La Réunion: A flavour of France in the Indian Ocean

This far-flung outpost of the EU combines striking volcanic terrain with saintly coastal towns and smart holiday resorts, says Nick Boulos

Marie-Claude Thomas waited patiently beside her white picket fence. It was grocery day in the hamlet of Cayenne and the delivery man was due any moment. She listened for his arrival. Not for the sounds of a van pulling up on the driveway but for a helicopter swooping above. For Marie-Claude and the other 19 residents of Cayenne – deep in the Cirque de Mafate mountains on the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion – everyday life presents some challenges.

Accessible only by foot or air, Cayenne is one of 10 Creole communities whose supplies are served by the weekly chopper from the capital, St Denis. "Everything was transported by cows in the past. It took them three days to cross the mountains," said Marie-Claude.

Following one of the 100 trails that lead deep into Mafate, it took me just three hours to reach the tiny cluster of blue homes. The only other foot traffic came from two young boys who skipped by with chickens under their arms. Relatively few British visitors come to La Réunion. A slice of France 800km east of Madagascar, it's the Indian Ocean getaway for those seeking adventure ahead of luxury.

Governed by Paris since 1815 (after a five-year spell of British rule during the Napoleonic Wars), it is the most far-flung outpost of the European Union. It feels intrinsically French in everything from the language to the road signs, although the volcanoes, tropical climate and Creole influences stir things up a little.

Cayenne was all but deserted when I arrived, though signs of life were evident. There was a clanking of pots from behind twitching net curtains; a freshly lit candle gleaming from the white tin hut that was the local church; front doors were left open. "Everyone used to live simply like this but things have changed. Cayenne has remained untouched because it's so cut off," said my guide, Christophe.

Surely things would be better with road access? "Absolutely not," scoffed Marie-Claude. "A road would bring too much development and too many people. There were plans to build one in the 1980s but we protested against it."

The helicopter that did eventually land in Marie-Claude's garden was our ride back. Lifting off with Marie-Claude's wind chimes and floppy ferns thrashing wildly, our scenic spin of La Réunion's Unesco listed interior took us soaring through chasms and above the cirques of Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate: colossal cauldrons created by the collapse of old volcanoes about two million years ago. I couldn't help but hum the theme music from Jurassic Park.

All around were verdant and vertical walls, thrusting skywards to form jagged pitons crumpled together tightly. Appearing ominously through the gathering clouds was the summit of Piton des Neiges, the highest in the Indian Ocean at 3,070m.

Slaves fled to these formidable peaks in the 19th century but the island's first residents were a group of French convicts deported from Madagascar in 1642. They settled in St Paul, surviving on a diet of turtles and wild birds. As our chopper descended, the vibrant hues of green draped on the cliff faces drained as more heavy clouds rolled in, as they do almost every afternoon. The east coast bares the brunt with more than 300 days of rain a year while the west, shielded by the mountains, receives barely a 10th of that.

As a result, most of the resorts are concentrated in the west. In a drive to lure visitors away from Mauritius – just a 45-minute flight away – hotels have been spruced up and innovative new experiences introduced. The LUX* Ile de la Réunion is an impressive property with direct access to L'Hermitage beach, a 6km strip blessed with a lagoon rich in marine life.

Formerly the Grand Hotel du Lagon, the rebrand saw the 174 Creole-inspired rooms given a new lease on life and a new "theatrical" approach introduced. Some elements are a little contrived – namely the "secret bar" (a tree trunk carved into a drinks cabinet that's wheeled to a different location every night) – but others are novel and rather charming. Take the beachside ice-cream parlour, for instance. Not only are the flavours both homemade and delicious (try the passion fruit) but on the counter of the pink-and-white striped shack sits an old rotary telephone where guests can phone home for free. There's just the one condition: calls to the office are strictly forbidden. Elsewhere, films flicker under starry skies and messages in bottles hidden around the resort award free massages and champagne.

The next afternoon, I met up with kayaking guide, Julian. Unlike normal kayaks, his had transparent bottoms allowing a fresh perspective of the underwater world. Sea cucumbers sat motionlessly on the seabed like giant black slugs. Multi-coloured fish darted in and out of coral that resembled chickens feet with electric blue tips. I rested my paddle and glided silently, spellbound by the world beneath.

The pace picked up considerably the next morning on a 4x4 tour of the island led by local nature enthusiast Vincent. First stop: Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace) – more commonly referred to as Le Volcan. Having spewed and spouted more than 100 times in the past three centuries, most recently in 2010, it's one of the world's most active volcanoes. Its basalt slopes form the south-east of La Réunion, but we were heading to the caldera.

Bucolic scenes of pine forests and cows grazing on meadows took a sinister turn as we inched towards the crater. A Martian landscape of dusty plains peppered with abstract rock formations took shape and the temperature dropped steeply, from 26C at sea level to a chilly 9C. Visibility at the top was close to zero. Thick fog swirled in the fierce wind, which ended all hope of staring deep into the heart of the volcano, so we turned back and cruised along the road that circles the island.

Blackened lava deserts flashed past the open window, sweet smells from the roadside vanilla stalls drifting in. Towns appeared fleetingly, among them Ste Rose and St Joseph. "All the coastal towns are named after saints," said Vincent. "It's good protection against cyclones."

Lunch was served in the hills above the Basse Vallée at Gîte Théophane & Yoleine, the home-turned-guesthouse of Jim Begue. On the menu was lamb cari (a Creole curry cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices) and copious amounts of Jim's homemade rum infused with lychees, cinnamon and lemongrass picked from the garden. "It's a secret family recipe," said Jim, gazing out towards the sea.

My favourite stop of the day, however, had nothing to do with the views (though they were splendid enough). Waves pounded the volcanic cliffs at Ravine d'Ango, a quiet bay outside St Philippe, while a constellation of silver grains sparkling in the black sand hid a secret deep within.

Buried here, according to legend, is a bounty of untold riches. Olivier Levasseur – the fearsome eye-patch wearing pirate who stalked the Indian Ocean – was sentenced to death in St Denis on 7 July 1730, but had one final trick up his sleeve before meeting his maker. From the gallows, he hurled his necklace containing cryptic instructions to the ground, challenging the assembled crowd to find his haul of diamonds, pearls and the golden Flaming Cross of Goa. Many came looking but all left empty handed, discovering – as I had – the many other treasures of La Réunion.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Return flights to La Réunion via Mauritius with Air Mauritius (020 7434 4375; airmauritius.com) cost from £860.

Staying there

Doubles at LUX* Ile de la Réunion (00 262 262 700000; luxislandresorts.com) start from €182, room only.

Visiting there

Scenic helicopter flights (00 262 262 555555; helilagon.com) start from €85.

Transparent kayaking (00 262 692 307474; kayak-transparent-reunion.fr) costs from €39.

A day's guided treks with Christophe Bourgeois (00 262 692 094860) from €100.

4x4 island tours (00 262 692 865226; kreolie4x4.com) cost €100, with lunch.

More information

La Réunion tourist board (00 33 140 750279; reunion.fr).

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