In Reunion’s Sud Sauvage “Wild South”, Saint-Joseph is a region with black sandy beaches on its coast and scenery inland that will leave you lost for words. Two rivers course through the area, the Langevin and the Rivière des Remparts, both essential in their own way.
The Langevin is a tropical idyll with waterfalls, cascades and pools, while the Rivière des Remparts is a volcanic beast with dark basalt walls that climb hundreds of metres above the water. And Saint-Joseph is right at the gates of the Reunion National Park, a World Heritage Site with volcanoes, epic cirques, canyons and moonlike plains scarred by lava flows.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Joseph:
1. Piton de la Fournaise
Out of all the life-changing sights in the Reunion National Park, one landmark stands above the rest: The Piton de la Fournaise is one of the planet’s most active volcanoes.
There are at least 20 hiking routes around its summit taking you to scenes of unfathomable power.
From Saint-Joseph the best option is to wake up long before dawn and to drive to the Pas de Bellecombe.
If you’d prefer not to drive these winding mountain roads in the dark you can also spend the night in the lodge at the pass.
The hike will take several hours, but you won’t complain when you witness the sun rising over the caldera.
2. Cascade de Grand Galet
The Langevin River flows north to south, descending from an elevation of more than 2,200 metres to the Indian Ocean in just 18.3 kilometres.
So its course is punctuated by many waterfalls and cascades, and this one is absolutely spellbinding.
Just next to the Route de Grand Galet road you can park up and contemplate this cascade of little gossamer falls against a basalt cliff with tufts of vegetation.
The cascade feeds several pools where you can jump in for a swim, and there’s a picnic area by the water.
3. Nez de Bœuf
To see a lot of the jaw-dropping natural wonders in Saint-Joseph by road you actually have to leave the area to the west and then come back in on the sensational Route du Volcan from Bourg-Murat.
The journey is like nothing you’ve seen in your life, and one of the first landmarks is the 2136-metre mountain the Nez de Bœuf.
From here there are perfect vistas of the primordial cliffs lining the Rivière des Remparts far in the valley below.
If you’re an experienced hiker you can even trace the river’s epic canyon from the coast in Saint-Joseph, but this is not an excursion to take lightly.
4. Cratère Commerson
Any visit to Reunion’s La Fournaise Massif has to take in this gargantuan abyss, which itself is an ancient caldera.
The Cratère Commerson is on the road to the Piton de la Fournaise, a couple of minutes after the Rivière des Remparts.
You’ll be able to park up and step onto this viewpoint installed right above the mouth of the hole.
This crater was caused by an eruption of almost inconceivable force 2,000 years ago, blasting a mass of rock 200 metres wide by 120 metres deep into the sky.
One of the ocean-front communities in Saint-Joseph is Manapany, which has a gorgeous pebbly bay fringed by palms.
This is where the annual Manapany Surf Festival goes down.
The dangerous currents and threat of tiger sharks occasionally get the surf events cancelled.
But across a couple of days there’s a packed line-up of musicians playing reggae, Creole music, funk and jazz.
Manapany is also somewhere to come for a swim as there’s a lagoon of crystalline water ringed by a man-made seawall.
6. Jardin de Vandas
Reunion has 120 orchid species from 30 different genera.
And what’s fascinating is that most of these would have ended up on the island after their seeds, weighing micrograms, were carried from Asia and Madagascar by tropical cyclones.
This garden Rue Léon Heaulme has all of the species occurring naturally on Reunion, and many more from around the world.
There’s an outdoor and indoor space with a greenhouse, and you’ll get more out of a visit with a guided tour by the owner who will relay his passion for this mystical plant.
7. Marine Langevin
Where the Langevin enters the Indian Ocean, an ancient lava flow has formed a convenient landing stage.
This has been used by cargo boats and fishers for hundreds of years and has a small corridor in the rock leading down to the water.
The only problem is that the coast is battered almost constantly by waves, which makes coming ashore difficult even in clear weather.
If you’re wondering how the local fishers manage it, be here at around one in the afternoon on a calm day when teams of men hoist the vessels up the ramp from the choppy waters.
8. Jardin de Parfums et des Epices
Soon after colonisation, Reunion’s flatter coastal plains were coated with plantations for coffee, sugar cane and vanilla.
But there are also thriving crops of spices and perfume plants, as you’ll discover at this bewitching garden.
The attraction is about 15 minutes from Vincendo on the N2 and has vetiver and ylang-ylang flower, along with cloves, cardamom, vanilla, as well as curcuma and ginger roots.
Accompanied by a guide you’ll learn how each species was imported to Reunion and cultivated here.
And in the shop you can pick up a fragrant or spicy souvenir to take home.
9. Maison du Curcuma
Another aromatic day out, the Maison du Curcuma nestles in the Plaine des Grègues, a mini cirque west of the Rivière des Remparts.
This is a family-run plantation growing the curcuma root, which is described as Reunion’s answer to saffron and creates the turmeric spice that is a staple of Reunion’s Creole cuisine.
You can explore the plantation, dicovering how the root is processed into a powdered spice as you go.
And at the end there’s a “Cave Aux Épices” where a variety of intoxicating spices and essences are for sale.
With its waterfalls, basalt gorges and pools, the Langevin River can be a playground for diving, climbing and sliding down cascades.
This is all safer than it sounds because on a canyoning trip you’ll be wearing a helmet, lifejacket and neoprene suit.
And there’s a growing number of operators with qualified guides driving you up to the best locations on the river and encouraging you to jump off cliffs and hurl yourself down waterfalls, in the best possible sense! A few companies based around Saint-Joseph are Canyoning Langevin, Aquasens, Alpanes and Pranaventure, most of which will record your adventure for you to download or take home on a memory card.
11. Lava Tunnels
The more recent eruptions at the Piton de la Fournaise have forged subterranean arteries around Grand Brûlé to the southeast of the island.
And, as with the river canyons, there are plenty of businesses waiting to lead you on a quest through these tunnels.
The experience will depends on how brave you feel: There are long, tall hollows that you can walk through easily enough and are open to people of all ages, but many companies also offer trips down more confined spaces, where you’ll be on your hands and knees and squeezing through narrow gaps for up to four hours.
12. Marine Vincendo
During cyclone season between November and May you can get down to this large black sandy bay.
When there’s clement weather you’ll want to laze under the screwpine trees and dip your feet in the shallows.
Swimming isn’t recommended on the south coast’s beaches as the currents are strong and there have been quite a few shark attacks.
But that doesn’t take anything away from the otherworldly beauty of these black sands and the cliff behind, cloaked by tropical vegetation.
13. Plage Ti Sable
Indeed, swimming is prohibited everywhere on the coast apart from the lagoons sheltered by seawalls or natural reefs.
So despite their allure the local beaches are often free of tourists, and you can have paradisiacal bays like this in Saint-Joseph one to yourself.
There’s fine black sand under dark cliffs that are coated with greenery.
And while the currents make it impossible to wade into the ocean, you can amble along the wash or sit back on the sand and soak up this dreamy tropical scene.
14. Sightseeing Flights
Reunion is a small island, only 63 kilometres long by 45 wide, but its canyons, cirques, mountains and volcanoes make road travel onerous.
If you need to see the sights but don’t want to drive tortuous mountain roads, a helicopter or plane flight is a genuine alternative.
The Pierrefonds Aerodrome is 25 minutes from Saint-Joseph and a wide range of companies based there provide tourist “overflights”. The island’s small area puts all island’s dramatic sights in range, including the Cirque de Cilaos, the Cirque de Mafate, the extinct Piton des Neiges volcano and the Piton de la Fournaise.
15. Creole Cuisine
Reunion’s citizens are a diverse bunch, with large communities of people with African, Chinese, Indian, Tamil and of course European heritage.
Blend that cosmopolitanism with the spices and tropical fruits and vegetables and you get a tantalising cuisine taking inspiration from everywhere.
Samosas are quick street food, a pastry filled with meat or vegetables and deep fried.
And main courses are usually rougail or cari meat or fish cooked in a spicy tomato-based sauce similar to Indian curries.
Sugar cane is grown all over Reunion, making rum that is often infused with tropical fruit like lychee, pineapple or mango to create delectable punches.