In the heart of the Indian Ocean, a hidden gem beckons the intrepid traveller – the captivating island of La Réunion. Savanna Douglas answered its call.
Anticipation nearly gobbles me whole as our group of five board an Air Austral flight to the small tropical paradise of La Réunion, a French island boasting a unique blend of Creole, French, Indian and Chinese culture.
Our indulgent business-class flight sets the mood for the days ahead: delicious food, a cup that will runneth over, and a palpable sense of connection and adventure.
After soaking up a beautiful sunset in the sky, we touch down at La Réunion’s Roland Garros Airport. Our adventure begins with a ‘bonjour!’ from our guide, Sully Chaffre. Although the island’s official language is French, it’s one of several languages spoken in La Réunion. Sully speaks a bit of everything.
He drives us to our haven for the night, Villa Myriam in Saint-Pierre, just an hour away. The villa boasts traditional Creole-style architecture with wooden floors, large rooms, a beautiful French-style garden and a pool. As the darkness still leaves much to the imagination, I head to bed eager to meet La Réunion in the morning.
An early continental breakfast at the villa fuels the day ahead. Our first stop is Grand Anse beach, where magma from the island’s active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, gracefully plunges into the ocean and forms solid black rock that lines the beach – a stunning spectacle that makes for a special introduction to the 63 km-long island.
After a pit stop by the seafront, we drive to the island’s ‘Wild South’ where La Réunion’s volcanic origins become evident. A landscape of lava fields track from the ocean on one side, upwards to the peak of the Piton de la Fournaise on the other.
Here, we meet Fred from Activites De Montagne, a speleologist guide who leads us on an underground expedition through the island’s lava caves. I conquer my fear of tight spaces without question and marvel at the magnificent geological formations caused by Piton de la Fournaise’s effusive eruptions.
Although the volcano rests peacefully during our visit, it usually erupts up to three to four times per year, securing its spot as a captivating natural wonder and the fifth most active volcano in the world.
Back at our villa in the South West, an authentic Creole cooking class awaits us with local chef Eric Lavalle. On arrival, we whip up a hearty ‘rougail sausage’ – a traditional dish of the island made with locally sourced ingredients.
While dinner simmers, a melodic Maloya performance by Trio Métiss gets us moving. Maloya, a traditional music genre of the island, is not just a performance but an integral part of Réunionese culture, expressing the struggles and resilience of its people. After supper, we throw back a glass of the island’s local spirit, Isautier rum, made with one of La Réunion’s main crops, sugar.
A new day greets us with an early breakfast before we meet Sully and make our way to volcano’s peak. Towering at 2 632 m, Piton de la Fournaise is the second-highest point in La Réunion and offers breathtaking views of its volcanic landscapes. The winding road there, known as the Route du Volcan, presents picturesque bends, and with every climb in altitude, the landscapes transform into breathtaking panoramas.
One moment you’re in a lush green forest, and the next, you’re in the Alps, and suddenly, a lunar-like landscape paves the final stretch to the Piton de la Fournaise, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its geological and cultural significance.
We arrive at the peak and are up in the clouds. After taking in the spectacular views, we descend stairs that lead to the crater of the volcano. I indulge in a moment of stillness here. A wave of energy seems to pass through me and I feel renewed and connected with the pulse of the Earth. A fellow journalist suggests a quick meditation before we head back. Hey, you’ve got to make the most of it while you’re here.
Saint-Denis street food beckons for lunch – a fresh baguette with salmon savoured on the streetside, followed
by a tour of La Réunion’s cathedrals and religious temples. The island’s diverse population embraces various religions, and the religious temples stand as symbols of its harmonious multicultural society, an aspect that locals take great pride in.
A highlight is exploring the Island’s Hindu temple, adorned with hundreds of concrete statues of Hindu gods hand-carved and painted by devotees. The profound beauty of this temple, combined with the golden light of a setting sun, moves me
Our next destination, the Akoya Hotel in St Gilles, is a haven of luxury with its ocean views and French-inspired indulgences, which reflect the island’s blend of luxury and natural beauty. Just a skip away from the beach, it’s the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy the touristic side of the island.
French wine, foie gras and truffle ravioli delight our palates at a sumptuous dinner at Akoya, setting the tone for the luxe leg of the trip.
The morning sun smiles upon us as we head across the road to St Gilles beach, anticipating glass kayaking in the lagoon of Trou d’Eau with a guide from Qualité Tourism. Getting in and out of a kayak is never graceful, but it’s worth it. Butterflyfish, triggerfish, surgeonfish, and small moray eels waltz in the coral beneath our transparent vessel.
La Réunion’s coral reefs and marine life offer an underwater wonderland for snorkellers and kayakers alike.
One of the local beachfront restaurants offers delectable lunches – I go for a savoury onglet de boeuf (hanger steak) followed by a gourmet Bounty bar for dessert. La Réunion’s culinary scene is a fusion of flavours, blending French techniques and flair with local ingredients and Creole influences.
After a day on the beachfront, an hour spent relaxing in the Jacuzzi at Akoya is just what the doctor ordered before our last dinner at L’uni Vert. We feast on fresh seafood and La Réunion’s local beer of choice, Dodo. I remind myself not to overdo it as one last morning adventure awaits.
An early morning and breakfast buffet at Akoya later, I’ve convinced myself to go microlighting with the group. La Réunion’s diverse topography and stunning landscapes make it an ideal destination for adventurous activities, so why not kick the fear of falling out of a tiny plane?
I meet experienced pilot Rémi Chong in Saint-Paul for a thrilling flight in the L’avion Zèbre microlight plane. Views
of the island’s three different volcanic calderas, lush green vegetation and stunning waterfalls create an awe- inspiring spectacle I cannot draw my eyes away from, despite clinging onto whatever I can for dear life. These aerial perspectives offer an unforgettable experience you just can’t pass up.
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After the exhilarating flight, we explore the picturesque Creole village of La Salazie. This quaint town exudes charm reminiscent of a quaint countryside village. I savour a cheesy gratin for lunch at the idyllic La Villa Marthe cafe and then spend the last stretch of my time here soaking up the essence of Salazie’s rustic beauty and fascinating history.
I discover a zodiac fountain at the centre of the town square, and then a charming Catholic Church built in the 1800s called Paroisse Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, translating to ‘Parish our lady of the assumption’. La Réunion’s architectural gems and cultural landmarks preserve its past and showcase its ever-evolving identity.
On our drive back from Salazie to Roland Garros airport, we’re greeted by the most glorious waterfalls, Voile de la Mariée, translating to ‘Bridal Veil Falls’. The lush curtains of water that enrobe the cliffside put you in a trance you will never quite come out of.
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As the journey ends, we return to Roland Garros airport and prepare for the four-hour flight back home. I reflect on the magic I’ve discovered on this short trip, and at midnight, I make a soft landing onto a comfy pillow at Southern Sun Hotel, conveniently located five minutes away from O.R. Tambo airport. With room service and a breakfast buffet in tow, I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome back to the city.
La Réunion is a destination that will stay with you forever. You won’t believe how much there is to discover on this small island in the Indian Ocean. Not until you visit. Here’s your cue…
Feature Image: Unsplash