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Fancy yourself a bit of France but crave some tropical sunshine and sand between your toes? Relax, because you can have both. History has endowed the French with not only a twin obsession with Jerry Lewis and Gitanes cigarettes, but an impressive roster of island possessions in the tropics too — all boasting sea breezes and beaches to make the average scarf-clutching Parisian drool. Venture to Martinique or way-out-there Mayotte and in addition to technicolor sun you’ll find just enough French flair to lend your trip a singular je ne sais quoi.
Indeed, things may be great when you go downtown, but the French know they’re even better “Dom Tom” — the French acronym for overseas France (Départements d’Outre Mer – Territoires d’Outre Mer). An overseas département like Guadeloupe, for example, is considered an integral part of France. The administrative fine print of these diverse locales varies — French Polynesia is classified as a collectivité — but the currency is the euro, the official language is French and all roads (or flight paths, rather) lead to Paris and the French Parliament, where their citizens have representation. So grab le sunblock and allez-y…Let’s go!
Part of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles chain, Martinique is one of France’s Caribbean majors. It’s most famous for its rum, and for being the home of Mont Pelée, the nearly 5,000-foot tall volcano that blew its top on May 8, 1902, obliterating the town of Saint-Pierre and more than 28,000 people along with it. Not that the place is inhospitable — au contraire. The eruption spelled the demise of the town’s stature as the Paris of the Caribbean, and is the reason the island’s capital moved south to Fort-de-France. In terms of beaches, lush vegetation and tropical flavors, Martinique makes for a quintessentially fantastique Caribbean getaway.
The truest statement you could ever make about Guadeloupe is that it is deliciously complicated, thanks to geography. It’s part of the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles and, unlike its sister Martinique, is not a single island. The main island is shaped like a butterfly, with Basse-Terre forming its west wing and Grande-Terre forming the eastern one; they’re separated by the Salt River strait but joined by bridges. The volcano of La Grande Soufrière is the tallest peak in the Lesser Antilles and is located in Basse-Terre (not to be confused with capital, also called Basse-Terre), while the largest city, Pointe-à-Pitre, is on Grande-Terre. Amazing beaches here are not hard to find, but those at Porte d’Enfer, which translates to Hell’s Gate in English, stand out. The high cliffs and chiseled coves are pretty heavenly in any language.
3. Les Saintes
When it comes to falling off the map, there are few better places in the Caribbean to do it than in the Îles des Saintes, a petite, pristine archipelago due south of Guadeloupe’s Basse-Terre. The two main islands are Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas, each surrounded by coral reefs home to a wealth of marine fauna including protected sea turtles. Terre-de-Haut’s town of the same name is situated on what might be the most beautiful bay in the Antilles. Pain de Sucre (Sugarloaf) and Plage de Pompierre are the go-to beaches in Terre-de-Haut, while Grande Anse is an inviting stretch of white sand in Terre-de-Bas. There are regular ferry connections between Terre-de-Haut and Guadeloupe.
Like Les Saintes, Marie-Galante is a dependency of Guadeloupe but it’s a single island — round in shape and 61 square miles, it’s south of Grande-Terre and was named by Columbus after the flagship Marigalante. In many ways, it’s the archetypal Caribbean paradise, with a plethora of white sand beaches, crystal blue waters and deserved reputation for world-class rum. The Château Murat, now a museum, was built in 1839 and home to 207 slaves, which made it the largest sugar cane plantation in Guadeloupe. It’s outside Grand Bourg, the island’s “big town” with just over 5,560 souls. History beckons with each windmill (some 70 still stand) but so does the sand: check out the west coast beaches of Anse Canot, Moustique and Folle Anse, while Plage de La Feuillère on the east will melt your Instagram. Voilà!
Let’s get a few things out of the way first: Mayotte is France’s 101st and poorest département; its original Arabic name, Jazīrat al-Mawt, means Island of Death; and it’s shaped like a drunken seahorse (non-intoxicated seahorses found their way into the island’s flag and coat of arms). Still not tempted? Well, Mayotte is a beauty, with a barrier reef not only surrounding the Indian Ocean island but also protecting what’s said to be the world’s largest lagoon. Fragrant ylang-ylang orchards that thrive in the volcanic soil, myriad diving possibilities and beaches to suit every taste ramp up Mayotte’s hideaway appeal. Coming from Paris, you’ll typically stop in Nairobi before flying to the island’s capital, Mamoudzou.
6. Bora Bora
It is perhaps the definitive South Pacific island paradise, and it invites superlatives: Bora Bora, a mere 12-square mile speck in French Polynesia’s vast Society Islands archipelago. A U.S. military supply base during World War II, the island became synonymous with hideaway hedonism in the 1970s after the introduction of the world’s first over-water bungalows (at the now-closed Hotel Bora Bora). The island’s electric blue lagoon, encircled by an atoll, is among the world’s most beautiful, and luxury resorts make their homes on some of its reef islets, or motus. Lording over the beaches and gentle waves is iconic Mount Otemanu, an extinct volcano that juts up from the center of Bora Bora’s pint-sized but lush and very picturesque interior.
It’s no overstatement to call this volcanic Indian Ocean island magnifique. The adventure begins on descent to RUN, Roland Garros Airport — which like the famous French tennis venue is named for the legendary aviator born in Saint-Denis, the island’s administrative capital. The Piton de la Fournaise is an active volcano that soars more than 8,000 feet and erupts pretty much once every nine months; the extinct Piton des Neiges rises more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Around the volcanoes, lunar-like landscapes vie for your attention with verdant tropical forests. Of course, many vacationing French come for la plage: pristine tropical beaches abound along many spectacular stretches of Réunion’s coastline.
8. New Caledonia
If you find yourself 12,000 or so miles from Paris and you crave a decent baguette, pop over to Nouméa, the cool capital of the French special collectivity of Nouvelle-Calédonie. It’s a South Pacific melting pot of the original Kanak inhabitants along with Polynesian, Melanesian, European and other cultures. While the capital is highly developed, there’s no getting around the fact that the cigar-shaped island itself is remote — Australia is 750 miles to the west. But with an area of 7,152 square miles, it is large and there’s plenty to explore, including an incredibly rich biodiversity and some pretty spectacular stretches of sand, too.
Know before you go.
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