One of the things that makes Reunion Island so magnificent is the fusion of French culture and island life. The colonial buildings and sidewalk cafes are reminiscent of Paris, but the beaches and tropical climate give-off some serious island vibes.
Being part of France, Reunion Island offers all the western comforts that are often hard to come by in remote island destinations. Roads are good, buses are on time, safety is of little concern and you don’t need to worry about hockers or beggars on the beach. The catch? Along with western conveniences, come western price tags. Reunion Island uses euros and the cost of living aligns better with France than with the surrounding Indian Ocean islands. That said, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your trip.
Colonial roots and classic French flare create an ambiance that is distinctly unique to Reunion island
Make the most of public transport
Although, I have to admit, Reunion is an island that screams road trip, travelling via public transport is actually very easy and a good way to save a bit of coin. The bus lines are easy to navigate. They run frequently and offer extensive routes covering just about every destination on the island. Best of all, a single ticket won’t put you back more than €2 (less if you think ahead and buy in bulk). The Car Jaune is the main bus line, with routes running the circumference of the island. A number of separate companies service the island’s interior, but all buses depart from the same stations so it’s easy to plan your journey without serious delays. Buses are modern and clean with extra-large windows, perfect for snapping travel shots! You can pick up timetables at any info center, the station or online.
Remember that Reunion is a small island so no matter what method of transport you choose, you won’t be spending too much time in transit. I traveled exclusively by public transit and found I was able to reach all my destinations easily. In the cirques the extensive bus lines are particularly useful as they run to either end of just about every trail. This means that by leaving the car behind, you can complete a one-way hike then hop on a bus to the next trail head, avoiding a steep return ascent back to your car.
Even way up in the Cirques the road’s are good and buses run frequently
Reunion Island offers some excellent dining although restaurants tend to be pricey especially for the budget traveler. We found the lure of fresh seafood, spicy curries and french delicacies difficult to resist , but also came up with a few tricks to keep our costs down while tasting the best that the island had to offer
DO AS THE LOCALS DO – Start the day with a brioche or pain au chocolate from the reasonably priced local boulangeries. The smell for fresh baking will transport you straight to streets of France and most items are on offer for less than a euro. Take this opportunity to pick up a piping hot baguette, and you’re all set for a picnic lunch later in the day.
Reunion Island is filled with beautiful parks perfect for a cheap picnic lunch
MAKE THE MOST OF THE CREOLE SNACK BARS – No matter where you travel in Reunion, a snack bar is never far away. These simple alfresco canteens offer up ice cold beverages paired with bite sized deep-fried goodies, as well as hardier meals that will satisfy even the biggest appetites for just a bit of pocket change.
Try an assortment the traditional finger food including fresh samosas, steaming bouchons (a creole wanton) and piment farcis (stuffed peppers filled with spiced meat), my particular favorite. If you’re really hungry a must try is the famous bouchons gratine, a baguette filled with wantons and oozing melted cheese and chili sauce. Bringing together the island’s many cultural influences into one guilty pleasure, its both cheap and delicious.
SPLIT A MEAL – There are more than a few creole delicacies that Reunion Island is famous for and it would be a sin not to give them a try. Up there on my list is the boucane ti-jaque (wood smoked crispy pork in an exotic jackfruit achard), and the island’s iconic curry’s normally served side of rougail and rice. We found that a good way to sample these specialties was by splitting a meal between two. Generous is an understatement when it comes to serving sizes in Reunion and mains almost always come with lentils, achard and a family size portion of rice. For my husband and I, one meal was almost always enough. My recommendation, start by sharing, and if you’re still hungry there is always desert!
Accommodation is likely going to be your biggest expense while in Reunion Island. Backpackers are hard to come by and hotels don’t come cheap. To get the best deals book early, especially in the cirques where accommodation tends to be limited and fills up fast in the busy season.
TENT IT – Camping is a great option for those on a real budget and Reunion has got some killer campsites located in prime real estate. You can sleep on the beach with the sound of waves in the background, or high up on a cliff overlooking the cirques. “Bivouac” (overnight camping) is permitted for free in the national parks. as long as your tent is not pitched for more than one night and many mountain gites will let you set up a tent on their property for a small fee. Some of the campsites along beach, and in the cirques will even provide tents so all you need to do is show up.
The Ermitage Lagoon campsite is located meters from the beach
GITES – Gites are a bit like hostels for hikers. They are rustic lodges or homes located throughout Reunion’s cirques that provide dormitory style accommodation along hiking trails. They are a great option if you are planning on completing a multi-day hike and often come with a rustic authentic meal included in the price. Prices start at low as $20 for a dorm bed.
A small mountain gite nestled deep within the Cirque de Mafate
AIRBNB – Another good value option when visiting Reunion Island is to book your rooms through Airbnb. Airbnb’s are all over the island and tend to offer much better value than hotels. There is good range of options out there to suit every budget and will give you a chance to experience creole hospitality first hand.
BUDGET HOTELS – Reunion hasn’t developed much of a backpacker scene especially when you leave the mountains, but you can find the odd budget hotel offering reasonably priced dorm rooms if you do a bit of hunting and book ahead. Budget hotels with shared bathrooms are another option and tend to have a more convivial atmosphere. Expect prices starting around $50 a night.
My top pick for budget hotels is without a doubt Hotel de la Plage, a cheery, convivial little place in Saint-Gilles, 100 steps from the beach. You’ll feel right at home on the cozy rooftop patio where there is always free coffee, wifi and travel tips from friendly owner Pascal. He’ll even lend you snorkeling gear at no extra fee.
Make the most of the free activities
The great thing about Reunion Island is that entry to many of the main attractions is either free or very cheap. Unlike many hiking destinations, where park fees are steep and guides are mandatory, in Reunion you can hike the national parks for free. Paths are well maintained and marked so there is no need to take a guide, even on the more strenuous multi-day hikes. Museums and galleries also tend to be free or very reasonably priced. Don’t expect to pay more than a €2 entrance fee and be sure to pick-up a free self-guided walking tour brochure at the tourist info center.
And of course, don’t forget that lying on one of the island’s many beaches is absolutely free! Find out more about Reunion’s best beaches here: A Guide to Reunion’s best Beaches.