Reunion's small but spirited capital is Saint-Denis, a picturesque town flanked by three mountains and situated at the mouth of the Saint-Denis River. Saint-Denis is a mixture of sophisticated French-style restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and more traditional sights and sounds. Sadly, it is often sidestepped on trips to the island, used merely as a starting point due to its close proximity to the airport. However, it is well worth taking some time to explore its charms before moving on.
The chic, upmarket seafront area with its lovely promenade is known as La Barachois, and remnants of the small port that once existed can be found here including an old warehouse of the East India Company that now houses the French Administration Offices. The Grande Marche (market) is a treasure trove of Malagasy arts and crafts, fragrant spices and textiles, while smaller markets offer mouth-watering fresh tropical fruits and vegetables. A distinctly French flavour mixes with African, Chinese, and Indian, creating a rich mélange that is evident even in the cuisine. Try a delicious (a meat or fish stew cooked in a sauce and eaten with rice) and (a spicy tomato salsa), sample some excellent Chinese food from a tiny take-away or indulge in juicy mangoes or litchis off the stalk.
Saint-Denis boasts a fascinating mix of religious architecture including mosques, Tamil and Buddhist temples, and a cathedral, illustrating the cultural diversity of the island. There are several quaint old buildings, an interesting Natural History Museum, a modern art museum named after the poet Léon Dierx, and the facades of old East India Company buildings. It is also well worth getting out of town and climbing one of the three surrounding peaks for a gorgeous view. Perhaps the most breathtaking is from Route de la Montagne (the Mountain Road), a steep track that winds up to the top of a lava cliff that drops dramatically into the sea. Once the delights of Saint-Denis have been explored, the rest of the island paradise of Reunion awaits.
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.
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.
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.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination