La Réunion’s the little Indian Ocean island between Madagascar and Mauritius. Almost half covered by a UNESCO World Heritage national park, it has one of the world’s most active volcanos, white sand beaches, coral reefs, Creole villages and seaside cities.
Why isn’t it as well known as the neighbours? Romance is not the selling point here: the atmosphere’s laid back, outdoor adventure is a big attraction and it’s part of France, so French families like to keep its subtle charms to themselves. But they’re more than happy to share, if you’re discerning enough to choose La Réunion for a family holiday.
La Réunion National Park covers over 42% of the island and contains Piton de la Fournaise and Cirques du Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie.
Piton de la Fournaise is one of the world’s most active volcanoes alongside Stromboli, Etna, Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea and Mount Erebus in Antarctica.
La Réunion’s French overseas territory and direct flights from Paris all year round take just under 11 hours.
La Réunion’s dramatic interior is covered in walking, hiking and cycling trails and even the famous Piton’s accessible – if it’s not erupting.
Réunion Riviera’s beaches and pretty seaside resorts stretch for over 40km along the island’s sunny, sheltered west coast.
La Réunion’s temperatures are seldom lower than 27˚ year-round with heaviest rainfall between November and February. Best time to visit is from April to September – always busiest the first two weeks in August: traditional French summer holiday fortnight.
Less developed and crowded than nearby Mauritius, La Reunion’s generally less expensive too.
Where to go
La Réunion National Park
The island’s leeward side is where to find sun, sand and seaside towns packed to bursting with water sports, kids activities, seafood restaurants, pretty cafés and resort hotels. It’s the busiest area, especially in summer, but a short drive (or cycle) in any direction and you’re in the middle of magnificent wilderness in no time at all.
Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains is the west coast’s main town and the place for white beaches, larger resort hotels, lively restaurants and activities from whale watching to deep-sea fishing.
Pretty Saint-Leu is more traditional with historic French colonial architecture and family-friendly beaches. Good for mid-range hotels, it’s also a mecca for divers and has one of the island’s loveliest lagoons.
L’Hermitage-Les-Bains is famous for beautiful Plage de L’Hermitage, coral reef snorkelling and luxurious beachfront hotels.
Don’t miss: Jardin d’Eden; Oasis Lagoon waterpark; Kélonia turtle conservancy; La Réunion Aquarium; Plage de Roches Noir and Plage de Boucan Canot.
The capital of La Réunion is a small French city with a Creole soul. Good for a lazy day breather from the rest of the high-outdoor-excitement island. But don’t expect international museums, galleries and monuments. Instead, just enjoy the pretty colonial architecture, admire grand mosques and churches, stroll along the elegant prom and shelter from the very un-French sun at pretty waterfront cafés.
La Réunion National Park
Covering over 42% of the entire island, it’s almost impossible not to come into contact with La Réunion National Park at some point. A protected environment since 2007 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010 it’s where to find Piton de la Fournaise and Piton des Neiges, the Cirques de Salazie, Mafate and Cilaos, cloud forests, rainforests, spectacular waterfalls and mountain villages steeped in traditional Creole culture.
Visit Hell-Bourg with its graceful Creole mansion houses and gorgeous, lush gardens against a backdrop of soaring peaks and dense tropical forest. It’s said to be the most beautiful town in La Réunion.
Walking and hiking trails in the national park are well-marked and graded by difficulty. If you’re unsure about going it alone, several local companies have guided day and half-day treks suitable for families and kids.
You really know La Réunion is France when you see the number of picnic tables and shelters tucked into the most scenic spots. Stock up on baguette and fresh fruit at local markets and take advantage of them.
Have your al fresco lunch at La Roche Marveilleuse, a classic hike and one of the best views over the Cirque de Cilaos – you can drive too.
Don’t miss: the little villages of Bé Mahot and Îlet-à-Vidot; Cascade de la Voile Mariée (bride’s veil waterfall); a picnic by Rivière du Mât; Basin de Cilaos cloud forest.
What to do
Museum of Music and Instruments of the Indian Ocean, Hell-Bourg One of the most comprehensive collections of historic African and Asian musical instruments in the world and another reason to visit Cirque du Salazie.
Whale Watching, Nosy Boraha Migrating Humpback Whales are a familiar sight off the coast of Nosy Boraha between June and September.
Andasibe-Montadia National Park One of the country’s most accessible parks and the best place to get up close to large Indri Lemur and spot their tiny opposite number, Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, on nocturnal guided walks.
Lemurs’ Park, Antananarivo A short drive from noisy and hectic Antananarivo (Tana), Lemurs’ Park is a peaceful haven protecting nine species of Madagascar’s legendary primate.
Berenty Reserve, South East One of the most popular parks in Madagascar, Berenty’s known for easy hiking trails and huge population of people-friendly ringtailed, sifaka and brown lemur.
Kirindy Mitea National Park, Morondava The little park to get close to ‘dancing’ Verraux sifaca lemur and see the famous Avenue of Baobabs.
Horse Riding, Nosy Be No experience necessary to see the beaches and beautiful Nosy Be countryside on horseback.
Snorkelling, Nosy Tanikely Close encounters with Hawksbill, Green and Leatherback turtles round Madagascar’s pristine coral reef.
The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, Antananarivo The royal palace complex, 25km from the capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Madagascar’s best preserved monuments.
Grotte d’Anjohibe, Mahajanga There are countless caves on Madagascar but the majority are inaccessible or dangerous to visit (high-risk of crocodiles). Anjohibe is the country’s only show cave and can be seen as part of a guided tour with older kids.
Educational value for kids
Madagascar’s geographical evolution is unique and it’s one of the very few country’s in the world where almost all plant and animal species are indigenous.
Superior primates wiped out native lemur everywhere except Madagascar, so this is the only place to see these charismatic creatures in their natural habitat.
National Parks all over the country have well-marked hiking trails and taking at least one guided walk is fascinating for kids.
Older kids love rainforest night walks and most lodges on the edge of national parks can arrange these for you.
Many Malagasy tribes all over the country still live in traditional communities and benefit directly from eco-tourism. Appropriate and sensitive visits to villages, local markets or cultural events can be arranged by most recommended hotels and lodges.
Madagascar’s a good country to get to know on a family volunteer holiday.
Visit London’s Natural History Museum before you visit Madagascar for some background on the country’s unique environment, indigenous species and evolution – more involving than online research.
Getting around with kids in La Réunion
Walking, hiking, climbing and cycling are as natural in La Réunion as sunshine, blue seas and spectacular scenery. But if you want to explore the island from end to end, and you should, hire a car. Most of the national park is accessible by road and driving around coastal towns and villages is an experience not to be missed. You’ll also want to see the wild and wonderful south of the island in your own time and that’s easiest by car.
If you’re driving, keep an eye on the weather and watch for updates on famously temperamental Piton de la Fournaise.