How to plan a cycle trip to La Reunion

Route Tips

For certain tours, I have added a ‘how to’ page to provide information on those routes that the maps and guides have missed, or for which bike-specific details are sketchy.

Of course the world changes; some dirt roads are paved, others become overgrown and are lost to the forest. At least two of my routes have been destroyed in rather more spectacular fashion by volcanic eruptions. With luck much of this information will prove useful, just don’t take it as gospel. If you questions or more up to date information, please leave a comment.

Road or mountain bike?

La Reunion is unquestionably a wonderful biking destination, but other than the crazy mass-start Megavalanche downhill is relatively unknown outside of France. Even French bike tourism is minimal in comparison with the legions of hikers who hut-to-hut their way across the island.

So, why should you take a bike? Despite its small size, being just 63 km long and 45 km wide, Reunion contains an awful lot of riding. Road or mountain, you could easily occupy two weeks here either as a bike tour, or in conjunction with a rented car.

For those road riders looking for a winter training vacation with a difference, look no further. Thanks to EU investment, the roads are in beautiful condition and reach into the interior crossing 2000 m passes (and don’t forget that your 2000 m starts at sea level). There is just one major disadvantage to taking a road bike, and that is that the last few kilometers of the extraordinary Plain des Sables road to the volcano is unmetalled. You could hitch the last bit easily enough however – the destination is unmissable and the climb beforehand is one of the best I’ve ever ridden in its own right.

We took mountain bikes and the distances covered in our route description take that into account. Attempting to mountain bike was, for the most part frustrating, however. Hopefully I can make it a little less frustrating for you if you choose to follow in our tyre tracks.

Accommodation

There are only one or two official campsites on Reunion, though it is permitted near many of the mountian huts. It would also be possible, and indeed wonderful, to camp up high and in some of the forests. We decided however to travel light in order to give us more flexibility in the routes we took (particularly carrying down to Salazie) and to limit the weight for the climbs and off-road descents.

Whilst we were warned that accommodation would be scarce in December, in fact we had no problem finding places to stay by visiting tourist offices and letting them phone around. Most of the hotels were not even a third full. Not even the Gîtes were crowded, though I think if you are planning to climb Piton des Neiges, booking is certainly recommended.

Most of the beds are in Chambres d’Hotes, where you stay in a house with a few rooms and eat together, usually with the family for dinner. The disadvantages of this arrangement are that it can get tiring conversing in pidgin French each evening and that dinner tends to be pretty late, making early departures even harder.

Mountain biking La Reunion – the true picture

This is what we found on the ground in December 2008. At some point, presumably 5 to 10 years ago it is clear that the powers-that-be decided to brand La Reunion as a mountain bike destination. The multitude of trails that criss-cross the island were examined and each individual area was given a map of graded bike routes. These were available in leaflet form and large maps were put up. Unfortunately it clearly didn’t really take off and those maps have now officially been withdrawn from the tourist offices though the large signs remain.

The fate of the trails themselves varies. Some are well used by other traffic – cars or hikers – and remain easily rideable. Others are overgrown and unrideable. The signs are often absent, thus making it almost impossible to follow a route unless you can figure out which trail is which on the IGN map.

As far as I am concerned, there are only two sites worth their salt as mountain bike destinations worth flying halfway round the world for: Piton Maido and Piton de la Fournaise. As for the others, Cilaos provided an afternoon of reasonably entertaining riding and I would have ridden on the slopes of the volcano near Ste Rose had it not absolutely poured with rain when we were there. The forest roads of Forêt de Bélouve, and even the boardwalk of ‘Sentier de Ecole Normale’ near le Trou de Fer made for enjoyable riding in a pristine forest.

Piton de la Fournaise

As already mentioned, the road climb from Bourg Murat is special, and the dirt-road to Pas-de-Bellecombe is a must. You’ll have to leave the bikes behind to walk the precipitous route down onto the Enclos Fouqué but the route along the rampart to Nez Coupé seems rideable, at least for the distance we walked along it to get a sunrise view of the volcano.

As regards the descent: there is a report in French on the internet of a ride along the GR R2. We couldn’t find the starting point, despite it looking pretty obvious on the map and crossing it later, the early route looked pretty unrideable. Later we had some great riding below Piton Textor, initially along the ramparts in the direction of Nez de Boeuf. We can recommend the routes marked “6 Red” and “8 Green”. Doubtless if you have driven up with a full-sus machine and some armour, the black routes will beckon. The routes can be followed all the way back down to Bourg Murat, an 800m descent.

If you have a car to bring you back up again, or are super-super fit, there is the option of the full height Riviere des Ramparts descent to the coast at St Joseph. It looked wonderful from above, although the initial section was clearly pretty steep. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to ride down, back up again and still cut across the center of the island to Salazie. If I planned this trip again, I’d find a way of fitting it in.

Piton Maido

Maido has a large number of trails, mainly between the Route des Tamarins and la Petit France, and again suffers from the frustrating map-that-doesn’t-match-up-with-reality problem. In order to do it justice, you need either a guide (we were able to latch onto the back of a tour) or a car to ferry you back up whilst you scout out the best trails. You could doubtless have a great time if you hung out with some locals for a while – this was the only place on Reunion where we saw locals moutain biking, but with neither a car, nor several days to spare, we made do with the wonderful road climb and the quite sensational views, combined with a pleasant, if non-technical off-road descent.

Our route

Our excellent hosts in La Montagne brought a bottle of wine to our cabin on our return and asked to join us for a while to find out about our trip. They commented that we’d been everywhere on the island and had seen more than the majority of car-bound tourists.

This was our itinerary:

La Montagne – Bellemere Canot

D41 to la Riviere des Galets, where it is possible to cross the river by dirt track (prepare to get feet wet!). Then le Bois de Nefles to Bellemere les Hauts.

Next day, we rode back to Riviere des Galets down an enjoyable, no traffic, cobbled road from Bellemene to Bouillon, and then along the very pleasant Tour des Roches through fruit plantations near the coast. We then followed the riverbed track into Cirque de Mafate. From Deux Bras the track becomes a walking path and we tired of carrying the bike over boulders before we reached the tunnel and turned around. Pleasant enough, but not a Reunion highlight.

Bellemere Canot – Maido – St Leu

The concern about climbing any of Reunion’s peaks in December is that the cloud will, at some point in the mid-morning, roll in and obscure the view. Staying at Bellemere Canot at least gave us a 600 m headstart on the climb. Nevertheless, we left at 5.30 am in order to make the top (2200 m) by 8.30 am and have a good chance of beating the clouds. The early start also allows you to knock off some of the climb before the full heat of the sun hits.

It was a special climb, through ancient tamarin forests and eventually opening out for the last few hundred vertical meters, affording views 2000 m down to the Indian Ocean. The best is saved for last however; Mafate is truly astonishing from above.

Regardless of the dirt tracks you find to come down, you’ll reach the D3 and we followed this and the D12, D13 and D130 to St Leu. These non-coastal roads were almost always pleasant and with relatively little traffic.

St Leu itself was probably our favourite town on the whole island. Whereas I’m not usually one for surf-spots, this one at least felt authentic and relaxed, a quality we felt many of the towns in the interior lacked.

St Leu – Bras Sec

A really tough day that we didn’t pay enough respect. A total climb of around 2500 m in the midday sun, but the scenery is certainly impressive and we enjoyed the company of some local road riders. Of note, refreshment is available in the form of a restaurant, just before the tunnel that marks the summit. We were very glad of it!

Bras Sec is a lovely hamlet with an away from it all vibe. It has a rudimentary store and a couple of unappealing snack bars so make sure you’ve got dinner sorted before climbing the final few relatively easy kilometers from Cilaos. The other route, avoiding Cilaos is also perfectly suited to biking – we took it on the way down.

The paved road to Ilet a Cordes also provides spectacular views across from the other side of the cirque, but be warned, as with everything here, it is far from flat.

Bras Sec – le Baril des Haute

The descent from Cirque de Cilaos follows the same road. We crossed the river at Le Ouaki, took the D38, crossed N3 onto some minor roads to the N2 at Grand Bois. These were really pleasant, passing through sugar cane fields traversing the mountain side a few hundred meters up.

The descent to Grande Anse is well worth it if you’re in the mood for a swim. There is also a mountain bike map near the beach, though we didn’t take any of the trails. D30 and N2 (by now relatively quiet) to le Baril des Haute where we stayed at the excellent Pinpin d’Amour where you’ll doubtless be fed on the eponymous ingredient – surprisingly tasty!

Le Baril des Haute – La Cayenne

From here, it’s all volcano. There’s only one route, and if there’s been a recent eruption, there won’t be a route at all. Undoubtably one of the most unusual rides you’ll ever have. The ‘Sentier Volcan’ on the 1986 flow provides a nice introduction.

We were stopped in La Cayenne by a torrential downpour and stayed in the soul-less but cheap (€30) Ferme-Auberge La Cayenne. The views were fabulous.

La Cayenne – Bourg Murat

Take the high r0ute on the D3 after crossing the Pont suspendu (an early suspension bridge); it’ll give you some respite from traffic before tackling the busy climb on the N3 to La Plaine Des Palmistes. This would be a climb to give a miss if there were an alternative, there isn’t however and you will be rewarded higher up. Above Deuxieme Village, the route steepens and the hillside is cloaked in fabulous tree ferns and creepers.

At Bourg Murat, take in the Volcano Museum to set the scene for the visit to the Piton Fournaise. We stayed at the Hotel Ecrin which was comfortable enough but not a favourite. The view from the restaurant however went some way towards making amends.

Bourg Murat – Gîte du Volcan – Bourg Murat

A wonderful route elaborated on elsewhere. As usual, rising early got us to the top out of the heat of the day and before the clouds rolled in. Staying in the comfortable Gîte du Volcan allows for a sunrise exploration of the volcano, and doubles your chances of a cloudless visit. The food is as good as you’ll ever get in a gîte. There’s also a snack bar in the volcano car park.

Decent footwear for the lava is highly recommended, bike shoes or flip-flops would be pretty dangerous.

Bourg Murat – Gîte de Bélouve – Hell Bourg

We decided to take this road, and to carry the bikes down to Salazie in order to avoid backtracking and to see the beautiful, largely unspoiled forests of Bébour and Bélouve. We had our own room at the Gîte, and the descent was not difficult, the path well made and at a comfortable gradient, though few sections were truely rideable unless your downhill skills are really good. You’d get down it with a loaded touring bike but it would make things considerably more difficult.

Hell Bourg – La Montagne

As with Cilaos, Hell Bourg is an odd place. It has incredible natural beauty and some great walking routes; many of its population however are clearly bored and living off French welfare.

Highlights of the route to St Denis included the 1000 m descent, the Niagara Falls (really!) where you can swim, and the surprisingly nice route right along the coast into town. If, like us you started in La Montagne, there’s then the 500 m climb in full sun to get back up there again!

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