Originally featured in National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Imagine whirling around the northern edge of Réunion Island, an Indian Ocean jewel sandwiched between Mauritius and Madagascar’s eastern seaboard. We’re talking about a ride on the Nouvelle Route du Littoral, a 7.5-mile masterpiece of concrete and steel poised along towering cliffs, seemingly flirting with disaster as the ocean waves churn beneath.
Set to wrap up by year’s end, this €2 billion EU-subsidized megaproject is designed to connect the southern city of Saint-Pierre with the northern Saint-Denis, with a pit stop at the popular beachside locale of Saint-Paul. It’s no exaggeration to say this highway is one of the priciest pieces of tarmac on the planet.
Technically speaking, I’m not on some exotic escape but in a far-flung region of France, accessible via the country’s longest domestic flight. Réunion blends the cozy familiarity of mainland France — think crusty baguettes and Bordeaux — with the jaw-dropping wonders of its tropical surroundings. Expect craters big enough to swallow small towns, slopes that stretch toward the heavens, and lava fields that sidle up to the sea for a salty smooch. All this, while every signpost you see is in French.
Cycling wasn’t a homegrown passion in Réunion, unlike its French counterpart. But all that’s changing as biking gains traction as a must-try activity. Gildas Le Pessec from Rando Réunion Passion, a mountain biking outfit, affirms this burgeoning love affair.
Whipping through serpentine roads, we reach our launch pad perched 2,200 meters high on Piton Maido, one of Réunion’s sharp-topped mountains. Below, the Cirque of Mafate displays a panorama of jagged green peaks and secluded farms, accessible only by chopper or a sturdy pair of hiking boots.
Navigating the Maido trail is not for the faint of heart, winding through dark woodlands and blooming meadows, ultimately leading us to the sea. Before I dive into this, I must confess: my mountain biking experience is non-existent. But under Gildas’s watchful eye and his sprinkled wisdom, I feel less like a clueless newbie and more like a pro-in-training.
“Don’t glue your eyes to the ground,” he advises, as if reading my nervous thoughts. “Focus on the trail up ahead.”
The rewards for my momentary bravery? Scenes ripped from a fantasy novel, featuring dew-kissed Japanese cedars and thickets of native flora.
For those not ready to put their adrenal glands to the test, there’s Atmosphère Péi. Run by Aurore Laurent and Mikael Benard, this outfit offers a tamer but no less mesmerizing cycling experience on recumbent bikes. Our journey commences at Sainte-Rose in the southeast and snakes along National Route 2, in the shadows of Piton de la Fournaise, a fire-breathing mountain that puts on a show every nine months or so.
The landscape here is something out of a J.R.R. Tolkien tale—imagine grand curtains of basalt on lush hillsides, and you’re in the Grand Brûlé. It’s like the world unfurling around you in 360-degree HD.
Back to reality, Aurore’s phone buzzes, warning of a potential eruption. But nobody bats an eye. Living on the edge is second nature to the residents of Réunion, where life is lived in geological real-time.
Getting to Réunion and Around
No direct UK flights exist, so your best bet is to catch a one-stop flight via Paris or Mauritius. Considering public transit isn’t the island’s forte, it’s wise to rent a car—Hertz and Sixt are good options.
Best Time to Visit
Expect humid, hot weather all year, but aim for July to October for optimal cycling conditions. Watch out for heavy rainfall from January to March, and avoid French holidays to dodge the tourist rush.
Where to Stay
LUX* Saint Gilles has double rooms starting at €200 (£172) per night.
So, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or a laid-back traveler, Réunion offers cycling experiences that are as varied and dynamic as the island itself.
Article published in conjunction with the Indian Ocean supplement, September 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK). To subscribe, click here. (Available in select countries only).
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Cycling in Réunion
What is the main focus of the article?
The article primarily focuses on the burgeoning interest in cycling on Réunion Island, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean. It delves into the scenic routes, types of cycling experiences available,