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Photo Essay: A helicopter ride over Reunion Island

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A helicopter ride is thrilling! I had taken a helicopter tour of Iguazu falls on Brazil/Argentina border more than a decade ago. So I was quite prepared for the adventure when we booked a helicopter tour of the Reunion island. But when the helicopter went over one of the active volcanoes on the island, it was an experience beyond my expectations. I highly recommend a helicopter ride in Reunion island for a spectacular aerial view.

Reunion Island

An island is an island, one beach holiday is similar to another beach holiday.‘ Right?

I thought so too until I went to Reunion Island in the summer of 2019, or what was winter at the island as it is located south of the equator. This remote Indian Ocean island lies between Mauritius and Madagascar and is a French overseas territory.

When I started doing research on Reunion Island – it made for an easy extension to our Mauritius trip. Mauritius was a classic beach holiday with its pick of the best luxury beach resorts in Mauritius. And then came the adventure at Reunioin island with its unique geological formation and topography.

Reunion Island has been formed from 2 volcanos, the very active Piton de la Fournaise and the dormant Piton des Neiges. The island today is home to mountains, remote villages that are in craters surrounding the tallest peak, Piton des Neiges, lush forests, stunning waterfalls, calderas, and beaches.

Parts of the island are remote, accessible only via strenuous hiking. And some parts that are accessible like the lunar landscape surrounding the Piton de la Fournaise – one of the most active volcanos in the world, look surreal from an aerial view. And this was the reason why we took a helicopter ride, albeit expensive, over the island.

Helicopter tour of Reunion Island

Is it worth taking this helicopter ride over Reunion Island, what with the expense and being weather dependent? This Photo Log will help you make up your mind. The weather and the micro-climates on the island make sure that the helicopter doesn’t take off on some days, or that the route changes from the one that you may have wanted or booked. But I recommend it despite the possible headaches associated with cancellations and rescheduling. It is an experience of a lifetime.

We had booked the 45-minute Reunion Island helicopter ride with Corail Helicopters. There was a quick briefing word from the pilot that a part of the ride over Salazie was not possible as it was completely covered with clouds, but we would be doing the remaining tour over a 35-minute period. Oh, well, can’t be helped. One look at this shiny beauty and we were RED-dy to take off!

The shiny helicopter is all ready!

The group was assigned individual seating basis the weights that we had given earlier. We were given a quick briefing by the pilot on how to remain seated and belted during the helicopter flight, and quite importantly, where the sick bag is located behind every seat. Finally, a photo with the red beauty as a souvenir. We were all set to start our helicopter tour of Reunion island.

Family photo for keeps.

I was thrilled to be in the front row with my daughter. The large glass windows made the scenery come alive. Soon after the take-off, we turned in the direction of St. Pierre town. The ocean around Reunion Island is a beauty to watch from the ground and even more so, from high up in the air.

What a view of St. Pierre town and the ocean!

The pilot was giving us comments about the island and its topography, which we could all hear clearly on our headphones. Then he turned towards La Volcan. One of the highlights of this helicopter tour of Reunion island.

Such a thrill.

Piton de la Fournaise

Did I mention that Piton de la Fournaise, also known as La Volcan is currently one of the most active volcanoes in the world? 

Its last eruption was in February 2019. It is the most visited site in Reunion Island. We had driven to the volcano a day earlier, but our hike over parts of the outer caldera had got canceled because of the unexpected rains. So, I was quite excited to get an aerial perspective of this area, and it didn’t disappoint at all.

We approached the volcano from a different direction than what you take via the road route, so we first approached the inner caldera first. The inner caldera – Enclose Fouqué – is defined by cliffs ranging from 100 to 400 m in height.

The inner caldera of Piton de la Fournaise.

This flat area is completely devoid of vegetation. You can see different forms of congealed lava and several small craters on this area.

See the small craters.
Smoke billowing out.

And then we came upon the largest crater, Dolomieu Crater. With a diameter of 1000 m, this is the biggest crater of Piton de la Fournaise.

The biggest crater.

The helicopter then turned towards the Rempart, the outer caldera. We had crossed the Rempart and the lunar landscape enclosed between the outer and inner caldera first on our drive a day earlier.

The road cutting through the Plaine des Sables looks surreal in this vast moon landscape. It reminded me of the unique landscape we got to see with a hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia.

Lunar landscape.
Plaine des Sables.

I remember the first look of the Plaine des Sables from the road on the ridge that overlooks it, but nothing could prepare me for the stunning aerial view. This volcanic area was definitely the highlight of the helicopter ride over Reunion Island for me.

Outer caldera.

Cirques of Reunion Island

Formed inside the Piton des Neiges and shaped by centuries of erosion are 3 fabulous Cirques – Salazie, Cilaos, and Mafate – also referred to as giant natural amphitheaters. Each cirque is protected by a rampart along a narrow wall of greenery. And when the helicopter crosses that wall, the magnificent lush valley dotted in parts with houses takes your breath away.

Our pilot had informed us earlier that Cirque de Salazie would not be covered in the trip as it was completely covered with clouds. But we were happy to go over the Cirque de Mafate, the remotest of the lot, accessible only by foot or by a helicopter.

The cirques at Reunion.
Cirques aerial view.
Cirque de Cilaos

We then covered the Cirque de Cilaos and saw parts of the famous 400 bends road snaking across the terrain. It would be fun to drive across this road with all its turns and twists the next day to reach the mountain village of Cilaos.

The many bends of the road to Cilaos.
More road bends at Cilaos.

And finally, we crossed the dry plains of the river and then the sugarcane fields of the island back to the Pierrefonds airport where the trip started.

Cilaos riverbed.
Sugarcane fields.
Smooth landing.

Information for the Helicopter tour of Reunion Island

  1. Even if the weather permits, the flight won’t take off unless there are at least 4 passengers for the ride.
  2. Even if you have booked a particular route/time period, the final decision is taken by the pilot just before the flight depending on that day’s weather and micro-climates over the different parts of the island.
  3. It is best to book an early morning flight when the weather is most likely to be clear. It gives you a better chance to do the helicopter ride even if the weather is not conducive in the morning but clears off during the first half of the day.
  4. Contrary to what I thought, it isn’t cold in the helicopter, so dress in comfortable clothes and footwear.
  5. Even though my husband and I loved this experience, my 8-year daughter wasn’t as delighted. She did not throw up but was uncomfortable during the flight, and distinctly when uneasy when the helicopter took sharp turns.
  6. Do call the airport counter in the morning before leaving your hotel, if possible. We didn’t do that the first morning and came to know about the canceled flight only after reaching the Pierrefonds airport.

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