Réunion is a paradise for anyone in search of an active holiday. Out on the water there’s everything from diving and snorkelling to whale watching and stand-up paddleboarding. Away from the water’s edge there’s world-class hiking, intrepid canyoning, vista-rich paragliding, horse riding through wilderness and even caving inside volcanic tubes.
Who said that diving in Réunion wasn't interesting? OK, the island is mostly famous for its trekking, but its dive sites are nothing to sneeze at. You'll be positively surprised: there's a wide choice of shallow dives inside the lagoon for novices and deeper dives (mostly 25m to 40m) just outside for more experienced divers, as well as a few purpose-sunk wrecks thrown in for good measure.
Most dive sites are located off the west coast between Boucan Canot and St-Pierre.
If you want relaxed diving, St-Gilles will appeal to you. Diving here is focused on the reefs, which slope gently away in a series of valleys to a sandy bottom in about 25m – very reassuring. Pelagics are rare, but small reef species are prolific.
Tour de Boucan A fantastic site suitable for all levels. Super underwater terrain, with a massive boulder that provides shelter to numerous species.
Le Pain de Sucre The setting is the strong point, with a contoured terrain and lots of small critters in the recesses (damselfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, lobsters), as well as a few seafans. Great for beginners.
Petites Gorgones Also known as Saliba, this is an easy site suitable for all levels. Keep an eye out for leaf scorpion fish and turtles.
La Passe de L'Hermitage An exciting dive. The terrain is nicely sculpted, with little canyons and large boulders that act as magnets for a wealth of species. Sadly, visibility is often reduced.
Haï Siang With a maximum depth of 55m, this atmospheric wreck is accessible to very experienced divers only. Fish life is scarce.
Navarra This wreck is not in good shape but it acts as a magnet for lots of reef species. The catch? It lies in 55m of water and is accessible to experienced divers only.
La Barge Off St-Paul, a relaxing wreck dive in less than 22m. The wreck is not in good shape but it's home to plenty of small fish. Beginners will love it!
St-Leu features splendid wall diving and good coral fields, but fish life is said to be less abundant than off St-Gilles-les-Bains. Here walls tumble steeply to several dozen metres.
Tombant de la Pointe au Sel South of St-Leu, this is widely regarded as Réunion's best all-round dive site. In addition to great scenery, this stunning drop-off offers a fabulous array of fish life and seldom fails to produce good sightings of pelagics, especially tuna, barracudas and jacks. Suitable for experienced divers.
Le Jardin des Kiosques With a depth ranging from 3m to 18m, it's very secure yet atmospheric for beginners. It's all about little canyons and grooves.
La Maison Verte A relaxing site, blessed with good coral formations in less than 6m.
Antonio Lorenzo Wreck enthusiasts will make a beeline for this well-preserved vessel that rests in about 38m on a sandy bottom off Pointe des Chateaux. Fish life is dynamic, and penetration in the hull is possible.
Savvy divers, this area is for you. This area is unhyped and that's why we enjoy it so much. There are a host of untouched sites between St-Pierre and Grand Bois. The main drawcard is the topography, with numerous ridges, canyons and drop-offs.
Les Ancres & Le Tombant aux Ancres A sloping reef festooned by healthy coral formations. You'll also see some old anchors dotted around the reef.
Demhotel A lovely dive off Grand Bois along a contoured plateau with plenty of protruding basaltic formations and arches. Fish life is usually dense.
While it is possible to dive all year, the best time is October to April, when the water is at its warmest (about 28°C). However, you might want to avoid February and March, which is cyclone season. Water temperatures can drop to about 21°C in August.
The dive centres are concentrated around St-Gilles-les-Bains, St-Leu, Étang-Salé-les-Bains and St-Pierre. The standard of diving facilities is high. You'll find professional dive centres staffed with qualified instructors catering to divers of all levels. Staff members usually speak English. Most dive centres are affiliated with PADI, Scuba Schools International (SSI) or CMAS – all internationally recognised dive organisations.
Take note that a simple medical certificate stating you are fit enough to dive is compulsory for diving in France. You can get one from your doctor in your home country or have it faxed or emailed to the dive centre. Otherwise, you can get one from any doctor in Réunion.
Hiking is the very best of what Réunion has to offer. Formed from one mighty dead volcano (Piton des Neiges) and one active volcano (Piton de la Fournaise), the island is a paradise for hikers, adventure-sports enthusiasts or indeed anyone who is receptive to the untamed beauty of a wilderness environment.
Safety is basically a matter of common sense and being prepared. Remember:
Before You Leave
- Get a detailed and up-to-date map (or GPS).
- Double-check the state of the paths before setting out.
- Check the weather report.
- Tell someone where you're going.
- Leave early enough to reach your destination before dark.
- Comfortable hiking boots.
- Wet-weather gear.
- Plenty of water and energy-rich snacks.
- A basic medical kit.
When to Hike
The best time to hike is during the dry season, from around late April to the end of October. May and June, as well as September and October, are probably the best months of all. July and August are a bit chilly, and during the rainy months (December to March) a number of paths are not accessible. The weather is extremely changeable from one part of this small island to the other.
The weather in Réunion has a tendency to become worse as the day goes on. As the hours pass, the island's uplands seem to delight in 'trapping' any cloud that happens to come their way. An early start is therefore one of the best defences against the vagaries of the elements.
The next day's weather forecast is shown on the two main TV channels after the evening news. You can also get the forecast by telephoning the Météo France voice service on 0892 68 02 00 (per minute €0.35). Cyclone bulletins are available on 0897 65 01 01 (€0.60 per call). Both these services are in French. Also check out the website www.meteofrance.re.
What to Bring
Good shoes are essential for hiking the trails of Réunion, which are made of gravel and stone and are often very steep, muddy or slippery.
Be sure to carry water (at least 2L for a day's hiking), wet-weather gear, a warm top, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellent, a whistle, a torch and a basic medical kit including plasters, elastic bandages and muscle balm for blisters and minor muscle injuries. The gîtes (lodges) provide sheets and blankets (but no towels), but if you intend on sleeping out at altitude, you'll need a decent sleeping bag, as temperatures in the Cirques can fall rapidly at night.
In most places to stay and places to eat, payment will be expected in cash, so bring a stash of euros with you. The only places to get euros in the Cirques are the ATMs at the post offices in Salazie, Hell-Bourg and Cilaos, and these can't be depended on.
You will be able to buy most last-minute supplies at a sporting-goods store or one of the big supermarkets in Cilaos or elsewhere in Réunion.
Hiking information is provided by the Plateforme de Réservation – Île de la Réunion and by associated tourist offices, including those in Cilaos, Salazie, Hell-Bourg, Ste-Suzanne, St-Gilles-les-Bains, St-Pierre, St-Leu, Plaine-des-Palmistes, Ste-Anne, St-Joseph and Bourg-Murat. All these offices organise bookings for gîtes d'étape et de randonnée (walkers' lodges) and can give advice on which paths are currently closed.
The official tourism website (www.reunion.fr) is by far the most useful website for hikers. It allows you to book your accommodation online. The websites www.randopitons.re and http://randotectec.reunion-parcnational.fr are also helpful.
For information on état des sentiers (closed trails), check the website www.onf.fr/la-reunion/sommaire/loisirs_en_foret/randonner/organiser.
The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre is responsible for the development and upkeep of the GR® walking tracks.
The definitive guide to the GR® R1, GR® R2 and GR® R3 is the TopoGuides GR® Grande Randonnée L'Île de la Réunion (2018), published by the FFRandonnée. It uses 1:25,000 scale IGN maps and details the itineraries. The GR® R1 is described in six étapes (stages), the GR® R2 in 12 stages and the GR® R3 in five stages.
The FFRandonnée also publishes the TopoGuide PR® Sentiers forestiers de L'Île de la Réunion (2011), which covers 25 walks varying from one-hour jaunts to six-hour hikes.
Published locally by Orphie, 52 Balades et Randonnées Faciles is designed with children in mind and describes outings that can be covered in less than four hours. A broader range of walks is covered by 62 Randonnées Réunionnaises (also by Orphie).
Réunion is covered by the six 1:25,000 scale maps published by the Institut Géographique National (www.ign.fr). These maps are reasonably up to date and show trails and gîtes. Map number 4402 RT is one of the most useful for hikers, since it covers Cirque de Mafate and Cirque de Salazie as well as the northern part of the Cirque de Cilaos.
Tours & Guides
Réunion's hiking trails are well established and reasonably well signposted, but you may get more information about the environment you are walking through if you go with a local guide.
Fully qualified mountain guides can be contacted through the local tourist offices. Rates are negotiable and vary according to the length and degree of difficulty of the hike; an undemanding one-day tour should start at around €50 per person (minimum four people).
Sleeping & Eating
Most of the accommodation for hikers consists of gîtes de montagne (mostly found in isolated locations on the trails themselves) or privately run gîtes d'étape along the walking trails. Both offer dorm beds of varying levels of comfort and, increasingly, doubles (sometimes with private facilities). They also provide meals. Almost all gîtes provide hot showers (they're solar heated). A third option consists of small, family-run chambres d'hôtes (mostly found in the villages at the ends of the hiking trails). Your choice of where to stay will most likely be based on where you can find a room. There are also a few hotels in Hell-Bourg and Cilaos for that last night of luxury (and central heating) before you set out on your hike.
One night's accommodation without food costs between €16 and €18. For half board, budget around €45 per person.
You can also camp for free in some areas in the Cirques, but only for one night at a time. Setting up camp on Piton de la Fournaise (the volcano) is forbidden for obvious reasons.
Most gîtes offer Creole meals, which are normally hearty, though a little rustic for some palates. The standard fare is carri poulet (chicken curry), boucané (smoked pork) or rougail saucisses (sausage with spices and rice), often with local wine or rhum arrangé (rum punch) thrown in. Breakfast usually consists of just a cup of coffee with biscottes (rusks) – or, if you're lucky, bread – and jam.
If you plan to self-cater, you will need to bring plenty of carbohydrate-rich food. Note that only a few gîtes are equipped with cooking facilities; better to bring a camping stove. Bear in mind that you are not allowed to light fires anywhere in the forest areas. Some villages in the Cirques have shops where you can purchase a very limited variety of food.
Book your accommodation before arriving in Réunion, especially during the busiest months (July, August, October, November and around Christmas). At other times it's best to book at least a couple of months in advance, particularly for popular places such as the gîtes at Caverne Dufour (for Piton des Neiges) and Piton de la Fournaise.
Some gîtes de montagne are managed by the Plateforme de Réservation – Île de la Réunion and must be booked and paid for in advance. This can be done through the website or at tourist offices. When you pay, you will receive a voucher to be given to the manager of the gîte where you will be staying. You must call the gîte to book your meals at least one day in advance; this can be done at the same time as the original booking if you'd rather, but meals still have to be paid for on the spot.
For the privately owned gîtes things are less restrictive in terms of logistics; you can book directly through the gîte.
In a real emergency out on the trail, lifting both arms to form a 'V' is a signal to helicopter pilots who fly over the island that you need help. If you have a mobile phone, call the emergency services on 112.
To help preserve the ecology and beauty of Réunion, consider these tips when hiking.
- Carry out all your rubbish. Don't overlook easily forgotten items, such as silver paper, orange peel, cigarette butts and plastic wrappers. Empty packaging should be stored in a dedicated rubbish bag.
- Never bury your rubbish: digging disturbs soil and ground cover and encourages erosion. Buried rubbish will likely be dug up by animals, who may be injured or poisoned by it.
- Minimise waste by taking minimal packaging and no more food than you will need. Take reusable containers or stuff sacks.
- Sanitary products, condoms and toilet paper should be carried out despite the inconvenience. They burn and decompose poorly.
Human Waste Disposal
- Contamination of water sources by human faeces can lead to the transmission of all sorts of nasties. Where there is a toilet, use it. Where there is none, bury your waste.
- Hillsides and mountain slopes, especially at high altitudes, are prone to erosion. Stick to existing tracks and avoid shortcuts.
- If a well-used track passes through a mud patch, walk through the mud so as not to increase the size of the patch.
- Avoid removing any plant life – it keeps the topsoil in place.
If you don't have time for a multiday trek, there are also plenty of great day hikes that will give you a taste of life in rural Réunion. A not-to-be-missed day hike is the climb up the Piton de la Fournaise (the volcano) from Pas de Bellecombe. Réunion's highest point, Piton des Neiges, can also be done in a day if you're super fit, but most people choose to stay overnight at Gîte de la Caverne Dufour.
Another popular hiking activity is exploring the lava tubes on the southeast coast. You'll walk (make it scramble) over slippery wet rocks through tunnels and caves that were formed by the volcanic eruptions.
Tourist offices have plenty of recommendations for short, easy walks.
There are countless trails in Réunion, with two major 'official' hiking trails, known as Grande Randonnée® Route 1 (GR® R1) and Grande Randonnée® Route 2 (GR® R2), with numerous offshoots. The GR® R1 does a tour of Piton des Neiges, passing through Cilaos, the Forêt de Bébour-Bélouve, Hell-Bourg and the Cirque de Mafate. The GR® R2 makes an epic traverse of the island all the way from St-Denis to St-Philippe via the three Cirques, the Plaine-des-Cafres and Piton de la Fournaise. A third trail, the Grande Randonnée® Route 3 (GR® R3), does a tour of Cirque de Mafate and overlaps with some sections of the GR® R1 and GR® R2.
You don't need to follow these trails entirely – your best bet is to tweak your own itinerary, combining various trails and variants according to your time constraints, level of fitness and own interests. Three great sample hiking itineraries include the Haut Mafate, the Bas Mafate and the Tour des Cirques.
The very scenic Haut Mafate is a four-day loop that takes in La Nouvelle, Roche-Plate and Marla and is graded moderate. Also super scenic (and very secluded), the Bas Mafate is a three-day loop that takes including Aurère, Îlet à Malheur, La Plaque, Îlet à Bourse, Grand Place Les Hauts, Grand Place, Cayenne, Les Lataniers and Îlet des Orangers. It's also graded moderate. These two loops partly follow sections of the GR® R3, GR® R2 and GR® R1. Both are a great way to immerse yourself in local culture and sample authentic rural Réunionnais life in the most secluded of the three Cirques.
Keen walkers may want to tackle the Tour des Cirques, a more demanding five-day loop that combines the three Cirques. Starting from Cilaos, it takes in Piton des Neiges (Réunion's highest summit), Hell-Bourg, Grand Îlet (in the Cirque de Salazie), Marla, La Nouvelle (in the Cirque de Mafate) and the Col du Taïbit. It roughly follows the path of the GR® R1.
The trails are well maintained, but the tropical rainfall can eat through footpaths and wash away steps and handrails. Even experienced hikers should be prepared for tortuous ascents, slippery mud chutes and narrow paths beside sheer precipices. The routes are well signposted on the whole, but it's essential to carry a good map or GPS and you should check locally on the current situation; trails are occasionally closed for maintenance, especially following severe storms.
If the idea of total immersion doesn't appeal to you, snorkelling is possible. It's a great way to explore the underwater world with minimal equipment and without the costs associated with diving. Even the shallowest reefs are home to many colourful critters.
The lagoon along the west coast between St-Gilles-les-Bains and La Saline-les-Bains offers great snorkelling, with particularly good marine life off L'Hermitage-les-Bains. Take advice before leaping in as the currents can be dangerous and stick to supervised areas.
This activity has exploded in recent years. You can count on finding dolphins year-round but it’s the whales, who migrate to Réunion from June (or July) to October, who draw in the crowds. Most dive shops in St-Gilles and St-Leu as well as a few other operators can arrange whale-watching excursions. Make sure they have good environmental credentials when it comes to approaching the cetaceans.