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The island of Réunion is a tiny bit of France with a tropical twist. Situated 500 miles (805km) east of Madagascar, and nicknamed 'l'Ile Intense', Réunion 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.
Réunion is first and foremost an alluring tropical getaway, but its interesting mix of cultures and peoples adds another interesting element to the island. Indeed, the history of Réunion island is reflected in its people. The Portuguese stumbled across the unoccupied territory in 1513, but it was the French who 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, Réunion Creole.
Réunion 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. 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, unsurprisingly, tourism. Although inequality and the resulting socio-economic strife is an occasional concern for locals, for the most part, everybody seems to get along fairly well on this beautiful island, with a heartening bonhomie shared between the many different racial and religious groups.
The island is home to one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes, Piton de la Fournaise, and has three major cirques (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, the black volcanic sands at Etang-Sale being 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 Réunion 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.
Travellers who seek a rich, textured island experience deep in the heart of the Indian Ocean will do well to pay Réunion a visit.
Réunion is a fascinating geological destination with rugged valleys and volcanic landscapes fringed by lush forest. This vaguely otherworldly combination of features is strikingly beautiful and will certainly delight nature lovers - particularly those who seek something a little different.
Intrepid visitors should head to the Plaine des Sables, a stark ash and lava rock plain at the foot of Réunion's volcano that feels rather lunar-like. The Piton de la Fournaise Volcano, the only active volcano on the island, and indeed one of the most active in the world, is accessible to adventurers. The Riviere des Remparts Canyon is a steep and beautiful river valley, while the three cirques, deep circular canyons, lure visitors with scenic overlooks and thrilling hiking trails.
Of course, Réunion is also a celebrated beach getaway; its tropical climate and lovely coastline among the chief reasons holidaymakers flock here. 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 Réunion's coast, though beautiful, is rocky, with rough surf. Those keen for a snorkel or a swim should also bear in mind that shark attacks do occur off the coast of the island, although very rarely, and 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, which is dedicated to the study and conservation of Réunion'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 once belonged to a Réunion-born art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, and was later 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 museum in Réunion. Home to a rich collection of the Indian Ocean's past and present fauna as well as rocks and minerals, the museum offers nature lovers a wonderful snapshot of the region's phenomenal natural heritage. As an added bonus, the actual building is listed as a historical monument, the grandeur of which alone is worth visiting for; plus, it's situated within the State Gardens (Jardin de l'Etat), a beautiful botanical garden that contains a number of exotic plants and trees, such as the talipot palm and the baobab.
Réunion is blessed with spectacular natural beauty and the island's three main cirques are among its most remarkable features. A cirque (or caldera) is a natural amphitheatre created by the movement of ancient glaciers or, as in the case of Réunion, volcanoes collapsing in on themselves. Salazie is perhaps the most striking and is home to lush vegetation and roughly 100 waterfalls. Cilaos is the site of a spa resort and has provided thermal baths for wealthy locals since the 1800s, while Mafate is the most remote of the three, its name derived from the Malagasy for 'lethal,' illustrating the difficulty of reaching the area.
Rising 8,635 feet (2,632m) above sea level,Piton de la Fournaise is one of Reunion's principal attractions and one of the world's most active volcanoes. Its high cliffs, deep craters, le grand brûlé (the burnt slopes) and lava streams come together in a starkly beautiful way, creating a stunning scene that never fails to astonish and enthral visitors. The walk to the summit takes roughly five hours and it is worth checking the weather forecast in advance, as cloud cover can roll in quickly and prevent hikers from making the climb. An alternative, though pricier, option is to explore the area by helicopter. Saint Paul, the former capital of the island, is the closest town to the volcano. It 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, boasting a beautiful lagoon and gorgeous white-sand beaches. Once a sleepy fishing village, Saint-Gilles is now Réunion's most popular resort, attracting crowds of visitors intent on enjoying its wealth of leisure activities, watersports and lovely beaches. Snorkelling, scuba diving and swimming are all highly recommended here, 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 also has plenty of hotels and restaurants, though these tend to get crowded at peak holiday periods and over 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 one of the Indian Ocean's 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. The island doesn't experience 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 department 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.
French is the official language but the most widely spoken language among locals is Reunion Creole. English is taught at school level.
The electrical current is 220 volts, and the standard frequency 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are standard.
US nationals: 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: 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.
CA nationals: Canadian nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days. A passport valid for the period intended stay is required.
AU nationals: Australian nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days. A passport valid for period of intended stay is required.
ZA nationals: 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.
IR nationals: Irish nationals do not require a visa. A passport valid for period of intended stay is required.
NZ nationals: 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 the length of the intended stay. Travellers must have proof of return or onward tickets, sufficient funds or lodging certificates and all travel documents needed for onward journey. Schengen visas are also valid if endorsed "also valid for Reunion". It is highly recommended that visitors' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their 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, though visitors should take care immediately after a cyclone or cyclonic system, as main water supplies can become infected by debris washed into the system. 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). Hotels, cafes, restaurants and tourist offices generally offer wifi access, usually without charge.
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, Canberra, Australia: +61 (02) 6216 0100.
French Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 425 1600.
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.
Australian Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 4059 3300.
South African Embassy, Paris (also responsible for Réunion): +33 (0)1 5359 2323.
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.
A good local bus service called Car Jaune operates within Saint-Denis and 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.
Saint-Denis, with its brasseries, bistros, cafes and Creole character, is a great jumping-off point for exploring the island paradise that is Réunion. This stunning little island town offers visitors architectural beauty, lively ambience, plenty of shopping and dining opportunities, and an abundance of French flair. We recommend visitors indulge in Saint-Denis's slew of excellent eateries and get their souvenir (and spice) shopping done here before exploring the rest of Réunion.
Tourist attractions in Saint-Denis include the Parc du Colorado, a park that 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 Réunion.
Of course, the real adventure begins when visitors venture a bit further afield on the island. There are many glorious excursions possible from Saint-Denis, which is best used as a travel hub for explorations of the natural wonders of Réunion.
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