Why Hiking Beats Surfing on Réunion Island (Hint: Sharks!)

Let’s just say absence makes the hikes grow longer.

When I was 22 and in the best shape of my life, I used to hitchhike into the mountains of Réunion Island every weekend to take in the dizzying views and moss-draped forests of the highlands. I spent a year there after college, teaching English in local elementary schools, and on my days off, I’d walk until dark, eat whatever leftovers I’d brought along and pitch my hammock on the side of the trail.

Twelve years later, when most of my daily life has been spent working on a laptop, I returned to the island for a hiking getaway with my wife, and neither one of us felt so light on our feet. On Day 1, after 10 hours and 10 miles on a rainy hike that crossed the island from east to west — up, and then down, nearly 4,000 vertical feet — we stumbled out of the woods by the light of our headlamps and gratefully accepted a ride from a car parked at the trailhead. They don’t call it “the Extreme Island” for nothing.

Réunion, a former French colony that became an overseas department in 1960, is a speck of volcanic rock 400 miles off the coast of Madagascar. An outdoorsy paradise of precipitous waterfalls and world-renowned surf spots, the island has never had trouble living up to its moniker. Lately, though, Réunion has become known for an extreme its tourism boosters could have done without: Since 2011, it’s been the site of one out of every three fatal shark attacks on the planet. The French government took the drastic step of banning surfing and swimming on the island’s coast altogether, but the deaths have continued all the same.

For a place long thought of as France’s Hawaii, the tourism sector has been staring down a crisis: One industry report from 2014 found that as many as 60 percent of travelers with plans to visit canceled their trips in the days after a new shark attack. But the shock seems to have prodded regional tourism authorities to come around to the view of locals, who have long regarded the island’s mountainous interior as its singular claim to fame.

In 2014, Réunion’s tourism office launched a campaign with the tagline, “Thinking of hiking? Hike in Réunion,” with advertorials featuring bronzed couples in fitness gear taking in the mountain views. It stepped up marketing in hiker-rich markets like Germany and sent 2,000 French visitors to its website a fresh Réunion pineapple in the mail. The office now markets Réunion as “Intensely Relaxing,” and recently partnered with the French magazine Géo for an online popularity contest that crowned one of Réunion’s best-known hiking routes, the GRR1, “the most beautiful trail in France.”

We decided to hike that route, doing a three-day circuit that would give us a sampling of the scenery in each of the three cirques, or craters, formed by the dormant volcano that birthed the island. On our first morning in Réunion, we drove up from the coast into the Cirque de Salazie to Hellbourg, a quaint hamlet of narrow streets and gingerbread houses perched below the crater’s rim. A spur that connects to the GRR1 is one of several trails that leave right from the edge of town. From the trailhead, we passed stands of giant bamboo and vast tangles of chayote squash, which grows wild throughout the wet, eastern side of the island, and followed switchbacks carved into a cliff face up to the Bélouve Forest.

In the 19th century, Bélouve was the hub for a logging operation that felled highland tamarind trees to make hand-cut shingles and lumber for fine cabinetry exported to the mainland. The bones of an old cable car system that once allowed foresters to lift huge hardwood logs out of such difficult terrain are still visible as you reach the top. There, you can stop for coffee at the Bélouve Inn (or even order a meal, if you call ahead) and tour a garage-sized exhibit on the forest’s history, where we learned that only one craftsman continues to make tamarind roof shingles in the traditional style once found all over the island.

From there, the GRR1 heads northwest into a dense and impossibly wet woodland wreathed in arborescent ferns and carpeted with beds of moss two feet deep. The trail, maintained by the French forest service, is tricky but impeccably maintained. There are aluminum ladders and short bridges stretched over the most treacherous bits, and long spans of boardwalk covered in steel mesh to get through what is essentially a high-altitude marsh. Look up and you may spot one of more than 160 species of orchids native to the island; look right and you may get vertigo — if you’re lucky. The day we left, the weather in Salazie was characteristically misty: what was actually a drop of more than 1,000 feet was hidden by a curtain of fog no more than a few yards away.

Réunion is barely 30 miles across. But in the center, the ancient volcanic peak of the Piton des Neiges rises above the clouds to a height of more than 10,000 feet, creating myriad tiny microclimates on its slopes, and splitting the island into “wet” and “dry” sides. The same day that brings torrential rain to Bras Panon, where I lived on a lychee farm on the east coast, could mean 12 hours of uninterrupted sun for the citrus groves in the West.

As you climb, the tree canopy thins and then disappears until you emerge on a vast plateau of scrubland scattered with Mars-red chunks of volcanic rock. It was around this point, raising her knees high for one more stretch of steep terraced stairs, that my wife pronounced our hike “the longest soccer drill of my life.” When we crested a ridge and reached the dry side of the island, the clouds broke and we could see the mountain town of Cilaos, named for the cirque that surrounds it, far below. But we still had to go down. When we reached the parking lot, the 10-minute hitchhike to town spared us what surely would have been the longest hour of our trip.

In Cilaos, we arrived at Case Nyala, a charming five-room bed-and-breakfast (90 euros, or around $100, for a double), just in time to shower and head around the corner for dinner. At Chez Noé, you’ll find local specialties like chicken stewed in vanilla and Gruyère gratins made with chayote squash or fresh hearts of palm, and plenty of options to wash them down — a bottle of local Cilaos wine or a pint of the island’s signature lager, the “Dodo.” (We paid €50 for dinner and a round of drinks.)

Réunion’s cuisine reflects its unusual history and geography — an island so far out in the ocean that no humans appeared to have lived there until the 1600s, when a group of French mutineers and the enslaved Malagasy women who accompanied them settled there. French (croissants, cheese) and Malagasy (rice and beans, vanilla) influences still abound. Today, these are supplemented by spicy curries and pickles introduced in the 19th century by Tamil indentured servants, and by the use of cooked greens like those the Chinese and Malaysian merchants who came to Réunion 100 years ago might have had at home. Most meals are accompanied by a spicy salsa made in seemingly limitless varieties — zucchini, lemon, bitter melon, onion, mango.

The next morning, we feasted on the panorama of jagged peaks visible from Case Nyala’s breakfast room as we worked our way through piles of miniature crepes, served with homemade yogurt and a dozen homemade jams (tree tomato, orange papaya, pineapple-strawberry). After a stop at the local pharmacy for supplies to reinforce our bruised parts, we shortened the next phase of the hike by taking a magenta-colored city bus to a trailhead a few miles up the road.

Here, at last, we were treated to a view as we climbed, tracing cloud shadows over the long, winding canyon that leads from Cilaos down to Réunion’s west coast, home of the island’s forbidden surf spots. Two hours of steady uphill brought us to the Col du Taibit, a knife-shaped outcropping marked by a trailside shrine to the Virgin Mary. This rocky pass marks the southern entrance to Mafate, the third and most inaccessible of Réunion’s cirques, named for a Maroon leader who escaped slavery early in the 18th century and founded a village in the highlands.

Three hundred years later, there are still no roads that enter Mafate. Instead, the 10-odd villages scattered throughout the crater floor — total population, under 1,000 — are supplied entirely by foot, by pack mule or, increasingly, by helicopter. Today, Mafate’s economy relies heavily on the hikers who pass through looking for rural relaxation and jaw-dropping mountain views. Overhead, the buzz of helicopters bringing groceries and construction materials up from the coast has become a regular accompaniment to the sounds of rushing streams and bleating goats.

One of the true joys of backpacking in Réunion is that you don’t have to sleep in a tent if you don’t want to — or, for that matter, carry more than a change of clothes and snacks for the trail. In the dense web of highland hamlets dotting Mafate you can spend the night in a gîte, or bed-and-breakfast, where a hot meal awaits and a warm bed, too.

On our second night, we decided to splurge for one of the stand-alone wood-paneled bungalows at Le Bistrot des Songes, in La Nouvelle (€150, with dinner and breakfast for two) but there are options for budget travelers too: Most gîtes offer hostel-style accommodation that works out to about €40 to 50 a night. Either way, I’d recommend a stop at Chez Babet, a country general store that sells everything from flip flops to cigarettes and doubles as a local watering hole. When I stepped back outside after sipping a shot of rum infused with dried orchids, the Milky Way was in full effect, framed by the towering shadows of the cirque’s western walls, several thousand feet high.

If you do want to camp, take solace in the fact that Réunion has no native mammals, and no poisonous insects or reptiles. The largest animals you’re likely to encounter on the trail are tenrecs, a hedgehog relative native to Madagascar that was introduced by the French in the 17th century, or the endemic rainbow-colored chameleon, the endormi — so-named because it moves so slowly you’d think it’s asleep.

Hiking in Mafate on a clear day can inspire an unrelenting chorus of wows, oohs, and ahhs, with one sweeping view after another of the sheer cliff faces that crown the crater’s rim. We found ourselves ducking under branches laden with bright pink peach blossoms and stopping to marvel at the songbirds that flitted ahead of us on the trail. One of my favorite spots on the island, and the flattest half mile we walked in three days of hiking, came as an intermission on our climb out of the cirque: the Plaine des Tamarins, a grassy, shaded valley of gnarled trunks and shimmering, scimitar-shaped leaves that looks like an appropriate place to hold a druids’ convention.

After a break, we hiked up to the ramparts separating Mafate from Salazie, where the fog had foiled our earlier attempts to see much of the eastern side of the island. At the pass, we were finally met with a view that matched the topography; waterfalls fell from every bright-green crevice of the peak overlooking Hellbourg, where our hike began.

When I first landed in Réunion, the mountains had been my refuge from homesickness on weekends when I didn’t have anyone in particular to see. It felt nice to come here with company

GETTING THERE Aside from the long-haul flights from Paris, most flights to Réunion go through Mauritius or Johannesburg, South Africa. There are also daily connections from Antananarivo, Madagascar.

GETTING OUT THERE The hiking is steep and difficult. Plan ahead and check in with locals about your planned itinerary — there are enough trails, and gîtes, that 11th-hour changes in plans shouldn’t doom your trip. For French speakers, the website randopitons.re has great information on hikes and places to stay in the mountains. But there are also plenty of more accessible sights. Head south along the island’s east coast, and you’ll have your pick of breathtaking waterfalls, most of them no more than a few minutes’ hike from the road. At Bassin la Paix, in St. Benoit, an entire river courses over a 40-foot drop into a fishbowl-like swimming hole, throwing off so much spray that overhung basalt cliffs on shore are covered in ferns.

ISLAND MIRACLE? Réunion’s Piton de la Fournaise is one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, and you’ll see plenty of its past activity, including near Notre Dame Des Laves, a small Catholic parish on the side of the highway nearly buried by the eruption of 1977. Miraculously, the lava stopped at the church doors.

A WORD ABOUT THE WEATHER Réunion is an island of many microclimates: you can usually find your way out of bad weather by switching up your itinerary. But as a rule, the clearest skies in the mountains comes early in the morning, and the hiking trails will be in the best shape during the winter dry season from May to November.

Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter and radio producer in Phoenix, and the author of “Go Tell the Crocodiles: Chasing Prosperity in Mozambique.”