Country guides Africa
The island of Réunion is a tiny bit of France with a tropical twist. Situated 500 miles (805km) east of Madagascar, and nicknamed 'l'Ile Intense', Réunion is a dramatic, mountainous paradise created and shaped by volcanoes. The scent of vanilla, stretches of black and white sand beaches, forest-covered peaks, rugged valleys, gushing waterfalls and an incredibly diverse and friendly population make this an idyllic destination.
Réunion is first and foremost an alluring tropical getaway, but its interesting mix of cultures and peoples adds another interesting element to the island. Indeed, the history of Réunion island is reflected in its people. The Portuguese stumbled across the unoccupied territory in 1513, but it was the French who descended in 1646 and really made their mark. French exiles and colonists, Malagasy slaves, Chinese indentured labourers, Indians and Pakistanis have subsequently created a rich melting pot of cultures, as well as contributing to the creation of the island's most widely spoken language, Réunion Creole.
Réunion was hard hit by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as it lost significance as a stopover on the East Indies trade route. To this day it relies heavily on France for financial support. Its main industries are the cultivation of sugarcane, rum, vanilla, geranium oil for perfumes and, unsurprisingly, tourism. Although inequality and the resulting socio-economic strife is an occasional concern for locals, for the most part, everybody seems to get along fairly well on this beautiful island, with a heartening bonhomie shared between the many different racial and religious groups.
The island is home to one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes, Piton de la Fournaise, and has three major cirques (amphitheatre-like craters): Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. This rugged topography, in many cases overgrown by lush forest, provides breathtaking scenery and world-class trekking and canyoning with many waterfalls to admire along the way.
The interior is home to small mountain villages and rich birdlife, and the lack of commercial development is refreshing. The island's beaches are also worth writing home about, the black volcanic sands at Etang-Sale being particularly remarkable. The beaches are lapped by the warm Indian Ocean, and the abundance of underwater creatures makes snorkelling a delight. The popular St Gilles-les-Bains offers classic palm-fringed shores on a wide lagoon and Saint Leu boasts wonderful surfing.
As if all this natural splendour wasn't enough, the unusual cultural melting pot of Réunion ensures travellers can sample delicious creole cuisine, and revel in the island's unique music and dance offerings, while still enjoying a little taste of French sophistication.
Travellers who seek a rich, textured island experience deep in the heart of the Indian Ocean will do well to pay Réunion a visit.