. Dappled cows graze on the lush grassy slopes, tinkling their cowbells as they go, and striking mountain peaks rise up as a background to this Swiss cheese poster image. Piton des Neiges, Reunion’s oldest and highest volcano, looms in the background, as if watching protectively over the peaceful farm scene. This volcano has been dormant for half a million years, so all is calm for now.
Huge Piton des Neiges, at over 3 000m high is the ‘big rock’ that Michelle spoke of. The ‘three holes’ are the cirques of Mafate, Cilaos and De Salazie, which appear as an enormous sunken cloverleaf in Neiges. The result of this topography is that the interior of Reunion is mostly uninhabitable, with dramatically steep and often treacherous landscapes. Of course a few people do live there, but the interior is really the stomping ground of adventure sports enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies. Hiking, trekking, kloofing, climbing, abseiling and many other such activities are practiced in the rugged interior of the island.
For those with enough adrenaline in their veins, it’s worth a trip ‘into the interior’. The scenery is dramatic and constantly changing, and the trip there – even by car at a moderate speed – is quite exhilarating. Possibly even hair-raising if you are the driver. The three cirques, though all in the same volcano, are all completely different and individually enchanting. To get to Cilaos takes nerves of steel. Driving on the right-hand side of the road, you ascend from the coast for 34 km along a very steep and narrow mountain road, negotiating 200 hairpin bends along the way. The trip takes over two hours and is definitely not for sissies. But once there, the views are splendid and the tiny mountain hamlets lend a quirky air to the place. The Cilaos area is well known for its intricate embroidery, and is also touted as having the healthiest climate in all of Reunion. For thrill seekers there’s canyoning, river hiking and quite serious mountain biking.