Reunion Island is a hiker’s paradise! Large parts of the island are covered with dramatic, green mountains, criss-crossed with beautiful stream and dotted with tiny little villages (many so remote that you can only get there on foot or by helicopter). There is a large network of well-marked trails, and plenty of small hostels (called Gîtes in French) where you can have a hot shower, a home-cooked meal, a bed for the night and breakfast at a very reasonable cost.
The mountainous interior of Reunion Island is actually a series of partially collapsed volcano craters, called cirques. This landscape is so unique that in 2010, UNESCO proclaimed the whole area natural World Heritage Site. We opted to hike in Cirque de Mafate (the top left of the three craters).
For six days we traversed the cirque, climbing steep hills, crossing clear rivers, enjoying the most spectacular views and staying in small mountain villages (sometimes not much more than a few houses). It was the most amazing experience!
Our adventure started and ended in the small town Grand-Ilet, to where we got by taking 3 different buses from the capital St-Denis. But this is France, so timetables were coordinated and ticketing a breeze. We spent the night at a place called La Tourte Dorée that was not much more than a few bedrooms being let at an old lady’s house. She was stern and a little scary, spoke no English but cooked like a goddess. Her salted fish and banana flower stew was to die for! The food was great all along, but this was a true highlight!
The villages in the cirques generally serve very tasty but basic, traditional food. In rural Reunion that means rice and beans or lentils with a protein (usually chicken curry or home made pork sausage). Naturally, being an Indian Ocean island, there will also be home made rhum arrangé (rum infused with the house blend of fruits and spices).
Breakfasts, however, were a different story all together. I’ve always been gobsmacked at the way the French revere food (and cook it so well), yet totally fail at breakfasts… I might be able to survive on a baguette and a cup of coffee if I’m going to the beach, but not when I am going to hike for the whole day. Note for those who, like me, need a bit more sustenance: carry a protein powder to make a shake in the morning (but be prepared for curious looks from the Frenchies who just can’t seem to understand why anyone would want anything nutritious in the morning). It’s also worth noting that there is nowhere to buy lunch during the day. The gîtes and the small shops are all closed during the day, with most re-opening at 4pm. We stocked up on sachets of tuna and things like canned bean salads at the village shop every afternoon, and bought a baguette at the gîte in the morning before setting off (let me tell you, after 2 weeks on Reunion Island, I didn’t want to see a baguette ever again…).
We hiked the route Grand-Ilet – Aurere – Grand-Place – Roche Plate – Marla – La Nouvelle – Grand Ilet. If you are after the quiet village life, you might want to give Marla a miss as you get quite a lot of groups doing shorter hikes staying here due to its proximity to Cilaos (which can be reached by car). On the other hand, it was worth the school outing atmosphere for the views from the pass over to Cilaos that we climbed before continuing towards La Nouvelle!
The hiking is quite challenging, with a lot of steep up and down, but the rewards are absolutely amazing! The trails are well-marked, but it’s good to carry a decent map as there is usually more than one trail leading to where you are going (bigger bookshops sell maps called Carte de Randonnée from IGN, which are great). Also, don’t underestimate the time it takes to do the steep ups and downs, and allow yourself plenty of time to cover a relatively short distance. We though the hikes seemed very short when we received our itinerary, but they ended up taking 6-8 hours every day. Do bring along swimwear, as you will most definitely want to cool off in the river when you encounter one. I’d also very much recommend to carry a basic French phrase book (unless you are one of the lucky ones that can actually speak this beautiful but painfully hard language), as the villagers’ English is generally very limited. But with a few basic phrases and a willingness to communicate you can get a long way!
The Reunion Island website has plenty of good information about hiking trails and gîtes along the way.