By Stephane Bonneau
Intensely exotic, lunar landscape of the volcano with lush circuses, grandiose, vibrant, rejuvenating and preserved; Reunion Island amazes with its majestic landscapes, its authentic culture, its unique living together and its cuisine with mixed flavors as fragrant as the local vanilla…! Its one of those unique island in the world where you can swim with whales, recharge your batteries in the heart of UNESCO’s world heritage, let yourself be hypnotized by its volcanic landscape, discover Creole culture and the richness of living together. In Reunion Island, the elements mingle: water, earth, air, fire invite the traveler to a unique epic in the heart of the Indian Ocean.
Reunion Island is a French and European island. Its a land of cross breeding; spectacular and captivating. Reunion is a unique island in the world, characterized by its diversity. Diversity of landscapes, cultures, religions, ethnic groups, outdoor activities, accommodation and gastronomy, climates. Discovering Reunion is like travelling around the world in one trip. Thanks to its diversity on all levels, Reunion is an island that leaves no tourist unmoved. There is something for everyone!
Top 5 surreal places to see in Reunion Islands
- The Volcano / La Plaine ces sables
Check out the Land of Lava and explore the incredible massif of Piton de la Fournaise! This enigmatic region is the perfect witness to the birth and natural transformation of Reunion Island. Its magnetism tirelessly draws locals and travellers to immerse them in the dawn of time, the birth of the world.
Before attempting the steep slopes of the volcano, exploring the coastline is an excellent way to get a feel for the beauty of this rocky region. There, at aptly named Grand Brûlé, the black basalt contrasts with the deep blue of the ocean, while the vegetation gradually restakes its claim. The Lava Route, as it follows the different lava flows that have flowed over it to reach the sea, reveals unique landscapes shaped by the various eruptions.
If you feel no fear you can even launch yourself into the bowels of Reunion Island and its iconic volcano and explore the lava tubes, on unforgettable potholing adventures.
If you prefer the peaks, take the forest road on the volcano. Whether you go for a hike or a “volcano path picnic” in the best Creole tradition, you will find yourself immersed in an intense and spectacular atmosphere. Your heart will beat faster and your face will light up before the panoramas on show and this elusive atmosphere.
The Holy Grail is, of course, to climb Piton de La Fournaise and reach the Dolomieu Crater. This stunning hike crosses Enclos Fouqué from Pas de Bellecombe. The challenge is well worth it, reaching the top of the crater is always a surprising, magic and spellbinding moment.
- Mafate caldera
The Cirque of Mafate is an exceptional place that is worth a visit! This extraordinarily preserved site can only be accessed on foot or by helicopter, and offers a range of breath-taking landscapes within a UNESCO World Heritage site. To make sure the Cirque remains a preserved environment, and to ensure the protection of the local people and culture, tourism here is limited and sustainable and responsible practices are encouraged. Clean energy is used, waste management practices are implemented, environmental pollution is limited, the biodiversity is preserved, local production and consumption are encouraged and a culture of disconnection and sharing make the Cirque of Mafate a reference in terms of ecotourism.
- Lava tunnels
A Hike to explore the secret Lava tunnels of Reunion Islands. Depths of Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano located in the south-east of the region! Activities includes hiking in the Enclos Fouqué, the caldera at the foot of Reunion’s volcano, and a potholing exploration of two lava tunnels whose whereabouts remains our guide’s well-kept secret… We’re ready, may the adventure begin!
- Bébourg Forest (Jungle Forest) /Iron Hole (waterfall)
We have discovered the most magical tropical forest: Bélouve, perched on a plateau 1,300m above sea level in the East of Reunion Island. Welcome to the kingdom of the highland tamarind! Before we set off on the path, we stop once more to admire the panoramic view of the cirque of Salazie below. Bélouve extends on a plateau, 1,300m above sea level, that can only be reached by a track from Plaine-des-Palmistes. The edge of the rampart offers spectacular views of the greenest cirque in Reunion Island.
- Iron Hole :
Among the top 3 tourist attractions, the Trou de Fer waterfalls are the Niagara Falls of Reunion Island. Sensations and vertigo guaranteed! The Trou de Fer is a geological depression in the Piton des Neiges massif. It takes the form of a chasm almost 300 m deep. Numerous streams rush into the Trou de Fer and form a 725 m drop, forming a river called the Bras de Caverne which flows into the Rivière du Mât. Discover this mythical place on board a helicopter.
- Lava Road
Surrounded by the ramparts of Bois Blanc and Le Tremblet, Grand Brûlé has unique landscape, shaped by regular eruptions that have poured lava down the slope. It is part of La Réunion National Park and listed World Heritage. In this natural theatre, minerals and plants reveal the mysteries of life growing on the island’s youngest basalt soils.
Lava flows often plunge into the ocean, redesigning the coast which is of rare wild beauty. Under the open sky, braids, drapes and folds of lava are like works of art. Underground lava tunnels reveal hidden facets of the Earth’s veins.
More about Reunionese
Reunion is a land of intermingling, where a diversity of cultures are superimposed, reflecting a rich history which illuminates the daily life of Reunion. The island’s population is the result of a unique blend of Asian, Indian, African and European cultures which coexist and enrich each other in perfect harmony. The sega and maloya, the island’s traditional music, are a testimony to this multicoloured heritage and are listed as intangible world heritage by UNESCO. Their rhythms still enliven the gentle evenings of Reunion Island. The island’s cultural heritage can also be appreciated during visits: Hindu temples, century-old churches and Chinese pagodas are daily reminders of the many influences of Réunion’s way of life. Similarly, the calendar of events is an inexhaustible source of surprising events steeped in distant traditions preserved over the years.
Reunion, an example of living together
At the crossroads of European, Malagasy, Indian, Asian and African civilisations, Reunion Island is a melting pot of a thousand faces, with a unique mix of religions, culture, art and cuisine. Reunion has 858,450 inhabitants (source: Insee 2021).
Unparalleled ethnic diversity: Reunion’s population is particularly mixed. Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Chinese live in harmony. The same is true for traditional music, the cadences of the sega and maloya give rhythm to the daily life of the inhabitants. Let yourself be carried away by an original show, a music festival or a cultural event that brings together locals and tourists.
Today’s Reunionese faces, most of them mixed race, carry this history. They are colloquially referred to as :
- Cafres: descendants of slaves or indentured labourers from Africa and Madagascar;
- Zarabs: Indian Muslims, who share the same religion as the Arabs;
- Malbars: descendants of indentured labourers from South India;
- Zoreys: French people from mainland France (the French are hard of hearing when someone speaks a language other than their own!
- Chinese: Reunionnese of Chinese origin and not very mixed.
- yab, or “petit blanc des hauts”: descendants of the most modest settlers who were pushed to the upper reaches of the island in the second half of the 19th century.
History & Cultural beginning
Reunion Island is intensely authentic. Sharing cultures: enjoy the warm welcome of the Reunionese and taste the art of living in the Creole way! Reunion offers visits to cultural and religious sites and monuments, as well as workshops for total immersion. The pride of Reunion, respect for others is in the genes of the Reunionese. Churches, Tamil temples, mosques and Chinese pagodas are all symbols of this tolerance and are an integral part of the urban landscape.
Over the course of immigration, Reunion Island has created a rainbow population.
The settlement of Reunion Island began in the middle of the 17th century on a virgin land. The first settlers, the French, were soon surrounded by slaves from Africa, the “Cafres”, or from Madagascar. Later on, Indian, Tamil or Coromandel (New Zealand) indentured labourers joined them.
Their descendants are still called “Malabars”. The immigration of Indian Muslim craftsmen and traders, known as “Zarab'”, or Chinese, dates from the 19th century. From the 1960s onwards, a growing number of French people from mainland France came to settle in Réunion. In the 1970s, the Mahorais and Comorians also came to settle in Reunion.
Reunion, a French look with Creole charm
Reunion Island is a kaleidoscope of grandiose landscapes but also of cultures. A land of exemplary interbreeding, Reunion Island holds high the universal values of respect, benevolence and sharing.
Here, the population of Reunion and its different cultures and religions rub shoulders and share in perfect harmony: a warm welcome, a wealth of smiles, discoveries and flavours from all over the world.
Reunion, a French department, invites travellers to discover the origins of Creole culture by visiting the magnificent colonial houses, the multicoloured huts decorated with mantling, the historical monuments, the museums and gardens.
At the meeting, people pray to Christ, Allah, Shiva, Saints and other deities. Cults coexist smoothly in this land of mixed cultures, giving it an exceptional cultural and religious wealth. Religious festivals and traditions are celebrated all year round: fire walks, Dipavali (festival of lights), Chinese New Year, Guan Di Festival, Cavadee, “Fêt Caf” on 20 December (as part of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery), Réunion Métis…
We share with you this unique privilege in the world, Reunion offers the variety and depth of its cultures and spiritualities.
Catholicism – Saint-Denis, Saint-Paul, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Gilles, Saint-Joseph, Sainte-Anne, Sainte-Rose… most of the names of the towns bear witness to the presence of Catholicism on the island. The churches are crowded every Sunday and for every feast of the Catholic calendar.
On the roads, small altars painted in red catch the eye of visitors. They are dedicated to a saint who is little known outside Reunion: Saint-Expedit. He is said to have the power to solve the most difficult cases as quickly as his name indicates!
A beautiful religious tolerance
The intermingling of populations has resulted in a diversity of religions in Réunion. You will surely be surprised to find a church next to a Hindu temple or to hear the call of the muezzin breaking the silent atmosphere lulled by the incense rising from a Chinese pagoda next to the mosque.
Rhythm of Creole, music in Reunion
Reunion Island is known for the beauty of its volcanic landscapes and its culinary delights, but it is also known for its strong cultural and musical identity!
The origins of music in Réunion
Music is truly part of the soul of Reunion Island. Pei music, dance shows or world music, Reunion Island is inspired by the different cultures around the Indian Ocean. Reunion’s towns are ablaze with the rhythm of sega and maloya, two major musical genres on the island.
Where to listen to music in Reunion Island?
Over the years, Reunion’s music has gradually been enriched and transformed by the addition of European sounds (French variety, electro-fusion, rock, reggae, etc.)The question would be where not to listen to it? Because music is present everywhere on the island! Go to the concert halls, festivals, rondavelles (kiosks) or kabars (parties) to let yourself be invaded by the Creole rhythms.
The Classic Creole picnic
Picnicking is a tradition in Réunion, a need to recharge one’s batteries. Throughout the year, whatever the season, at weekends or during the school holidays, the people of Réunion share this convivial moment and take advantage of the many picnic and leisure areas on the island.
With family, friends or lovers, families settle down in the Hauts, in the Bas, in the heart of the town, near a waterfall, a river, facing the ocean, with their feet in the water, in the undergrowth, in the shade of the filaos, the coconut trees, in an unusual place, on wooded, landscaped, grassy and shaded leisure areas, often with games installed for the children.
On holiday in Reunion Island, you will not fail to observe the picnickers on the areas. No sandwiches, salads, sausages or cheese, the Reunionese picnic is a real institution, a Creole way of life! On the menu, there is always rice, curries cooked on wood fires in pots, rougails, and many other delicacies, an authentic experience.
This change of scenery is also an opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities near the picnic areas: cycling, walking, children’s games, bowling, swimming, white water rafting…
Local Cuisines and Drinks
Infused rums, beers, wines, mineral water and lemonade: Reunion offers a wide variety of local specialties, both alcoholic and soft drinks. Pace your holiday, have a good time in the evening, enjoy a cocktail by the ocean: you’ll undoubtedly find the perfect moment to sample all the island’s specialties !
Unmissable both in shops and in caz’ (homes), the local rum is known as ‘Rhum Charrette’ due to its label featuring a cart (charrette) pulled by an ox and loaded with sugar canes. It is sold both in glass bottles and plastic flasks known as piles plates (literally, ‘flat batteries’). Rum is made either from sugarcane juice (for ‘rhum agricole’ and aged rum) or from molasses (the residue from refining sugarcane) for traditional rum. It is closed tied to the island’s history, including its darkest moments, as the sugarcane industry developed due to slavery. A visit to a refinery or distillery is essential to understand this past, and there is no shortage of options: the largest European sugarcane refinery is in in Saint-Louis: the Sucrerie du Gol (visit the refinery and taste its sirops la cuite – ‘cooked syrups’). In Saint-Pierre, the Saga du Rhum, the result of a collaboration between the island’s three distilleries, is located in the Isautier distillery, founded in 1845. In Saint-Benoît, the Distillerie la Rivière du Mât introduces visitors to the production of traditional white rums, aged rums and rhums agricoles. Finally, the Sucrerie de Bois Rouge and the Savanna distillery, located in Saint-André, both in the east, present the complete cycle from sugarcane to rum.
The local specialty infused rum
Of course, rum can be enjoyed neat (in moderation – Rhum Charrette is 49°) or in punch (with the addition of fruit juice and spices) or cocktails. But the island’s local speciality is ‘rhum arrangé’ – infused rum – for which there are as many recipes as there are inhabitants! In fact, you can infuse rum by macerating fruits, spices (e.g. cinnamon sticks or vanilla), herbs, faham (a variety of wild orchid), etc. in it in a multitude of combinations. In markets, you can also find bags containing everything you need to make your own rum. Finally, if a bar offers café-vanille on its menu, note that this is in fact a coffee-liqueur-flavoured punch!
Wherever you are on the island, it’s difficult to escape the frescoes painted in the colours of the local beer on the façades of cafés and restaurants. Bourbon beer is brewed locally. Its symbol is a dodo, a large turkey-like bird that once inhabited the islands of the Indian Ocean and is now extinct. To capture a little of the Creole soul, nothing beats enjoying these Péi (local) beers with some chilli sweets or samosas. Since 2011, the dodo beer has even offered a lychee-flavoured version: the ‘Metiss’.
Wine, sparkling water and lemonade
Reunion also makes its own wines. The introduction of new grape varieties (Malbec among others) on the slopes of the Cirque de Cilaos and the installation of modern wineries have led to the birth of reds, rosés and whites that can hold their own against French wines from the mainland. In private homes in Cilaos, you may also come across vin qui rend fou (‘wine that sends you mad’)! This, in fact, is wine made from the Isabelle grape variety, which was banned in mainland France in 1935 (the ban was lifted in 2003) but that has always been grown in Reunion. Cilaos is known not only for its wines: Cilaos, a sparkling water obtained from one of the cirque thermal springs is found on many tables on the island. Many people also enjoy drinking Cot, a not-to-be-missed lemonade!
Diverse cuisine with spicy flavours
Reunion cuisine is a reflection of the island’s population: diverse. It finds its origins in the culinary traditions of the different ethnic groups that have settled in Reunion. From the French to the Chinese, passing through the Malagasy, the Mauritians, the Indians and the East Africans.
The basics of Reunionese cuisine
Reunionese cuisine is very colourful on account of the large number of spices that embellish the food. Livened up by the use of chilli, it can also have a sweet and subtle character thanks to its Madagascan and Indian inspiration. The most well known Reunionese dishes are without doubt carri (Reunionese curry), sausage rougail (tomato-based sausage dish), and massalé (Reunionese masala dish). Reunionese cuisine also includes a number of fried dishes, mainly enjoyed as an appetizer or dessert. And of course, no meal is complete unless accompanied with punch and ‘rhum arrangé’ (mulled rum) or tamarind syrup…
What does reunionese cuisine taste like?
Reunionese cuisine, like any world cuisine, has its own codes of practice. The appetizer holds an important place within the Reunionese culinary tradition. Samosas, bouchons (meat-based appetizers wrapped in pastry) and bonbons piments (miniature spiced doughnuts) are enjoyed as a means of whetting the appetite.
Main courses – generally fish, pork or poultry-based – are accompanied by rice, grains, brèdes (amaranth greens), achards (spicy vegetable relish) or tomato rougail (typical Creole sauce). In all of these dishes, spices such as ginger, saffron (or turmeric) play a leading role.
As for sweets, these are generally enjoyed in the afternoon, rather than as a dessert following a meal. Usually in the form of fritters or flour-based cakes, these are eaten as a treat during a tea break. To round off a meal, delicious seasonal fruits are the choice of preference, something of which there is no shortage on Reunion Island.
If you have to wait a while before tasting this authentic and colourful cuisine, why not discover the dishes by looking at our pictures…
Things to buy
Bourbon vanilla, the best of the world
As the most demanding palates know, vanilla is highly appreciated and can be used in an infinite number of ways. Thanks to the tropical climate, which is a real breeding ground for this spice, the production of Bourbon vanilla is an integral part of life in Reunion.
The history of Bourbon vanilla from Reunion Island
The origins of vanilla and its use date back to the 16th century, when the plant was first discovered by the Spanish conquerors in South America. When it was imported into Europe a century later, it was an instant success! The taste of vanilla is highly sought after, to flavour all kinds of dishes!
Where does the name “Bourbon” vanilla come from?
Thanks to the tropical climate, the islands of the Indian Ocean quickly became the Mecca of vanilla plantations. With 1,200 tonnes produced in the 1930s, Reunion Island, formerly known as Bourbon Island, alone produced three quarters of the world’s output! The vanilla then became known as Bourbon vanilla, in homage to its origin.
Rum : Ofcourse the local rum also known as ‘Rhum Charrette’
Local handcraft : Artisanal craft shop all over selling local products
Reunion Island is a land of diversity that is reputed across the world for its mixed culture and the harmonious rapport between its peoples. Here in the bewitching heart of nature, populations, traditions and spirituality unite. This mix can be seen and felt throughout the island’s history and in many aspects of the local way of life. It is a melting pot which has left a legacy of festivals and cults now deep-rooted in Reunion’s culture and very much part of the islanders’ lives throughout the year.
Cavadee , Fire Walking, Chinese New Year, Tamil New Year, Deepavali are few of the main festivals
Things the guidebooks don’t mention
A powerful island in terms of energy
Reunion is a powerful island in terms of energy. The Piton de La Fournaise, ranked among the top 5 most active volcanoes in the world, erupts 3 to 5 times a year.
Reunion’s volcano is directly connected to the centre of the earth, so that with each eruption the energy from the heart of the earth is expelled into the atmosphere we breathe. After spending several days on the island, visitors feel a sense of well-being, an incomparable boost of energy.
In my humble opinion, the exceptional way of living together that reigns on Reunion Island is partly linked to this powerful energy in which we live on a daily basis.
Kumari Kandam or Lemuria: the lost continent
Cosmographic myth of this continent which would have been the cradle of all civilisation. Unfortunately, following a cosmic catastrophe, Lemuria (kumari Kandam) disappeared into the deep waters like Atlantis. Today, only Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles are believed to be the remains of this lost continent.
The lost continent of Lemuria is also linked to the legend of Kumari Kandam by speakers of the Tamil language.
A legend also tells that a site in the centre of Reunion Island is the point of origin of all human life, and is also considered to be the navel of the world, the centre of the universe. In this place live “the Silent Ones” They have been walking in its forest “since time immemorial”, long before the arrival of the first inhabitants on the island. Even if their territory is immense, this site, which is kept secret, is for them a sacred place that they call the centre of the Universe….
3 – The Vortex of Etang Salé
Located on the beach of the Etang Salé, this vortex is said to be an energetic emanation of sorts, vibrating at such a frequency that the numerous visitors who regularly visit it identify it as “feminine, gentle, enveloping, regenerating”… The descriptions are legion.
Many people come here to recharge their batteries or to participate in meditation, prayer or healing circles. The history of this vortex is also linked to the lost continent known as Lemuria.
Stephane Bonneau is originally from Metropolitan France and arrived in Reunion Island at the age of 22 for a period of 1 year. 37 years later he is still there 🙂 Reunion Island offers an unparalleled quality of life in terms of climate, culture, outdoor activities, energy and the unparalleled way of living together that reigns here between the different populations. Since a very young age, he has always dreamed of travelling and that led him to working in tourism, occupying the position of international market manager. He loves discovering different cultures, meeting the locals and sharing their lives and customs. Despite travelling all over the world, he always waits to get back home… to Reunion Island.