Reunion Island was once a little volcano under the Indian Ocean. That volcano later surfaced and eventually became a wildly beautiful and green island. Not as well known as its neighbours, Mauritius and Madagascar, it is an overseas region of France. It has the same laws, same currency and the kind of people you could well meet in Paris.
The language is French Creole and visitors from the mother country flock there for holidays. They love the tropical beaches, alpine climbs, ancient forests, verdant sugarcane fields and breathtaking canyons.
As Ben Dark discovered, there's more to Reunion than just beautiful beaches. Many people go there to head above the clouds into the 3000m-high mountains. It's a favoured outing for cyclists, but not our Ben. He chose to drive!
Six months ago, getting around Reunion was a long journey, going from village to village, but the French government has provided a wonderful new highway along the west coast. What would have taken three hours now takes just 30 minutes. It has opened up the island for locals and tourists alike.
The east coast has the best beaches and surf breaks. At St Leu, one of the quieter stretches, Ben met Australian Mick Asprey. He discovered Reunion 35 years ago has never left. He's been running a surf store there for 20 years.
Mickey Rat Surf Shop is dedicated to the art of surfing. It has more than 300 surfboards including longboards, funboards, bodyboards and stand-up paddles as well as surf accessories.
Mick says the best thing about St Leu is the surf. He ranks its waves in the world's top 20. He lives life like a born and bred local and is a warden for the island. There's no Australian consulate on the island, but he's the kind of man Australians should contact if they need a hand.
Just 10 minutes further on, Ben arrived at Grand Hotel du Lagon on l'Hermitage Beach, one of the island's most beautiful. The island's only five-star hotel, it's on seven hectares of tropical gardens, filao trees and coconut palms. All 166 rooms and eight suites have ocean views and terrace or balcony. The 23 elegant Creole-style villas face the island's only lagoon. The majestic colonial lobby has special pieces created by designer Philippe Starck.
There's a great choice of restaurants and bars. Enjoy a simple beach meal or a romantic candlelit dinner and everything in between. There's somewhere for every mood and taste.
All that and add the island's largest pool, tennis court, badminton, kayaking, gym and massage, a stay at Grand Hotel du Lagon sounds pretty special.
Travelling east to west Ben reached Reunion's biggest attraction Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world's most active and accessible volcanoes. Known locally as "Le Volcan" it regularly and spectacularly spews red lava. In 2007 it erupted 3 million cubic metres of lava which flowed for seven months. There's a 10km path at the southern end of the island created by the eruption.
A winding road between the craters of two volcanoes takes you to the caldera for a good look at the monsters. The Church of Piton Sainte-Rose was in the path of the lava flowing in the 1977 eruption but it stopped right before its entrance. It was rechristened Church of Our Lady of the Lava.
The road continues to St Pierre and takes you right through the lava path. Seeing the remains of previous eruptions it's not difficult to imagine rivers of molten lava flowing from Le Volcan.
St Pierre is an energetic waterfront town. It has lots of little beaches, parks, boardwalks and a promenade. Bars and restaurants make it lively and it's a lovely place to enjoy an evening drink as fishermen return to the jetty with their catch.
There are two markets in St Pierre. One is held every Saturday morning and sprawls along the seafront. The other is during the week under a hall in the town centre. People bustle about buying fruit, vegetables, spices, local specialties and regional handcrafts. It's best to go early to avoid the heat.
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St Pierre Cemetery
Cemeteries are always good places to learn about the history of a place. Across the road from the markets, the St Pierre cemetery has the grave of 19th century African sorcerer and bandit Le Sitarane. It is a popular pilgrimage destination for Reunionnais who believe in black magic.
Reunion Island off the east coast of Africa.
Reunion & Beyond has five-night packages starting at $990 per person twin-share. They include accommodation at the Grand Hotel du Lagon, return airport transfers, breakfasts and full-day guided tour to the volcano, including lunch.
Air Austral has two flights a week to Reunion Island from Sydney starting at $1150 return. Sales and validity dates and conditions apply.
Prices correct at October 7, 2010.
For further information
Reunion & Beyond
Ph: 1300 362 166
Mickey Rat Surf
24 Rue Barrelier
St Leu 97436
Ph: +262 347 900
Grand Hotel du Lagon
28 Rue Du Lagon
97434 St Gilles-les-Bains, Reunion
Ph: +262 262 700 000
Boulevard Hubert Delisle
Ph: +262 262 352 221
Visas: Not required, but passport and return ticket are.
Electricity: 230V at 50Hz using plugs with two round pins.
Time zone: GMT +4.
Currency: The euro.
International dialling code: +262.
It is recommended travellers to Reunion Island see their doctor at least six weeks before departure. Travellers should be "in date" with vaccinations listed on the Australian immunisation schedule, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B and tetanus. Travellers may also be at risk of malaria depending on the time of year of travel. For further information, visit www.smartraveller.gov.au