On the leeward side of Reunion, Saint-Leu is the place to come into contact with the island’s rich nature. There are turtle sanctuaries, botanical greenhouses and rocky promontories on the coast. You can dive underwater to watch tropical fish, or watch whales and dolphins burst out of the water in the waves. Along the coast, there are surfing beaches pounded by Indian Ocean waves, and calm lagoons of clear warmth.
Reunion is famous for its magnificent volcanic landscape, and you will approach the formidable Piton des Neiges and Cirque de Mafate on the Route du Maïdo, which climbs over 2,000 meters in just a few kilometers.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Saint-Leu:
1. National Institute of Botany, Mascarin
The rich plant life of Reunion Island is on display in this 3-hectare park in Saint-Leu.
The greenhouse is free to enter and was gradually built in the 1980s and 1990s.
It plays an important role in botanical research, but for you and me, the natural magnificence of Reunion dazzles you.
In this garden, there are 4,000 species of plants that are endemic to Reunion and Rodrigues, Madagascar and Mauritius.
These are organized into sections and consist of orchids, bamboos, succulents, palms, orchards, crops and native flora of Reunion.
Not many tropical animals capture the mind and imagination like sea turtles.
Saint-Leu has an aquarium and research center dedicated to the study of this creature.
There is a 500,000 litre tank, fed by seawater, allowing you to observe the turtles swimming and interacting as they would in the wild.
There are also galleries depicting human influence on sea turtles and their future.
Outside, you can see specialists at work caring for sick and injured turtles before they are released back into the sea.
3. Stella Matutina Museum
The sugar industry was big business in Reunion in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the activity 200 years ago is remembered in this former oil refinery.
In its heyday, the refinery was supported by an 85-hectare plantation and retained many of its enormous machinery.
Reopened in 2015 after a complete renovation, the museum now takes you on a full tour of the sugar industry in Reunion.
There is a 400-seat auditorium and a 4D cinema.
You’ll see how sugar cane plants have changed life on the island, and learn about the vast crowd, from the humble to the wealthy, that power the industry.
4. Coco House
There is probably no food with a more bizarre biology than the coconut, which grows in large swathes of Reunion.
At Maison du Coco, you can touch coconuts and visit the 7-hectare plantation to learn about the many uses of this fruit and tree.
You are invited to take part in a workshop to weave objects from palm leaves, learn the delicate art of opening coconuts and taste a variety of coconut products: oil, milk, coconut water, candied coconut, coconut sorbet and coconut sugar.
Of course, there’s also a store that sells oils, soaps and everything else you’ll find on the farm.
5. The Way of Tamarind
Route des Tamarins is a highway opened in 2009 that runs along the west coast of the island.
If you’re wondering why the highway should be an attraction, remember you’re in Reunion, where the natural beauty is always great.
So, on this route, you have a view of the sea from the hillside and you can overlook 120 different ravines that the viaduct crosses.
If you’re keen to explore the primeval forests of Reunion, you can start your journey with Route des Tamarins to places like Le Tévelave.
6. Route du Maïdo
The most direct route into Reunion Island National Park is on the road to the 2,200-meter volcanic peak.
You probably don’t get a more memorable drive than packing a picnic and switching back and forth between tamarind forests and geranium fields to a fantastic lookout.
At the summit, you’ll see a scene from a fantasy movie, with a huge mafia circus unfolding in front of you, huge rock faces and mountain peaks over 3,000 meters away.
Park at the picnic table and enjoy a moment of quiet awe before you can gallop down the trail to distant villages and neighboring peaks.
7. Église du Sacré-Cœur de Saint-Leu
The church, made of volcanic stone, was commissioned by Sosthène de Chateauvieux, owner of the estate where the Saint-Leu Botanical Conservatory is now located.
He was born in mainland France, and married to the powerful De Bassien family in Reunion, which we will meet later.
Built quickly during the cholera epidemic around 1860, the church sits on a beautiful promontory and is well worth a visit.
In 1996 it was named an official French National Monument, and in 2010 it installed 60 new stained glass windows, built in Marseille.
8. Marché de Saint-Leu
The local market of Saint-Leu is ideally located on the seaside road.
There are small but charming stalls selling handicrafts, fresh tropical fruits and vegetables, and Creole specialties made on site.
There are also homemade kimchi with aromatic spices like curry and herbs.
For more options and more street food, just drive a few minutes down the road to São Paulo.
This is arguably the best market in Reunion, trading on Fridays and Saturdays.
If you’ve got an appetite, stop by the food truck for fried samosas, Chinese dumplings, hash browns, fried cod balls, and the island’s satisfying toast sandwiches, topped with melted cheese.
9. Plage Saline-les-Bains
One of Reunion’s best beaches for swimming is just 10 km off the coast of Saint-Leu.
Plage Saline-les-Bains runs parallel to the offshore coral reefs that buffer the ocean and its violent waves.
So the water here is clear, shallow and warm, perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
There are also places along the beach where you can rent a paddle board or kayak and set off to see more of the lagoon.
For those who just want to spend time on the beach, surrounded by palms and Australian pine trees, just a short walk from the bar.
10. Pointe au Sel
What is always amazing about Reunion is how the coastline changes within a few hundred meters.
South of the town of Saint-Le, the seascape becomes very stark and intimidating.
This is Pointe au Sel, where the waves hit the volcanic rock on the headland.
Further afield, the cape’s exotic savanna plants and frangipani trees are protected as a natural park.
The headland takes its name from its historic saltworks.
This is the last one found on Reunion Island, which has been harvesting salt in the same way since 1942. There is a salt museum and shop where you can buy a packet of artisan salt to take home.
11. Le Souffleur
This natural curiosity is both pleasing and fun: Le Souffleur is a blowhole, right on the shores of Saint-Leu.
Below the waterline, the lava has cooled, forming a natural funnel through the rock.
When the ocean hits these rocks, it shoots a jet of water down the shaft, sending it tens of meters into the air.
If you are a budding photographer, you will absolutely love this place.
When the spray forms a small rainbow, try to catch the spray from the right angle.
Viewed from the coast, Saint-Leu is located on a long, stable slope, and this terrain combined with the wind makes it a paragliding hotspot in Reunion.
This activity becomes crucial when you realize how much you can see in the sky of Reunion.
Together with an experienced glider, you will take off from a hillside perch and circle from land to sea.
Here, the cobalt blue ocean and lush tropical vegetation are all the more mesmerizing, and for drama, the Piton des Neiges and Mafate peaks hover in the distance to the east.
Daredevil can also try some light aerobatics as they are lifted by the current.
Saint-Leu is one of the top locations for divers in Reunion because of the abundance of turtles, dolphins and tuna in these waters.
The time to come here is in the summer, from October to June, when the water is warm and the trade winds are light.
Water temperatures peak at 30°C in December and January, and visibility is the best of these months.
One of several top attractions in the area is the ocean near Pointe au Sel.
70m high waves drop, giant trevally and tuna glisten in the water, while dolphins might join in to see what you’re up to.
14. Whale Watching
Meanwhile, from June to October, you’d better stay away from the waves if you want to see some amazing marine life.
As for these five months, humpback whales migrate into the ocean on the west side of the island.
Sometimes you don’t even need to leave land to spot them, as you can stop at headlands like Pointe au Sel with a pair of binoculars.
If you do want to be near some of the companies that offer cruises, they are bound by all the bylaws and regulations, so you’ll be happy to know you haven’t disturbed their habitat.
The rest of the time fin and sperm whales are occasionally seen, and several species of dolphins are here year-round.
15. City Hall Museum
If you’re fascinated by Reunion’s past, the Town Hall Museum cuts to the heart of plantation life in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The centerpiece is a grand colonial mansion, possibly a Mexican estate or Gone with the Wind.
Owned by the Desbassayns family, the estate covers more than 10 hectares and was once dedicated to sugar production, as you can see in the well-preserved mill on site.
There is an even more poignant history, an old slave hospital.
The interior of the mansion is decorated with antique furniture and decorations, offering you a complete cross-section of the reunion life, from the very rich to the destitute.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Saint-Leu, France
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