On the leeward side of Reunion, Saint-Leu is a somewhere to get in touch with the island’s abundant nature. There’s a sanctuary for sea turtles, a botanical conservatory and rocky promontories on the coast. You can go underwater to see tropical fish, or watch whales and dolphins breaching above the waves and. And along the shore there are surf beaches battered by Indian Ocean’s swells, and placid lagoons where the water is transparent and warm.
Reunion is known for its stupendous volcanic landscapes, and you’ll approach the formidable Piton des Neiges and Cirque de Mafate on the Route du Maïdo road, which climbs more than 2,000 metres in just a few kilometres.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Leu:
1. Conservatoire Botanique National de Mascarin
Reunion’s bountiful plant life is revealed at this three-hectare park in Saint-Leu.
The conservatory is free to enter and was gradually built up in the 80s and 90s.
It fulfils an important botanical research role, but for you and me is somewhere to be dazzled by Reunion’s natural splendour.
In this one garden there are 4,000 plant species that are endemic to Reunion and the regional islands of Rodrigues, Madagascar and Mauritius.
These are organised into sections, by orchids, bamboo, succulents, palms, orchards, agricultural crops and Reunion’s indigenous flora.
There aren’t many tropical animals that capture the heart and imagination like the sea turtle.
And Saint-Leu has an aquarium and research centre dedicated entirely to this creature.
There’s a 500,000 litre tank, fed by sea water, allowing you to observe turtles swimming and interacting with each other as they would in the wild.
Then there are galleries charting the impact humans have had on sea turtles and what the future holds for them.
Outside you can see the experts at work, caring for sick and injured turtles before they’re released back into the ocean.
3. Musée Stella Matutina
The sugar industry was big business on Reunion in the 18th and 19th centuries, and 200 years of this activity is remembered at this former refinery.
At its peak the refinery was the fed by a 85-hectare plantation, and has kept a lot of its gigantic machinery.
The museum reopened in 2015 following a complete renovation, and now takes you on a complete journey of the sugar industry on Reunion.
There’s a 400-seater auditorium and a 4D cinema.
You’ll see how the sugarcane plant changed life on the island, and get to know the enormous cast of people, from humble to wealthy, who powered the industry.
4. Maison du Coco
There might not be a food with a stranger biology than the coconut, which is grown across swathes of Reunion.
At the Maison du Coco you can get to grips with the coconut, visit a seven-hectare plantation and find out about the many applications of this fruit and tree.
You’re invited to take part in a workshop, weaving items with palm fronds, learning the delicate art of opening coconuts and tasting a host of coconut products: There’s oil, milk, coconut water, candied coconut, coconut sorbet and coconut sugar.
Of course there’s also a shop with oils, soaps and every other item you’ll discover on the farm.
5. Route des Tamarins
The Route des Tamarins is a highway that opened in 2009 and courses down the west coast of the island.
If you’re wondering why a highway should be an attraction remember that you’re on Reunion, where the natural scenery is always awesome.
So on the route there are views of the ocean from the hillsides and you can peer down into 120 different gullies crossed by soaring viaducts.
And if you’re keen venturing into Reunion’s primordial forests you can use the Route des Tamarins to get to places like Le Tévelave to begin your quest.
6. Route du Maïdo
The most direct route into Reunion’s national park is on the road that weaves up to a volcanic peak at an altitude of 2,200 metres.
You may never take a more memorable drive than this, packing a picnic and then switching back and forth through tamarind forest and geranium fields to arrive at a marvellous lookout.
At the summit you’ll be presented with a scene that could be in a fantasy movie, where the enormous Mafate Cirque opens up in front of you, with titanic walls of rock and peaks in the distance over 3,000 metres.
Park up at a picnic table for a quiet moment of awe and then you can dart off down a walking trail towards far flung villages and neighbouring peaks.
7. Église du Sacré-Cœur de Saint-Leu
This church, made of volcanic stone, was commissioned by Sosthène de Chateauvieux, the same man who owned the estate where Saint-Leu’s botanical conservatory now sits.
He was born in mainland France and married into Reunion’s powerful Desbassayns family, who we’ll encounter a little later.
The church was built quickly around 1860 during a cholera epidemic, and is set on a beautiful promontory which would be worth the trip alone.
In 1996 it was named an official French national monument and in 2010 it was fitted with 60 new stained glass windows, fashioned in Marseille.
8. Marché de Saint-Leu
Saint-Leu’s local market has a glorious location on the oceanfront road.
There’s a rather small but charming assortment of stalls selling handicrafts, fresh tropical fruit and vegetables, as well as Creole specialities made on site.
There are also homemade pickles to go with curry and aromatic spices like vanilla.
For a bit more choice and more street food you need only head a few minutes up the road to Saint-Paul.
This is arguably Reunion’s best market, trading on Fridays and Saturdays.
If you’ve got an appetite you could come just for the food trucks frying up samosas, Chinese-style dumplings, potato cakes, deep-fried cod balls and making the island’s satisfying pains bouchons gratinés sandwiches covered with melted cheese.
9. Plage Saline-les-Bains
One of the best beaches for swimmers on Reunion is only 10 kilometres up the coast from Saint-Leu town.
Plage Saline-les-Bains is parallel to an offshore reef that buffers the ocean and its violent waves.
So the water here is clear, shallow and warm, and is couldn’t be better for swimming and snorkelling.
There are also places along the beach where you can hire a paddleboard or kayak to head out and see more of the lagoon.
For those who just want to laze on the beach, the sand is bordered by palms and Australian pines, and you’ll never be more than a few steps from a bar.
10. Pointe au Sel
Something that never ceases to amaze in Reunion is how the coastline can change in a few hundred metres.
South of the town of Saint-Leu the seascapes get very stark and forbidding.
This is the Pointe au Sel, where waves crash against the headland’s volcanic rocks.
Further in, the cape’s strange savannah plant-life and frangipani trees are safeguarded as a natural park.
And the headland’s name comes from its historic salt farm.
This is the last one to be found on Reunion, and has been harvesting salt with the same methods since 1942. There’s a salt museum and shop where you get a pack of artisan salt to take home.
11. Le Souffleur
This natural curiosity is both very pleasing on the eye and a lot of fun: Le Souffleur is a blowhole, right on the coast at Saint-Leu.
Below the waterline the lava has cooled to create a natural funnel through the rock.
When the ocean hits these rocks it forces a jet of water up the shaft, blasting it tens of metres into the air.
If you’re a budding photographer you’ll be very taken with this spot.
Try to catch the jet from the right angle, when the spray forms a little rainbow.
In from the coast Saint-Leu is on a long steady slope, and this topography, combined with the ocean breezes makes it Reunion’s paragliding hotspot.
This activity becomes essential when you realise just how much there is to see from the sky in Reunion.
In tandem with an experienced glider you’ll take off from a hillside perch and circle from land to ocean.
Up here the cobalt blue of the ocean and the lush greenery of the tropical vegetation are even more bewitching, and for drama the Piton des Neiges and Mafate peaks hover in the distance to the east.
Daredevils can also try some light aerobatics as they’re lifted by the currents.
Saint-Leu is one of the top spots for divers on Reunion as there are big numbers of sea turtles, dolphins and tuna in these waters.
The time to get here for his activity is in the summer, between October and June, when the water is warm and the trade winds are low.
Water temperatures peaks at 30°C in December and January and the visibility is as its best in these months.
One several superb sites in the area is the ocean just off the Pointe au Sel.
There’s a mighty 70-metre drop-off below the waves, and giant trevally and tuna glimmer in the water, while dolphins may join in to see what you’re up to.
14. Whale Watching
And from June to October meanwhile, you’re better off above the waves if you want to see some astonishing marine life.
As for these five months, humpback whales migrate to the ocean off the west side of the island.
Sometimes you don’t even need to leave land to spot them as you can stop at a headland like Pointe au Sel with a pair of binoculars.
If you do want to get closer there are companies offering cruises, and these are governed by all charters and regulations so you’ll be happy to know that you’re not messing with their habitat.
The rest of the time fin and sperm whales are occasionally sighted, and several dolphin species are here all year round.
15. Musée de Villèle
If you’re fascinated by Reunion’s past, the Musée de Villèle cuts to the core of plantation life in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The centrepiece is a sublime colonial mansion, which might be a Mexican hacienda or something out of Gone with the Wind.
The estate, owned by the Desbassayns family, spreads out over 10 hectares and was once dedicated to sugar production, as you’ll see at the preserved factory on the site.
And there’s a more poignant history in the form of an old slave hospital.
The mansion’s interiors are adorned with period furniture and decoration, giving you a complete cross section of Reunion life, from the very rich to those who literally had nothing.