How to Visit France… Without Going to Europe
There is this sumptuous and luxurious idea that France is all about dipping croissants in a café au lait and walking along the Seine holding a baguette. However, there is another side of France—and a France that is not even in Europe. In fact, France can be found in South America, the Caribbean and even the Indian Ocean. I spent just over a year living and working in Martinique. It was 14 glorious months of experiencing that French je ne sais quoi, but with warm weather and fruity cocktails all year-round.
Here are five places where you can speak French, spend the euro and use 220 voltage—without ever stepping foot in Europe:
Martinique, also called the Island of Flowers, is home to Mont Pelée—the third deadliest volcano in the world—and birthplace of Joséphine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.
While the south Caribbean side is famous for its white sand beaches and clear water, one of the more interesting activities is to head to La Trinité and hike the Presqu’île de la Caravelle. Walking along the coastline during a three-hour circuitous hike, you’ll explore four different biospheres, from savannah to mangroves, visit a castle and the old lighthouse, and stop for a swim at Baie du Trésor–an Atlantic beach protected from the rough sea by the Caravelle Peninsula.
The north of the island is wild. Black sand beaches, wild fruit trees and rough waters dominate the landscape. A drive up to Le Prêcheur will find you at one of the island’s most untouched beaches: Anse Couleuvre. A walk along Rivière Couleuvre through the nearby forest ends with a view of one of Martinique’s tallest waterfalls.
You will learn at least one Creole phrase whilst in Martinique: Pa ni pwoblem. It means “no worries, ” and that’s exactly how you’ll feel on this beautiful island in the Caribbean.
Guadeloupe is actually an archipelago made up of five different islands. The main island of Guadeloupe has a channel called Rivière Salée that runs down the middle, dividing the island into two: Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre. There are also three dependencies of Guadeloupe: Îles des Saintes, Marie Galante and La Desirade.
On Grande-Terre, you can spend your days on the beach, but if you’re looking for something a little more active, head over to Basse-Terre on the west of the island. Basse-Terre is a natural sanctuary replete with waterfalls, pitons and a volcano hike that will give you gorgeous views of the island.
Îlet Pigeon, just off the coast from Bouillante, is a first-class place for scuba diving and snorkelling. This islet is part of the Jacques Cousteau Reserve, where dozens of marine species are being protected. Renting a kayak will get you snorkelling gear and a waterproof card to help you identify all the fish, allowing you to explore under water and on land at your leisure. A signposted walk around the islet lets you to discover the unique flora and fauna found there.
On the drive home, definitely stop at the House of Cacao. You’ll learn the process of chocolate-making in the Caribbean while sampling some of Guadeloupe’s finest chocolate.
Besides French, languages spoken on the island include Reunion Creole, Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka, making Reunion Island a veritable melting pot of languages and cultures.
This island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean is renowned for its volcanic landscapes, which can be easily explored by Les Cars Jaunes–yellow buses that link the main towns. Sea turtles and dolphins inhabit the coastal waters while humpback whales can be seen during migration season. Reunion Island is one of the foremost destinations in France for surfing.
A mix of spices and influences from different countries reflect the fusion that is Réunionnais cuisine. Local food is a delicious blend of European, African, Chinese and Indian influences.
If you’re feeling adventurous, spend a morning at the market in Saint-Paul. Beautifully placed by the seaside, you’ll be able to experience the scents and flavours of the local cuisine. Exotic fruits, locally grown vegetables and freshly caught fish can all be found here. Speak to a marchand and find out how to make the traditional Réunionnais dish–cari and rougail. Cari is a curry-like stew with a spice mix called massalé that is unique to the island. Rougail is a spicy side dish for cari, made with diced tomatoes.
Have a drink of rhum arrange—rum flavoured by soaking fruit and spices in the bottle under the sun. With all of the fresh food and explosive flavours, Reunion Island is a foodie heaven!
French Guiana is a place where French croissants meet Amazonian rainforests, coastal mangroves and savannahs. This South American department is home to a variety of wildlife–like capuchin monkeys, scarlet ibises and sloths–that won’t be found elsewhere in France, making it a top destination for eco-tourism.
In contrast to the country’s splendour, French Guiana has a dark history. Until 1951, the region was a notorious penal colony. Visitors to the country often stop over at Île du Diable—a place that was considered escape-proof because of the strong currents and sharks. Prisoners sent here worked 12 hours a day, and 70 percent of them died from disease and harsh conditions.
Now an ecological research preserve, it is said that only the truly hardcore make it to French Guiana because the terrain and lifestyle is difficult to get used to. The rewards, however, are commensurate to the effort. French Guiana is home to the Guiana Amazonian Park, which—at 33, 900 square kilometres—is France’s largest national park. This park contains 1, 300 tree species, 720 bird species, 480 species and 190 mammal species. There has even been evidence of an uncontacted tribe known as the Wayampi living in the region!
Saint-Pierre and Miquelon
Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, is an ideal island to visit for those interested in cultural and historical discovery. Saint-Pierre and Miquelon is actually made up of three islands: Saint-Pierre, the smaller of the two; and Miquelon-Langlade, which are two islands connected by drifted sand.
First settled by the French in the 17th century, the island is the only remaining piece of France’s colonies in North America. The island profited wildly from the Prohibition era. Saint-Pierre and Miquelon was a storehouse for Canadian whisky and Al Capone ran his operations out of this colony unaffected by the legislation.
There are only about 6, 000 residents and almost no stop signs, but the rustic architecture, cobblestone streets, Acadian history and coastal scenery are the primary reasons to visit. On the coasts are steep cliffs, wild horses and France’s only boreal forest in Cap à Dinan on Saint-Pierre.
Book a tour with Chez Janot–owner and operator M. Cloony will take you from Saint-Pierre over to Miquelon-Langlade and back, teaching you everything you need to know about the three islands. You’ll explore different regions and taste different local foods. Keep an eye out for the puffins, whales and sea lions on the water!