Part 2: Four Days in Cirque de Cilaos, Piton des Neiges & St-Pierre
The second part of our 2 weeks in Reunion Island itinerary is spent in the most popular of the island’s three cirques. We bid farewell to the coast, for now, and embark on a number of scenic drives. Our visit climaxes with the “mother of all hikes” on the island, the hike to the summit of the Piton des Neiges.
About the Cirque de Cilaos
Cirque de Cilaos is the largest and driest of Reunion’s three volcanic amphitheaters (cirques). Created by the collapse of a magma chamber that fueled the rise of Piton des Neiges (the island’s highest peak at 3,069m), the area has gone through extensive erosion that has essentially created a giant bowl. The cirque provides breathtaking scenery of bare ridges topped by peaks and ramparts more than 1000 meters high. At the heart of the cirque is the town of Cilaos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cirque was first settled by maroons (escaped slaves), who created their own inner kingdom. They were constantly raided by slave hunters from the coast but after slavery was abolished, they were joined by poor whites who greatly deforested the land for agriculture and timber. The cirque is accessed via one of the most scenic and challenging roads in the world and there is also remote foot access to neighboring Cirque de Mafate. Apart from tourism, the cirque is a major producer of lentils, grapes, corn, and even wine.
Pro tip: regardless of whether you’ll be climbing the area’s peaks, the evening weather inside the cirque is quite chilly. Be sure to pack accordingly!
Where to Stay in Cirque de Cilaos
The most obvious place to base yourself is in the town of Cilaos as it has all the amenities a traveler needs so you won’t have to drive too far for a meal, to stock up on groceries, or get advice at the tourist office.
We stayed at Residence Eglantine, a solid self-catering catering option in the heart of the small town. Mireille, the owner, was very friendly and accommodating, and she even spoke a bit of English, a rarity around here. Units have a small but fully functional kitchen, good WiFi reception, a small terrace, and gated parking. We appreciated both the view from our bedroom and the option to leave our car parked here with our luggage safely stored while hiking the Piton des Neiges. The only major drawbacks were that no leftover supply was left in the kitchen (had to buy everything) and the bathroom was super small. As with many Reunion Island accommodations, you must come equipped with your own toiletries.
Other good options in Cilaos include the upscale Hotel des Neiges and Hotel le Cilaos, the historic Tsilaosa Hotel, and the Creole villa of La Belle Creole. If you really want to go off the grid, head to Ilet a Cordes, one of the most scenic villages you’ll ever visit. Stay in the pampering Tapacala Insolite or the simpler Ker l’Ilet and Gite de L’ilet.
Day 5: Dolphin & Whale Watching and Scenic Drive to Cilaos
We’ll get an early start to the day and try and see some humpback whales, before bidding farewell to the coast and heading inland on one of the most scenic drives in the world.
Dolphin and Whale Watching Tour from Saint-Gilles
We had booked a swimming with whales tour with Duocean but unfavorable sea conditions caused them to cancel the tour at the last minute. Instead, we managed to book a dolphin and whale watching tour on a larger boat with Grand Bleu out of Saint-Gilles. Whales visit Reunion Island’s shores between June and October and the best place to spot them is off the west coast. Tours that include swimming with whales are very rare and Duocean was the last outfit to offer this at the time of our visit due to increasingly strict regulations (if interested and the tour is still running, book well in advance).
Our alternative tour left from Saint-Gilles at 9 am and returned just after 11 am. Unfortunately, we did not spot any whales despite visiting several sites, even as far south as St-Leu. The onboard explanations were also just provided in French, but we did see a hell of a lot of dolphins and caught beautiful views of the coastline and its surrounding mountains.
Apart from a small shop selling fresh fish and lots of restaurants in the marina, there’s not much charm to Saint-Gilles and I’m glad we didn’t spend any precious time here. I can see why the town appeals to families though, as there are lots of dining options, an aquarium, and excursions galore on offer.
Scenic Drive to Cilaos
From Saint-Gilles, it’s about a 90-minute drive to Cilaos but it will take you much longer because this is the best scenic drive in Reunion Island, and it’s also the most slow-going. The RN-5 heads into the cirque from Saint-Louis for 35kms of pure thrills and extreme scenery.
It will take a lot of courage and patience to negotiate one-lane bridges and tunnels, blind sections, and 400 turns, some of which are almost full circle and uphill. This engineering marvel was built in 1932 without the use of any explosives. It’s best to embrace the drive and to pause wherever you can to stretch your legs and enjoy the scenery.
En route to Cilaos, you pass through a handful of roadside villages where time seems to standstill. They seem to be completely hidden from the outside world by towering emerald peaks that close in from both sides, very reminiscent of the interior of Tahiti in French Polynesia.
Driving on this scenic road at different times of the day (in and out of the cirque) offers a completely different experience, as the sun’s rays paint the deep gorge in different shades. Out here, feeling completely walled in, it’s hard to imagine that the Indian Ocean is just a few kilometers down the road. As you inch closer to Cilaos, especially beyond the one-laned tunnel, the cirque’s hamlets come into view, looking as if clinging for dear life on the only flat ground found on the high ridges.
Pro tip: have your hand ready on the horn and use it when entering one-lane sections with blind turns. Honk before beginning the section and take it very slowly. Have your windows open to be able to hear any oncoming traffic, which often includes trucks and buses.
Cilaos is the cirque’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a town that appears to be completely cut off from the exterior world and where the feeling is more alpine than tropical. From the center, one can easily spot the Piton des Neiges and its “shorter” sibling, the Grand Benare. Cilaos used to be a major resort town, beginning in the late 19th century, thanks to its thermal springs that are still in operation (advanced booking needed).
Despite its isolation and the “exercise” required to get to and from the coast, Cilaos is fully stocked and people seem to be living in comfort, if however looking a bit bored, especially the younger demographics. After all, it is a 90-minute drive to the closest beach… I suppose it’s one of the benefits of being a French colony, the basics will always be taken care of.
The feeling for a tourist in Cilaos is like being in a ski town as many businesses are geared towards the active visitor except, of course, you need to supplement the snow for the hiking. You base yourself in Cilaos for the hikes. It’s a hiker’s Mecca, with more than 80 kilometers of marked trails around the town. Bumping into tourists with hiking poles and backpacks is inevitable around here.
There aren’t any must-see attractions per se in Cilaos but it is nice to wander around on foot. Notable mentions include the town’s main cathedral (Notre Dame des Neiges), perfectly positioned with the island’s highest peak as its backdrop, the small vegetable market, and the charming pastel-colored Creole houses with their manicured gardens loaded with scented flowers that can be smelled from a distance. The town has a large supermarket and a bakery so you can buy whatever you need for the coming days. I do recommend visiting the tourist office and getting information about the area’s activities, including hiking options and the bus schedule.
Dinner at Chez Noe
We wanted to take a break from the Creole buffet so we headed to Chez Noe for dinner. The interior decoration gives the place a very cozy vibe but the food was just OK. Seeing as we’re in the lentil capital of the island, we tried the local specialty and washed it down with some local Cilaos wine which is quite sweet. Wine was introduced by the French settlers to Reunion and made its way into Cirque de Cilaos where growing conditions are relatively favorable. It isn’t the best wine in the world but it’s always recommended to try the local produce.
Before turning in, there was time to enjoy the clear night sky and catch a glimpse of our Milky Way.
Day 6: Ilet a Cordes and Hiking Around Cilaos
Nearly at the halfway mark of our two weeks in Reunion Island, we’ll spend this day road tripping to the nearby hamlet of Ilet a Cordes to really get away from it all and later explore the cirque on foot.
Pro tip: get an early start to the day to enjoy a cloud-free morning in both Ilet a Cordes and on the hike. You can take it a bit more slowly and leave Ilet a Cordes for tomorrow morning, before starting the afternoon ascent to the overnight cabin on the Piton des Neiges hike.
La Roche Merveilleuse Scenic Lookout
The “marvelous rock” is indeed a breathtaking scenic lookout that is not to be missed. It’s less than 10 minutes by car from the center of town and from it, you can see just how enclosed Cilaos is by the surrounding peaks.
Ilet a Cordes
Perched on a remote ridge, the hamlet of Ilet a Cordes was so inaccessible back in the day, that runaway slaves needed to use ropes to climb to it (hence its name “hamlet of ropes”). The isolated settlement is now linked to Cilaos via one of the finest scenic roads on the island, which leaves you breathless for 11 kilometers. It is so inaccessible, that it had to be cut into the cliff. This short detour from Cilaos is of incredible beauty, not to be missed, especially on a sunny morning.
The drive from Cilaos to Ilet a Cordes begins with a mesmerizing series of sharp python-like downhill twists and, if that wasn’t enough, you might need to share the road with an oncoming bus. The effort then eases with a smooth drive along the side of the cliff with changing views of the cirque, its hamlets and ravines, and plenty of opportunities to stop and absorb the scenery.
As you enter Ilet a Cordes, the feeling of traveling back in time is the first thing that comes to mind. There’s hardly anyone around, apart from a few farmers tending to their fields of lentil without the use of any machinery. It’s so quiet out here and the acoustics are so great, that you can hear the birds singing from every conceivable angle. Leave your car and explore on foot or keep driving wherever the road takes you.
It’s clear that locals in Ilet a Cordes mainly live off agriculture. Everywhere you look are fields and orchards, and lentil isn’t the only crop around. Patches of cabbage, onion and lettuce, orange trees, bananas and vines are all occupying the fields, while gardens are colored by bougainvilleas and loquat trees. It’s so peaceful out here that you feel like staying for three days with a good book and a good view. From the edge of the village the blue of the Indian Ocean can be seen, the equivalent of light-years away considering the Swiss countryside vibe of the village.
We paused for a breather at the village’s grocery shop that also doubles as a cafe. It’s right at the base of the rampart that rises pretty much to the Fenetre des Makes lookout which we visited on day 4. From down here, you can clearly see the marks left by cascades that only appear in heavy rains like tears from heavens, and the peaks of Grand Benare (2896m) and Piton des Neiges (3070m), the latter of which will be tackled tomorrow.
Day Hikes in Cirque de Cilaos
Tomorrow, we’ll begin the climb to the summit of the Piton des Neiges but today, we still have some time for hiking in the area. I’ll list a few recommended hikes but if you don’t feel like hiking, perhaps the few hours in Ilet a Cordes and a spa treatment at Les Thermes de Cilaos will be enough (advanced booking essential). Depending on the length of the hike, you might need to leave the scenic drive to Ilet a Cordes for tomorrow morning.
Pro tip: get some hiking information upon arrival at the local tourism office in town.
Bras-Rouge Waterfall Hike
You can start this trail either from next to the church in Cilaos (longer and harder) or from a signposted area in the D242 road (shorter and easier). The trail leads to the old thermal baths and eventually offers sweeping views of the ravine and the top of a waterfall. Total distance: up to 11kms | difficulty: easy/moderate | time: 2.5 to 4.5 hrs (return) | more information.
La Chapelle Hike
This hike is great on a hot and sunny day as the trail leads to a canyon filled with water and to a famous spot beneath two boulders that collapsed on each other, creating “the chapel”. The trailhead is located at the edge of town. Total distance: 8kms | difficulty: moderate | time: ~5 hrs (return) | more information.
Col du Taibit & Cilaos to Marla Hike
This challenging hike takes you on the trail connecting Cirque de Cilaos with Cirque de Mafate via the Taibit Pass. The hike begins with a climb to the pass and you can either enjoy the view from the top and return or continue further to Marla, considered one of the most beautiful hamlets in Reunion Island (Marla can also be accessed on a hike from Cirque de Salazie – see last day’s itinerary). Total distance: 11.5kms | difficulty: challenging | time: ~6 hrs (return) | more information.
Cap Bouteille Hike
Another challenging hike that mixes a huge variety of scenery into one trail. Follow the path to Col du Taibit and then veer to the turnoff to Cap Bouteille. Total distance: 8kms | difficulty: challenging | time: ~5 hrs (return) | more information.
Dinner at Chez Lucay
For our second dinner in Cilaos, we listened to our host’s recommendation and dined at Chez Lucay. It has a good selection of Creole and international selections. We went for duck breast and ribeye steak for mains and tried the local Cilaos red wine this time, which was much better than the white.