Everyone on this small island is descended from immigrants so it's a place where there are many cultures and, best of all, everyone belongs, writes Pamela Wade.

The immigration officer at the airport is so distracted by his lovely young colleague coming into the booth for a triple cheek-kiss that he quite forgets to stamp our passports. It's all very French and thus the perfect introduction to the island of Reunion, a dot in the Indian Ocean, a half-hour flight from Mauritius.

The French were through this part of a world like a rash in the 17th century but while most of the countries they colonised are now independent, Reunion is still a part of France, much to the delight of the inhabitants. You don't have to go far to see the benefits: en route to our hotel, we skim along a modern highway beneath cliffs swathed in continuous chain-mail to contain rock falls; and further on, the road crosses elegant bridges soaring over deep ravines.

"It's the most expensive road in the world, per head of population," our guide Philippe Techer says next day, as we drive along it.

Of African-French origin, he's typical of an ethnic mix that can also include Indian, both Hindu and Muslim, and Chinese. Asked how he would describe himself, however, he gives the answer "Reunionnais, of course!" as if it's a silly question. And so it is: although the different cultures maintain their customs and religions. "They'll be Tamils doing some sort of ceremony," Philippe says airily as we drive past a group of red-robed people in the rocky riverbed - everyone belongs here, living in a harmony and tolerance that's an inspiration for the rest of us.

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Everyone in Reunion is descended from immigrants: explorers, colonists, slaves, indentured workers. It was coffee that originally required mass labour, but today the main crop is sugar cane, which rings the island with an almost unbroken fuzzy fringe. Up to 5m high, the canes crowd the narrow side roads, adding extra excitement to Philippe's Parisian driving style as he overtakes on blind bends and waves both hands in the air as he talks.

Although only 72km long and 51km wide, Reunion has the scenery of a much bigger country, with a dozen peaks more than 2000m high. Volcanic and spectacularly jagged, they and the three great cirques they surround have just been given UNESCO World Heritage status, to Philippe's enormous pride.

He can't wait to show us, whipping like a rally driver around the bends - of which there are plenty: the 31km up to Cilaos includes 420 corners. This sort of thing would normally have my hands over either my eyes or my mouth (probably both) but the views are too good to miss.

Philippe thinks so, too, and as we emerge from the final tunnel, announces theatrically, "And the last door opens!" He stops for us to admire the glory. Laid out before us is a huge bowl edged by blue dog's-tooth peaks sloping down to a plateaux chequered with neat fields of lentils and vines. They're separated by steep green ravines cut by an invisible river we can hear roaring over a waterfall. We could be in the Andes.

Winding paths, once the only way into this remote valley, connect a scattering of villages with Cilaos. It's a pretty little town of narrow streets, colourful Creole houses decorated with shutters and veranda lace, walled gardens bright with flowers, and a lovely church with a musical clock in its tower.

The ambience is relaxed, the air scented with coffee and fresh bread from the boulangerie. Locals chat on corners; a man with a basket on his head is in no hurry as he wanders along. Today the town depends on tourists, who flock here for the good hiking and climbing - and cycling, too, I note with astonishment as we swoop back down the mountain.

More to my taste are the horses plodding up another mountain. Philippe calls it Little Switzerland, but it could easily be New Zealand. Then we're crossing a starkly barren volcanic plain of red pebbles and crusty black basalt lava flows on the approach to 2631m Piton de la Fournaise, Reunion's active volcano.

It's hiding from us today, swathed in swirling cloud, and it's cold up here: only 12C, whereas down at the palm-fringed beach it's 10 degrees warmer. Actually, it's even hotter than that when we stop on the coast road where lava from the last eruption obliterated it on its way to the sea.

"Close your eyes!" directs Philippe as we drive towards it through lush green forest. "Now, open!" - and suddenly everything is black and bare. It's a dramatic contrast, but not a patch on what it was for a month in 2007, when lava more than a kilometre wide flowed into the sea in a violent collision of fire and water that still has Philippe marvelling.

We marvel, too, standing on the still-warm lava, when Philippe pokes twigs into a hole and within seconds they burst into flame. Though the rock beneath our feet seems solid, this demonstration of what lies under it suggests that it's time to move on; and there's another sight to wonder at just along the road.

Notre Dame des Laves is an ordinary white-painted church in an extraordinary position: half-surrounded by lava that burned through the rear doors and blackened the sills of the stained-glass windows - and then halted. Celebrated as a miracle, it's a magnet for the devout and for tourists who come to see how one of Nature's most unstoppable forces was made to do exactly that. It deserves a toast, and in Reunion there's just one tipple for a raised glass.

For six generations, rum has been distilled from cane juice and molasses by the Isautier family. Ours is flavoured with locally-grown vanilla and ginger, and we can feel it glowing all the way down. Warmth - from rum, the rocks, the sun and especially from the people. It's what Reunion is all about.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Reunion is ideally placed for a halfway stop-off en route to Europe, and provides the most direct way to get to South Africa. Air Mauritius flies weekly from Melbourne to Mauritius, with frequent connections to Reunion.

Where to stay: Try the Naiade resorts Le Grand Hotel du Lagon for vanilla-scented luxury and Le Recif for cheerful comfort. The local agents are adventureworld.co.nz.

Further information: See reunion.fr.

Pamela Wade's trip to Reunion was hosted by Air Mauritius and Naiade resorts.