The Sunday Telegraph - The French Antilles: where France meets the Caribbean
November 3, 2013

Michelle Jana Chan explores the beauty of the French Antilles, four distinct islands which offer white-sand beaches, Gallic glamour and gastronomy.

The approach to St Barths, seen from behind the open-door cockpit of a Twin Otter, becomes an instant favourite of mine. The plane flies low in the V between two peaks; as we head through the pass, the pilot pushes the joystick forward in what feels like a dive. At the last moment he pulls up and flares, squeaking down the wheels and pressing hard on the brakes. The runway ends abruptly at a beach.

It is a thrilling way to arrive. Passengers are beaming as they disembark, electrified by the landing and probably relieved to be alive. Or perhaps they are simply jubilant to have arrived in this gem of the French Antilles. St Barths is astoundingly beautiful, with windswept beaches and idyllic bays dotted with rocky islets. There are world-class hotels and Michelin-starred chefs on this pocket-sized patch of land. On the waterfront in the tiny town of Gustavia, the seaside-style shacks house designer shopping with the same brands found in Bond Street. Of course this adds up to an expensive destination, but perhaps less so than some Mediterranean hot spots along the Cote d’Azur (St Barths is sometimes referred to as the St Tropez of the Caribbean).

Some suggest St Barths has readily become a playground for the privileged partly because it is unencumbered by the weight of history: there is less of a stain of slavery here than elsewhere in the Caribbean. That is not for any noble reason but because there was no fresh water on the island and the terrain was too hilly for the cultivation of sugar. The history of St Barths is instead steeped in piracy, fishing and duty-free trade. At one point in the 18th century, the French gave away the island to Sweden in exchange for warehouse rights in Gothenburg (the French won it back in 1878).

It was not until the Fifties that this backwater island was anointed by the rich, famous and royal as a new celebrity refuge. Visitors included David Rockefeller, Rudolph Nureyev and Aristotle Onassis. Since then St Barths’ allure has only increased; today, home owners here include Bill Gates and Roman Abramovich, who arrives by superyacht.

A 10-minute hop away is a less glitzy island known by two names, St Martin and Sint Maarten. The southern part, Sint Maarten, is a Dutch outpost and a mass-tourism destination with high-rise hotels, casinos and chain restaurants. It has an international airport and a cruise ship port. The northern French half is prettier, sleepier and more exclusive, with boutique hotels and good Creole bistros.

Guadeloupe and Martinique are the two bigger islands in French hands; both are overseas départements, meaning they are integral parts of France and the European Union. Their larger size allows for a more diverse landscape, from forested mountains to white-sand beaches, as well as attractive towns reminiscent of the French Riviera. Although the pair have long been perceived by the French as cheap package-holiday destinations, both islands are trying to attract higher-spending visitors.
De spite the appeal of these islands, the French Caribbean has never been an obvious destination for the British. After all, we have a shared history with plenty of other alluring islands in the region, from Barbados to Grenada, Antigua to St Lucia, Jamaica to Tobago. Another obstacle has been the lack of direct flights: most itineraries route passengers through Paris. But with new inter-island scheduled flights, there is now less reason to miss out on this French foursome. As one Briton said to me (with a brittle edge in his voice): “Not only do the French have the most beautiful country in the world, they also have the French Antilles.”

This butterfly-shaped island, unmistakable from the air, benefits from two different weather systems and landscapes. The wetter Basse-Terre, in the west, is covered in rainforest and steep volcanoes including La Soufrière, the highest peak in the region at 1,467m.
One of the loveliest hotels is Tendacayou, a clutch of brightly painted open-air wooden treehouses and stilted v illas in the rainforest. Wooden bridges connect open-air showers with hammock areas and Japanese hot tubs. The all-natural spa is other-worldly, with waterfall pools and suspended treatment rooms.
To the south is Le Jardin Malanga, a colonial-style property with views across to the tiny archipelago of Les Saintes. There are hikes to waterfalls and hot springs, as well as birdwatching opportunities.
Guadeloupe’s eastern region of Grande-Terre is drier, with rolling hills and sugar plantations. A good base is La Créole Beach Hôtel, within striking distance of some of the island’s best beaches at Gosier, Sainte-Anne and Saint-François, where there are good conditions for surfing and kitesurfing.

St Martin
You can drive around French St Martin, with its green hills and petite fishing villages, in a couple of hours. The capital, Marigot, has an atmospheric produce market, and the fishing village of Grand Case has become a foodie destin ation, with stylish restaurants and bistros serving crab, freshwater crayfish and coconut curries.
At one end of Baie Longue is the recently upgraded La Samanna by Orient-Express, which sits on the island’s best beach. Here are one, two and three-bedroom suites and cottages with private terraces or balconies.

St Barths
The French call Saint Barthélemy La Perle des Caraibes and it does not often get better than this. Favourite beaches include Gouverneur for swimming and Colombier for snorkelling. The restaurants and shopping are sensational, as are the hotels.
On the far east of the island is the family-friendly 68-room Le Guanahani, made up of pastel clapboard cottages. Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France sits on the island’s finest bay, Baie des Flamands, and has 39 well-appointed rooms and outstanding views.
Finally, in pretty St Jean there is Eden Rock, the sharpest hotel on the island, which attracts the boho, the beautiful and a fair share of rock stars with its collection of suites, villas and cottages, plus an exceptional Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant and high-end boutiques.

This island, with its French, Creole and African influences, may be the most steeped in history. Beyond the capital, Fort-de-France, there are fishing villages dotted around the coastline, rum factories open to visitors, and charming beaches at Anse d’Arlet and Grande Anse.
Positioned on the edge of a sheltered lagoon called Le François, the 50-room Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa is on the east coast, with tropical gardens, a vintage rum cellar and Guerlain spa. There is a windsurfing and kitesurfing school here, as well as a watersports centre offering excursions to nearby islands where you can visit local families, drink punch and spot iguanas. There is also the all-inclusive family-friendly Club Med Martinique offering numerous.

The inside track
Hire a rental car to explore the islands; roads and signage are good.
The currency is the euro.
The high season is December to April but hurricane season (May-July), when hotel rates are lower, is also a good time to visit.
English is widely spoken but a smattering of French will not go amiss.
Carnival is celebrated exuberantly on all four islands.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Tselana Travel (