Reunion Island with the family: Practical guide
18 September 2019
Between Madagascar and Mauritius, an extraordinary island stands out: Reunion Island. Its active volcano, breathtaking cliffs and sparkling waterfalls evoke prehistoric times. Yet its natural resources, turquoise blue beaches and lagoons, as well as the warmth of its inhabitants, make it an ideal destination for a breathtaking family vacation.
Reunion Island and its enigmatic forest roads
- Reunion island in a nutshell
- An adventure destination
- The essentials in the West
- To visit in the center
- The must-see in the Est
- Southern attractions
- Hotels for families
- Kids friendly cuisine and restaurants
- Getting around
- Weather and climate
- Last tips
1 – REUNION ISLAND IN A NUTSHELL
- Capital city: Saint-Denis
- Political system: Constitutional Republic
- Official language: French (and Reunionese Creole)
- Currency: Euro
- Cost of living: close to that of France
- The best time to travel to Reunion Island: from May to October
2 – AN ADVENTURE DESTINATION
- Not far from Mauritus (check out our travel guide for Mauritus), Reunion Island stands out from the other paradisiacal islands of the Indian Ocean by the intensity of the natural experience it offers. Indeed, its two gigantic volcanoes – one of which is the most active in the world -, its canyons and breathtaking cliffs, the beauty of its waterfalls and its green jungle make it an ideal playground for hikers and budding adventurers.
- The majestic massif of the Piton des Neiges (3070.50 m), a volcano that has been dormant for nearly 12000 years, occupies three-fifths of the island and sets the scene for your stay on the island. Its tumultuous history, made up of cataclysmic collapses and large rock avalanches, has gradually eroded it, but has above all caused the formation at its feet of three huge basins in relief, or “cirques”: Salazie in the northeast, Mafate in the northwest and Cilaos in the south.
- Like more than 42% of Reunion Island, these three extraordinary amphitheatre-like valleys are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are undoubtedly the most important attractions on the island.
- On the seaside, the island is a real paradise for divers. All around its periphery, enthusiasts and experts can enjoy magnificent drop-offs, strong current passes, colourful coral reefs and mysterious wrecks.
- The geographical diversity is perfectly reflected in the population of Reunion Island. This virgin land until the 17th century was successively populated by French people from the metropolis, African slaves (the “Cafres”), Malagasy, then in the 19th century by Indian, Tamil and even Chinese people. In the 1970s, Mahorais and Comorians came to settle on the island.
- This particular mix is also illustrated by the variety of religions on the island. All year round, a multitude of religious festivals and singular traditions are celebrated: marches sur le feu (firewalk), Dipavali (festival of lights), Chinese New Year, Guan Di Festival, Cavadee, “Fêt Caf ” on December 20th, “Liberté Métisse” Festival (as part of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery)…
Along the Volcano Route, the “terre de feu” (fire land) meets the vastness of the Indian Ocean
3 – THE essential IN THE WEST
- The west coast of Reunion Island is the perfect seaside resort. Protected from the prevailing coastal winds by the central relief, the luxury hotels stretch along superb golden sandy beaches, and the turquoise lagoon offers itself to you, sheltered behind the youngest coral reef. The perfect place to indulge in idleness, nautical activities, and the most exciting sports.
- To discover marine treasures, go to Saint-Leu, to the Excelsus diving club, which has received the excellence TripAdvisor 2019 certificate. Between October and May, the conditions are particularly exceptional, and whatever your level, a friendly and very professional team will guide you in the deep blue to meet surgeonfish, triggerfish, starfish, and sparkling coral reefs. Itinerary
- The region around the lagoon of Saint-Leu is not only known for diving, it also hosts one of the best paragliding spots in the world. With more than thirty years of experience, Air Lagon Parapente offers you different formulas to launch yourself above the island and contemplate the magnificent landscapes of the west coast, under the gaze of the venerable Piton des Neiges. From the age of 4, your child can enjoy thrills thanks to specially trained instructors. Itinerary
- At the end of June, the streets of the seaside resort of Saint-Gilles-les-Bains are dressed in their most beautiful clothes to welcome the Carnaval de Grand Boucan. Thousands of people in disguise parade around dozens of colourful floats, to the rhythm of wild music, and the fireworks display at the end of the festivities is a real delight for children.
- To enjoy the stunning beauty of the Indian Ocean with your family, we recommend that you visit the Le Grand Bleu Yacht Club. A team of experienced professionals guarantees you unforgettable outings at sea. Aboard a sailboat with a transparent bottom, you will have the opportunity to contemplate fish, dolphins, turtles, and from mid-July to mid-September, the humpback whales that cross the island’s waters. Itinerary
- Join the city of Saint-Paul to discover its famous waterfront market. Its rich stalls are a real delight for the senses. Crafts, clothing, accessories, and an impressive selection of fruits, vegetables and fresh produce await you. Snack in the small shops, soak up the flavours of spices and gather your ingredients to prepare your own delicious juices for children, or rum cocktails.
Beaches of the West Coast, a magnificent playground…
4 – TO VISIT IN THE CENTER
- The Salazie Cirque is the most accessible caldera. It’s in its heart that you will have the opportunity to contemplate the Voile de la Mariée waterfall, made up of a multitude of fine waterfalls on the mountainside. If some trails are forbidden, because they are too dangerous because of the risk of rock falls, be aware that the waterfall guarantees a fabulous spectacle from the road, 1 km after Salazie, towards Hell-Bourg.
- The latter, classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France, was built in 1832 around thermal springs that gradually became known worldwide. Stroll through its colourful alleys, discover in particular the Maison Folio, typical of 19th century Creole architecture, and enjoy its tropical gardens. Itinerary
- Further west, the Mafate Cirque is probably the wildest, with its ramparts of rocky peaks reaching a height of 2000 m, and its exploration is worthwhile since it is only accessible on foot or by helicopter. If treks are demanding for children and you need to plan serious equipment (the temperature goes down winter and summer to around 5°) and basic food, know that it’s possible to make hikes with regular stops and nights in a cottage and that the climb is unforgettable! We recommend that you complete the circuit of the Béliers parking, which passes through Aurère via the Roche Vert Bouteille path, to the Augustave path and the Col des Boeufs. Breathtaking mountain panoramas, forests of tamarind and pine trees, swimming at the foot of the waterfalls… young and old will be delighted.
Cirques exploration is a delight for adventurers
- The sunniest and driest of the three cirques, Cilaos, is also a high mountain village with incomparable charm, combining all the riches of Creole culture and the comfort of a renowned tourist destination. Stop at the Maison de la Broderie, and admire the traditional huts and gardens.
- For an afternoon of play and relaxation, don’t hesitate to take your children to Mare à Joncs, which is a few steps from the centre, and contemplate water hyacinths, papyrus, amphibians, or kingfisher birds, before setting off by boat or pedal boat on the water. Itinerary
- The centre of the island is also the kingdom of the Hautes Plaines. Between Saint-Pierre in the southwest and Saint-Benoît in the northeast, on a plateau of 1000 m high, the only transversal road in Reunion Island is deployed, which is where you can discover an exceptional mosaic of landscapes.
- After crossing the Tampon urban area, go to Plaine des Cafres to discover the Maison du Volcan, in Bourg-Murat. This interactive museum, designed for adults and children alike, with fun quizzes, introduces visitors to the world’s various volcanoes, including the local giant, the Piton de la Fournaise (2632 m high). Itinerary
- The Belvédère de Bois-Court is also worth a visit. From this incredible terrace, you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the Grand-Bassin village, nestled in the hollow of the valley carved by the Sainte-Suzanne River. Souvenirs, delicious local fruits and vegetables are also on offer thanks to the small shops that are typical of the area.
- Then push further north towards the Plaine des Palmistes, and the small town of the same name. The locality is beautiful, offering you many exotic gardens where you can relax with your family. The green city, with flowers here and there, is quite charming.
- The Domaine des Tourelles is a must for anyone who wants to discover Reunion Island’s crafts and heritage. The place is particularly educational, and you will learn as much about the island’s history as you do about its culture or natural resources, thanks in particular to its magnificent fragrant gardens, filled with aromatic and medicinal plants, and its excursions. Your children will be amazed by a walk in the forest along the botanical path, and will be able to express their creativity in the company of passionate craftsmen. Itinerary
- In general terms, the Hautes Plaines is a formidable natural playground, whether it is the Trou-de-Fer, the primary green emerald forest of Bébour-Bélouve, the Piton de l’eau or the Piton Bébour.
5 – THE MUST-SEE IN THE EAST
- If the East coast is a little less touristy and more exposed to the climate’s vagaries (it’s not called the “windward” coast for nothing), it has a major asset: an extraordinary nature relatively spared by urban development. What a joy to be able to picnic with the family, at the foot of the countless waterfalls and natural pools that embellish the region.
- We recommend that you go south of the town of Sainte-Suzanne, downstream of the river of the same name, to discover cascade Niagara. About 50 meters high, it flows into a pool in which swimming is allowed if the flow is not too high.
- For thrills, go to the heights of Bras-Canot, to the club Rando Aqua Réunion, for a water kayak trip along the rivière des Marsouins. Put on your suit, helmet, and vest, and enter one of the oldest canyons on the island, between giant ferns, century-old trees and the huge cliffs that line the shores. Please note that the outing is accessible to children from the age of 8. Itinerary
- Agricultural traditions are well established in the region. Sainte-Suzanne is home to one of the most famous vanilla plantations: the Grand Hazier estate. Dating from the end of the 19th century, it offers its visitors a complete tour of its facilities and is free for children under 10 years old. Don’t forget to bring a little fresh vanilla or a few bottles of vanilla syrup in your bag, it’s a delight. Itinerary
- The influence of the Tamil communities on this coast is amazing. Don’t miss a tour to the many Hindu temples between Sainte-Suzanne and Saint-André, and to the ritual offerings at the sublime Bois Rouge temple. Itinerary
- There are many ceremonies and processions: in December-January, as well as in July and August, spectacular firewalks take place around Saint-André, the Tamil New Year takes place in April, and the great festival of Dipavali and its magnificent lights is in full swing in October.
Kayaking is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful ways to discover Reunion Island’s nature
6 – SOUTHERN ATTRACTIONS
- The south coast is famous for its lively, picturesque and warm atmosphere. Its nature is obviously marked by the whims of the Piton de la Fournaise, which has left long black flows, petrified and grandiose basalt cliffs.
- Saint-Pierre, the largest urban area in the south of the island, has a typical and lively city centre, and its small shops and market are famous. Its white sandy beach and its small, quiet and safe lagoon are the ideal playground for children. 10 minutes from it, there is also the beautiful Grande Anse beach, a perfect place for a picnic.
- The first great culture developed on Reunion Island in the 18th century, coffee production is magnificently presented at Domaine du Café grillé, which, in addition to its delicious Bourbon coffee, cultivates hundreds of species of exotic plants and flowers in its 4-hectare park. A visit to do with a passionate guide, with the whole family. Itinerary
- Further north, and east of La Fournaise – and it goes without saying, outside the eruption periods – you can take the famous “route des laves” (lava route), winding between land and sea, and go to the last caldera formed by the volcano: the enclosure of the Grand Brûlé. Its raw and mineral landscape, as well as its petrified lava flows, offer a striking spectacle. But above all, don’t forget to change your flip-flops for good shoes.
Like the giant, give yourself a little break in the Grand Brûlé’s enclosure
7 – HOTELS FOR FAMILIES
- West: Between Ermitage-Les-bains and Salines-Les-Bains, nestled on the edge of a small lagoon with turquoise waters, LUX* Saint-Gilles ***** is a stylish hotel, which boasts the only direct access to the most beautiful beach on the island: the Hermitage beach. The establishment offers its privileged guests luxurious Creole villas, in the heart of 7 hectares of tropical gardens, and has the largest swimming pool in Reunion Island (1100 m²). After receiving welcome gifts, your children will start a fabulous holiday there. The rooms are spacious, the service is sublime – especially babysitting – and the activities, supervised by passionate instructors, are countless.
- Center: If you pass through Cilaos, and venture towards the Piton des Neiges, don’t hesitate to stop at Bois Rouge, a charming cottage ideally located in the heart of one of the most beautiful mountainous areas on the island, with a breathtaking view of the green hills. The accommodation is typical and comfortable, and the owner will make sure that you enjoy it under the best conditions of your stop in the village. Itinerary
- East: The hotel and restaurant La Fournaise offers you quiet, spacious and comfortable rooms, most of which offer a superb view of the ocean. The good food, the large swimming pool of 100m² with poolbar, the beautiful solarium, and a carefully trained staff guarantee you a very pleasant stay on the east coast. Itinerary
- South: For an intimate stay in a Creole villa, choose Villa Morgane, perfectly adapted to families. The rooms, decorated with wall paintings and precious woods, are warm and welcoming. Located in the middle of a typical garden with a fountain, the villa has a swimming pool, a hot tub, and offers massages by appointment. Itinerary
LUX* Saint-Gilles, a sanctuary dedicated to the pleasure of families
8 – KIDS FRIENDLY cuisine AND RESTAURANTS
- With the mixing of French expertise, Malagasy or African flavours, Indian spices and Chinese weddings, Reunion Island cuisine is a wonderful invitation to a feast.
- As we explained, many markets are a must for anyone who wants to discover the richness of land and sea. They are also the opportunity to taste the delicious “Chinese bouchons” in street-food mode, which are small steamed bites made of pork and shrimp, grilled sea bream or swordfish, or samosas with chicken or tuna.
- Bourbon vanilla is also a must to immerse yourself in the flavours of the island. But to find it, favour local factories, because paradoxically the one you will find in the markets is Malagasy. Combined with mango, coconut, papaya or Queen Victoria pineapple (which is really the star of local fruits), it will make a real hit with your children.
- Some events are worth a visit. If you visit the Cilaos cirque in mid-October, don’t miss the ten days of festivities celebrating the local lentil festival – which is apparently the best in the world – the celebrations are worth a visit.
- As for restaurants, from the simplest bistro to the most beautiful gastro, the choice is enormous, and the welcome is always warm.
- For a family dinner, both traditional and gastronomic, go to L’Orangine. Located under the roof of the LUX* Saint-Gilles ***** hotel, this intimate place (40 place settings maximum), run by a chef who has studied with Thierry Marx, is undoubtedly one of the best on the island. Lobster carpaccio with cane sugar, handmade papaya spring rolls, or artisanal cinnamon-honey ice cream, everything here is delicious. To enhance these dishes, you also have a choice from an exceptional list of French and New World wines. Itinerary
- If you are looking for a family and typically Creole cuisine, l’Auberge du Relais in Saint-Leu is for you. The owner is very friendly and you can easily enjoy a rougail sausage, a “boucané ti-Jacques” (made from jackfruit and smoked pork), or fish curry. Itinerary
L’Orangine, a refined table to enjoy a meal by the water
9 – GETTING AROUND
- Reunion Island is fairly well served by public transport, especially on the coast. Curiously, six different networks offer buses: one for the coast, and the others for the mountains. So be sure to check it out before you take your tribe on board.
- It’s very easy to rent a car in all the major cities, as well as in the two airports: Rolland-Garros in the west, and Saint-Pierre Pierrefonds in the east.
- To go on an adventure, a van is also recommended, and since there are toilets and water points almost everywhere on the island, it’s a very possible mode of transport with children. The Yescapa site offers, for example, the rental and exchange of such equipment between private individuals.
- To fully enjoy Reunion Island, both for a complete tour of the island, as well as for descents into the cirques, don’t hesitate to choose the helicopter, you will not regret it! For example, this operator has everything you need to enjoy extraordinary moments.
10 – WEATHER AND CLIMATE
- The austral winter is certainly the best time to fully enjoy Reunion Island. The dry season, from May to October, has coastal temperatures between 18°c and 26°c. The rainy season, from November to April, is most of the time to avoid unless you live in total self-sufficiency in a hotel on the west coast.
- If the sunshine is around 10 hours a day all year round, be aware that mercury obviously drops with altitude and that it’s common for temperatures to drop to a minimum of 0°.
Well equipped, you will spend your holidays in complete peace
11 – LAST TIPS
- The tropical sun can hit hard, and the skin turns red in no time. To protect the whole family, don’t hesitate to bring sunscreen with a maximum protection factor (50 SPF+). We have made a very useful comparison on this subject.
- Hats and sunglasses are also required. To keep your baby in style while protecting his fragile eyes, here is a selection of suitable glasses.
- If you are embarking on a hike in the centre of the island, and although people are welcoming, don’t forget to bring food for a day or two, as well as bottled water. If there are many sources and torrents, it’s not advisable to soak your lips in them. Warm clothing is also mandatory, given the drop in temperatures with altitude. Finally, to encourage your toddlers during the small climbs, don’t hesitate to offer them some sweet rewards… this should motivate them 😊
- If Reunion Island cuisine is succulent and marries sweet/sour flavours perfectly, it can also include beautiful spicy touches. The little ones being more sensitive to it, it will be good ensuring that the dishes are not too spicy during your meals.
- You will find among our advice articles travel checklists for babies from 1 day to 3 years old, toddlers from 3 to 6 years old and children from 6 to 12 years old: pyjamas, toys, plasters, mosquito repellents, swimwear, floatation devices or after-sun care… Everything is there!
- To conclude, your trip would probably lack a little magic if you didn’t master these few funny Creole words:
- Hello – bonzour
- Goodbye – bay
- Please – siouplé
- Thank you – mèrsi
- Salt cake or candy – bonbon (banana, chilli pepper)
- What is it? – kwélafé ?
- How are you doing? How are you? – koman i lé ?
HAVE A GOOD TRIP!
Jean-Philippe, 34 years old, musician passionate about travel, from Brussels, Belgium