Part 1: Four Days on the West Coast
The first part of our 2 weeks in Reunion Island is dedicated to its riviera along the sunny and dry west coast. We’ll base ourselves in the finest lagoon-side village and use this gem as our base for exploring the coastline and for venturing to mountains on memorable scenic drives and road trips.
About the West Coast
The west coast of Reunion Island, in particular, the stretch from St-Paul to St-Leu is an affluent part of the island and its tourist capital. If you’ve been to the Big Island of Hawaii, this part of Reunion Island is like the Kona Coast – sunnier, drier and more developed for tourism with plenty of pockets of charm. The Routes des Tamarins makes it very easy to get up and down the coast and you can spend a good few days here, mixing fun-in-the-sun with hiking and driving in the mountains. This part of the island also offers plenty of adventure thrills, including scuba diving, whale watching, paragliding, and scenic helicopter tours.
Pro tip: we circled the island in a counterclockwise direction with many multi-day inland detours. This way, the first part of the trip was more relaxed as we gradually ventured into the mostly nature-based sections of the itinerary. You can, of course, do the opposite and wrap things up with a few days along the lagoon.
Where to Stay on the West Coast of Reunion Island
After much thought and research, we chose to base ourselves in La Villa de la Plage in the charming lagoon-side village of la Salines-les-Bains, about a 45-minute drive from the airport. This is an exceptional bed and breakfast that only has four units nestled around a lush tropical garden and a swimming pool, with plenty of drinking and dining options nearby.
The bed and breakfast is located right on the beach, with a small metal gate leading from the backyard straight to the white sand. The beach is marked on the map as Plage de la Saline and we found it to be one of the best beaches in Reunion Island. It stays quiet and sunny throughout the day and the snorkeling here is not bad. As far as beaches go, it’s as South Pacific as it gets in Reunion (more on that later). You can use free kayaks and SUPs to work up an appetite and the location is perfect for stargazing.
Now back to the bed and breakfast. The property itself is super well-kept and all units are fitted for the best comfort. What we especially loved were the outdoor (hot) showers and the terrace overlooking the garden. Breakfast is very pampering and you’ll take turns enjoying it in the tree-house overlooking the beach that also doubles as the perfect spot to watch the sunset. If you have an early excursion to head to, your hosts will prepare a breakfast basket.
Day 1: Arrival and Exploring St-Paul
If you’re coming to Reunion Island from France, you won’t even get your passport stamped and, as you make your way out of the terminal, it’s clear you’ve arrived at a small paradise. That warm air and the sight of emerald peaks broken only by deep ravines is reminiscent of my arrival to Tahiti for the first time, another faraway paradise and a greater part of the French Republic. The first task at hand is to pick up your rental car and then it’s off to either check-in or merely drop your bags and head out for some sightseeing, as we did.
Optional Sightseeing in St-Denis
Most tourists overlook the capital city and head further down the coast (like we did), but if you have a few spare hours, St-Denis has a few highlights to offer, especially for history buffs and foodies.
On the architecture side, check out the Maison Kichenin (the oldest Creole mansion in St-Denis), the Conseil General de la Reunion (an elegant Creole villa), the Hotel de Ville (the most impressive building in the city). For a bit of fresh air, head to Le Barachois (the seafront park dotted with old cannons) and the Jardin de l’Etat (a mid-18th-century garden constructed to adapt imported plants to the island’s climate). For souvenirs, head to the Grand Marche and for food, check out Le Caudan, Camions Bars du Barachois (food trucks), Le 144 and Le Reflet des Iles (Creole food).
Drive to St-Paul
The drive from St-Denis to St-Paul takes you on the part of the famous Routes des Tamarins, an engineering marvel spanning across 34km of a seemingly impenetrable coastline. On the leg leading from the capital to Le Port, you can see the new viaduct in advanced stages of completion, a state-of-the-art mega construction project designed to alleviate commercial traffic and to mitigate natural risks of rockslides and flooding.
The main reason to visit St-Paul is its colorful outdoor market which takes center stage on Friday and Saturday mornings so it’s best to plan around that constraint. We landed from Paris on Saturday morning and were able to make it for the closing hour of the market. The sights, colors and scents are all you would expect from a market on a tropical island in Africa but the added bonus here is the seaside location.
If you can get an early start to the day, visit the market and stock up on supplies for a picnic lunch somewhere on the coast or in the mountains. But even if you just come here for the sightseeing, you’ll be amazed at the richness of local produce, including vanilla, and the colorful local fashion on sale. Just pick up an ice-cold coconut and begin your market tour.
Pro tip: aim to start your visit of the St-Paul market by 9 am, when the market is at its best. Things wrap up by 1 pm. You can use the free street parking (at least on Saturday) or the designated parking lots around.
For local eats around the market, choose from several takeaway stalls or simple local eateries. For a proper lunch, walk to the popular seaside restaurant La Capitainerie and try the tuna tartare and the grilled fish. Across the street is another solid option, Le Débarcadère, specializing in Lyonnaise and Creole cuisines and down by the cemetery is another recommended seaside option, Restaurant Le Grand Baie.
Save your dessert for La Magie des Glaces, hands down the best ice cream in Reunion Island. They specialize in flavors made from local ingredients and the blends are deliciously original, such as honey and ginger, mango and chili peppers, and our favorite, passion fruit and geranium.
Apart from the market, a seaside lunch and buying a local SIM card, there aren’t any “must-see” highlights in St-Paul. If you do have the time, check out the Cimetiere Marin – the Reunionaise version of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and the Siva Soupramanien Hindu temple.
Cocktails at Copacabana
Still full from lunch, we headed for after sunset cocktails at Copacabana. It’s about a 15-minute walk from La Villa de la Plage and it’s right on the beach, feet in the sand, and complete with soothing sounds of waves crashing on the coral reef in the distance. Cocktails average ~10€ and main dishes ~20€.
Day 2: Scenic Flight, Cap Noir and Beach Time
The second day in our two weeks in Reunion Island itinerary is action-packed. We begin with a grand tour of the island, continue with a short yet breathtaking hike, and end with some relaxing time on the best beach on the island.
Scenic Helicopter Flight
It’s certainly not cheap but, if there’s a place in the world where you need to seriously consider splashing out on a scenic flight, Reunion Island is definitely such a place, right up there with Hawaii. The leading suppliers are Helilagon and Corail Helicopters, both offering similar packages and take-off locations. We went with Helilagon for an 8 am departure, opting for their Must Do package which basically takes you to every corner of the island (~320€ | 55 mins).
We planned this activity for our very first full day on the island to leave a few more chances on later days in case of bad weather (in fact, you’ll already list alternative dates at the time of booking). The comprehensive scenic flight, especially at the beginning of your trip, is a great way to see what’s in store in the coming days and to also get a unique vantage point from the air to some of the places you’ll later explore on foot or by car.
The scenic flight itself is simply out of this world. This island is so rugged and so diverse, with the colors and landscape changing every few minutes. The most memorable highlights were flying in and out of the cirques, between the summits of Piton des Neiges and Grand Benare, over the moon-like landscape of the active volcano and getting as close as possible to the Trou de Fer – the highest waterfall on the island. We were picked up from our bed and breakfast at 7:20 am and returned by 9:30 am for breakfast in the treehouse.
Pro tips: (1) in general, the clearest skies are in the morning hours but if it’s forecasted to be an absolutely sunny day throughout the island, the late morning flights will have less glare as the sun is higher in the sky and not in your face. Keep in mind that on most days, clouds form over the peaks by 11 am. (2) If you have a soft stomach, don’t eat too much before the flight and take half of a motion-sickness pill. (3) Cheaper scenic flight options include Air Dimitile which uses a small airplane (~185€), however, they cannot maneuver as well as helicopters in such rugged terrain or fly as low above the ground. (4) The captain is the one assigning your seat so if you want a window seat in the front, do a bit of pre-flight schmoozing and simply ask for it.
Scenic Drive to Dos d’Ane
With most of the day still ahead, head on a scenic drive to the village of Dos d’Ane which is also the starting point for the hike to the Cap Noir scenic lookout. This is a relatively short 3-4 hour excursion, highly recommended thanks to its proximity to the coast and the stunning scenery.
The drive from la Saline-les-Bains takes about 50 mins and once you veer from the coast and begin climbing the mountains via the D1, the drive is tricky with a manual car thanks to a continuous stream of sharp bends and local traffic. Drive to the top (follow signs to Cap Noir) and park wherever you can.
Hike to Cap Noir
One of the best hikes in Reunion Island, the Dos d’Ane to Cap Noir hike packs in a lot of breathtaking views in just a three-kilometer loop. You can begin from either Roche Verre Bouteille or from the Cap Noir trailhead but we found the latter to have its incline sections spread more evenly.
The highlight is the Cap Noir lookout, one of the most famous spots on the island. From here, the Bras des Merles valley cuts through two deep ridges, and its narrow maze leads straight into Cirque de Mafate, the most inaccessible of Reunion Island’s three cirques. You can also spot a narrow mind-boggling path cut straight into the ridge on the right side.
The hike then ascends via steps and ladders to Roche Verre Bouteille, a peculiar-looking pinnacle that resembles a bottle inlaid with unique rocks. This spot also affords views of the picturesque hamlet of Dos d’Ane and the Indian Ocean. From here, the trail heads via a series of steps back to the Cap Noir starting point.
Logistics: distance – 3km (loop) | time: 1.5hrs | difficulty – medium. Bring – snacks, sun protection as the trail is very exposed, walking poles if your knees take a beating, water, change of clothes.
Plage de la Salines
We spent the rest of the afternoon on our favorite beach in Reunion Island, a perfect stretch of salt and pepper sand on the prettiest section of the island’s small lagoon. We found this beach to be the quietest, especially considering its proximity to some of the more popular beaches on the island such as Plage de l’Hermitage. The snorkeling is not bad for Reunion Island so don’t forget your gear. The coral is mostly bleached but there are lots of tropical fish around.
Evening in St Leu
For dinner and drinks, we headed south to happening St Leu, where Sunday nights during the summer season can be quite festive (check with your hosts). We were in luck as there was a street festival taking place. The mojitos were extra strong, the food was just OK and the music was a mix of local French hip-hop and rap on one stage and corny 70’s disco for the old-timers at the other. It was nice to mix with the locals and to see how seemingly detached they are from the troubles of “mainland France” yet so attached in many ways.
Day 3: Maido Lookout, Roche-Plate Hike & Beach Time
The third day takes it up a notch from the previous and takes us to one of Reunion Island’s most iconic lookouts and officially down into the cirques. We’ll end the day at the beach and taste some Creole food for dinner.
Scenic Drive to Maido Lookout
The drive from la Saline-les-Bains to the Maido lookout takes about 1:10hrs without traffic. Once you leave the Route des Tamarins and head into the mountains on secondary roads (especially the D5 and D6), you enter a different world in Les Hauts de St-Paul. These simple hamlets overlook the ocean and are the historical homes of mixed-race Creoles and less fortunate white farmers forced to move up from the coastal plain (see Reunion Island History for more detail). The higher the altitude, the less gravitational pull by the wealthy coast.
This is another challenging drive, especially with a manual car. You are constantly facing an uphill drive with bend after bend, incoming traffic, and the occasional public bus. A few kilometers before the lookout, you enter a typical cedar forest and the final leg is above the treeline. The rulers here are the plants and bushes that feed off the moisture in the misty clouds that roll in at this altitude. It’s quite a surreal scene considering you’re just minutes away from the tropical coastline. There are several interesting stops on the way but we’ll save those for the return leg.
Pro tip: if you’re planning on hiking from the Maido Lookout, aim to be there by no later than 8 am to enjoy a cloud-free lookout and still have time to hike down into the cirque (beneath the cloud line). You’ll also avoid the bulk of the tourist buses which congest both the road and the lookout. If just driving here for the scenery, keep in mind that by noon, the place will be covered with clouds.
One of Reunion Island’s must-see attractions, Le Maido is a stunning lookout perched at an altitude of 2,205m on a flat section of a rampart peering straight into the heart of Cirque de Mafate, the island’s most inaccessible cirque. On a cloud-free morning, the scene is spectacular, an amphitheater of mountains and pinnacles separated by deep ravines and valleys. Here and there, the landscape is dotted with tiny hamlets where you can’t help but wonder how on earth do the folks down there do their grocery shopping. You can see the clouds creeping in from the moist east coast, unable to fully penetrate the peaks but only for now.
The cirques were formed when the volcano’s magma chambers emptied and collapsed. The rest was sculpted by rain and erosion, but a plaque at the lookout will explain in more detail. Living off the grid, the first settlers in the cirque were slaves that escaped the hardships and fled to the most remote area of the island. Many villagers are maroons – the descendants of the escaped slaves. The Maido is also the starting point for many hikes, including the hike to Grand Benare (2896m) and to Roche-Plate (see below).
Logistics: as mentioned, be here as early in the day as possible though, for photography, I would say 10 am is the “golden hour”. By noon, the lookout is usually covered in clouds. There’s a large parking lot right at the very top but if that’s full, there’s another lot about 150m down where you came from that also houses a very pampering kiosk, considering the location. It can be a bit chilly at the top and if you have binoculars, bring them with you to see what’s happening in those lonely hamlets inside the cirque.
Sentier de Roche Plate
The hike from Le Maido to the hamlet of Roche-Plate is one of the trails leading into the Cirque de Mafate. It’s a beautiful trail that follows the bending contours of the ramparts, finally zig-zagging its way down to Roche-Plate. You can use this trail for a multi-day exploration of the Cirque de Mafate but do book your accommodations in advance. To pick up the trailhead and to save yourself a useless and agonizing ascent back to Le Maido car park, drive down from the lookout for about 2km until you see on your right side the clear sign for the trailhead.
The hike offers beautiful views of the cirque and is accompanied by interesting plants and birds throughout. However, we had no special plans of making it all the way to Roche-Plate so we only hiked a portion of the trail which was enough for us (on the last day of the trip we’ll “properly” hike into the cirque from a different location). We started hiking at about 9:30 am and returned at noon.
Logistics: distance – 10km (return) | time: 5.5hrs | difficulty – medium. Bring – snacks, full sun protection (the first section is very exposed and the weather inside the cirque is warmer and drier than at the top), more than the usual amount of water, walking poles if your knees take a beating, change of clothes and something warm for the finish, cash for the kiosk at the bottom Maido parking lot (it might be closed when you arrive).
This area is also known for its parfumeries, local distilleries that produce extracts mostly from geranium and other regional plants. On your way back down to the coast, stop in at least one and stock up on a few bottles of extract to go with the burning apparatus. Each scent is to be matched with its medicinal qualities, some are good for migraines, others for fatigue, and so on (~8-15€ per bottle). We paid a visit to Parfumerie Maido (they also offer tours) and L’Alambic Begue.
Afternoon at Plage de L’Hermitage
Plage de L’Hermitage is Reunion’s Island’s most popular beach and quite popular with both tourists and locals alike (especially on weekends). The sand is as white as it gets on the island, the water is crystal clear and casuarina trees provide some shade, but this wasn’t our favorite beach at all taking into account the crowds. We preferred Plage de la Salines.
Dinner at La Bonne Marmite
You must try Creole food at least once during your holiday in Reunion Island. In our case, it was more than a one-time affair as the spicy food is exactly what our palette craves. Not only is La Bonne Marmite the best place for Creole food on this side of the island (apart from St-Denis), it’s also in La Saline-les-Bains, our base on this section of the trip.
The main draw is the Creole buffet dinner (~21€), a rich selection of spicy local dishes thrown in with a few Western options. Highlights include various curries (fish and pumpkin were the best), delicious venison and beef. They also have a pretty good selection of cocktails and local rum. At the end of our meal, our host offered us a taste of the secret house rum that is spiked with hot chilies. A couple of drops of that is pretty much all your stomach can endure but diehard locals take a liking to this concoction.
Day 4: Scuba Diving or Hiking & Beach Time
The last day in the first section of our two weeks in Reunion Island offers two options to choose from. The first includes scuba diving and exploring St-Leu and the second takes us back to the mountains for a beautiful hike that’s different than what we’ve seen so far.
Option 1: Scuba Diving & Lunch in St-Leu
Scuba diving is not the main reason to visit Reunion Island but, if you’re already here, you might as well take the plunge and see what’s happening beneath the waves. There are quite a few dive clubs around this part of the island and the best dive sites are either just outside the reef or in the deep south, where only rare trips are made (see Reunion Island Travel Tips for specific scuba diving information).
After quite a bit of research, we went with Scubananas, a very reputable dive center based in St-Leu. This also gave us the chance to explore the town after the dives. We dove in a site called Les Kiosques which was abundant in hard coral and rarely-seen fish such as lionfish and barracuda. We didn’t encounter any sharks or sea turtles but did spend about one hour underwater and one of us even got their first taste of scuba diving with an introductory “fun” dive.
For lunch, you can go simple with a baguette and a bottle of “dodo” (the nickname for the local brew – Bourbon) at one of the seaside snacks (we ate at Snack du Four a Chaux), properly dine at La Villa Vanille or head to our favorite spot – L’Orange Givree. This place has the look and vibe of a beach bar but it’s in the heart of St-Leu. We went for the grilled tuna and the tuna tartare to go along with some homemade juice. The town’s main church (Notre Dame de la Salette) is right next door so you might as well have a quick peek if you’re already here.
After lunch, you can either retreat for some beach time (see later on) or head to one of two nearby botanical gardens: La Jardin Naturel (a 10-minute drive from St-Leu) or the Conservatoire Botanique National de Mascarin (a 15-minute drive).
Option 2: Hike in Les Makes
If scuba diving isn’t your thing, use this day for another excursion into the mountains. The drive from la Saline-les-Bains to La Fenetre des Makes takes about 75 minutes on the twisting D20 and its scenery changes from sugarcane fields overlooking the Indian Ocean to a thick forest of cedars.
The road ends at a tiny parking lot where a small trail leads to La Fenetre, another breathtaking scenic lookout (altitude 1,580m). What’s special about this lookout is that it’s not that frequented by tourists and it offers the chance to peer into the magical Cirque de Cilaos. For us, it’s a preview of what’s to come in the second part of this journey and a first glimpse (from the ground) of the Piton des Neiges, the island’s highest summit that will be conquered in a few days.
Other notable mentions from the lookout include the village of Cilaos, the dreamy hamlet of Ilet a Cordes and Grand Benare – one of the island’s highest peaks. The acoustics from up here are superb. We could even hear the trucks honking as they approached blind turns on the road into Cirque de Cilaos.
Pro tip: like all scenic mountain lookouts in Reunion Island, get here early before the clouds roll in (by no later than 10 am). La Fenetre is also a prime picnic spot so pack accordingly.
From the lookout, we set out on a looping section of the PR18 trail (follow steps outlined here). The trail begins with additional lookouts into Cirque de Cilaos before descending into an enchanting forest of cedar trees that chill the air. Before climbing back to the starting point, the trail traverses fields covered in lush tropical vegetation, including wild ginger and arum flowers.
Logistics: distance – 5.2km (loop) | time: 3.5hrs | difficulty – medium (though listed as easy). Bring – snacks/picnic lunch, water, something warm for the forest, and a change of clothes for the finish.
Afternoon at the Beach
No matter which option was chosen, you certainly deserve one last afternoon at the beach, seeing as tomorrow we bid farewell to this part of the island. Head back to Plage de la Salines or try a new spot at Plage de Boucan Canot. This is one of the island’s most famous beaches, a Reunionnaise version of Saint-Tropez. Boucan Canot boasts a wide stretch of sand and a few pockets of charm, but the nearby resorts and concrete promenade lined with cafes and restaurants were a turn off for us.
Sunset in Etang-Sale les Bains
The village of Etang-Sale les Bains is located outside the perimeter of the lagoon so it doesn’t get as many tourists compared to the towns further up the coast. However, it’s a lovely seaside town that’s quite popular with the locals. Its black sand beach is so beautiful that perhaps even UFOs paid a visit in 2019. The black sand beach is one of the best places in Reunion Island to watch the sunset so bring a few bottles of Bourbon beer and find your spot on the beach.
Dinner at Planch’Alize
To celebrate the end of the first leg of the trip, head to Planch’Alize in la Saline-les-Bains for a gourmet dinner. It’s one of the more upscale restaurants on the coast and reservations are required (ask for a table closest to the beach), but if you simply fancy a drink on the beach, walk-in visits are OK. The cuisine is local but with a French twist. We had some tuna tartare as a starter followed by tuna steak and grilled fish for mains (80€ including drinks). Other solid options nearby include Le Choka Bleu and Thai Run.