The complete guide to France sans frontiÿres

Twelve million Brits holiday in France every year, but if you'd prefer your morning croissant under a palm tree instead, why not try one of its exotic territories? It's France, Jacques, but not as we know it.


Where does France end?

Where does France end?

Technically, not where you'd expect. There is a lot more to the nation than l'hexagone, as the mainland is called (look at its six-sided shape and you'll see why). There are little specks of France dotted all around the globe, most of them in spectacular settings. Try Tahiti, New Caledonia and Wallis & Futuna in the South Pacific; Mayotte and Réunion in the Indian Ocean; French Guiana in South America; Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean; Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, just off the coast of Newfoundland; and, of course, the Southern and Antarctic Territories. And some people still think, wrongly, that the island of Corsica is part of Italy. However far you travel you can usually find a corner of the world where the croissants are crispy, the fromage is fresh and the franc is the favoured currency.

But are they actually part of France?

Yes - and no. Most of these territories were colonised from the 17th century onwards, usually targeted for their natural resources and useful trading positions. Some, such as New Caledonia and French Guiana, were chosen for their remoteness and lack of resources, and used as penal colonies.

Over the following centuries, France's role in these locations has varied. French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique and Guadeloupe became Overseas Departments in 1946, effectively making them far-flung extensions of metropolitan France, whereas other places, such as New Caledonia, remain Overseas Territories. In those cases, mainland France exerts the power of sovereignty but local affairs are managed by an elected Assembly. The status of Mayotte, and Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, "Collectivités Territoriales", lies somewhere between the two. But you can definitely get brie and baguettes there.

Is the red tape the same as for mainland France?

Largely. French nationals can come and go as they please within these territories but UK citizens will need to show a passport even when flying from Paris, France to Guadeloupe, France. The Overseas Departments are legally part of the European Community but non-French EC citizens must still present their passports on arrival and stay only for a maximum of three months, without a visa. The same rules apply for Overseas Territories and Collectivités Territoriales.

How geared up to tourism are the islands?

Many of France's ex-colonies are extremely beautiful. Often, they rely on their looks, and the tourism that results, for a great deal of their income. Tahiti, for example, is the largest island in French Polynesia. It has several stylish resorts and is renowned for its surfing. For something a bit different, Explore Worldwide (01252 760000, www.explore.co.uk) offers 25-day Tall Ship voyages from Tahiti to the Cook Islands, for £2695 per person, all inclusive. New Caledonia is a good option for divers. Dive Worldwide (01243 870618) offers tailor-made trips there from around £2,350 per person, including flights, accommodation, a stopover in Brisbane and 18 dives.

A little closer to mainland France, Corsican Places (01903 748180, www.corsica.co.uk), offers two week packages to Corsica from around £420 per person including flights, self-catering accommodation and car hire.

Martinique and Guadeloupe are popular package tour destinations, with good beaches and excellent watersport facilities. Club Med (0700 258 2633, www.clubmed.com) is a good starting point for these islands, offering all-inclusive trips from around £1,750 per person for two weeks. Specialist Caribbean operators also run packages here. These include Trips Worldwide (0117 311 4402, www.tripsworldwide.co.uk), which offers two week stays in Guadeloupe from £1,090 per person, including flights, accommodation and car hire.

French Guiana's lack of good beaches counts against it, as do its primitive infrastructure and the relative difficulty and expense involved in getting there. Similar transport difficulties reduce tourism potential in places like Wallis & Futuna, which lie between Fiji and Samoa, and Mayotte, off the coast of Madagascar. However, another reason why many of these places are relatively undiscovered by Brits is that overseas France is expensive.

What if I want to travel independently?

Then you had better get to Paris. Most of the destinations have direct flights on Air France from Charles de Gaulle airport. Brightways Travel (020 8621 8888) offers cheap discounted tickets from the airports that Air France serves in Britain. Sample fares for travel in early December: Guadeloupe or Martinique £454; Cayenne, French Guiana £484; St Denis, Réunion £639. Exact fares depend on taxes and currency fluctuations, and will be much higher over Christmas and the New Year.

Brightways could not quote a fare for Tahiti or New Caledonia, but Trailfinders (020 7937 3366) could: Papeete in Tahiti is £675 on Air France; for Nouméa in New Caledonia,Trailfinders recommends a Gulf Air/Air Calédonie combination via Sydney for £880.

For Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, try an Air Canada flight from Heathrow to St John's, Newfoundland. From there, take a minibus for about six hours to the town of Fortune, and a two-hour ferry journey. Reckon on £400 return.

When is the best time to visit?

It all depends on where you're visiting. The most comfortable time to travel to France's South Pacific territories is during the dry season, from the end of May to November, although you should also bear in mind that the maraamu winds blow across French Polynesia between June and August. You should probably plan to travel to Mayotte or Réunion between April and October.

For the Caribbean, the drier, cooler season runs between February and May, while French Guiana's driest months are from July to December. Saint-Pierre & Miquelon is best visited in July and August - at other times it can be very cool in maritime Canada.

However, if festivals and carnivals are your thing, you might want to plan a trip to coincide with Martinique's Mardi Gras in February or Tahiti's month-long Heiva i Tahiti, in July.

So, how French and how Polynesian is French Polynesia?

The islands are a fusion of both. Catholic missionaries did their best to destroy Polynesian culture in the 19th century, but some of the customs have survived. Today the local population is largely Maohi, and this is reflected in the islanders' laid back attitude and lifestyle.

French influence can best be seen in the cuisine, the language and the stylishness of many Polynesian resorts. Wallis & Futuna, boast gendarmes in caps and shorts but, in New Caledonia, the French influence is less striking. One factor that ties all these places together, however, is that they all use either the French or Pacific franc, the latter being fixed to the former at the rate of 1 to 0.055 - which means effectively that there are just under 20 Pacific francs to the French franc, and about 200 to the pound.

Are these South Pacific islands the picture postcard paradises that we imagine?

Generally speaking, yes. Tahiti's capital, Papeete, is a crowded port, but people come to this part of the world for the beaches and relaxed pace of life and, beyond the city, these are both in plentiful supply.

The five island groups of French Polynesia are made up of coral atolls. Rich in marine and bird life, they are covered in lush forest. Walkers will be rewarded with hilltop fortresses and ruined temples and beach lovers will find some of the finest in the world. New Caledonia is further off the beaten track and it has some fascinating terrain, but it has also been affected badly by European settlement, and its landscape has been stripped by mining and forest clearance. Wallis & Futuna have all the hallmarks of comprising a tropical utopia, but they are extremely inaccessible.

What about somewhere a bit closer to home?

The obvious candidate for France outre-mer is Corsica, dangling in the Med. The island is too French for some: the Foreign Office warns that "Sporadic bomb attacks by the Corsican nationalist group (FLNC) on public buildings continue to occur throughout Corsica." It is also annoyingly tricky to reach, with no direct scheduled flights from Britain, which means you have to change planes at Nice or take a ferry from the Cÿte d'Azur.

Once there, though, you will forgive everything: the island where Napoleon was born is a rich concoction of history, scenery and beaches. The best way to see it all is to walk across on the Grande Randonnée, the long-distance coast-to-coast footpath; for an easier ride, take the train journey across from the beautiful capital, Ajaccio, through the ancient mountain city of Corte to the port of Bastia.

Think carefully before driving: "Almost all roads in Corsica are mountainous and narrow, with numerous bends. Drivers should be extra vigilant and beware of wandering animals", says the Foreign Office.

Where can i find out more?

For more general information, start with the French Travel Centre (178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL; calls to the office, on 09068 244123, are charged at 60p per minute). Then, do some reading; useful guides include the Lonely Planet titles South Pacific, Eastern Caribbean, Madagascar & Comoros, Mauritius, Réunion and Seychelles, New Caledonia and Tahiti & French Polynesia (around £15.99).

Footprint Guides has a fairly comprehensive guide to the Caribbean islands (£14.99) and Vacation Work has just brought out new guides to Madagascar, Mayotte & Comoros and Mauritius, Seychelles & Réunion (both £10.99).

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