The centre of Reunion Island is dominated by three cirques, or natural amphitheatres, which were previously the craters of volcanoes, long since dormant.
The Cirque de Cilaos is the largest of the three, with a beauty akin to the Alps in summer. The village of Cilaos, inside the cirque, makes an ideal base for three or four nights. It is an attractive, tranquil village with several fine restaurants (lentils are a local speciality), and they even cultivate their own wine.
It is a starting point for many walks, drives or hikes; there are wonderful hiking trails up into the mountain forests and among the ravines – and gentler, shorter walks. There are scenic drives to La Roche Merveilleuse and the hamlet of Ilet a Cordes.
You can join group walks, hire mountain bikes, and go canyonning (abseiling down waterfalls) from here. There is a useful Maison du Tourisme which has hiking guides and information on all kinds of local produce and crafts. If you overdo the hiking you can recover in the famous Irenee Accot Health Spa which has hot thermal springs, its waters rich with minerals. The spa offers a wide range of treatments.
Access to the cirque is on an incredible mountain road, winding up and up from the coastal plain, with more than one hundred hairpin bends! It’s a most scenic drive and allow plenty of time to do this during daylight hours.
Cirque de Mafate
This is the wildest and most rugged of the cirques, so much so that there is no vehicular access. You have to walk into it. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Some small, hardy hamlets inside the cirque are home to about 600 people who live off the land in splendid isolation. The first inhabitants were runaway slaves in the mid 19th century.
There are 100 kms of walking trails with this cirque. You can walk in from either Cilaos or Hell-Bourg or drive up from St Gilles on the coast. There is an excellent vantage point above Maido. If you are short of time consider taking a helicopter trip over the Cirque from St Gilles.
Cirque de Salazie
Salazie is the lushest of the three amphitheatres. Its 100 waterfalls plummet down spectacular gorges and cliffs like giant, silver ribbons. Walk to the hot springs, Les Sources Pétrifiantes, or drive to the outstanding viewpoint at Le Point du Jour and the nearby cascade. Go canyonning, mountain-biking or climbing; or explore the Forest of Bélouve, with its endemic silvery tamarind trees.
This is the most accessible of the cirques as the main settlement, Hell-Bourg (voted the most beautiful village in France in 2000), is less than two hours drive from the airport at St Denis. Consequently, it makes a good starting-point for a tour.