The tiny capital with a population of 315,000 is a real melting pot of culture and not to be missed. Half a day is sufficient to see the sights, so I'd recommend the following order... morning walk along Rue de Paris to view the old colonial houses, followed by the Victory Column, which has a backdrop of the town hall, then onwards to the Cathedral of Saint-Denis (despite currently being renovated). In the afternoon, I'd recommend a walk along the waterfront past the old cannons and palm trees, as well as checking out the monuments of of Roland Garros, the Statue of Mahé de Labourdonnais and The Monument of Free France. For a panoramic view of the capital, take the winding road up to Belvedere des 3 Bancs.
Notre Dame des Laves
Located on the east coast of the island is the catholic church of Notre Dame des Laves, which sits at the foot of an active volcano. This is a very special spot where the term "miracle" is often used. Since the 17th century, there's been more than 100 eruptions, although it was in 1977 when the "miracle" took place. The mountain rumbled and the lava flow head down the mountain, however, it miraculously parted at the doors of the church heading straight into the Indian Ocean. The entire lava field surrounding the church does back up this theory, along with photographic images inside the church, although I guess it's down to the individual to make up their own mind.
One of the true highlights during my trip was definitely the lava tunnels on the east coast. Firstly, I was unable to join a tour, as all of them were full, so book in advance. I entered the tunnels anyway, as a guided tour is not mandatory. They're easy to enter as there are large rock boulder steps to assist, along with some information signs explaining the formation of the tunnels following an eruption back in 1998. The smooth lava flow patterns along the cave walls are fascinating, as well as the trails you can follow. If decide to head into the caves, worth noting that a phone light won't get you further than 5 metres, so you'll need a head torch. Note: Don't make the same mistake I did, so make sure you book a tour in advance of your trip!
Grand Galet Waterfall
Located within Reunion National Park and standing at a height of 45 metres is the beautiful Grand Galet Waterfall. Okay, so there's many waterfalls across the island, but this really is a stunning spot and better yet, can be reached via car. The road is fully paved, although there's one steep bend, where many vehicles struggle if there's no power behind the wheel, although you can easily park up and walk. The falls are full flowing with a crystal clear water pool at the bottom. There's plenty of space on the viewing deck to take unobstructed photos and listen to the roar in full flow.
Viewpoints of Takamaka & Belvedere
There's many viewpoints across the island, but there's two that really stood out to me. Takamaka is an easy drive along paved road, with a simple 200 metre walk from the car park. The views are panoramic landscape of dense green mountains combined with the silver ribbon of multiple waterfalls. There is a small power plant at the site, but this does not detract from the beautiful views on offer.
The second spot is Belvedere de Bois Court which is a viewing platform in the centre of the island just above the town of Le Tampon (can combine with the volcano museum). The green piton mountains here are breathtaking across the horizon as you gaze down on a small village up in the hills. If you look closely, you can actually look down and see Grand Galet Waterfall. Note: The GPS pins for both spots show up on GoogleMaps to take you directly to the viewpoints.
Being an island, Reunion is surrounded by beautiful coastline with many picturesque beaches scattered in different directions. There's white sand beaches, pebble beaches, and also fine black volcanic sand. The two best beaches I visited were Grande Anse Beach in the South, and Plage des Roches Noires located on the West. It's not warm Indian Ocean water like The Maldives, but beautiful all the same. Note: If you continue along the N2 road from the lava caves heading south east for approx 15 minutes, you'll reach the volcanic bridge pictured below.
Whilst majority will focus on Saint-Denis, I can recommend Saint-Paul as a secondary city worth checking out. The vibe itself is same-same, but there's a nice waterfront with a pier, some street art, old colonial buildings, and the biggest market on the island every Friday. There's a fine black sand beach just before the pier, as well as cycle paths which will lead you all the way to the Marine Cemetery. The major draw here is the grave of the legendary pirate "La Buse" alias Olivier Le Vasseur, as well as other notable pioneers.
For a small island, there's plenty of accommodation options available, ranging from hotels to local guest houses. I was contemplating booking nights in different towns, but decided to use Saint-Denis as a base, purely due to the small size of the island. I chose Le Terracotta, which is essentially an apartment rental in the city centre and offers complimentary parking. I wanted to be able to walk round the capital without needing to drive, as well as having an easy exit point to explore the island. This set me back $100 a night, so was comparable to nearby hotels, although some of their either had no parking at all, or an expensive daily fee. worth noting that the host Cedric was very responsive answering my questions via the message portal.
There were some great restaurants scattered around the island offering both local, French, and international cuisine, but one that really stands out is La-bas Ter La in Saint-Paul. The menu is via chalk board, so changes daily depending on the fresh ingredients available. I went for a starter of fresh sushimi, followed by fish fillet with locally produced vegetables, with both dishes being delicious. The venue also caters for vegetarians and comes in at approx 30 Euro per person for two courses.
I feel a guide isn't essential to explore the island, but a car definitely is. There's a whole range of both local and international rental companies on the airport doorstep, but the prices ranges massively. I usually use Sixt, but they were a long way behind the pricing of local company Multi Auto, who I eventually booked with. I chose a small vehicle based on cost and this was perfectly sufficient for island exploring. The only time I had an issue was en route to Grand Galet Waterfall due to the vehicle power being insufficient for one of the hilly turns. Some notable local companies for excursions are as follows: -
Lava Tunnels Tour - Reunitours.com
Scenic Helicopter Tour - Corail (mine was cancelled due to weather)