Why Reunion Island has my heart

Lisa Raleigh in Reunion Island

I’ve been lucky enough to travel throughout my life and visit many magical places around the globe, but Reunion Island holds a special place in my heart and is my number 1 travel destination – whether you’re travelling with friends or family or both!

The quaint, French-Governed island off the coast of East Africa is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes – the snow-capped Piton de Fournaise and offers uninterrupted mountain and ocean views which simply take your breath away. After visiting the island more than once, I can honestly say that Reunion is a little-known gem I’m so happy I discovered.  

A few months ago, I had the chance to explore the island with my family and boy, did we have fun! I always arrive with a list of things I’d love to do, and every time I leave, I add more to the list because there’s just so much to discover – around every corner, windy road or just over the mountain. This is what keeps me coming back every time, as well as the weather, hospitality, the food… I could go on and on!

What I love most about Reunion Island:  

The short travel time

All that stands between you and Reunion Island is a short 4-hour flight which is such a bonus for me because I don’t sleep well on planes and struggle with overnight trips. Also, there’s no jetlag because the time difference between Reunion Island and SA is just 2 hours, so you can arrive, drop your bags off and head out to explore or grab a bite to eat immediately. (This is a massive advantage for families travelling with small kids. The shorter the trip, the better, right?)

Also, the fact that you can get an authentic European experience (with a wonderful international feel and all the top international brands in store) that’s just 4 hours away from South Africa, is such a bonus.

The friendly culture

Although the language and culture on the island is predominantly French, there’s a wonderful mix of cultures and ethnicities all living together. The locals are taught from school age, to be tolerant of all races and religions and as a result, everyone lives together in harmony. There’s a calmness about the island I can’t quite explain- you’ll have to visit to experience it yourself.

From a service/staff point of view, I’m yet to meet someone who isn’t friendly. From the shop owners to the tour guides, hotel staff and chefs and/or bakers, we’re always met with a warm smile and hello. Those who live on the island genuinely enjoy their lifestyles and are passionate about their work. It shines through in everything that they do.

The efficiency

If you think about world-class infrastructure, services and amenities, as well as the efficiency and professionalism of a first world country, and you put that on an island in the middle of the ocean, that’s what you get with Reunion. The service is always impeccable no matter where you go.  

For instance, on our last trip, my daughter Bella came down with a nasty ear infection, and we had to take her to the local hospital. Well, it was squeaky clean and most of the doctors and nurses spoke English. Our doctor was friendly and realised our urgency, as we had to fly home in the next day or two. He sorted Bella out immediately and as a result, we didn’t have to miss our flight.

Scenery at Reunion Island

The beautiful scenery

Reunion Island is the perfect mix of scenic volcanic coastline (as there’s an active volcano on the island) with untouched beaches and incredible views of lush forest. It’s like Jurassic Park but without predators! As you arrive, you feel as though you can leave your daily stresses behind because you can't help but connect with the island’s natural beauty. There’s something special about being surrounded by jewel-like waters and incredible waterfalls, sandy beaches and majestic mountains.

Creole cuisine at Reunion Island

The food!

I could write an entire blog on its own - about the delicious cuisine Reunion has to offer, because it’s really that good. And as a self-confessed foodie, all I can say is the island doesn’t disappoint!

The local Creole cuisine is always fresh and packed with flavour. And there’s so much variety on offer for every taste and preference. For instance, I’m always spoiled for choice with the vegetarian cuisine, yet the island is also known for its plethora of fresh seafood. You’ll also find plenty of fruit and vegetables on the island – which is great if you want to stick to your healthy eating plan.

When it comes to sweet treats, you’ll be bowled over by the decadent ice -cream (there are ice-cream parlours all over the island) as well as freshly baked goods – which I can never refuse!

Bakery Reunion

The baked goods 

What I love most is that in true “French-style”, there’s a local bakery on just about every corner, which opens at 6am, sharp. The dedicated bakers wake up at 3am, to start baking at 4am, which means that you get to sample the most delicious rolls, croissants and pastries straight out the oven for breakfast. One morning, my hubby and I were venturing out for a morning hike and we stopped at one of the bakeries to grab fresh pastries as they opened. This was a highlight for me. Nothing quite beats the smell of freshly baked bread and pastries first thing in the morning!

An additional advantage of the baked goods on Reunion Island is that you don’t feel too full or bloated after eating a pastry, roll or piece of bread. This is because the bakers use a slow-rising process when they prep and bake the dough.

They don’t over-knead the dough and store it in the fridge for a little longer so that the yeast breaks down the gluten. As a result, I don’t suffer from any cramps or tummy issues when I eat the bread on the island. Just as well, because the restaurants and hotels offer a wide variety of freshly baked breads with breakfast every morning and it’s very difficult to say no.

Healthy snack ideas for holiday in Reunion Island

ALSO SEE: Healthy snack ideas for the holidays 

The adventures

There’s something for everyone at Reunion Island. Whether you’re there to rest, laze around the hotel pool and frequent a few markets, or like me, you want to explore the island and spend your days “adventuring”, you’ll never get bored. There’s so much to see and do.

In the sky you can:

  • Paraglide
  • Go on a micro light adventure
  • Enjoy a helicopter ride with views of the volcano

On land you can:

  • Run along the beach
  • Cycle around the island
  • Hike to your heart’s content! (There are so many small and big mountains to summit)
  • Explore the island on foot
  • Go for horse rides
  • Hire a scooter
  • Visit markets and shops
  • Go on a vanilla plantation tour
  • Explore the caves

Kayaking in Reunion Island

In the water you can:

  • Snorkel and scuba dive
  • Go kayaking or paddle boarding
  • Go river rafting through the rivers and rapids
  • Enjoy a sunset dolphin cruise
  • Swim in one of the many swimming beaches

And these are just a few of the most popular things to do on the island. Of course, you’ll find way more if you venture off the beaten track.

My recent Reunion Island experience

As I mentioned above, my family and I had the chance to visit Reunion Island a little while ago and we had the best time. We spent the first three days just hanging out at the 5* LUX* Saint Gilles Resort spending time by the pool, enjoying the delicious food and unwinding as the hotel is tucked away between acres of lush tropical gardens.

This fabulous hotel is a firm favourite as it has a huge pool, an ice-cream bar (I had to hold myself back), and some wonderful restaurants where you’ll get to enjoy traditional Creole food. The hotel rooms are also spacious and lovely. 

The warm Indian ocean (with the most beautiful reef) is also right on the resort’s doorstep which means you never have to leave and can enjoy snorkelling, diving, surfing and swimming right there.

LR Rebounder

I also took my LR rebounder with to take full advantage of the high-tech gym in the hotel. This was great because I could do a combination of strength training and rebounding every day before breakfast- and then happily tuck into a hearty meal. 

After feeling settled and relaxed, we ventured out every day and these are just some of the many highlights I’d recommend to anyone visiting the island…

La Chapelle hike at Reunion Island

The La Chapelle hike  

The La Chapelle hike is just off the scenic town of Cilaos, and to get there, we travelled along the Bras De Cilaos through narrow winding roads with hair pin bend after hair pin bend, but it was so much fun! We enjoyed delicious Padkos, which was freshly baked bread with jam and cheese along the way, and after the hike, we spent some time in the quaint town nearby which was fun to explore as the roads were lined with restaurants, stores and coffee shops.

The 10km La Chapelle hike, was the hardest hike I’ve ever done, but so scenic and utterly breath taking. You basically hike 5km up the rocky mountain and 5km back down again, but make no mistake, it’s tough!  

It took us around 3-4 hours with a few stops to admire the untouched scenery and dip our sweaty bodies into the cool streams running between the mountains. What I loved about this hike is that you feel safe and free. The route was well marked, there were plenty of other hikers on the same trail and there’s no snakes, strange insects or dangerous animals around you.  

We also had the chance to explore an eery cave – which was formed from a crack in the rock face. I didn’t go in because you had to wade through water to get there, but my hubby said there were thousands of bats inside and it was really large.

how to prevent muscle stiffness after exercise like a hike in Reunion Island

ALSO SEE: How to prevent muscle stiffness after exercise such as a hike in Reunion

The “Lava Church”

On one of the days, we went to the Notre-Dame des Laves church – also known as “Lady Of The Lava” or “Lava Church”. The story behind this church is that it’s one of the only original buildings still standing after lava flow from a volcanic eruption devastated the small village of Piton-Sainte Rose in 1977. Miraculously the lava reached the church but flowed around it and the building remained intact – what a miracle!

It really is quite a sight to see and even Bella enjoyed the trip.

Grande Anse Beach at Reunion Island

The Grande Anse beach

Growing up in Kwa Zulu Natal, there’s no doubt that I love the sun and the sea, so a day spent on the beach is like heaven for me. What I love about Reunion Island is that you get to explore many beautiful beaches along the coastline, some quiet and deserted, while others a little busier and full of activity.

For instance, the Grande Anse beach was one of my favourites because it had such a wonderful holiday vibe. There are always loads of locals and holiday makers sitting at the nearby restaurant, barbequing or picnicking. Although it was a little rocky, with rough sand, there is a natural enclosed swimming area which we all loved.

The beaches at Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains are also fabulous. We had the chance to experience SUP paddle boarding the one afternoon at our neighbouring beach, plus there were pedal boats and kayaking options for those who prefer to be seated.

vanilla tour Reunion Island

The vanilla tour

Introduced to Reunion at the beginning of the 19th Century, the Bourbon vanilla crops and plantations on the island are among the best in the world.

The producers and villagers are very passionate about their vanilla as it’s part of their cultural heritage, so we just had to take a vanilla tour, to see how the whole production process works.

You need to book a vanilla tour in advance, preferably with an English-speaking guide. We had a French guide and although he still spoke some English, there were a few things we missed.

On the tour, you’ll get to see how the locals go about picking the vanilla, drying it, washing and packing it, etc. It’s fascinating to see how each pod gets a grading. And only the best ones are used to make vanilla essence, vanilla extract, vanilla sugar, vanilla vinegar and more!

The shopping

If you love to shop up a storm, you’re in for a treat in Reunion.

Whether you’re looking for beautiful clothes, jewellery, shoes, or accessories such as hats ad bags, you’re bound to find it in one of the many towns. I love that you can look around a little nook in the road and find an absolute gem of a shop. And if you love food markets, the Saint-Paul market is packed to the brim with delicious, fresh produce such as honey, spices, fresh, exotic fruit and plenty of vegetables.

The Takamaka valley

On this last trip, we visited the picturesque Takamaka valley in Saint-Benoît, but the waterfall was dry because we went in winter. I can only imagine how spectacular it must be in summer, so we’ll definitely go back. The Takamaka valley is a World Heritage site and is virtually untouched. The area is ideal for long walks or hikes where you’ll get to experience panoramic views of the forest.

Beach at Reunion Island

My Reunion Island bucket list

  • To visit plenty of waterfalls including the Cascades du Bras d'Annette
    (3-cascades waterfall) in Saint-Benoît
  • To take Bella on her first hike
  • To visit the famous Tunnels de Lave (Lava tunnels)
  • To explore the Jardin d’Eden (the beautiful garden of Eden botanical gardens)
  • To cycle around the island
  • To book a clear boat kayak experience and go rafting and paddling
  • To hike the highest mountain in Reunion, the Piton des Neiges, which is around 3000m above sea level. They recommend you hike for 4-5 hours one day, stay overnight and then carry on the next morning and come back down.
  • To visit the Etablissement Thermal in Cilaos (thermal baths), which offers water treatments, including whirlpool baths with underwater hydro massages and steam baths. Bliss!
  • To see the iconic Bras-Rouge waterfall in Cilaos.

If you want to experience the magic that is Reunion island with me, then join me on my next 8-day Wellcation. Find the full itinerary of this incredible trip, plus the booking information here. 

You can also find out more at Travel2Reunion