Reunion is a French island east of Madagascar, about 30 miles across. We flew into St. Denis on the northern coast and drove through St. Benoit on the eastern side, then inland to La Plaine-des-Cafres. The island is effectively split by two volcanos. The mighty Piton de la Fournaise, the peak of the furnace, has erupted every couple of years in recent times and is one of the most active in the world. Further north are the remains of an older one that has long since blown out, leaving behind three smashed circles or cirques.
The volcano defeated us three times. On day one our ascent was thwarted by heavy cloud and rain coming in sideways. We had to be content with peering down the 380 foot Commerson crater, driving across the potholed moonscape that is the Plaine des Sables, and pausing for a view all the way down to the sea. Two days later it was still not visible, and a planned helicopter flight over it was called off. Even from the base it remained shrouded in cloud.
Cilaos is at the centre of one of the cirques, and it takes a one-hour drive up the valley to get there, navigating around 400 hairpin bends in the process. This is not a route for the faint-hearted, but the rewards are worth it – amazing views of sheer cliff faces and a unique town at then end of it, surrounded by vertical cliffs. The clouds roll off them like waterfalls, providing a stunning backdrop. Hiking down to La Cascade de la Bras Rouge in great scenery culminates in a dip in a charming rock pool.
The Palm hotel on the south coast at Grand Anse provides plush surroundings and the chance to see whales, but offers horribly overpriced food. The most vivid volcano encounter comes on the south-east corner of the island, where half a dozen lava flows can be examined. The most recent at Tremblet is still steaming, with super heated air wafting out of vents everywhere. Looking up at a massive flow like this gives a flavour of how the mountain is very much in charge of the island. They have to rebuild the road every time it erupts, oozing pahoehoe lava like rope and destroying everything in its path.
Reunion is a beautiful island with rugged and desolate parts merging swiftly into well-developed French influenced towns. Few people speak English so you need top be able to speak French to make yourself understood.