In the northwest of Reunion, La Possession is between the main harbour at Le Port and Saint-Denis, the capital. Your attention will be turned to the island’s forest trails, and you can walk to colonial-era quarantine stations or make the tough expedition to the colossal Mafate volcanic cirque.
But one of special things about Reunion’s leeward side is that a lot of the grandest scenery is accessible by road: There are waterfalls and tropical sandy beaches a few minutes away by car, and you can drive to an observation point to view the mighty Piton des Neiges. Meanwhile Saint-Denis on the north coast is waiting for a more sedate day out, and has many of Reunion’s best historical monuments and museums.
Lets explore the best things to do in La Possession:
1. La Grande Chaloupe
In an isolated ravine between Las Possession and Saint-Denis is an intriguing site that harks back to the 19th century.
At this time Reunion was still a French colony (rather than a legitimate department), and while slavery was abolished in 1848, indentured servitude continued long after.
La Grande Chaloupe was a lazaretto, a maritime quarantine, for indentured people arriving from the Indian subcontinent.
The dormitories and infirmary are still standing, and have an exhibition about the site, with displays of artefacts discovered here and at a second lazaretto a kilometre upriver.
A big chunk of the Mafate valley lies inside La Possession territory.
Mafate is an immense extinct volcano caldera belonging to the Piton des Neiges.
On Reunion it’s a goal for the hardiest hikers who set off on epic quests to see the towering basalt walls of its cirque.
Amazingly there are little villages in this place, almost totally cut off from the rest of the island.
From La Possession you could drive to the village of Dos d’Âne to begin your trek.
3. Chemin Crémont
Plotted as early as 1730, the Chemin Crémont is a walking trail that links the town centre in La Possession with the upland village of Saint-Bernard.
This is in the La Montagne district, a little way west of Saint-Denis.
The trail is invigorating, skirting the cliff edge and beckoning you through deep gullies like La Grande Chaloupe.
The large basalt cobblestones that you’ll step on were laid in 1775, and this is also the path taken by British invaders when they took Reunion during the Napoleonic Wars in 1810.
4. Le Port
Neighbouring La Possession, Le Port is harbour town that can’t really be compared to any other in France.
That’s because in one place there’s a ferry port, naval base, container port, fishing harbour and tourist marina.
The naval base is the third largest in France, with six ships docked here, and if you want to spot some military machinery you can wander down to the docks to see what you can find.
There’s also a good market in Le Port, Le Marché Sous Piedboi, which trades on Wednesday mornings.
5. Whale Watching
On the west coast of Reunion you’re perfectly placed to get close to whales and other wildlife.
The main season for whale watching is between June and October when humpback whales are in these waters after making the long trip from Antarctica.
In this time you can head to Le Port for a cruise or down the coast to one of a number of vantage points like Cap la Houssaye to try to spot them from land.
If you’re here outside of humpback season then many varieties of dolphin inhabit the ocean, while sperm and fin whales are regular visitors.
6. Rue de Paris, Saint-Denis
The Rue de Paris is the most distinguished street, not just in the city of Saint-Denis, but all of Reunion.
From La Possession town it’s a 15-minute at most, and deserves to be seen for its palatial colonial mansions and government buildings.
These mix European Neoclassicism with a Creole twist, featuring verandas and painted walls.
The most impressive are on the west side, and include the former bishopric, the old town hall, the Maison Carrère.
Also look out for the Villa Déramond-Barre, birthplace of the one-time French Prime Minister Raymond Barre.
7. Musée Léon Dierx
It’s only right that the Rue de Paris should also have Reunion’s most distinguished cultural institution.
In one of those fabulous colonial mansions, formerly the home of the Bishop of Reunion, the Musée Léon Dierx has paintings, graphic arts, prints, sculpture, photography and applied arts donated by the island’s wealthy art lovers and dealers.
The permanent exhibition is strong by any standard, with pieces by Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, Redon, Maurice de Vlaminck and Caillebotte.
These works are alongside paintings by noted Creole artists like Antoine Roussin and Adophe Le Roy.
8. Parc du Colorado
The place where tourists and Saint-Denis’ citizens go to relax and be active, the Parc du Colorado is set 300 metres above sea level in the La Montagne district.
It’s a slice of Reunion’s wild upland scenery in a family-friendly package; there are children’s playgrounds, big grassy spaces, picnic tables and an lookout gazing over Saint-Denis and the ocean.
The Parc du Colorado can also be your launch pad for outdoor activities as horse-riding, hiking and mountain biking trails all begin here, and there’s a nine-hole golf course up here with green fees of just € 15.
9. Cathédrale de Saint-Denis
Reunion’s only cathedral is another adorable colonial-style building from the 1800s.
Although the building was inaugurated in 1832, it didn’t take on its current appearance until the 1860s when the handsome portico and pediment were added.
Also installed around this time was the cast iron fountain out front, which was bought and shipped here from the Ducel foundry in Touraine in mainland France.
One of the most infamous episodes in Reunion’s past occurred here in May 1946 when the politician Alexis de Villeneuve was assassinated a few steps away on the what is now Rue Paul Vergès.
10. Cimetière Marin de Saint-Paul
In a very romantic location next to a volcanic beach with black sands is a cemetery that goes back to when Reunion was an altogether more lawless place.
It’s the resting place of a number of pirates, among whom is Olivier Levasseur, who was hanged in 1730 and whose treasure, the Trésor de La Buse is still being hunted.
Levassuer is joined by more reputable burials, like the Parnassian poet Leconte de Lisle.
He had been born on Reunion in 1818 and, as was his wish, his remains were back here after he died on mainland France.
11. Plage de Boucan-Canot
Reunion’s west coast is the best for beaches.
Many of these have pristine white sand rather than the volcanic black sand of the south.
As for the water, this can be a touchy subject.
Reunion has been prone to attacks by tiger sharks, but the Plage de Boucan-Canot is the first on the island to put up a net and there have been no reports since then.
There’s also a small, man-made lagoon for swimmers.
Surfers love Boucan-Canot for its rolling waves, and if you’d prefer the comfort of the beach it’s a piece of paradise.
There are palms, volcanic cliffs and a chain of bars for cold drinks.
12. Plage de l’Hermitage
A few hundred metres down the coast is a very different but no less beautiful beach.
Where Plage de l’Hermitage contrasts with Boucan-Canot is that it’s protected from the ocean by a long barrier reef.
This keeps the waves and currents out (as well as predators), leaving a large lagoon that you swim and snorkel in.
The temperature ranges between 22 and 30°C, and you’ll sight rays, turtles and brightly-coloured tropical fish like the idol of the moors.
The beach is skirted by woodland with Australian pines and bayhop flowers.
13. Le Maïdo
There are easier ways to see Mafate than on tough mountain expeditions.
The air tourism industry in Reunion is thriving, and there are operators piloting you over Mafate in light aircraft and chopper.
But if you’re on a budget you should drive to the observation point on the peak of Le Maïdo.
Leave early to avoid the clouds and allow some time on this twisting mountain road.
Driving through tamarind forest and geranium plantations you’ll work your way up to a peak of more than 2,000 metres.
Pack a picnic and to contemplate the stupendous views in your own time.
14. Bassin des Aigrettes
The steep, rocky landscapes and abundance of rivers gives rise to lots of waterfalls and cascades on Reunion.
Normally you have to go the extra mile to hunt them down, but there’s one just down the road in Saint-Paul that is effortless to get to.
The Bassin des Aigrettes is a waterfall with gossamer shafts of water plunging into a clear deep blue pool.
Sadly you can’t swim in the water because of the risk of rock-falls, but that won’t stop you getting some photos to share with jealous friends on facebook.
15. Maison du Coco
When Reunion was settled in the 17th and 18th centuries the island was quickly valued for its fertility.
These volcanic soils support large crops of sugarcane, vanilla and coffee, as well as spices like turmeric and all sorts of fruits.
On the way to Saint-Leu there’s a coconut plantation in seven hectares.
You’ll visit in the same way you would a winery; there’s a tour of the farm, and you’ll be talked through the peculiar, one-off botany of the coconut.
This one fruit has a crazy variety of uses, whether it’s craftwork from the husk and leaves, cosmetics or food.
You’ll have the chance to taste a range of coconut products at the end, when there’s oil, milk, candied coconut, coconut sugar and coconut sorbet.