In Saint-Pierre on Reunion’s south coast you’re within touching distance of places that need to be seen to be believed.
You can venture to a volcanic caldera, natural amphitheatres with enormous basalt cliffs, waterfalls, ravines, lava tubes and an otherworldly plain that could be on Mars.
Such is the weight of awesome scenery in the region that a helicopter flight is a reasonable way to see it all.
Closer to home is a pretty and prosperous town with some colonial architecture and a fragrant market on Saturdays.
Locally you can tour coffee plantations, learn how rum is distilled and go swimming with dolphins.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Pierre:
1. Domaine du Café Grillé
To understand Reunion’s rich botanical story come to this coffee plantation that abounds with the exotic and endemic plants growing on the island.
The distinction between the two categories is quite important, and a keen horticulturalist will be interested to learn which of Reunion’s plants were brought over by humans.
Knowing this will give you a new perspective on colonisation, growing the crops like coffee that were introduced to the island for cultivation.
There are vanilla crops, sugar canes, pineapple and guava trees, more than 200 varieties of palm and an array of orchids to see.
Finish up by tasting the many coffees picked here.
2. Saga du Rhum
Inside the oldest family distillery on the island, the Saga du Rhum is a museum devoted entirely to Reunion’s rum.
You can choose between a guided or independent visit, the difference being that you can ask questions if you’re a rum aficionado.
But by yourself you can get a lot of the information from the detailed panels shedding light on the sugar cane and distillation.
And as with any distillery there’s a bar where you can try Reunion’s various rums for free at the end.
You might be surprised by the range, and this includes “agricultural”, “traditional” and infused rum, or varieities that have aged in the cask for different periods.
3. Piton de la Fournaise
There are no two ways about it: If you set foot on Reunion you have to come to the Piton de la Fournaise, which is among the world’s most active volcanoes.
It will be a day you won’t forget.
You need to allow a lot of time, and the going can be heavy, but the trail is well-signposted and even provides estimated journey times to the various landmarks on the volcano.
Early-risers are best rewarded here, and a lot of adventurers get up in the wee hours to climb to the top of the crater and watch the sunrise.
It’s one of those things you’ll be bragging about for the rest of your life.
4. Cité du Volcan
Before or after your life-changing experience on the Piton de la Fournaise you may want some background on the science of this monster, as well Reunion’s the other colossal volcano, the Piton des Neiges.
The museum is a simple drive north of Saint-Pierre and is loaded with child-friendly interactive displays and high-tech multimedia: There’s a “4D” cinema, a 270° panoramic screen, augmented reality and holographic projections, all unveiled when the museum came through a restoration in 2014. You can also study interactive maps that show exactly how volcanic activity shaped Reunion.
5. Terre Sainte
On the opposite bank of the D’Abord River from the centre of Saint-Pierre is the city’s fishing quarter.
It’s a neighbourhood of tight alleys with colourfully-painted weatherboard houses, and behind the beach are terraces shaded by gnarled banyan trees.
In the afternoons locals come to benches to play boisterous games of cards and dominos overlooking the harbour and reef.
And if you stop by a bit earlier in the day you can watch the fishing boats returning and unloading on the quays.
6. Marché Forain
If you’re in need of a real Reunionais present to take home or want to try Reunion’s awesome street food, get to the market at the “Ravine Blanche” on Saturdays.
Self-caterers can visit to stock up on local fruit, fresh fish, meat and cheese.
There are also lots of gift-worthy delicacies like honey, jams, vanilla, packets of spices and kits for infused rum, as well as all sorts of handicrafts.
And while you mill around you might be enticed by the food stalls grilling chicken and making samosas or stuffed peppers.
7. Local Beaches
Reunion’s coast is battered by the Indian Ocean, and this can make beaches for bathing quite scarce.
Shark attacks are also a hazard, but Saint-Pierre stands out as one of the few places you can bathe safely.
That’s because the waves break on a reef a hundred metres or so from the shore, creating lagoons of crystal clear water beside low-shelving beaches.
Plage de Saint-Pierre is the best of these and has a mixture of sand and rocks by the shallows where children can play in perfect safety.
8. La Fenêtre des Makes
Another excursion that needs to be done early in the day is the trek to this perched lookout, known as the Fenêtre des Makes.
It’s in the Saint-Louis commune by the village of Les Makes and sits 1,587 metres above sea level.
The vistas will blow you away and comprise the astounding Cirque de Cilaos and the Piton des Neiges volcano.
If you’re up for the hike you can walk it along a trail from the Chemin Dépot just off the RN5, or just drive up the D20, which snakes up the mountainside.
Whatever you do, set off first thing to experience the view before the clouds roll in around midday.
9. Plaine des Sables
The Route Forestière du Volcan is a road like no other, weaving into an environment that resembles nothing on earth.
One of the strangest places is the Plaine des Sables: This bare and flat expanse was caused by a series of cataclysmic collapses tens of thousands of years ago, forming a flat space with reddish, bronze soil devoid of any features except for the colossal peaks and cliffs that encircle it.
When the fog descends there’s no telling where you are on this vast plain, so it’s best to stick to the road and see the landscapes from the car.
10. Air Adventures
Reunion is that rare destination where a plane trip is a sensible choice if you want to see the best of the phenomenal landscapes.
Not everyone is up for gruelling hikes, and by car the winding mountain roads can put many of the natural wonders hours away.
The good news is that Saint-Pierre is just next to an aerodrome where there’s a range of companies waiting to whisk you off to view the volcanoes and cirques from the air.
Choose from big selection of flights, and rest assured that the pilots are constantly on top of the weather forecasts to make sure your trip isn’t spoiled by cloud cover.
11. Canyoning Trips
This activity is a blend of climbing, abseiling and diving, and is the most practical way to see the marvellous cascades and river gorges minutes away from Saint-Pierre.
Canyoning companies like Alpanes, based just outide Saint-Pierre, will kit you out with a wetsuit, helmet, harness and neoprene socks.
You’ll be all set for all-day or half-day adventures sliding down waterfalls, jumping into transparent pools and venturing into caves, all in total safety.
The choice of trips on offer may make your head spin, and your guide will be wearing a Go-Pro camera the whole time to record this once-in-a-lifetime experience for you.
12. Lava Tubes
Here on Reunion’s south coast you’re in a handy position to explore the lava tubes, which are long, subterranean cavities that have been described as the “veins of the island”. The best location for these is called Le Grand Brûlé, on the southeast slope of the Piton de la Fournaise made barren by occasional lava flows rolling down to the ocean.
These excursions are led by qualified guides, so there’s no danger.
But you’ll get frissons to know that you’re walking through caves created by eruptions as recent as 2004. On the way the guide will point out examples of perimorphosis in the cave walls, where an incinerated organic object like a tree has formed a hollow space in the cooled lava.
13. Whale and Dolphin-Watching
No fewer than 22 different types of cetaceans inhabit the ocean off Reunion at different times of the year.
June to September is sperm whale season, when these beautiful giants migrate down to the warmer Indian Ocean waters from the Atlantic to mate and give birth.
Usually the ideal places to see them are on the west coast, around the Bay of Saint-Leu.
There are boat trips, but often you can sight them from land on the Barachois coastal road.
Blower dolphins and pantropical spotted dolphins are in these waters at any time of year, and diving schools can take you out to swim alongside them.
14. Jardin des Parfums et des Épices
Reunion’s bountiful plant life is also condensed at another superb attraction an easy road trip from Saint-Pierre.
This garden will almost overwhelm the senses with its massive plantations of perfumes and spices like vetiver, ylang-ylang, clove, vanilla and cardamom.
They are mixed with varieties of ferns, orchids, palms and all kinds of tropical fruit trees.
You can visit by yourself, but will get a bit more insight on the tour, and in the right season the guide will pick fruit right off the trees for you to taste.
Reunion’s people have heritage from China, India, East Africa, Madagascar and France, so you can be sure that Reunionais food is an enticing blend influences.
Given the ample spices grown here Creole cooking is usually hot, and many main courses are curries and stews borrowed from the Indian subcontinent and served with Indian-style pickles.
Chop suey is a clear hint of the Chinese accent here, and the classic appetisers are samosa and chicken croquettes, also favourite snacks at markets.
To go with it all you’ve got those rum punches, made with lychees, mango, pineapple and any number of other tropical fruits.