'It's just a little stone," says the pilot, as our helicopter banks low over the hillside, its shadow beetling up towards the ramparts of the Cirque de Cilaos. "A little rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean."
Some stone, I think, watching the escarpment racing towards us and bracing myself for what lies on the other side. And then all thought disappears – along with my stomach – as we crest the crater rim, like a reef diver over a drop-off, and the land falls away into the depths of the caldera.
Visiting La Réunion is one of those Tardis experiences: on the map, an isolated speck, no bigger than Derbyshire; but on the ground, a looming, Lost World-like immensity. The Cirque de Cilaos is one of three calderas – the vast exploded craters of ancient volcanoes – at the island's centre. To their north looms the Piton des Neiges, an extinct volcano that at 3,070m crowns the island. To the south is Piton de La Fournaise, a still-very-much-alive volcano, as it regularly reminds the locals.
The flight provides the perfect window on to this spectacular geography. As we climb the lower slopes, the apron of development around the coast gives way to greenery – cane fields, geranium plantations, wild tamarind forests – until it reaches the caldera rim. Out to sea, a white guardrail of breakers encloses the turquoise reef that shelters our resort. Where the reef ends, wilder waves batter the rocky shoreline.
But the real drama comes when we flip over the caldera's lip. Inside, walled in by sheer 500m cliffs, I peer down on shadowy canyons and glinting, serpentine rivers. The chopper zips along knife-edge ridges, swings out over yawning abysses, and hovers like a dragonfly in front of bridal veil cascades. Then, up and out, we continue south, flying over the lush, rain-fed forests nestled between the volcanoes, and swinging down to the lava plains of Piton de la Fournaise.
It's an impressive first day on La Réunion. But my wife, 12-year-old daughter, and I have been on the Mascarene Islands for a week already, having made neighbouring Mauritius our first port of call. This, apparently, is the wrong way round. A standard itinerary would have started here, getting the rugged, outdoorsy stuff out of the way before taking a 45-minute flight to kick back in the tropical paradise to the north-east.
In pictures: Mauritius and La Réunion
In pictures: Mauritius and La Réunion
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Whitetailed tropicbird (Mike Unwin)
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The Mauritius ornate day gecko (Mike Unwin)
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Piton de la Fournaise (Mike Unwin)
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Hiking the caldera in La Réunion (Mike Unwin)
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St Louis, Mauritius
But Mauritius, we had discovered, is about more than beaches. The Black River Gorges National Park, in the south, protects the island's last decent patch of native forest and some of its rare native wildlife. A winding, misty drive inland from the expansive comforts of the Lux Tamassa beach hotel had deposited us among mossy, dripping trees, and we had tramped off along a broad ridge trail, enjoying alluring valley vistas through brief rents in the mist. Except for the occasional hardy jogger, this could have been the Mauritius of pre-colonial times, when dodos still roamed the island. And, after losing the trail and bushwhacking muddily back to park HQ, I wouldn't have been surprised to meet the last of those unfortunate fowls.
"Mauritius was made first and then heaven," Mark Twain once said, "Heaven being copied after Mauritius." As we trudged back to our room at Tamassa, trailing mud past beach bar and infinity pool, it occurred to me that the great man may not have tried the hiking.
Fair enough. Much as I'd enjoyed the off-piste adventure, this was a family holiday, not a survival boot camp. And at the Merville Beach Hotel on the north-west coast, our base for the first few days, we'd already enjoyed enough beachfront R&R. A catamaran excursion saw us sipping rum and coke on the stern as dolphins trailed in the boat's wake, and snorkelling over a glittering reef beneath Persil-white tropical birds.
But there's only so much heaven you can take without getting itchy feet. Inland, the island's multi-layered past is embodied in the floral splendour of the Botanical Garden and among the bustling spice markets of the capital, Port Louis.
At L'Aventure du Sucre – a museum built around an old sugar plant – I wandered among the evaporators, and learned everything about the industry that has long nourished Mauritius. Excellent displays explained the island's colonial history – from the Arabs, Portuguese and Dutch, via the buccaneering French, to the English, who in 1810 landed with 70 ships to oust the French and shore up the trade route to India.
Through it all was sugar, enriching (and rotting the teeth of) the colonials, and transforming the island from virgin forest to a carpet of cane. Eventually, of course, we had to sample the wares. While my daughter worked her way through a few sugar tasters, her parents – strictly for research purposes – did the same with a selection of rums. "This one is not for tasting," explained our host, politely, whisking a 25-year-old vintage bottle out of reach.
In the island's quieter east, old French cannons still guard any gaps in the reef that might admit the invading English. We headed south past mangrove-studded bays, picnicked on a breezy hillside – where fruit bats flapped up from their forest roosts like leathery buzzards – and trundled over the old bridge at picturesque Mahébourg.
This last town is the gateway to Ile aux Aigrettes, a tiny coral island that protects some of Mauritius's most endangered endemic wildlife. Our guide, Gianie Clarisse, led us around the quiet trails, spying such rarities as the pink pigeon and Telfair's skink (a lizard). We also met Big Daddy, largest among 20 giant Aldabra tortoises – introduced to replace Mauritius's own endemic giant tortoise, which has long since gone the way of the dodo. "Tortoises propagate the native plants," explained Gianie, as this 90-year-old reptile munched away in the shade. Some of these plants – the likes of oxwood and bottle palm – are as endangered as the animals they conceal.
And so to La Réunion. Some 225km to the south-west of Mauritius, this mountainous island is a French overseas département rather than, like its neighbour, an independent African nation. And from the minute we left the four-lane ring road and hit the busy suburbs of capital St Denis, it was clear that we had – at least in infrastructure terms – moved from Africa to Europe.
The island's beach resorts cluster along the western reef. In St Gilles, a stroll up the beach road from the laidback Hotel Le Recife led us from hypermarché to boulangerie, and past an animated game of pétanque. Were it not for the coconut palms and coral rubble, this could be Brittany.
After dark, though, with the Southern Cross overhead and Afro-infused Maloya jangling from the bars, the island's character began to emerge. The Réunionaise pride themselves on their multicultural melting pot – Indian, African and European all marinated in creole. At La Marmite restaurant, traditional cuisine bubbled in huge black pots suspended over a fire, and we joined the crowd piling their plates with octopus salad, pig's trotters, blood sausage and fish curry – all served up with dollops of rougail, the signature spicy relish of creole cuisine.
The helicopter flight had left us aching to explore what we had seen from the air. We left the coast and wound around the island's dramatic roads: up to Cirque de Cilaos, where we hiked the hair-raising caldera rim; through the dripping rainforests of Foret de Bélouve, where arum lilies glowed moon-white amid the treeferns; and south to the scorched moonscape of Piton de la Fournaise, where we trekked across the Plaine des Sables and discovered that this "sand" was really lightweight, pumice gravel that sparkled with colour.
In the far south we also saw what the volcano is capable of. The last major eruption, in 2007, spread a lava field, 60 to 70m-thick and 1.5km wide, from the summit to the sea, adding 30 more hectares to the island as it settled on the seabed.
There was wildlife, too. Like Mauritius, La Réunion is home to many endemic species. We ticked off such gems as the perky little Réunion stonechat in the highlands and the multi-coloured Réunion ornate day-gecko, scuttling around the tourist office at Manapany in the south-west. And, for a change of scale, we watched humpback whales spouting out beyond the reef.
On another occasion, with more time and decent walking boots, we might perhaps have joined the hardy souls braving the thigh-busting, gite-to-gite hikes into the interior. But on this holiday, beach time beckoned.
Thus our stay ended amid the stylish comfort at Lux Ile de la Réunion, the island's top hotel, where the creole-style villas – all sweeping balconies and open-fronted symmetry – gave on to tropical gardens and a glimpse of reef through the casuarinas. Although the buffet breakfasts defeated any lingering hiking ambitions, we could still head down to the water for a snorkel. On our final afternoon, a magnificent hawksbill turtle materialised from the blue and flippered languidly alongside us: another long-haul visitor drawn to this little rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1260; rainbowtours.co.uk) offers a 14-night tailor-made La Réunion and Mauritius twin-centre holiday from £2,130pp. The price is based on two sharing a standard room and B&B at the Lux Ile de la Réunion and three other Lux properties across the two islands. Includes return direct flights from Heathrow to Mauritius and flights between the two islands, all with Air Mauritius, plus car hire on La Réunion and transfers.
Helicopter flights on La Réunion can be arranged by Lux Ile de la Réunion for £230pp (55 minutes).
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