Define the French Caribbean
Where laid-back cool merges seamlessly with French insouciance. Add year-round sunshine and sublime beaches, and you have a winning combination that adds a new dimension to the Caribbean for visitors who have visited tried-and-tested islands such as Barbados.
Ever since Columbus set foot on a pristine Caribbean beach in 1492, these islands have been hotly contested by European nations. France was finally left with four territories in the Antilles islands of the Caribbean. Martinique and Guadeloupe (plus its eight small outlying islands, now packaged as Les Isles de Guadeloupe) are both overseas départements (districts, on equal status with, say, the Pas de Calais in mainland France) . The other pair, Saint-Barthélemy (St-Barts) and Saint-Martin are "overseas collectives". The euro is the local currency, although US dollars are also widely accepted on Saint-Martin and St-Barts.
Haiti, formerly Saint-Domingue, was previously a French colony, but it is now independent.
Geographically, Guadeloupe and its neighbour Martinique are the dominant islands. The latter is truly France in the tropics, with the whiff of Gauloises in the air and gendarmes directing traffic. Mountainous rainforest interiors give way to fabulous coves and beaches on its Caribbean and Atlantic coasts. Its largest town, Fort-de-France, is a heady mixture of New Orleans and the French Riviera, with iron balconies heavy with flowers.
You can spot Guadeloupe on a map by its striking butterfly shape. Its two constituent islands, Grande-Terre (rolling hills and sugar plantations) and Basse-Terre (a rugged mountainous island dominated by the 1,444m volcano, La Soufrière) are linked by a drawbridge over the Rivière Salée. Guadeloupe may not have flashy resorts, but it offers an authentic experience at small inns with home cooking.
The big hitter?
Martinique is higher in the sophistication stakes than Guadeloupe, but neither island has quite the cachet of the diminutive island of St-Barts. Yet despite the mega-yachts, luxury villas and branches of Chanel and Hermès in the red-roofed capital Gustavia, St-Barts' heart nevertheless lies in a conservative culture descended from Breton and Norman fisherfolk.
There are no high-rises here and the tiny harbour is too small for the big cruise ships. The flip-flops may be by Jimmy Choo but the bling never becomes overpowering. The island contains a varied volcanic landscape of cliffs, hairpin bends and salt flats that makes it feel like a much larger place than it actually is. Because of the mountainous terrain, you need to be quite determined to get to this chi-chi idyll: arrival involves landing a small aircraft on a tiny runway between two peaks.
Somewhere to stay with a bit of je ne sais quoi?
In Martinique, it has to be the five-star Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa (00 596 596 54 80 80; capest.com). With an impressive rum-and-cigar cellar, it's an island legend. Suites from €400, with breakfast. If that's too much, try Hotel La Caravelle (00 596 596 58 07 32; www.bit.ly/bmdPsX) at the end of La Caravelle Peninsula on the easterly Atlantic side of the island. It's a two-star family-run hotel with La Table de Mamy Nounou, one of the best restaurants on the island, where you can dine very reasonably. Doubles from €61, room only.
St-Barts is the home of several hip hotels, including Hôtel Guanahani (00 590 590 27 66 60; leguanahani.com; doubles from €370 including breakfast), which is the largest on the island, but nevertheless has just 68 rooms.
Isle de France (00 590 590 27 61 81; isle-de-france.com), on the white sands of Baie des Flamands, is exceptional: Nantucket meets the West Indies in suites and villas. Doubles from €450 including breakfast and airport transfers.
Eden Rock (00 590 590 29 79 94; edenrockhotel.com) probably has the highest wow factor. It's set on a promontory between two beautiful bays at fashionable St-Jean. Here a charming Caribbean-style, one-bedroom garden cottage, the lowest room category, costs from €395 with breakfast and airport transfers.
Can I have a budget stay?
Not exactly, but you can reduce costs to less than €100 per person per night. The key to staying more economically on St-Barts is to go self-catering. Wimco (0870 850 1144; wimco.com) has a vast range of apartments and villas on both islands starting from a beach cottage in Lorient, St-Barts (code SIB SJA) from US$1,200 per week.
On Guadeloupe, Auberge de la Vieille Tour (00 590 590 84 23 23; accorhotels.com) is a four-star hotel in Gosier built around an 18th-century windmill (doubles from €170 room only). Families looking for a villa with a private pool for between two and 10 people should check out Les Villas Aquarelles (00 590 590 68 65 23; aquarelles-villas.com). Two-bedroom villas from €140 per night.
What will we do all day?
The islands have plenty to offer in terms of traditional Caribbean distractions such as snorkelling and diving. But for most visitors, the lure is the natural landscape.
The Parc National de la Guadeloupe ( guadeloupe-parcnational.fr) is a 30,000-hectare park designated by Unesco as a biosphere reserve. Small exhibition huts are scattered throughout the park. The Route de la Traversée is a lovely drive through the centre of Basse Terre within the park. Stop at Cascades aux Ecrevisses, a fine waterfall with a pool at the bottom that's perfect for swimming. About 2km further on there's a parking area signposted Maison de la Forêt where a loop trail goes through lush green forest with a swing bridge. As the road goes back down to the coast, stop at Parc des Mamelles (00 590 590 98 83 52; parcdesmamelles.com), a small zoo dedicated to the lesser Antilles, with everything from iguanas to cave bats and a treetop canopy walk. Admission €13.50.
On Martinique, Fort-de-France is well worth exploring. At its heart is La Savane, an impressive garden lined with shops and cafés. If you visit just one museum, make it La Pagerie (00 596 596 68 33 06), the childhood home of Napoleon's Empress Josephine. Just outside Trois-Ilets, this former sugar estate gives you a glimpse into the life of "Napoleon's little Creole". Admission €5.
The Route de la Trace (N3) is a lovely drive from Fort-de-France through the middle of the island to Mount Pelée. Don't miss Sacré Coeur de Balata, a tiny version of the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris.
St-Barts is really about living the life you dream about. Jump in your Mini Cooper Convertible (see travel essentials) and explore places like sleepy Corossol, an old fishing village. Of course, the capital Gustavia has designer shops, as does lively St-Jean. Stock up on Ligne St Barth beauty products, made on the island.
The best beaches
On Guadeloupe, the Grand-Terre Riviera has stunning white beaches and seaside resorts, including Gosier, Sainte-Anne and Saint-Francois. In Gosier stay at La Créole Beach Hôtel (00 590 590 90 46 46; creolebeach.com), in French colonial style. Doubles from €110 with breakfast. Club Med La Caravelle (00 590 590 85 49 50; clubmed.com) is a good all-inclusive option at Sainte-Anne. Seven night stays from €1,050 per person. At Saint-Francois, book into La Métisse (00 590 590 88 70 00; imcaraibes.com/metisse), with plenty of local style. Doubles from €155 with breakfast. If you make it to the outlying island of Marie-Galante (see panel on page 16), make a beeline for Plage de la Feuilère.
Grande Anse des Saline is a massive white sand beach on the southern tip of Martinique. It rarely feels crowded. Or head north to Anse Céron and Anse Couleuvre for amazing coconut tree-fringed black-sand beaches created after the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902.
Meanwhile, St-Barts has 21 beaches. St-Jean is a favourite. For surfing, head to Lorient Beach. For snorkelling, Colombier Beach is best – and for nude bathing, head to the stunning and wild Grande Saline Beach.
Creole cuisine – a colourful mix of influences from South America, Europe, Africa, Caribbean and Asia – is reason enough to head to the French isles. French techniques are combined with local produce. Try a typical dish of land crab with hot peppers and fresh coconut, freshwater crayfish and mashed bananas and breadfruit.
St-Barts is the gastronomic star of the French Caribbean, with many a Parisian chef winging their way there for the winter. Daily deliveries of fresh produce from the motherland push up prices. Book a table well in advance at Bonito (00 590 590 27 96 96), the hippest restaurant on the island, on one of Gustavia's steepest streets. A dining deck overlooks the harbour and French/Asian fusion is on the menu. Main courses cost €22-34. The art of the upmarket take-out has been refined here at Maya's To Go (00 590 590 29 83 70; st-barths.com/mayas-to-go). Pick up some tuna tataki, cheesecake and a bottle of chilled rosé for around €30 for two.
For authentic French Creole cooking in Guadeloupe, head to Le Bananier (00 590 590 84 34 85) in Gosier. This 60-year-old clapboard-sided cottage serves staples like stuffed crab backs and accras (deep fried dough-like beignets) of cod. Main courses from €15-40.
Le Brédas (00 596 596 57 65 52) just north of Fort-de-France in St-Joseph, Martinique, serves modern Creole cuisine such as foie gras with yellow bananas. Main courses €28-32.
Do these islands know how to party?
Both Martiniquans and Guadeloupeans are known for their dancing and each claims "la biguine" (a dance first performed by slaves, with drums and sticks) was invented on their island. There's calypso, salsa, merengue and fusion jazz.
On Guadeloupe, Zoo Rock Café at La Marina in Gosier (zoorockcafe.com) is a good place to head for St-Tropez-style themed parties. On Martinique there's a similar love of dancing. Here Les Grands Ballets Martiniquais are the vibrant troupe of singers, musicians and dancers to see. But it's during Carnival (or Vaval as it's known locally) that the whole island comes to life, with masquerades and dancing in the streets (6-9 March 2011).
St-Barts Music Festival ( stbartsmusicfestival.org) is in mid January, with classical, opera and jazz. Gustavia has a few good nightclubs including Le Bête à Z'Ailes (00 590 590 29 74 09; bazbar.com) for live bands and sushi, and there's the hip Nikki Beach (00 590 590 27 64 64; nikkibeach.com) or Guanahani's Bar'Tô Lounge (00 590 590 27 66 60; leguanahani.com) if you don't mind being surrounded by the beautiful people.
St-Martin Two islands in one
French St-Martin shares its landmass with St Maarten, a Dutch outpost. The island varies between undulating green hills and sandy scrubland but has some of the Caribbean's most impressive, clothing-optional beaches – 32 in all – as well as good restaurants and nightlife.
The Dutch side has the cruise-ship visitors; the French side is sleepier and more exclusive. Visit Marigot, the capital, with its harbourside bistros and stalls selling cinnamon, nutmeg and chilli peppers, or drive east to Grand-Case, a small fishing village full of French charm.
Go hiking through lush tropical rainforest at Loterie Farm nature reserve (00 590 590 87 86 16; loteriefarm.net) at the bottom of Pic Paradis, the highest part of the island). Two-hour hikes cost €25. Horseriding on the beach with Bayside Riding Club (00 590 590 87 36 64; baysideridingclub.com) based at Coconut Grove, is one of life's must-dos. From US$70 per hour for a group ride.
For accommodation, La Samanna (00 590 590 87 64 00; lasamanna.com) is the star of St-Martin. Everyone from Dolce & Gabbana to Jodie Foster has checked in. Set on one end of Baie Longue, one of the island's best beaches, this is the kind of red-carpet treatment hotel where you return to your suite to find chocolate- covered strawberries and champagne. B&B from US$495 (£330). A new private powerboat is launching on 1 November to whisk guests from the airport to the hotel, cocktail in hand (US$75).
Hot for certain, but it's not always dry
By Dr Liz Bentley
The Caribbean only really has two seasons – one wet, one dry. Between December and June the islands are pleasantly warm, dry and sunny. The remainder of the year can be hot and wet, as occasionally the islands are affected by passing hurricanes. Even more occasionally, the hurricane's path will directly cross one of the islands, which occurred most recently with Hurricane Ike in September 2008. The hurricane season runs from June to November, peaking in late August and September, and yields heavy rain and strong winds. Direct hits by major storms are very rare.
As with any tropical location, the weather is characterised by the trade winds – prevailing easterly winds. For centuries, the trade winds were used by captains of sailing ships to cross the world's oceans. However, from a meteorological perspective, the trade winds act as the steering flow for tropical storms that form over the Atlantic. For most of the year, their impact upon the Caribbean is benign – blowing around the shallow cumulus clouds that provide occasional shade.
Trade winds also steer African dust westward across the Atlantic into the Caribbean Sea. When the dust, which originates in the Sahara, travels over the Caribbean islands, rainfall is suppressed; the sky changes from a blue to a milky white and the islands are likely to enjoy an increase in spectacular red sunsets. This happens most commonly in July.
It was the prominence of the trade winds that led to the two of the island groups being called the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. The Windward Islands are the first set of islands the sailing ships arriving in the New World would have encountered. Because of their position, the weather on the Windward Islands always feels milder than that of the Leewards, and the northeastern sides of most islands in the area are nearly always lusher, as they receive more rainfall.
The British tend to visit the Caribbean in the winter to enjoy guaranteed sunshine. But don't be surprised to see an isolated shower; this is the tropics, after all.
Dr Liz Bentley is founder of theWeather Club, formed by the Royal Meteorological Society, which launched this week to promote an appreciation and understanding of the weather. Visit theweatherclub.org.uk for more information, and to read about one woman's personal experience of surviving Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Travel essentials: French Caribbean
When to go
* Ideally, between Christmas and Easter – though this dry season coincides, naturally, with the highest prices. Hotel prices are lowest in the hot months of May and June; they rise in the even hotter months of July and August, because of demand from holidaymakers from France, but fall again from September to November – during the hurricane season.
* Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance.co.uk), Corsair ( corsairfly.com) and Air Caraibes (00 33 147 833 818; aircaraibes.com) fly frequently from Paris to Guadeloupe, Martinique and St-Martin; KLM (08705 074 074; klm.com) also flies from Amsterdam to Saint-Martin. To reach St-Barts, take the 15-minute flight from St-Maarten with Winair ( fly-winair.com) or St Barths Commuter ( stbarthcommuter.com) from the French side. Alternatively, The Voyager (00 590 590 87 10 68; voy12.com) sails four times daily (Wednesdays and Sundays twice a day) St-Martin-St Barts.
French island hopping
* To combine Martinique and Guadeloupe, an Express des Iles ferry ( express-des-iles.com) connects the pair three times a week (out Mon, Thurs and Sat and back Wed, Fri and Sun). The four-hour journey costs €67 one-way, €99 round-trip. Or you can take a 45-minute flight with Air Caraibes, €144 return.
* It's a doddle to take a day tour to the outlying islands of Guadeloupe. Marie-Galante is like a step back in time. Here, farmers still drive ox-drawn carts and huge sugar cane fields cover much of the island. The long white-sand beaches are often deserted. You can catch the ferry four times a day from Pointe-à-Pitre port. The journey takes 45 minutes and costs €40 return with Express des Iles.
* Tall-ship specialist Star Clippers (0845 200 6145; starclippers.co.uk) has a new seven-night cruise this winter (2010/11) from St Maarten which visits Guadeloupe and St-Barts. From £2,399 per person, including three nights in Paris prior to the cruise.
* Rental cars are the best way to explore all the islands, especially 4x4s on St-Barts where roads are hilly and narrow. Hertz ( hertz.com) and Avis ( avis.com) are on all islands or you try a local firm such as Gumbs Car Rental (00 590 590 27 75 32) on St-Barts with reasonable rates of about €25 per day. Or hire a scooter, quad bike, convertible Mini Cooper or electric runaround from Barth'loc (00 590 590 27 52 81; barthloc.com).
* Numerous tour operators feature holidays to St-Barts and St-Martin including Caribtours (020 7751 0660; caribtours.co.uk), Elegant Resorts (01244 897 991; elegantresorts.co.uk), Exsus (0207337 9010; exsus.com), ITC Classics (01244 355 570; itcclassics.co.uk) and Seasons in Style (01244 202 002; seasonsinstyle.com).
Onyx International (0118 947 2830; onyxtravel.co.uk) is the only UK tour operator that specialises in Guadeloupe and Martinique.