A visit to Reunion Island is a true celebration for the eyes and a welcomed exercise for the feet. This small island is as dramatic as they come, a place of unparalleled natural beauty and diversity. Surprisingly, the island doesn’t star on the list of top tourist destinations, a hidden gem reserved only for those travelers with a sixth sense. This in-depth two weeks in Reunion Island itinerary will cover the island’s top attractions and ensure no thrills are overlooked.
About this Guide
This 2 week in Reunion Island sample itinerary is based on my own travels and extensive research. I visited Reunion Island at the end of September on a couple’s trip where the goal was to fully experience the island. Over the course of our visit, we traveled 1,322km around the island in a counterclockwise direction and ventured into its interior, with over 100km of hiking.
Why Visit Reunion Island?
Reunion Island is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever traveled to, a destination still off the mass tourism map and where diversity isn’t just a liberal buzzword. Its 2,511 square kilometers pack in something for everybody, from pristine beaches to primeval forests, from markets, loaded with tropical fruits to off-the-grid hamlets where time has no meaning. The island’s diversity is part of its DNA, a half-caste society of creole Reunionnaise, a melting pot of French metropols and people from Africa, Madagascar, India, and China. But above all, what I loved the most about Reunion Island is just how accessible nature is. You can drive or hike to pretty much anywhere so it’s really in your hands, together with a little help from the weather gods.
Reunion Island Travel Guide
Planning or thinking about a trip to Reunion Island? Have a look at additional Reunion Island travel guides, including the best beaches and best hikes in Reunion Island. For a quick read, here are the top 10 things to do in Reunion Island.
What’s Included in this Two Weeks in Reunion Island Itinerary?
Four sections make up this Reunion Island travel guide:
Quick Tour of Reunion Island
Here’s a quick video tour of Reunion Island!
Two Weeks in Reunion Island Map
This map contains all the places mentioned in this sample itinerary. Click on the image to open in Google Maps.
Reunion Island Travel Tips
In this two weeks in Reunion Island itinerary, I’ll share with you specific travel tips in each section. However, I strongly recommend going through this companion guide, specifically highlighting all the essential Reunion Island travel tips needed to plan a memorable, comprehensive, and safe visit.
Reunion Island Background
Reunion Island is a true mosaic of landscapes and cultures, an overseas department and region of France with a population of approximately 850,000 residents. The island was “created” about 3 million years ago when an undersea volcano first rose above sea level. The island was known to early seafarers but they never explored the land due to its intense volcanic activity. Permanent settlement began only in 1664, so the island was uninhabited and free to be claimed. Over the centuries, cash crops provided the only source of income, with slavery and inequality playing a major part and forever altering the island’s culture. Have a look at this brief guide to Reunion Island’s history to learn more about the destination you’ll be visiting.
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.
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.
Day 7: Piton des Neiges Hike
The ascent to the summit of the Piton des Neiges is “the mother of all hikes” in Reunion Island. To celebrate the halfway point of our two weeks in Reunion Island, we climb the first leg of the hike to the island’s highest peak.
Morning in Cilaos
Use the morning in Cilaos either for last-minute preparations before the hike or the scenic drive to Ilet a Cordes (see yesterday’s itinerary). We used the time to prepare food for the hike and to figure out how to get with the local bus to the trailhead. We first went to the tourist office and then to the bus ticketing office to purchase our tickets.
Afternoon Hike to Piton Des Neiges Overnight Cabin
Towering to a height of 3,069m above sea level, the Piton des Neiges is the highest peak in Reunion Island and the Indian Ocean. As its name suggests, it is so high that it occasionally sees snowfall. It’s the most exceptional hike in Reunion Island, very challenging yet rewarding, as the summit offers unobstructed 360-degree views of the entire island from a landscape that resembles Mars. Hikers from around the world visit Reunion for this hike but you certainly don’t need to be a pro to take on this challenge.
The total altitude gained during the hike to the summit is 1,662m so it is strongly advised to split the hike over two days, overnighting in Gite de la Caverne Dufour (advanced booking essential). When we made it to the summit, we did see some folks who camped with tents but note that it’s not legal and highly dangerous.
We caught the 12:30 #63 bus from Cilaos to the trailhead at Le Bloc. There is a small car park just in front but we were cautioned not to leave the car overnight due to the occasional break-in. In retrospect, we would have opted to leave the car, with nothing inside, to have flexibility with the returning bus to Cilaos (see the schedule here).
The hike immediately begins with an accent that is continuous until the overnight cabin. The first section is through the rain forest, with a few clearings offering gorgeous views of Cilaos and the mountains that hug the town. After about an hour, you reach a small refuge hut with running water that we were told (by a local hiking guide) is safe to drink. We used the opportunity to snack, warm up, and fill our bottles.
The toughest section of the first day begins from the refuge hut, a never-ending series of punishing switchbacks that pretty much climb vertically to the rim of the volcano (1.5 hrs from here to the cabin). You are now in the cloud forest and by this time, the clouds have fully rolled in so there is not much scenery to be enjoyed and it’s chilly and potentially wet. When you look at the trail’s terrain on a Google Maps satellite view, you’ll appreciate the work that’s been done to make this terrain accessible.
Seeing the cabin (altitude 2,479m) was a sight for sore eyes and it also marked the end of the cloud forest and the beginning of an alpine landscape. We started hiking at about 13:00 and checked in at 16:30. We weren’t the last to arrive but most overnighters had already arrived so the bottom bunks were already taken.
The cabin experience was very impressive, considering the location. It sleeps up to 48 people in a few dorm rooms, has three flush toilets (no showers) to go along with three changing rooms and (cold) running water. The friendly staff are all locals taking turns being up here for a couple of weeks at a time and they do all the cooking, cleaning, and selling. There is a lot you can buy, including snacks, cooked dinner, hot and cold drinks, and even beer! After settling in and warming up, we enjoyed the changing colors as the sun was setting and could easily make Piton de la Fournaise in the distance, the active volcano that will be visited in the next section.
At 18:30, dinner is served in the dining room for those who wish (~20€, paid upon arrival). It consists of rice, pork sausage, beans, and liquor of 35% alcohol (just what you need at this altitude), and it’s a great opportunity to do just the right amount of mingling before turning early to bed or doing a bit of stargazing. Don’t forget to enquire about sunrise time. You’ll basically want to summit about 30 minutes before sunrise.
Logistics: total distance – 15km (return) | time: 7.5hrs (inc. stops) | difficulty – very challenging | Do not attempt in the rainy season.
What to pack for the hike: downloaded trail map onto My Maps (mentally helps to see how far you’ve progressed), printed bus schedule, proper hiking boots, walking poles, extra socks, lots of layers (starts warms, ends cold), rain gear, backpack cover (for rain), scarf/warm hat/ski gloves/thermal shirt/neck warmer, hand warmers, a full change of clothes (quick-dry only), headlamp, 3L of water pp (can purchase in the hut) and (maybe) fill in stream en route, tissues (for a runny nose), plastic bags, (optional) knee protectors, camera, drone.
What to pack for the overnight cabin: printed voucher, cash, instant soup, snacks, eating utensils (plates/bowls provided), sleeping bag/sheets (you get a blanket but no mattress sheet), toilet paper (just in case), flip-flops, toiletries (including soap), earplugs, eye cover, portable battery to charge a phone, cards (entertainment), sleeping clothes.
Day 8: Piton des Neiges Summit & Saint-Pierre
We’ll get a very early start to this day and finish the climb to the summit of Piton des Neiges. Back from “Mars”, we’ll exit Cirque de Cilaos and treat ourselves to a well-deserved break in the vibrant seaside town of Saint-Pierre.
Piton des Neiges Summit
Everybody in the cabin was up at 3 am and we started hiking at 03:30. The cabin is a two-hour hike from the summit and the trail is well-marked even in the dark. If that’s not enough, the stars in the night sky and the light emitted from the headlamps of fellow hikers will aid in navigation. Due to the altitude, you frequently stop to catch your breath, but it gets so cold so quickly, that there’s more motivation to continue rather than to pause.
From up here, the first light of the morning is immediately seen. As you inch closer to sunrise, there’s no longer a need for the headlamp as the horizon is beautifully painted with the same shades you may have seen from a plane’s window on an overnight flight.
The alpine terrain has now given way to a completely barren landscape that resembles a scene from a Mars documentary. The birds are starting to sing and there’s a hard deadline to be met with sunrise, all the more reason to keep going.
The final ascent is filled with both pride and a sense of overwhelmedness. We’ve never hiked to the summit of a famous mountain and the view from up here simply takes your breath away. It’s as if you’re looking at a map of the area from above, except it’s all happening in real-time. At the summit, people are trying to keep warm and some have even (illegally) spent the night here. It’s cold and windy and everyone is just waiting for the sun to finally rise and gradually warm things up.
Sunrise took place at 5:45 am and it was a scene we’ll never forget. The higher it rose over the horizon, the more details were revealed. Here’s the grand finale along with a slideshow showing the sun’s progress as it rose over the cloud-line.
We were now able to point out towns and villages, clearly distinguish the color of the volcanic ash that makes up the ground, and see magnificent pinnacles rising to our right. We can also make out the famous “three sisters” which we saw from the helicopter flight earlier in the trip and the summit of Grand Benare in the distance.
To my surprise, people didn’t stick around for too long at the summit. A lot were part of “hiking clubs” from Germany and France so I guess they’ve seen a peak or two in their lifetime. We also had a deadline to meet as the bus from Le Bloc back to Cilaos was scheduled for 10:30 and we still needed to pause for breakfast at the cabin and make it back down. Here’s where leaving your car overnight in the car park comes in handy, as you’ll have all the time in the world to stick around at the summit and fully take advantage of your physical and mental accomplishment.
The hike from the summit to the cabin took about one hour. Done in broad daylight, it did make us wonder how on earth we managed to climb this section in the middle of the night. Back in the cabin, breakfast was served starting at 6 am. For about 7€, you get a hot drink and a few slices of brioche.
It took us exactly two hours to get from the cabin back to the main road but we were rushing it down, to say the least, so aim for about 2.5 hours. When climbing up, this section was done in the complete cover of clouds but there’s a very good chance that when you’ll head down, it will still be a clear morning. So, unless you have to rush as we did, here’s another rare opportunity to enjoy the spectacular views from Reunion Island’s tallest natural skyscraper.
Lunch in Cilaos
Back in Cilaos at around 11 am, we loaded the car (left overnight at our bed and breakfast) and went for an early (greasy) lunch before driving to Saint-Pierre. Our legs were understandably in great pain and this will last for a few days. If you have the time, maybe this is a good opportunity to pre-book a massage at Les Thermes de Cilaos
Drive to Saint Pierre
It takes about 1:10hrs to drive from Cilaos to Saint-Pierre. On the one hand, it was great to see the blue of the ocean after being “trapped” in the cirque, but on the other hand, we knew this was the last time driving on the most scenic road in Reunion Island. And so, we appreciated every single one of those 400 bends.
Where to Stay in Saint-Pierre
Hands down, the place to stay in Saint-Pierre is at Villa Belle. This guesthouse is so highly regarded, that even our host in Cilaos knew about it and commended our wise choice. This Creole mansion has been around since 1935 and in 2002 was converted to an upscale guest house by Erik and Antonio. Much attention has been placed into the “Bali-like” decor of the place and all units are very spacious, though the best ones are by the pool. Each comes equipped with a kitchen, huge (and very pampering) shower, the comfiest of beds, and lots of interesting books.
Breakfast is served in the outdoor dining area in the lush tropical garden and if you pay close attention, you’ll spot turtles freely roaming the grounds. This is one breakfast you won’t forget, rich in both choice and taste (20€ pp but highly recommended). Villa Belle is located in a quiet section of town, uphill from the action but close enough to everything with a car (there are also dining options within walking distance). The only drawbacks were that at the time of our visit, WiFi was only available in the office, and they only accepted cash.
Another good option in Saint-Pierre is the seaside Le Battant des Lames and if you want to stay in the countryside, check out La Cour Mont-Vert. Here’s a list of all Saint-Pierre accommodations that you can book online on booking.com.
We (and our muscles) were quite exhausted after the Piton des Neiges hike and so kept the sightseeing to a minimum. Saint-Pierre is a happening town with a tropical vibe. It has two sections: west of the river is the main “new” town and east is the historic fishing village.
The town is laid out on a grid with most of the streets are open to one-way traffic. It’s quite a busy place with lots of young people of mixed races and religions, including Chinese, Creoles, Tamils, and a large African Muslim community. Its historic center is dominated by Creole architecture hosting imported French brands like FNAC but also bargain shops. Apart from just wandering around the downtown area, check out the Saturday morning market, Hotel de Ville, the historic churches and the Tamoul Karli Tamil temple. If you have extra time, you can hit the public beach and walk to the Saint-Pierre Lighthouse.
Dinner in Saint-Pierre
Saint-Pierre does not lack dining options and our hosts at Villa Belle gave us a few options. We dined at Kaz a Lea which has a nice atmosphere and food. We enjoyed the Indian-style tuna tartare and the well-deserved burgers (~20€ per main dish). Other recommended options include Le Cosy for seafood, DCP for fish, O Baya for gourmet, and Villa Sauvage for French Cuisine.
Part 3: Three Days in Langevin, Volcano & Foret de Bebour-Belouve
The third section of this two weeks in Reunion Island itinerary is a mix of both the tropical and the volcanic. We’ll spend a couple of days chasing waterfalls and secluded pools and one day visiting the island’s active volcano.
Where to Stay Around the Piton de la Fournaise Volcano?
Our base for this section is near the village of Bourg-Murat in La Plaine des Cafres. It’s the western plain that separates the Piton de la Fournaise and the Piton des Neiges, a chilly and windswept area that resembles Ireland or Scotland. It is an optimal base for exploring the area’s grand attractions and the prime launchpad for the volcano visit.
We stayed at the Le Relais du Volcan, a very basic (and low-priced) bed and breakfast set in a large and aging wooden home. The owner, Philip, doesn’t speak much English but we did manage to learn that he moved here 20 years ago from Toulouse. Rooms are very basic, with a private bathroom/shower in a separate room across the hall. There was no WiFi at the time but Philip said that a fiber connection was already in the works. A fire is lit in the common area after dark, and breakfast is left for you late in the evening so you can get up early and start your day (this is very helpful). As for the dining option, Philip offered to recommend a few places, but we bought groceries and did our own home cooking. Bottom line: it wasn’t fancy, but the location was spot on and the sunsets were awesome.
Click here for other accommodation options in La Plaine des Cafres that you can book online.
Day 9: Grand Coude and Riviere Langevin
This is one of the most enjoyable days of the trip. It starts with a nice coastal drive that eventually finds its way to one of the most picturesque hamlets on the island. From there, we drive through a lush valley rich in waterfalls and natural pools. To wrap things up, we ascend the Plaine des Cafres to position ourselves for the coming days, not before paying a visit to yet another stunning panoramic lookout.
Drive to Grand Coude
It’s best to get an early start to the day, but not too early. The drive from Saint-Pierre to the hamlet of Grand Coude begins along the coast. If you have the time, make a slight detour to Plage Grand Anse, one of the best beaches in Reunion Island. It’s a good spot for a picnic or a stroll and gets crowded with local families over the weekend who get here early to claim the prime real estate.
Once you head inland on the D33, it’s all sugarcane fields for a few miles until the scenery changes with the altitude gained.
We saw Grand Coude from above during the scenic helicopter flight and knew we had to pay a visit. This hamlet sits atop a narrow plateau at a height of 1200m. On either side of the plateau are deep valleys whose origins are the slopes of the high ridge that forms the beginning of the volcano, and gradually widen until meeting the coastal plain. If you’re really into coffee, book an advanced visit at la Maison du Laurina to taste its fine blends and to learn about coffee growing in the region
Pro tip: to fully enjoy the view, get here before 10:30 am or it might be cloudy. If it’s cloudy in Grand Coude, head slightly downhill as you might find a clearing.
One of the valleys that separate Grand Coude from the rest of the world is known as the Riviere Langevin and is blessed with an abundance of water. A backcountry road heads inland for about 9km and follows the contours of the valley’s river. It’s a pretty drive and very popular with local families over the weekend. Locals come prepared, park the car in a nice spot and let the kids splash in the river for the day.
Take extra caution driving on Route de Grand Galet and stop as close to Cascade de la Grand Galet as you can. It’s one of the most beautiful sites on the island, a collection of small waterfalls cascading to a clearwater pool. Most enjoy the spectacle from the viewing area but some locals hop over the fence and head further down.
The next stop is at Cascade du Trou Noir. This secluded waterfall and swimming hole are what you envision when booking a vacation to a tropical island. From the previous stop, head back towards the coast and immediately after the iron bridge, take a left to the narrow opening and park the car (or anywhere near to that). Follow the path through the bush and after about ten minutes you’ll reach this amazing spot. Don’t forget your swimming gear and if you want to appreciate the clearness of the water, bring a mask. This is a great place for a picnic lunch.
La Plaine des Cafres
The high plain that rises from the warm coast detaches you once again from the tropical island feel. Plaine des Cafres is farm country, a high and fertile plain that sits between the two volcanos. The scenery out here is very reminiscent of somewhere in Ireland or Scotland, with lots of farms, lots of cows and damp weather.
Pro tip: the weather in this part of Reunion Island is particularly hard to forecast. Check the weather forecast but do take it with a grain of salt. It’s best to have more than one day for the volcano visit in case bad weather forces you to move to plan B.
Belvedere de Bois Court
It is one of the most stunning sites in Reunion Island, definitely one that cannot be missed. Arrive in the early morning or late afternoon when the clouds are resting for a view of what’s known as Mini Mafate. From the lookout, enjoy the view above Grand Bassin, a tiny hamlet that sits at the intersection of three rivers. Locals live completely off the grid as this hamlet is only accessible on foot (hence the reference to Cirque de Mafate).
The jewel in the crown is the Cascade du Voile de la Mariée, a waterfall that splashes into a pool that seems to be completely detached from the outside world. You can hike down there and even spend a few nights with the locals if you have the time. The scenic lookout is a proper local attraction. There’s a small park next to the viewing area, toilet facilities, picnic tables, and a local market that runs over the course of the weekend.
Day 10: Forêt de Bébour-Bélouve & Trou de Fer Waterfall
Moving into double digits in this 2 weeks in Reunion Island itinerary, we’ll spend the day in one of the most unique landscapes on the island and hike to a viewing area over the island’s grandest waterfall.
Morning Volcano Attempt
Hiking the Piton de la Fournaise volcano is the main attraction in this part of the island but you need to have a clear day for it. Despite a very early rise, the weather didn’t cooperate this morning as it was foggy, windy and wet. It also didn’t seem like clearer skies were in the works. We had another shot tomorrow so moved on to plan B which is doable even in cloudy weather.
Drive to Forêt de Bébour-Bélouve
The Bébour-Bélouve forest is one of the most enchanting places in Reunion Island, certainly a must-visit. It’s an ancient primeval forest, having naturally grown over the years without the interference of mankind. Its spongy layers absorb enormous amounts of rainfall and prevent soil erosion (unlike in the cirques). In fact, the soil here can hold up to three times its own weight in water and considering that anywhere between 2-5 meters of rainfall here annually, that’s quite an achievement. It’s a constantly cool and humid place, where ferns, Tamarind trees, and spongy moss rule the landscape.
The drive from Bourg-Murat to Gîte de Bélouve takes less than one hour. You transition from la Plaine de Cafre to la Plaine des Palmistes, from the “dry” side of the island on the west to the “wet” east coast. Pick up the F2 forestry road from Bras des Calumets and drive for about 9kms of changing scenery from tall cedar trees to sharp bends with misty ridges on both sides. At the end of the road, there are a couple of parking lots and a metal gate, beyond which is the final stretch to the cabin.
Trou de Fer Hike
Trou de Fer translates to “Iron Hole” and it’s one of the most striking natural features in Reunion Island. Funneling into this 300-meter deep chasm are several rivers, culminating in a 695m waterfall that is the highest in France and her territories. Best appreciated from a scenic helicopter flight, we caught fine views of the Trou de Fer waterfall and its little sisters on day 2. For hikers, the best way to see the Trou de Fer is from a viewing area, on a trail that begins from the Gîte de Bélouve.
Pro tip: you can also hike to the Trou de Fer from Hellbourg but it’s much easier to do it from here. The hike from Hell-Bourg involves a tough section of “climbing out” of the cirque, before reaching the Belouve cabin and heading to the waterfall on the same trail we’re about to take. So unless you want the exercise, choose the easier route.
At an altitude of 1,500m, the Belouve cabin sits at the crossroad of a number of hiking trails so you can overnight here and, more importantly, take advantage of its kiosk (bring cash). Before starting the hike, you can pay a quick visit to the modest museum across the lawn to learn about the forest’s history and enjoy the view down towards Hell-Bourg in Cirque de Salazie.
You really must applaud the effort in constructing and maintaining the trail that runs from the cabin to the Tour de Fer waterfall. A series of bridges and a raised wooden path cut through one of the wettest parts of the island. The scenery resembles something you’ve seen before in a fantasy movie, everything is so green and the birds are having a blast in the canopy of the tamarind trees. Keep your eyes peeled and you might even spot some animals foraging near the path.
The walk itself was very easy but the constant drizzle soon made the trail very muddy and unpleasant (see pro tip below). We didn’t really have any options as we had just one shot, only on this particular day, to make it to the waterfall.
At the viewing area, we had to wait for about 30 minutes for the clouds to briefly clear and finally reveal the star attraction. It was quite amazing because, for a while, you could hear the water gushing but see nothing. The Trou de Fer truly resembles a scene from Jurassic Park and is well worth the effort, even if taking your chances on a rainy day.
Pro tip: on rainy days, the trail will be very muddy and unpleasant. However, you can take the “parallel trail” on the forestry road from the cabin. It’s definitely not as scenic but it does reconnect with the forest trail not too far from the waterfall.
Logistics: distance – 9km (return) | time: 3.5-4hrs | difficulty – easy. Bring – prepare for wet weather including good shoes, rain jacket with hood, cover for a camera bag, backpack cover, rain pants (adjust if sunny day), a full change of clothes (you’ll be sweaty), extra socks and underwear, cash, flip flops/sandals for after removing muddy shoes in the car, snacks, water.
Domaine des Tourelles & Volcano House
If you want to buy some souvenirs, pay a quick visit to Domaine des Tourelles in the village of Bras des Calumets (good spot for a post-hike lunch). This early 20th century Creole mansion is now a large souvenir shop and its perimeter is lined with artisan shops. If you are interested in learning about the active volcano, head to La Cite du Volcan back in Bourg-Murat.
Day 11: Piton de la Fournaise & Scenic Drive to Cirque de Salazie
The first half of the day is dedicated to Reunion Island’s active volcano. After completing “the trip to Mars”, we drive to Reunion’s third cirque, our base for the last section of the trip.
Scenic Drive to Volcano
It’s about an hour’s drive from Relais du Volcan to the Dolomieu Crater trailhead but there are a few scenic stops to make on the way. Aim to start the hike by no later than 8:30 am to avoid cloud cover at the crater rim so do the math accordingly.
The drive from Bourg Murat begins with the panoramic backdrop of the Piton des Neiges summit and the Indian Ocean behind grazing cattle. On a clear day, you can even spot the overnight cabin en route to the summit. The scenery will quickly change from now on, with less and less vegetation until practically transforming to a desert moonscape.
The first stop is at the Nez de Boeuf scenic lookout. A Plaque at the lookout explains how 300,000 years of erosion created this magnificent valley which was used in the old days to raise cattle.
The next stop is at Pas de Sables, from which point the landscape becomes a desolate desert. Peer down to the wide plain of volcanic ash, scarred by sporadic craters marking past major eruptions and cinder cones indicating minor activity.
Naturally, the next thing to do is hop back in the car and swirl your way to the ash plain. The paved road turns to dirt all the way to the end of the line but the drive is doable even with a small car.
Pas de Bellecombe marks the end of the road and the starting point for numerous trailheads that venture to various craters. You’re now at an altitude of 2,311m but on a sunny day, it’s quite warm out here. The cabin adjacent to the viewing area sells snacks and drinks but do come prepared for the hike to come. From the viewing area, you can see the Dolomieu Crater in the foreground and the Formica Leo on the caldera floor, a small cinder cone made of red scoria rock.
Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace) is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and continues to shape Reunion Island even as you’re reading these lines. This shield volcano is right up there with the likes of Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii in terms of activity and it has left its mark on the southern coast of the island, in an area known as Grand Brule.
Pro tip: check the Piton de la Fournaise Facebook page for updates and trail closures (albeit in French) before planning your day. In times of increased activity, the viewing area in Pas de Bellecombe will likely remain open but a metal gate will prevent hikers from descending to the caldera floor, where trails head to the active craters.
Hike to Dolomieu Crater
The hike from Pas de Bellecombe to the Dolomieu Crater is one of the most popular hikes in Reunion Island and the closest us humans will ever get to travel to Mars. The hike basically involves a descent from the rim of the outer crater down to the caldera floor, hiking across the dry lava field and climbing to the rim of the Dolomieu Crater. You can hike from the same starting point to easier-to-reach craters but the Dolomieu is the top attraction. This is a very busy trail, extra busy after day(s) of bad weather, so it’s recommended to start early (also for clearer skies).
The trail begins with a series of switchbacks that plunge as quickly as possible to the caldera floor. From there, white markings on the crumbling dry lava point the way. The slow ascent to the rim of the Dolomieu Crater begins after about 45 minutes. Unlike what might be written in guidebooks, the Rosemont Chapel is no longer viewable following recent volcanic activity.
It’s now a little over an hour’s climb to the rim. You’ll be walking on solid lava in various shapes and sizes so sturdy shoes really make the difference. The view on the gradual climb is breathtaking. The rich spectrum of black, brown and red mix together and meet their abrupt end on the outer rim’s wall, where you started the hike.
As impressive as the trail has been so far, the real highlight comes at the moment you take the final step that reveals the size and depth of the Dolomieu Crater (2,460m), spanning 400 meters across and 300 meters deep. If the weather is fair, this is a great spot for a picnic lunch before the return leg.
Logistics: distance – 12km (return) | time: 4.5hrs | difficulty – challenging. Bring – prepare for slight rain with a thin jacket with a hood as there is no cover, snacks, extra water, sun protection, lip balm, tissues (for a runny nose), sunglasses, cash, sturdy shoes, (optional) walking poles, a full change of clothes, a warm fleece for the rest in the crater rim.
Scenic Drive to Cirque de Salazie
From Pas de Bellecombe, it’s about a two-hour drive to Hell-Bourg, the tourist capital of Cirque de Salazie. We’re now in the heart of the east coast of the island, a wet and tropical landscape so different from what we just saw. It’s back to the familiar scenes of sugarcane fields and palm trees, but the roadside fruit stalls sell exotic produce I’ve yet to ever see and many local folks are of Tamil origin.
The D48 follows the contours of the 37km-long Riviere du Mat into Cirque de Salazie. It’s another spectacular scenic drive into what is Reunion’s wettest cirque. Often leaving you breathless, there seem to be more waterfalls than people living here, some trickling straight onto the asphalt after minor periods of rain. Tightly squeezed between shark-fin shaped emerald peaks, keep a sharp look for hidden waterfalls, like Cascade Blanche, but do drive with caution as there are a couple of challenging sections involving blind turns and one-lane roads.
The village of Salazie is the cirque’s capital but there’s nothing here of particular interest for tourists apart from the architectural beauties of the town hall and the church. It’s also worth checking out the view from the old bridge.
The closer you get to Hell-Bourg, the more altitude is gained and the scenery becomes less tropical but nonetheless remains green. Stop to check out Cascade du Voile de la Mariee, a family of waterfalls raining from the cloud-covered peaks to the river in several stages (not to be confused with the waterfall bearing the same name in Grand Basin). In the next (and final) section of the trip, we’ll explore Hell-Bourg with the rest of the area’s highlights.
Part 4: Three Days in Cirque de Salazie, East Coast and Cirque de Mafate
The last section in this two weeks in Reunion Island itinerary will use Cirque de Salazie as a base for also exploring the neighboring Cirque de Mafate and Reunion Island’s lush east coast.
About Cirque de Salazie
Like the other cirques on the island, Cirque de Salazie formed when the magma chamber of Piton des Neiges collapsed, but unlike the other two cirques, the opening of this cirque directly faces the trade winds blowing from east and traps much of the moisture inside. With an annual average rainfall that nears 5m in certain sections, it’s no wonder why Salazie is so green. In cyclone years, it has even received 6 meters of rain over a two-week period!
Thermal springs near Hell-Bourg boosted tourism back in the day but with the springs long gone, Hell-Bourg still attracts tourists thanks to its location and architecture. Known as La Case, the town’s colorful creole houses are unique to the area. Ranging from simple homes to former mansions, their individual distinction comes from the lambrequins (ornamental trim) made of wood or metal with various designs. If in Cilaos they grow lentils, in Salazie it’s the chouchou (a type of squash), used for everything including salads, tarts, and medicines.
Where to Stay in Cirque de Salazie
The best option is to base yourself around Hell-Bourg. We stayed at a vacation rental in the village just before Hell-Bourg, in a large two-story house that was split into several units. We rented the largest one but it’s not available for rent at the moment. However, some of the smaller ones are, like this one. All units are fully furnished and the location is great, just 10 minutes from Hell-Bourg. The views aren’t bad either. From the backyard are the cirque’s enclosing ridges and from the front, you can spot a very nice waterfall right across the road. For a more pampering stay, check out the Relais des Gouverneurs and for a simple experience the Annexe piton D’Anchaing
Day 12: Hell-Bourg and the East Coast
Still recovering from the soreness of climbing the volcano, we’ll use this day for a relaxing road trip. After checking out Hell-Bourg, we’ll drive out of the cirque and visit two spectacular wet spots before exploring the charms of the east coast of Reunion Island.
Pro tip: we’ll head on a memorable hike tomorrow but if you feel like hiking in the cirque on this day as well, consider the hike from Hell-Bourg to the Belouve Cabin (from where you can continue to the Trou de Fer waterfall as described on day 10), the Piton d’Anchaing trail, or the Hell-Bourg to Source Manouilh hike.
Use the morning for a trip to Hell-Bourg to stock up on groceries and sandwiches for a picnic lunch. Walk around the main street and check out the pastel-colored Creole houses. If you are curious, visit the local museum dedicated to musical instruments from around the Indian Ocean. A signposted lookout offers panoramic views of the region just before the town’s entrance.
The D53 road heads inland from the coast to the wettest spot on Reunion Island. The roadside waterfalls offer a hint for what’s ahead but when you reach the Takamaka Lookout, you’re simply left speechless. The Takamaka Valley drains an enormous amount of rainfall. With 6-7 meters of annual rainfall, it is one of the wettest places on Earth! And with all this rain come waterfalls, falling like tears from the cloud-covered heavens. Starting in the 1960s, the French government put the rainfall to use, constructing several hydroelectric power plants dug into the mountain. Be sure to get here early in the day when there’s a greater chance of clear skies.
Pro tip: the Takamaka Lookout is also the starting point for a number of trails. You can hike from here to the forestry road that heads to Tour de Fer and the Bebour cabin and also embark on a very challenging (and likely wet) hike to Ilet a Bananes. The Takamaka Valley is also renowned for its canyoning options for thrill-seekers.
Another worthwhile detour from the coastal road is to Grand Etang, a high altitude lake almost completely surrounded by emerald peaks, very reminiscent of Lake Vaihiria in Tahiti. The valley in which the lake resides is parallel to Takamaka. A path circles the lake with a few picnic areas along the way.
Sainte Anne’s Church
If you’re tired of slowly driving behind a tractor carrying a load of sugar cane to the processing plant, stop for a quick stretch at St. Anne’s church in Saint-Benoit and check out its interesting facade.
The last major settlement before the lava field, Sainte Rose’s harbor is a picturesque spot that also holds historical significance, serving as the site of a major battle fought between the French and English in 1809. A small cafe and restaurant overlook the harbor.
Further south, Notre Dame des Laves is of peculiar (or divine) interest. In 1997, lava trickled from the volcano and paid its respect to the church by flowing around it on both sides. Considered a miracle by locals, it’s worth a quick stop.
(Optional) Sainte Rose to Cap Mechant
If you’re doing well on time, continue heading south and drive over the lava plain known as Grand Brule. When Piton de la Fournaise is active, this is the direction in which the lava flows. In such periods, sections of the road are closed and if the lava makes it the ocean, repairs are in need. At Pointe de la Table, a headland was created from the 1986 flow and at Puits Arabe, you’ll find a lovely picnic area surrounded by unique trees. You can start making your way back north from here or continue to the southernmost point on Reunion Island at Cap Mechant.
Domaine du Grand Hazier Vanilla Plantation
Before heading back into the cirque, it’s worth learning about Reunion Island’s vanilla industry. Most of the action takes place between Bras Panon and Sainte Suzanne. Vanilla was brought to the island from Mexico in the early 19th century but only 1852 did it become commercial, roughly 10 years after a 12-year-old slave discovered how to manually pollinate vanilla (he was freed as a reward).
Head to Cooperative Pro Vanille if you don’t want to stray too far from the cirque (~12€) but for a better experience, head slightly further north to Domaine du Grand Hazier (~5€ | call ahead for English-speaking tour times). The estate has been around since the late 17th century and the various crops it has grown over the years tell the agricultural tale of Reunion Island’s search for a “gold crop”. First, it was coffee, then sugarcane and now vanilla. At around 1,200€ per kilo, this is the closest thing to gold that can be grown naturally. The tour takes you around the facility and explains the long process that it takes to get the finished product.
Dinner in Hell-Bourg
For a cozy Creole dinner, head to Chez Alice in Hell-Bourg. Set in a Creole house, the traditional food is outstanding (and spicy) and served in a typical metal pot. If you fancy something else, they have a rich menu to choose from.
Day 13: Hike to Cirque de Mafate
The last full day of our two weeks in Reunion Island will climax with one last hike, this time into the island’s most remote cirque.
About Cirque de Mafate
With no roads linking it with the outside world, Cirque de Mafate is the most inaccessible part of Reunion Island. It’s home to a few picturesque hamlets with a small population that lives off the grid. The cirque is completely enclosed by the ramparts of the former magma chamber that created Piton de Neiges and the only way to carry supply is either on foot or by helicopter. Essentially, Cirque de Mafate is an “island within an island”, a place of extreme beauty and serenity.
Scenic Drive to Grand Ilet
The drive from Hell-Bourg to the hamlet of Grand Ilet is what we’ve become accustomed to so far in the cirques. The village is close to the top of the ridgeline that separates Cirque de Salazie from Cirque de Mafate. It feels like the end of the line around here or at the very least a drive somewhere in the countryside of the Alps.
Hike from Col de Boeufs to la Nouvelle
This hike into Cirque de Mafate was our most enjoyable one (and we hiked a lot…). It felt as if it took us between two parallel universes and the weather further added to the feeling. From Grand Ilet, it takes about 20 minutes to get to the car park at Col de Boeufs via a series of bends on the forestry road. It was completely cloudy on the drive and it seemed like there was no point in attempting the hike. Nonetheless, we kept driving, hoping for Reunion Island’s microclimates to change our luck. There’s a paid parking lot for those overnighting in the cirque (3€/day 12€/overnight), plus a small kiosk, but you can park for free on the roadside just before.
We left the car park at 9 am and walked in the clouds in the direction of the pass. Along the way, we saw cars parked. Those belong to locals living inside the cirque. To run their errands, they must hike out the cirque and back in with all their groceries… We reached peak altitude at Col de Boeufs (2,011m) and started our descent into Cirque de Mafate.
In a matter of minutes, the weather began to completely change. It’s amazing how just a few meters in altitude make all the difference in Reunion Island. Suddenly, it was sunny and dry, the complete opposite of the weather in Cirque de Salazie on that particular day. The mud on the trail turned into dust, the clouds gave way to the sun, the sound of the wind to the sound of birds, and our concerns turned into smiles.
Halfway down, the trail splits and you can hike to Marla, considered one of the most beautiful hamlets on the island. We continued to La Nouvelle and shared the road with the odd cow. No wonder they call this area Col des Boeufs.
It turned out to be a busy day when we entered La Nouvelle, as helicopters were busy flying in construction supply. When they’re gone, the village’s true soundtrack can be heard, a mix of chickens and birds. Every house has a small vegetable plot and most have solar panels on their roofs. It was interesting to observe the weather from down here. The interior of the cirque was completely spared from the clouds covering the ridgeline.
We continued walking through the village, taking in the church and the local school children of mixed ages playing together in sports class. The village does cater pretty well to tourists. There are a couple of restaurants and shops, guesthouses, and even WiFi. Though picnic options are abundant, we stopped in one of the restaurants and took the time to digest the sites and sounds. I realized that the folks living here actually can’t even see what’s happening in the outside world as they are essentially living inside a bowl. They never get to experience sunrise or see the sunset into the ocean.
Like all hikes in Reunion Island’s cirques, what goes down must come up. It was time to hike back up to the “real world” and allow La Nouvelle to get back to its natural state of isolation. We left the village at 12:30 and were back in the car at 14:30. The weather up at the top had not changed…
Logistics: distance – 11km (return) | time: 5.5hrs (including lunch break)| difficulty – medium | more info. Bring – snacks, cash, prepare for both rain and sun, walking poles if your knees take a beating, water, change of clothes, cash (some places accept cards), lip balm.
Dinner in Hell-Bourg
For our final dinner, we headed back to Hell-Bourg and dined at Ti Chouchou on the main street. It’s a typical creole restaurant with very minimalistic interior decor and lighting but the food was not bad. Their specialties are dishes made with chouchou (a type of squash), the staple crop of the cirque.
Day 14: Flight Back Home or to Next Destination
It was sadly time to drive to the airport and bid farewell to Reunion Island. We drove a total distance of 1,322km on this trip and it was an absolute pleasure. If your flight leaves later in the day, you could use the last few hours to check out Saint-Denis and do a bit of shopping (see day 1 itinerary for more detail). Should you have holiday time, consider flying from Reunion Island to nearby Mauritius or slightly further to Seychelles.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You are definitely ready for your own visit to Reunion Island. I hope you’ve found this two weeks in Reunion Island itinerary useful. This is a destination I have no doubt I will return to. Every day on this trip offered a new experience and the fact that relatively so few tourists make it out here can remain our little secret. Be sure to check out the rest of the Reunion Island travel guide collection, including essential travel tips and lots more.
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