- Reunion is located in the Indian Ocean, 1,300 miles off the east coast of Africa
- The all-action French territory ignites a sense of adventure in those who visit
- But with Mauritius half an hour away, its glitzy tonic should also be experienced
For such a small island – it’s the size of Dorset – Reunion makes you feel tiny. No wonder the French snapped it up in the 17th century.
In the Indian Ocean, 1,300 miles off the east coast of Africa, it is the EU’s very furthest outpost.
It shares a bloodline with Mauritius, 140 miles away. Both burst into existence from the same volcanic hotspot, their mountainous hearts a reminder of violent beginnings. But they couldn’t be more different.
Using our headlamps we duck dripping stalactites. Are we traversing a centuries old cave? No. It’s the same age as Alexis: 31.
Hidden across Reunion, these lava tunnels form when the crust cools around a flowing core. They are the work of Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Adventure calls: Waterfalls and deep abysses give this small island a feeling of grand-scale
Back in daylight, we bound over fields of solidified lava, like wrinkled elephant’s skin, broken only by the crowns of trees poking through their basalt tombs.
Another volcano, lurking underwater off the coast, causes strange deep-sea fish to float, ready cooked, to the surface. But as we hike up to the breezy clifftops above Grand Anse beach, I spot the spout of a blue whale.
Reunion isn’t only a showcase for nature at its most impressive, it also delivers a flash of France. In Saint-Pierre, on the south coast, yachts are moored and anglers in striped jerseys are fishing. ‘Our capital is Paris!’ our driver declares. I daren’t say it’s actually Saint-Denis.
Cuisine is, inevitably, a fusion – and a tasty one. The samosas I buy from Saint-Paul market are filled with ‘poisson et fromage’, and a typical lunch is vanilla-curried duck. In true French style, we drink wine with lunch. Like true Creoles, we bookend each meal with rum.
From the town, it’s a winding 90-minute drive up to the rainforest of Cirque de Salazie, one of three collapsed volcanoes, which, along with La Fournaise, engulf the island’s center. Mist rising from the canopies is an atmospheric backdrop to the pastel houses.
Swish: Lux* Saint Gilles, one of Reunion’s most luxurious resorts, is a great place to recoup
Dive in: It has the biggest pool on the island and a coastline where its safe to swim
Returning to my resort, Lux* Saint Gilles, is a treat after the day’s adventures and every evening I swim in the ocean.
Luckily, Lux’s white beach is on a coral-protected lagoon, so unlike most of Reunion’s shores, it’s safe to swim. Those mighty swells, which attract world-class surfers, are shark infested.
Attacks are rife. Alexis has been face to face with a bull shark. Did it put him off?
‘Non! I’m an addict,’ he says. With two surfers killed in the past year, the sport is now banned everywhere apart from two beaches, which are rigged with nets.
Mauritius, on the other hand, basks safely behind a protective and far-reaching barrier reef. The pace of life is gentler here, the landscape more forgiving. Along the shore-line, hedonistic five-star resorts vie for attention like birds of paradise. For my visit, I stay at Lux* Belle Mare, on an exclusive eastern stretch.
Mauritius’s finest: Lux* Belle Mare is sedate by day, but there’s a party atmosphere at night
Unwind: Flop on its brochure-perfect beach, or go snorkeling around the coral reef
By day, I cycle past fishing villages and fields worked by women in tropical skirts, or snorkel then snooze on the hotel’s pristine beach. Evenings are more energetic. One night I join a troupe of Mauritian Sega dancers, who teach me to ‘swish’ to each slap of the drum.
Pack your walking boots and your party shoes for these two wildly different, but wildly wonderful, islands.