The island of Reunion is a tiny bit of France with a tropical twist, situated 500 miles (805km) east of Madagascar, deep in the heart of the Indian Ocean. Nicknamed 'l'Ile Intense', Reunion is a dramatic, mountainous paradise created and shaped by volcanoes. The scent of vanilla, stretches of black and white sand beaches, forest-covered peaks, rugged valleys, gushing waterfalls and an incredibly diverse and friendly population make this an idyllic destination. Reunion is first and foremost an alluring tropical island getaway, but its interesting mix of cultures and peoples adds another interesting element to the island.
The history of Reunion island is reflected in its people. The Portuguese stumbled across the unoccupied territory in 1513, but it was the French that descended in 1646 and really made their mark. French exiles and colonists, Malagasy slaves, Chinese indentured labourers, Indians and Pakistanis have subsequently created a rich melting pot of cultures, as well as contributing to the creation of the island's most widely spoken language, Reunion Creole.
Reunion was hard hit by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as it lost significance as a stopover on the East Indies trade route, and to this day it relies heavily on France for financial support. Its main industries are the cultivation of sugarcane, rum, vanilla, geranium oil for perfumes and, not surprisingly, tourism. Although inequality and the resulting socio-economic strife is an occasional concern for locals, for the most part everybody seems to live relatively equably side-by-side on this beautiful island, with a heartening bonhomie shared between the many different racial and religious groups.
Reunion is home to one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes, Piton de la Fournaise, and has three major (amphitheatre-like craters): Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. This rugged topography, in many cases overgrown by lush forest, provides breathtaking scenery and world-class trekking and canyoning with many waterfalls to admire along the way. The interior is home to small mountain villages and rich birdlife and the lack of commercial development is refreshing. The island's beaches are also worth writing home about, with the black volcanic sands at Etang-Sale particularly remarkable. The beaches are lapped by the warm Indian Ocean and the abundance of underwater creatures makes snorkelling a delight. The popular St Gilles-les-Bains offers classic palm-fringed shores on a wide lagoon and Saint Leu boasts wonderful surfing.
As if all this natural splendour wasn't enough, the unusual cultural melting pot of Reunion ensures travellers can sample delicious creole cuisine, and revel in the island's unique music and dance offerings, while still enjoying a little taste of French sophistication.
Reunion is a fascinating geological destination, with its rugged valleys and volcanic landscapes softened by lush forest. The Plaine des Sables is a stark ash and lava rock plain at the foot of Reunion's volcano, which feels like a moon landscape. The Piton de la Fournaise Volcano, the only active volcano on the island, and indeed one of the most active in the world, is thrillingly accessible to the adventurous. The Riviere des Remparts Canyon is a steep and beautiful river valley, and the three , deep circular canyons, lure visitors with scenic overlooks and exciting hiking trails.
Of course, Reunion is also a celebrated beach getaway, with its tropical climate and lovely coastline. Visitors should note that the beaches on the western coast of the island, between St Gilles-les-Bains and Hermitage-les-Bains (where many hotels can be found) are sandy and comparatively safe, making this the best stretch of coastline for families and those seeking calmer waters. Much of Reunion's coast, though beautiful, is rocky, with rough surf. Those snorkelling and swimming should also bear in mind that shark attacks do occasionally occur off the coast of the island; it is worth researching where the attacks most commonly take place and consulting locals and the coast guards when in doubt. Those fond of marine life should visit the Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory, dedicated to the study and conservation of Reunion's resident turtles.
The Musee Leon Dierx, in Saint-Denis, houses an impressive collection of modern art, with works by some of the great masters of the genre such as Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Vlaminck and Morisot. Much of the collection was once that of the French art dealer, Reunion-born Ambroise Vollard, and was donated to the museum by Vollard's brother, Lucien, after Ambroise's death in 1939. The museum is a must for art lovers and is lauded as the best art collection in the Indian Ocean. Tours of the permanent and temporary exhibitions can be arranged but must be booked in advance. The museum is closed on Mondays.
The Museum d'Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) of Saint-Denis opened its doors in 1855 and was the first of its kind in the Indian Ocean. The museum houses fascinating exhibits of the region's creatures, from shells to rare birds and mammals, as well as books and engravings. In the 1940s, cyclones destroyed much of the museum's collection and it was forced to close its doors for several years, but today it boasts roughly 42,000 specimens. The museum is within the State Gardens (Jardin de l'Etat), a beautiful botanical garden home to numerous species of trees from around the world and numerous beautiful plants, ponds and walkways. A particular favourite in the gardens are the flowering lotus plants.
Reunion is blessed with spectacular natural beauty and one of the island's most remarkable features are the three main cirques, Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. A cirque (or caldera) is a natural amphitheatre, created by the movement of ancient glaciers or, as is the case for Reunion, volcanoes collapsing in on themselves.
Salazie is perhaps the most striking, home to roughly 100 waterfalls, most notably The Bride's Veil ( ) near Hell-Bourg, as well as lush vegetation. Cilaos has long been the site of a spa resort, providing thermal baths for the wealthy inhabitants of the area since the 1800s. It was also once a refuge for runaway slaves. Today it is still known for the Irene Accot Thermal Centre; a must for weary hikers. Mafate is the most remote of the cirques and its name is derived from the Malagasy for 'lethal,' illustrating the difficulty of accessing the area. Mafate is dotted with tiny hamlets (the largest is La Nouvelle) and there are no proper roads, so the only access is on foot. The cirques provide unparalleled hiking opportunities and unspoilt wilderness, and are within a few hours of Saint-Denis.
Reunion's volcano last erupted in 2016 and is currently one of the world's most active, along with Kilauea in Hawaii. The volcano is spectacular and is one of the island's principal attractions, rising 8,565 feet (2,611m) above sea level. High cliffs, deep craters, (the burnt slopes) and lava streams create a stunning scene. In the past, lava streams have flown into the sea, destroying the main highway along the way. Eruptions usually occur within the caldera and therefore pose little threat to people.
The walk to the summit takes roughly five hours and it is well worth finding out in advance about weather forecasts as cloud cover can roll in quickly, preventing hikers from being able to make the climb. An alternative way to explore the area is by helicopter, although this is naturally a more expensive option.
Saint Paul, former capital of the island, is the closest town to the volcano and has a lovely street market (on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings), two miles (3km) of black-sand beaches, fine examples of traditional Creole houses, a seaside cemetery and other historic sites.
Close to Saint-Paul, on the northwestern side of the island, Saint-Gilles-les-Bains is a highly popular weekend destination, offering a beautiful 12-mile (20km) lagoon and gorgeous white-sand beaches. Saint-Gilles was once a sleepy fishing village, but now it is Reunion's most popular resort, attracting crowds of visitors intent on enjoying the leisure activities, watersports and lovely beaches. Snorkelling, scuba diving and swimming are a must, but those tired of the beach can head to the Garden of Eden, a lovely botanical garden with roughly 700 species of tropical plants. Saint-Gilles has plenty of hotels and restaurants, though these tend to get very crowded at peak holiday periods and weekends.
Like the rest of Reunion, Saint-Denis has a tropical climate. November to April is hot and rainy, while the rest of the year is slightly cooler and drier. In Saint-Denis the summer temperatures average between 73°F (23°C) and 84°F (29°C), and in winter temperatures average between 64°F (18°C) and 75°F (24°C). Saint-Denis is home to the Indian Ocean's only tropical cyclone monitoring centre, although the island itself is seldom affected. The cyclone season runs from mid-November to mid-April and the island is occasionally affected.
Saint-Denis is a pleasant holiday destination year-round and is never cold, though it may be humid and rainy. Travellers generally prefer to visit in the cooler dry season, between May and October.
Reunion's climate is tropical, with temperatures varying according to elevation. Humidity is generally high. There is not a big temperature range between the seasons, but the year can be divided into summer and winter: November to April is hot and rainy, while May to November is usually dry and cooler, and is the most popular time for travel to Reunion. In Saint-Denis the summer temperatures average between 73°F (23°C) and 84°F (29°C), and in winter temperatures average between 64°F (18°C) and 75°F (24°C). Rain patterns vary hugely according to region, with the east of the island much wetter than the west. The cyclone season runs from mid-November to mid-April and the island is occasionally affected.
Reunion is an overseas departement of France and uses the Euro as its official currency. There are plenty of banks and ATMs on the island, and most shops and hotels accept major credit cards (though many require a minimum amount for card payments). Most businesses display their prices in their windows and restaurants and hotels should have their rates visible from the exterior.
French is the official language but the most widely spoken language among locals is Reunion Creole. English is taught at school level.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are standard.
US nationals need passport valid for the period of intended stay. US nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
UK nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days. A passport valid for period of intended stay and endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British National (Overseas)', or 'British Overseas Territories Citizen with Right to Abode' is required.
Canadian nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days. A passport valid for the period intended stay is required.
Australian nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days. A passport valid for period of intended stay is required.
South African nationals require a passport valid for period of intended stay. A visa is not required for touristic stays of up to 90 days.
Irish nationals do not require a visa. A passport valid for period of intended stay is required.
US nationals need passport valid for the period of intended stay. US nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
New Zealand nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days. A passport valid for period of intended stay is required.
Passports must be valid for length of intended stay. Travellers must have proof of return or onward tickets, sufficient funds or lodging certificate and all travel documents needed for onward journey. A Schengen visa is also valid if endorsed "also valid for Reunion". It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There are no real health risks associated with travel to Reunion. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for travellers arriving from countries with a risk of yellow fever transmission. Vaccinations are recommended for hepatitis A and hepatitis B. There is no chance of contracting malaria but precautions should still be taken against mosquito bites as there are occasional outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya.
Reunion's medical facilities are very good. Most towns have doctors and clinics, while the principal hospital is in Saint-Denis. Tap water is usually safe for drinking. Public water sources are unsafe if labelled 'Eau non potable'. There is a reciprocal health agreement with the UK and most EU countries, whose citizens are entitled to emergency medical treatment on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Tipping is not necessarily expected but is usually appreciated in Reunion. Some restaurants do add a service charge to the bill but if they don't a tip of about 10 percent is appropriate for good service.
Most visits to Reunion are trouble-free. Crime levels are low but visitors should still be vigilant and avoid extravagant displays of wealth. Swimmers should be aware of currents and riptides; take note of signs on the beaches and, if unsure, ask the locals. Shark attacks are a concern off the island. The cyclone season is from November to April and travellers in Reunion during this time should keep track of storm alerts. The Piton de la Fournaise volcano is still active and an eruption is always possible, but volcanic activity is carefully monitored.
Broadly speaking, Reunion follows French tradition and culture, although the island is influenced by its many different population groups. There is a mix of Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam on the island and visitors should respect the different religious groups and their customs.
The business culture is quite relaxed in Reunion and only the most formal of occasions will require suits. French is the language of business and an interpreter should be brought along if needed as there are few professional interpreters on the island. Business hours are generally 8am to 12pm and 2pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
The international access code for Reunion is +262. The outgoing code is 00, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0027 for South Africa). City/area codes are not in use. Three local mobile phone companies provide service, and some international roaming agreements exist but these tend to be expensive. Internet cafes are available in the main centres and hotels generally provide internet access but it isn't always free.
There are no restrictions on the import of local or foreign currency but amounts exceeding €10,000 or equivalent must be declared if arriving from a country outside the European Union.
Travellers over 17 years of age entering Reunion can bring in the following items duty-free: either 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250g tobacco; one litre of spirits, four litres of wine and 16 litres of beer; perfume for personal use; and goods up to the value of €1,000 if arriving from an EU country, and €430 if arriving from a non-EU country.
Official Reunion Tourism Portal: en.reunion.fr
French Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 944 6000.
French Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7073 1000.
French Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 1795.
French Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 425 1600.
French Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (02) 6216 0100.
French Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 277 5000.
French Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 384 2555.
United States Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 4312 2222.
British Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 4451 3100.
Canadian Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 4443 2900.
South African Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 5359 2323.
Australian Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 4059 3300.
Irish Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 4417 6700.
New Zealand Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 4501 4343.
There is a good local bus service that operates within Saint-Denis, while another bus service links the city to the rest of the island. The roads are well maintained and car hire agencies are available. Renting a car is a good option for those who want the freedom to explore independently, but really shouldn't be necessary for a stay in the capital alone. Taxis can also be found at taxi stands or ordered by phone within the city. The historic core and seafront area of Saint-Denis can easily and safely be explored on foot.
A holiday in Saint-Denis, with its brasseries and bistros, cafes and Creole character, is a great jumping-off point for exploring this island paradise while absorbing the town's architectural beauty, lively ambience, shopping for souvenirs (especially spices) and sampling its many good restaurants. Anyone who is seeking a tropical getaway with the added bonus of French flair, will enjoy a holiday in Saint-Denis. The city is usually just a pit stop on a Reunion itinerary, as the island's main attractions are not actually in Saint-Denis, but the city is rather charming and worth a day or two of exploring.
Tourist attractions in Saint-Denis include the Parc du Colorado, a park and playground which is ideal for a picnic or a barbeque and boasts beautiful views; the Jardin de l'Etat, a pretty little garden in the heart of the city; the Musee Leon Dierx, with its impressive modern art collection; and the Natural History Museum, where visitors can learn about the animals, plants and geology of Reunion. Of course, there are many glorious excursions possible from Saint-Denis, which is best used as a travel hub for explorations of the natural wonders of the island.