Destination with a difference

Reunion Island is the Indian Ocean's peak experience, writes Sarah Cornwell

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Reunion Island’s outdoor experiences and visa-free status have increased the destination’s visibility in South Africa. Its relaxed pace, first-world French influence and spectacular sightseeing make this an irresistible Indian Ocean island getaway.

The Piton de la Fournaise volcano in the south-east is the island’s calling card. Formed by the Reunion hotspot off the coast of Africa, the now dormant Piton des Neiges volcano rises 3 070 metres above sea level, and is the highest point in the Indian Ocean.

The island remains a Department of France and has a vibrant Creole culture.

Self-drive itineraries are widely packaged and are easy to navigate from the Roland Garros international airport in the capital, St Denis, in the North. Flag carrier Air Austral operates two direct flights from Johannesburg each week (increasing to three in season). December is peak season for South Africans travelling to Reunion.

There is a good mix of affordable upscale accommodation across the island, especially along the coast, or choose to overnight in a gite or traditional hut along the many lush hiking trails.

Take the scenic route

To circumnavigate Reunion would take approximately four hours by car, but that would hardly be seeing it all. Allow plenty of time to travel distances that don’t appear too far.

It is recommended to break your stay into two or three overnight stops. St Philippe, St Pierre and St Gilles are ideally located, with shops, bars and restaurants within walking distance of the area's spacious resort-style hotels.

Mafate is one of three cirques (volcanic amphitheatres) that formed when Piton des Neiges collapsed and is accessible by foot only. Cilaos is a popular day-trip destination and Salazie is the largest cirque.

The waterfalls near Cilaos are famous for canyoning (abseiling landing in water). There are more than 50 guesthouses, a four-star hotel and good hiking trails in the area, with secluded forest accommodation and locally-produced wines to be enjoyed near The Edge of the World, another interesting, historical viewpoint.

Swimming is permitted in stunning road-side rock-pools and the island’s lagoon, and there are well-maintained picnic areas and lawned beaches.

Horse riding trails visit Grand Etang (half day) Reunion Island’s largest lake, with longer, over-night trails for more experienced riders.

Set aside a full day to see the Piton de la Fournaise volcano. The main crater rises 2 632 metres above sea level, and it is a 30-minute walk down steep steps to the smaller craters. Air Austral regularly runs flight specials when the volcano erupts, and there are many viewpoints to take in the action. The Cite du Volcan (volcano museum) near the summit, has interactive displays in French and English and live feeds monitor volcanic activity.

Upscale resorts near St Gilles have lagoon access, while, nearby, Boucan Canot beach is famous for sunbathing.

Reunion is a French island, but English is widely spoken and landmarks are well signposted. However, visitors from South Africa will need to adjust to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

The destination's unique line-up and striking scenery already cater to a wide range of travellers with different interests, with excellent value accommodation and bang-for-your-buck experiences.

For first-time visitors, the Reunion Island Tourism Board has more recommendations and an easy trip-planning tool at www.en.reunion.fr.

Visitors can use #gotoreunion and #theultimateisland hashtags on social media channels.

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