I like France and find its overseas islands scattered in South Pacific and Indian Ocean intriguing and special. La Réunion is a walker’s paradise with more than 1,000km of well-marked trails and a well-kept secret. In many ways, it is the most fascinating of the Mascarene trio (i.e. Mauritius, Rodrigues and La Réunion).
Born three million years ago as a result of an undersea volcanic eruption, Réunion is a region of France measuring 63km long and 45km wide with an area of 2,512 km² and a population of less than one million. Located 944km east of Madagascar and 175km southwest of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Réunion consists of two great volcanic mountain masses.
The island has been inhabited since the 17th century when people from France, Madagascar and Africa settled there. Slaves who were brought in to work in sugar cane estates, were replaced by indentured workers mostly from South India beginning in 1849. It became an overseas department of France in 1946 and one of the 18 regions of France. It is also the outermost region of the European Union. The official language is French while the majority of the population speak Réunion Creole. Its culture is a blend of European, African, Indian, Chinese and insular traditions.
The island is a hotspot in the Earth’s crust. The Piton de la Fournaise, a shield volcano at 2631m above sea level, is one of the most active volcanoes erupting more than 100 times since 1640. The most recent spectacular eruption took place on July 31, 2015. The Piton des Neiges, an extinct volcano is the highest point of the island standing at 3070m above sea level. The island has three calderas: the Cirque de Mafate (accessible only on foot or by helicopter), the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos.
Despite its small size, Réunion is a biodiversity hotspot rich in flora and fauna. It also has exceptionally beautiful landscape and scenery with impressive gorges, fertile valleys, steep cliffs, magical waterfalls, sugar cane fields, lush green vegetation and forests, white and black sand beaches, coral reef and lagoons, and volcanoes. Humpback whales migrate north to the island from the Antarctic waters annually (June-September) to breed and feed. About 40% of the island including the two Pitons, three Cirques and Remparts (cliffs/walls) is National Park land that has been declared World Heritage property.
My Plan for Réunion
I have been visiting many volcanoes in recent years including the world’s biggest one in Hawaii last year. Réunion sometime called Hawaii’s sister, has been on my list. I find the 150-km cross-island trail from north to southeast interesting and doable. Hence I set aside 12 nights hoping to do whatever my fancy would take me and my legs could carry me. I believe it is a great way to enjoy travel if I start with a few ideas and no definite plan or must-do!
June 10 Friday: Mauritius – Réunion
My flight took off at 8:50am and I arrived at St-Denis airport at 9:35am. As a taxi would cost about €30, I decided to take the Car Jaune (Yellow Bus) to town (€2). The lady at the airport tourist office said a bus had just gone and the next one would not be arriving till two hours later. Nevertheless, I could take the normal bus which requires a connection. Despite my 20-kg suitcase and a heavy backpack, I managed to walk to the bus stop (it is not far away but I took about ten minutes to find the right one).
I was lucky to meet a retired French man who was going in the same direction. He was very helpful: he carried my suitcase and told me where to get off. The backpacker hotel (Hotel du Centre) is near the bus stop on Rue Marechal Leclerc.
What Réunion strikes me immediately upon arrival is its landscape: the views of the mountains along the highway to St-Denis are breath-taking. Then the people and the public transportation which is well-run, comfortable and cheap, are equally impressive.
The first place to go was the Tourist Office located on Rue de Paris/Avenue de las Victoire (at the end of Rue Marechal Leclerc). On my way out, I met a retired French man who lives in Mauritius. He has to spend a few days in Réunion once every few months in order to qualify for his allowance/pension. He asked about my plan for the day and offered to show me the way to the Tourist Office and see part of the old town. We passed through Le Petit Marché(the small market), walked up Rue St-Ann e before turning into Rue de Paris. I find the creole architecture simple, cheerful but beautiful.
The office provides lots of useful information, maps and bus timetables. The helpful receptionist suggested me join a bus tour to see the volcanoes on Tuesday (€40) and not hike alone. I found a leaflet on hiking trips offered by Gilles Dubesset interesting. She told me to contact him direct.
The weather was perfect, nice and warm. It’s after 2pm when we arrived at the waterfront with a statue of Roland Garros who was born in Réunion. We had a menu of the day at the Cafe Roland Garros for €15 – good value. My friend insisted on treating me to lunch.
I wanted to find a money changer as I would use my UK bank debit card only as a last resort (My HK cards are not accepted here while the UK card charges an excessive amount for withdrawal overseas). I was totally taken by surprise when all the banks said they would only provide the service at the airport. As I was short of cash, I had no choice but use my UK debit card to get some money. I am awaiting with interest the bank statement showing the amount of service charge this time.
Then someone told me about the Western Union. I went there and found a queue of about ten customers. But I waited for an hour and the staff took another ten minutes to process my request. I was also charged 0.8% commission. What a waste of time!
By the time I walked back to the hotel, it was well after 5pm. My first day had gone! In order to thank my French friend for his generosity, I took him out to dinner in a Chinese restaurant near the hotel. The food is quite good and cheap i.e. € 15 for two dishes and two beers.
I asked the hotel receptionist to help me call Gilles Dubesset (tel 06 92 87 49 16; email@example.com; www.facebook.com/agilrandorun) and booked a hiking trip to Cirque de Mafate on Monday, June 13 for €59. Gilles told me to take the 5:45am Car Jaune Line 2 from St-Denis station and get off at Sacred Coeur where he would pick me up at 6:45am.
June 11 Saturday: Cirque de Salazie
I decided to spend the weekend in Cirque de Salazie which can be reached by bus from St-André. When I checked out of the hotel, I told the receptionist on night shift that I would be spending a night at Hell-Bourg and return on Sunday night. He immediately offered to give me a lift to St-André where he lives. In this way, I would not need to walk to the bus station to catch a bus. What a nice surprise!
We left St-Denis at 8am. By 8:20am, I was already at St-André bus station. But the bus to Hell-Bourg would not leave till 9:30am. I therefore spent almost an hour strolling around the town centre, looking at shops and street food stalls and visiting a church. The town is run-down and seems poor.
The road to Hell-Bourg, a slow-paced village with a few hotels, guesthouses and auberges (similar to hostels) only takes about 45minutes. I had a scenic ride through the village of Salazie and was amazed by the scenery, the gorge of Rivière du Mât, “Bride’s Veil” where countless waterfalls come down the sheer cliffs, extensive green fields up in the mountain under cultivation and picturesque villages perching on plateau and cliff tops.
At Salazie, we had to change bus and a French lady told me that most hotels and guest houses might be full owing to the Chouchou Festival. An elderly man sitting next to me on the bus recommended a hotel near the bus stop. So instead of going to the local tourist office, I went to the hotel recommended to me. It was full. Then I saw a sign to L’Orchidée Rose which I had seen on internet. I got a room for €65: it is not cheap for its quality! Had I gone to the Tourist Office first, I could have been directed to an auberge where I might pay €15-17 for a bed or €35-40 for a room. A useful lesson to learn!
The Chouchou Festival is basically a village fair with games, 30-40 stalls selling food, plants, vegetables, clothing etc. There’s a big stage where a dozen people were dancing. I saw a big tent called ‘Macau’ casino with a few slot machines. There are a few attractions in the village which is also the starting point for a few short and long hikes. I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting four places.
3 Cascades (Three Waterfalls) is about 1 km south of the village (90 minute return). Some parts are steep and slippery. I was lucky in meeting a young couple with a young boy who has become my friend. At the end of the walk, he insisted in having me (instead of his mum) taking one of his hands. He is cute.
The Cemetery close to my guesthouse, is picturesque.
Villa Folio built in 1870 is a traditional home in creole style buried in a lush green garden decorated with two pavilions and a water fountain. The elderly owner is still living there and his children are conducting the guided tour (entrance fee €5).
Thermal Ruin by a river is a short walk from the village (30 minute return).
I had a nice long day. After having some cheese, bread and red wine, I went to bed before 8pm and slept for about 11 hours!
June 12 Sunday: Cirque de Salazie
After breakfast, I checked out leaving my backpack in the guesthouse. As I had to catch the 3:15pm bus to St-André, I only had the morning for a short walk. The tourist office recommended me to take a 3-hour return walk to Belouve (1507m). The trail going up the mountain is steep with many sharp bends and steps. I stopped every two to three minutes to take photos as the views are so captivating!
There are a few short walks at Belouve. I took a boardwalk which is well-designed with lots of information about geology and plants. Then I tried to follow a path to a viewpoint. After walking for a while, I saw no more sign and decided to turn back. Then I saw two couples (Rachel, Yves, Lysine and Claidine) whom I met at the start of the hike. I followed them and we arrived at the viewpoint which is just around the corner where I turned back.
We had a nice chat and picnic lunch before heading back to the village. I got back to the guesthouse around 2pm, picked up my backpack and waited at the bus stop. The return journey was smooth but uneventful. I was back in St-Denis around 5:30pm and went to the Chinese restaurant. It was closed. At the end, I bought a pizza (€6) to fill my empty stomach.
June 13: Group Hiking to Cayenne, Cirque de Mafate
I had an early start in order to take the 5:45am bus. I got off at the Sacred Coeur bus stop before 6:10am. Gilles turned up in his minibus at 6:40am to pick me and two other hikers up. Two more hikers joined in at a carpark where we got into a 4WD that took us to the starting point. Gilles is a meteorologist by profession and has moved to La Réunion since 1983. I am impressed by his passion and knowledge about nature and mountaineering.
We began the walk around 8am. Soon, we arrived at the Riviera des Galets and Gilles told us to walk across in our boots. I hate walking with wet boots and socks. We had to do it two more times before hiking uphill for over half an hour. The views are great and we were soon surrounded by several mountain ranges rising to over 2000m in height. They just look like a wall. Soon, we saw our first hamlet Ilet Fougeres perching high on the mountain on the other side of the river.
The walk is fairly easy. Gilles made it even easier and enjoyable as he stopped to tell us about plants and other things of interest. He would explain in English for when I looked totally lost. We arrived at Cayenne, a small hamlet with a dozen of houses and no more than 20 residents. Time seems to stand still here and life is simple. A retired man from the city sold us ten bananas from his garden for €1: he looks so content, happy and healthy.
We began our descend to the river bank and had a picnic lunch by the river. I had brought bread and sardines with me. Gilles had prepared coffee and pineapple for us. Then we had a stop by a rock pool for a swim: we had to swim about 25m to see a narrow gorge and a waterfall. The water was cold and I took a while to pick up my courage to jump in. The reward is a close-up view of the gorge and the rock formation.
We were picked up by the 4WD at 3:30pm. Gilles dropped me off at the Sacred Coeur bus stop and I was back in St-Denis within half an hour. Gilles told me about another hike to the volcano on Saturday. As I had already signed up for a bus tour to the volcano, I was not sure whether I would join. Anyway, I would consider and might contact him later. Tonight I bought a Chinese take-away with green vegetables, fish and chicken (€5). I had a filling and delicious dinner.
June 14 Tuesday: Bus Tour to Volcano
I had booked this tour at the Tourist Office on my first day on the island. After knowing about Gilles’s hiking group on June 18, I thought of cancelling my reservation. Though I had not paid yet, I considered it bad manner to withdraw at the last minute.
I had to get up early in order to arrive at the meeting point in front of the statue of Garros Roland near the waterfront at 6am. Four participants were already waiting when I arrived. The bus turned up around 6:20am with two German tourists on board. Then we went to St-Gilles-les-Bains to pick up eight more passengers from four hotels. It’s well after 8am when we were on the way to Bourg-Murat, the gateway town to the volcano.
The weather was miserable: cold, misty and wet. As I had left both my down jacket and rain coat in the hotel, I was wet and frozen. The guide is nice and cheerful but speaks only French. As a result I could not follow his detailed explanations and jokes. We had five photo stops.
- Pas des Sables viewing point
- Plaines des Sables (Sandy Plain) where we had time for a short walk.
- Pas de Bellecombe viewing platform where we had free time for 45min. It was drizzling and I could hardly see the volcano.
- Plaines des Sables again with sunshine
- Commerson Crater which has a 200-metre diametre with an observation platform perching over a 120-metre deep crater. On a clear day, one can have a spectacular view of the ridges of Cilaso Cirque.
At 12:15pm, the driver told me and the German couple to get off at the Maison du Volcan (a museum) as we had not signed up for lunch. He would return to pick us up at 1:45pm. What should I do? A visit to the museum (€9)? As the explanations would likely be in French, I would not be able to get much out of the visit. Instead, I spent most of the time in the souvenir shop flipping through at the photo books.
The bus did not return till 2 pm. Then the driver said he would take us to the Maison du Volcan for a one-hour visit. Luckily I had not paid €9 for a visit myself. I returned to the bus sharp at 3pm. But a couple of passengers were missing and the bus did not leave till 3:30pm. I felt the whole afternoon had been wasted!
On the way back, the driver took the scenic coastal road with a stop at Le Souffleur for us to watch the spectacular waves splashing over the black basalt cliffs along the coast. Our driver was so nice that he dropped everyone off in St-Denis as well.
I felt I had not got the best out of the trip owing to poor weather and my poor command of the French language. Nonetheless, as most of the people on the bus would join ‘Le Sud Savage‘ (the Wild South) tour (€40) the next day, I decided to go with the group.
June 15 Wednesday: Bus Tour to ‘Le Sud Savage’
Today’s tour experience was much better. First, the weather, though not good, was not devastating. Second, the guide speaks some English. Above all, the passengers know each other by now. As the guide reassured me that the lunch would be an excellent one, I also joined my friends at lunch at L’Etoile de Mer at Basse-Vallée which is considered one of the best restaurants on the island. I had salad, shrimps, chicken and rice, dessert, wine and rum for €20. A delicious and value-for-money meal!
As for the sight-seeing part, it was pleasant but not impressive. First, we began with a hotel tour in St-Gilles-les-Bains when the driver picked up the guests. He suggested us stretch our legs and take a look at shops, the reception and pool areas. What a good idea!
Second, the driver spent more time telling us about the places along the coastal route. Hence, I learnt something about St-Pierre and its fishing village, the black sand beach at Manapany-les-Bains, St Joseph, Le Cap Méchant when our restaurant for lunch is located and St-Philippe.
Third, we stopped at Le Grand Brûlé formed by lava flow from Piton de la Fournaise and les Grandes Pentes (the Steep Slope). At Puits Arabe, the driver took us to an information board telling us about how the eruptions between March 19 and 30, 1986 have created the present landscape.
Fourth, the driver took us to see a lava tube where we groped in the dark for some 25m. I have seen similar ones in Hawaii and Galapagos.
Fifth, after a good lunch at L’Etoile de Mer, we had 10 minutes’ walk to see the lava coast.
Finally, we had a guided tour at the Jardin des Parfums et des Epices. Unfortunately, rain poured down relentlessly: I was totally wet though I already had my old rain-proof jacket on. I was again badly bitten by mosquitoes/bugs.
By the time the driver dropped us in St-Denis waterfront, it was well after 6pm. I walked back to my hotel in the dark without following the main roads. As a result, I got lost and felt unsecured. I stopped at a gas station to ask for direction. A client at the counter heard me and offered to drive me back to the hotel which is close to her mother’s house. I am indeed lucky and have met so many nice and caring people in Réunion.
Despite my two bus tours to the volcano, I had hardly seen the famous active volcano of Réunion. So I called Gilles to say I would join his walking tour on Saturday. As I planned to spend two nights in St-Pierre, he would pick me up there.