France's best holiday islands – and when to visit them

·16-min read
Bora Bora - Karl Shakur
Bora Bora - Karl Shakur

In some senses, there is no country more firmly fixed in the mind’s eye than France. It is a place of well-defined certainties – of the Eiffel Tower pushing its iron snout into the Parisian firmament; of patisserie counters filled with flaky croissants and butter-infused pains au chocolat; of Monet portraits of lily ponds and garden bridges. It is a compelling, seductive image, one that is ring-fenced by hard geography – the Alps and the Pyrenees blocking the horizon, the Rhine on its journey to the North Sea; the Channel surly and grey; the Mediterranean supplying the sun-sparkle to the Cote d’Azur.

And yet, the idea of France as one neat package of Gallic joy is not strictly true. At least, not in terms of the atlas. Thanks in part to lingering tendrils of empire, La République stretches its reach across the planet – and into three oceans, where fragments of its territory slumber in weather generally warmer than you might expect in Calais in March. In other words, France is an archipelago; a hemisphere-straddling collection of outcrops and atolls where, if you choose your location correctly, you can take a holiday at any time of the year without having to worry (much) about a rain cloud.

From the chic resorts of the Caribbean to the lagoons of the South Pacific and the remotest edges of Africa, the planet is festooned with islands where the Tricolore flutters and La Marseillaise rings out. But for all these exotic temptations, never forget those shards of France which sit a little closer to the source: Corsica rising wild from the Med; the Ile de Ré a shimmering Avalon off the coast of Charente Maritime. Somewhere within each is travel nirvana, whether for hikers and campers, sun-seekers and lovers of luxury, families and children, road-trippers, adventurers, and the intrepid…

January to April

Guadeloupe

The first months of the year have long been a time to look up from the colder context of post-Christmas Europe – up, away, west, to the rather warmer beaches of the Caribbean. The British gaze tends to follow the flight paths – to Barbados and Antigua. But France still claims several segments of the region as its own. Of these, Guadeloupe is easily the biggest island – if you ignore the geographical technicality of the Rivière Salée, which provides a narrow channel of separation between the more “developed” eastern outcrop Grande-Terre, and its bigger but quieter neighbour Basse-Terre. The former has the biggest “city” (Pointe-a-Pitre), the latter some of the loveliest beaches – not least around Deshaies, in its north-west corner. But either isle is a splendid option at a time when temperatures hover around a near-constant 25C.

Essential sight: La Grande Soufrière, the enormous sleepy volcano – all 4,813ft of it – that shapes the lower half of Basse-Terre. It forms the highest part of Guadeloupe National Park (guadeloupe-parcnational.fr), a protected space that is home to creatures like the Guadeloupe raccoon and the endangered agouti – as well as hiking trails aplenty.

How to do it: Inspiring Travel Company (01244 435259; inspiringtravelcompany.co.uk) offers a seven-night “Discover Guadeloupe” package which explores the island from the comfort of the Langley Resort Fort Royal, in Deshaies. From £1,926 per person (flights included).

Guadeloupe, Strand von Capesterre-de-Marie-Galante - Camera Press
Guadeloupe, Strand von Capesterre-de-Marie-Galante - Camera Press

Martinique

You only have to go two islands down (soaring over the top of Guadeloupe satellite Grand-Bourg, before floating over Dominica) to hop from Grande-Terre to Martinique. And though, technically, the latter is part of a separate island group – Guadeloupe is one of the Leeward Islands, Martinique is in the Windward chain – the experience is unsurprisingly similar. Like Guadeloupe, Martinique is a French “overseas department” – part of the EU, where the euro is king. Like its compatriot, it dozes in warmth in the mid-20s during the earliest weeks of the year – and offers plenty of sophisticated resorts from which to enjoy it. Many are along a south coast which slips down to the waterline in gentle fashion. The north, by contrast, is forested and hilly, coming to a head where Mont Pelée reaches up to 4,583ft. At its feet, Saint-Pierre, now rebuilt, tells a troubled tale. The peak’s eruption in 1902 wiped the town and its 32,000 inhabitants from the map, in what was the 20th century’s worst volcanic disaster.

Essential sight: Plage des Salines, a glorious strip of pale yellow sand on the south coast.

How to do it: Martinique is an option for families. As with many parts of the French world, it has a Club Med (0345 367 6767; clubmed.co.uk) resort – the four-star Les Boucaniers, on said south coast. A nine-night all-inclusive holiday for a family of four, flying from Heathrow, via Paris, on February 11 2023 – during half term – costs from £8,752 in total.

Saint Martin

The phrase “divided island” tends to conjure unpleasant images of barbed wire and high fences. This little (34-square-mile) fragment of the Lesser Antilles is a sweet exception to the bitter rule. Its sharing between France and the Netherlands was the result of diplomacy rather than war; born of the aptly named Treaty of Concordia in 1648. France has the northern 60 per cent of the “Friendly Island”, Holland the southern 40 (as “Sint Maarten”). The “border” between is little more than a few polite roadside signs; an absence of frontier bureaucracy which leaves more time for snoozing in the sun.

Essential sight: Marigot, the capital of French Saint Martin, with its small harbour, 18th-century fortress (Fort St Louis) and inevitable selection of patisseries, creperies and cafes.

How to do it: Belmond (0845 077 2222; belmond.com) has a property on the French side of the island – La Samanna, which stares into the sunset from the west coast. A seven-night stay costs from £2,499 a head (with flights), via Caribtours (020 7751 0660; caribtours.co.uk).

La Samanna, A Belmond Hotel, St Martin - Joe Vaughn
La Samanna, A Belmond Hotel, St Martin - Joe Vaughn

May to August

Ile de Ré

This sliver of Atlantic France, marooned due west of La Rochelle (though connected to it by bridge), is an anti-Corsica of sorts – tiny (just 33 square miles) where its compatriot is colossal; flat (66ft at its “highest” point) where the country’s Mediterranean monster claws the sky. But the Ile de Ré is no less worthy a destination – a genteel place of year-round oyster catches and salt marshes, happy at 24C in August, where 70 miles of bike trails cross the interior (see holidays-iledere.co.uk for details), and the tourists at the table next to you in the seafood restaurant are as likely to be French as from further away.

Essential sight: North-coast Saint-Martin-de-Ré, where ice-cream shops and little bars festoon the harbour – and the golden arc of Plage de la Cible is within walking distance.

How to do it: A seven-night stay at the five-bedroom Villa de la Loubrie, arriving on August 13, starts at £9,990 (flights extra), with Simpson Travel (020 3930 1486; simpsontravel.com).

Ile d’Oléron

If the Ile de Ré has a certain historic cachet to go with its comeliness, its neighbour is rather less known. Ten miles to the south, the Ile d’Oléron is bigger (67 square miles), and as well-connected (it too has a road-bridge to the mainland). It offers the same mix of fresh air and unhurried atmosphere – plus an unbroken line of sand along the 20 miles of its west coast.

Essential sight: Plages des Huttes, the finest part of those 20 splendid miles.

How to do it: The Ile d’Oléron is perfect for a family camping trip. Canvas Holidays (0345 268 0827; canvasholidays.co.uk) offers getaways to Domaine d’Oléron, a campsite with various swimming pools, waterslides and playgrounds, roughly at the centre of the island. A seven-night stay for a family of four, checking in on July 30, costs £1,148 in a two-bedroom “mobil-home” – and £784 in a five-person tent (not including travel costs).

Bonifacio, located at the extreme south of Corsica - Getty
Bonifacio, located at the extreme south of Corsica - Getty

Corsica

Although the Caribbean is vastly enticing, you don’t have to cross an ocean to land on a French island bathed in sunshine. Corsica is perhaps the most obvious piece of the Gallic seaside jigsaw – the fourth largest outcrop in the Mediterranean, and the biggest to fly the Tricolore. It is a behemoth; 3,368 square miles of picturesque ports, mountain ridges and soft beaches. The first category – all waterfront eateries and chic boutiques – is filled by northerly Bastia, and a west-coast capital, Ajaccio, which was the birthplace of Napoleon (the Maison Bonaparte – musees-nationaux-malmaison.fr/musee-maisonbonaparte – takes up this tale). The second dominates the skyline in the central Monte Renoso massif and the north-westerly Monte Cinto peaks – playgrounds both for hiking and cycling breaks. The third are everywhere, along a shoreline which runs to 620 miles – but finds their most attractive form, perhaps, in the south-east, in the sandy coves which fringe Porto-Vecchio.

Essential sight: Bonifacio, the medieval citadel at Corsica’s southernmost tip, where you can stroll to the clifftop Place du Marché and gaze at Sardinia skulking seven miles away.

How to do it: Corsica’s size and geographical diversity lend themselves to all manner of escapes. If cycling is your forte, “Corsica, The Beautiful Isle” – an eight-day route which trundles from Bastia to Porto and back, via the Cinto slopes – may appeal. Saddle Skedaddle (0191 265 1110; skedaddle.com) will arrange it as a private ride (as well as an escorted tour) from £2,145 per person (with bike hire; flights extra). Less energetically, a week at Villa Contemporanea, a five-bedroom retreat at Porto-Vecchio (ref: 13405), arriving on July 30, costs from £8,729 (flights extra) via James Villas (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk).

September to October

French Polynesia

There is, of course, a second cluster of French islands in warm, azure waters – and it lies much further from the mainland than Martinique. A full 9,750 miles away, in fact. That’s the distance between Paris and Papeete – the capital of French Polynesia, and the biggest settlement on its most fabled outcrop, Tahiti. That said, “biggest” is a relative concept in the South Pacific, a region rather short on urban sprawl, but blessed with delicate beaches and whispering palm trees. And while Tahiti is gorgeous, the length of the journey means you will certainly want to island-hop to next-door Mo’orea, where Mont Rotui rears like a striking snake. And to Taha’a, 150 miles to the north-west; a jewel fringed by coral reef, and brilliant snorkelling opportunities, plus luxury resorts.

Essential sight: Bora Bora. Taha’a’s neighbour is the picture-book image of the South Pacific in all its glory – the main island enveloped by a barrier reef and a shallow lagoon.

How to do it: The European autumn is an excellent time to visit Tahiti – the French Polynesian dry season runs from March to November. Luxtripper (020 4538 2013; luxtripper.co.uk) offers an 18-night “Luxury Tahiti Island Hopping” holiday which also lingers in five-star properties on Mo’orea, Taha’a and Bora Bora. From £9,608 per person, including flights.

The Frioul archipelago

If Tahiti snoozes half a planet away from the core French landmass, the Frioul islands sit much closer to the mothership – two miles west of Marseille’s main harbour. Yet in spite of their proximity, they bear scant resemblance to the country’s cluttered second city. They are low-slung and desolate, loitering sun-baked and pale when viewed from the door of Marseille’s hilltop basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde. But their flinty face has a hard appeal. The second smallest of the four outcrops, If, is host to a 16th-century fortress which occupies an intriguing place in Gallic mythology; forever tied to the mysterious “Man in the Iron Mask”. The link is apocryphal – this notorious 17th-century political prisoner was never held inside (the association probably comes from Alexandre Dumas’s use of it as a cage for the titular hero of his 1844 thriller The Count of Monte Cristo). But you can enter the cells of a jail – France’s Alcatraz, if you will – that was used until 1890.

Essential sight: Plage de Saint-Estève, a horseshoe bay on the second island, Ratonneau.

How to do it: The archipelago can be an ideal afternoon element of an autumnal mini-break in Marseille. Ferries (lebateau-frioul-if.fr) depart regularly from the Vieux-Port. A three-night stay at the four-star NH Collection Marseille costs from £798 per person, with flights, transfers and breakfast, via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com).

Sailboat front of fort Sainte Marguerite Lerins islands - Alamy
Sailboat front of fort Sainte Marguerite Lerins islands - Alamy

Ile Sainte-Marguerite

If you want the real “L’Homme au Masque de Fer”, you need to go 100 miles east along the Côte d’Azur, to Cannes – and the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, where this still-unidentified jailbird was held between 1687 and 1698. Who was he, this closely guarded man, in what was, in truth, a mask of black velvet? The answer has eluded historians for centuries, so you won’t find it while wandering around Fort Royal, the north-coast stronghold where he had his own cell. But the island makes for a fun day-trip, a half-mile ferry ride (riviera-lines.com) from the city.

Essential sight: The “Plateau du Milieu”, the sheltered body of water between the island and its small neighbour Ile Saint-Honorat – a popular spot for swimming and watersports.

How to do it: Four nights at the Hotel Colette Cannes, leaving Heathrow for Nice on September 14, starts at £436 a head via British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787; ba.com/holidays).

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

The leafiest, most romantic of the seasons is traditionally a time for road-trips along North American byways ablaze with orange-gold foliage – which obviously rules out French islands. Or does it? Lost in the shadow of Newfoundland, off whose south coast they sit, obscure twins Saint Pierre and Miquelon are lingering vestiges of the French Empire in the northern Atlantic. Theirs has been a chequered history. Fans of Peaky Blinders will note that the recent concluding series of the British crime drama began with Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) trying to scratch out a living as an opium importer on the Miquelon of 1933. The idea is plausible – the islands were bootlegging hotspots in the USA’s Prohibition era (1920-33). However, you won’t find smugglers from Birmingham on either isle now. The pair have long settled into retirement as tranquil holiday outposts.

Essential sight: While Saint Pierre has much of the 6,000-strong population (and a town of the same name), there is a windswept beauty to Miquelon. Some 300 years ago, it was two distinct islands, Grande-Miquelon and Langlade – only for a low-slung isthmus to form between them. Known locally as “Le Dune”, this eight-mile sandbar is accessible via dirt track and four-wheel drive. Around 500 shipwrecks litter the waters on each side.

How to do it: You are unlikely to devote an entire holiday to Saint Pierre and Miquelon, but they can certainly be seen as part of a wider Canadian tour. Canada As You Like It (020 8742 8299; canadaasyoulikeit.com) offers a 17-night “Magnificent Newfoundland” road trip which explores the Burin Peninsula, at whose tip the islands sit – from £2,805 per person, including flights and car. Ferries sail over the border from Fortune (saintpierreferry.com).

 Mafate Circus on Réunion island - Getty
Mafate Circus on Réunion island - Getty

Réunion

The third quarter of the year is generally a good time to bask on the shores of the Indian Ocean. And if you let your gaze drift down across the global map – south-west of the Maldives, south of the Seychelles, west of Mauritius – you will notice an option beyond the obvious. Réunion is France’s biggest island in these turquoise waters – a crag of some 970 square miles, swaddled in tropical foliage. It shares some of the fine characteristics of the Gallic Caribbean, combining lovely beaches (Plage Grande Anse, on its south flank, is gloriously underdeveloped) with geological majesty. It plays the latter card particularly forcefully at its south-east corner, where Piton de la Fournaise is one of the planet’s most active volcanoes. Part of Réunion National Park (reunion-parcnational.fr), it has already erupted several times since the turn of the millennium.

Essential sight: The view from above. An eruption does not mean the volcano is wholly off-limits, and the vision of lava pouring into the ocean – which tends to be the result when the Piton is in the mood – is bucket-list stuff. Adrenaline specialist Manawa (020 3318 3096; manawa.com) offers helicopter flights over the caldera from £178 per person.

How to do it: KE Adventure Travel (01768 773966; keadventure.com) sells “Réunion Island Paradise” – an 11-day group walking holiday which hikes to all the island’s high places. From £2,675 per person, with flights. The trip has a departure scheduled for September 3.

November to December

Mayotte

Réunion is not the only French dot on the blue of the Indian Ocean. Tucked into the Mozambique Channel which cleaves Madagascar from the African mainland, Mayotte is a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of place, caught in the orbit of the neighbouring Comoro Islands – of which it was a part until 1974, in a controversial referendum which saw it eschew independence to cling to Paris. It retains much in common with its onetime colleagues – in indigenous music and food, and in a geographical template that splices volcanic cragginess to a protective ring of coral reef.

Essential sight: Dziani Dzaha (below), a crater lake on the satellite islet of Pamanzi (also known as Petite-Terre), whose under-the-surface lava tubes reputedly contain lost pirate treasure.

How to do it: Mayotte is tricky to reach, but a visit is not impossible. It will feature in the 30-day trip from Dubai to Cape Town that Oceania Cruises (0345 505 1920; oceaniacruises.com) has planned for December 7 to January 6. Prices from £7,009 a head (not including flights).

Mayotte island - Alamy
Mayotte island - Alamy

St Barts

Saint-Barthélemy is by far the smallest of the French “overseas collectivities” in the region. But it enjoys a reputation far greater than its 10-square-mile area would usually engender. There are few more glamorous options for Christmas in the sun.

Essential sight: Gustavia, the capital, wrapping its arms around a yacht-filled marina on the west coast.

How to do it: “St Barts” is rarely cheap, but it is possible to stay there without remortgaging. A seven-night escape in December to luxury bolthole Le Barthélemy, on the north-easterly horseshoe of Anse de Grand Cul-de-Sac, starts at £4,200 per person via Abercrombie & Kent (0330 173 4712; abercrombiekent.co.uk) – including flights, breakfast and transfers.

Have you visited any of these French islands? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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