St. Barts, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin,
Marie-Galante and Iles des Saintes.
You'll have to brush up on your French, but for the flair of the culture and cuisine, it's worth learning a phrase or two. The one key word you'll need to know is plongée - to dive. The French West Indies include Hollywood's favorite Caribbean hangout, St. Barts, along with Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, Marie-Galante and Iles des Saintes. Most divers head to Martinique, especially for the wreck dives. When Mt. Pelee erupted in 1902, the ash-fall accumulation sank 12 ships at anchor forming a wreck graveyard and dive Mecca simultaneously. Called a "little Pompeii," the wrecks offer a snapshot of that era. But, Martinique is not just wrecks, you'll find a line up of dive sites along fringing reef that's packed with soft corals and sponges. Guadeloupe offers a good selection of dive sites as well, including the Cousteau Marine Park and the dives of Iles des Saintes. There's plenty of natural heritage to complement the diving, with rainforest hikes, waterfalls and apathy-inducing beaches. And, don't miss the Route des Rhum on Martinique, or any of the cooking festivals on any of the islands. The best part of the end of each day on these island is sitting down to a nice French meal.
When to go:
When to Get the Best Deals:
August through October.
What to Pack:
3/2 mm wetsuit, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, sturdy shoes that can get wet for hiking, French phrase book, DAN card.
Seasonal averages: 26°C/78°F in winter and 28°C/83°F in summer.
Seasonal averages: 26°C/79°F in winter and 29°C/83°F in summer.
Euro. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
Included in your airfare.
What to Eat:
These islands are French, so come prepared to eat and eat well. Foie gras, steak tartine and duck can be found on many menus. But, you'll also find many Caribbean creole specialties like jerk chicken, grilled fish in creole sauce and accras (little deep-fried cod fritters).
What to Drink:
Martinique has to the world's only French certified (prestigious French designation Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) Route des Rhums. This self-guided tour takes you to at least 10 distilleries located throughout the island. All the other islands have rum distilleries too and bars will gladly server you a ti-punch (straight rum with a twist of lemon sweetened with cane sugar) or a planteur (fruit juice and rum). Martinique does have a local beer - Bière Lorraine.
Hike Mont Pelee, tour the award winning St. James Distillery, then follow the Route des Rhums around the island sampling the rest; Hike the Pitons du Carbet, the Gorges de la Falaise, and the Butterfly Valley; ride the Cyparis Express around Martinique. There's also some wonderful nightlife. .
Customs and Culture:
Each island has a unique multi-ethnic population depending on who settled there - Carib Indians, Europeans, Africans or Asians. You'll find an underlying French culture mixed with an easy-going island style typical of the Caribbean.
Mi-CAreme, Martinique, February; Bastille Day, July 14; Vaval, January/February; Fetes des Cuisinieres on Guadeloupe & Tour de Guadeloupe, July.
Electricity and Internet:
220V/50Hz. Internet is common in hotels.
Drink the water?
Bottled water recommended.
French, and a local Creole.
Amazing Marine Life
Also known as rock lobsters, these crustaceans sport brown or orange shells, often colorfully dappled with yellow, blue, or green.
Several species of these frilly, brilliantly colored invertebrates roam these French Caribbean reefs.
Take a close look under ledges and around reef structures for nurse sharks.
Most often found in holes, caves, and wrecks, moray eels sometimes venture out so divers can see their entire snakelike length.
This small, spiny, fist-sized fish puffs up into a large round balloon-shape when threatened or surprised.
Prison striped, small tear-drop-shaped fish are eye-catching with their yellow backs and black-stripes, but never more so when a whole school shimmies by at once.
These triggerfish frequent the reefs off Martinique and Guadeloupe.
These predatory pelagic fish are often seen on the reefs.
Golden yellow, schooling fish roam the reefs along with blue striped grunts and yellowtail snapper.
Hawksbill and green turtles can be found swimming in leisurely fashion or napping under ledges on most reefs.
Top Dive Spots
La Faille, Diamond Rock, Martinique:
A sandy bottom scattered with boulders sustains a healthy crop of sargassum, sponges, coral, crinoids, anemones, hydroids, and sea fans. A triangular tunnel bores directly into Diamond Rock, emerging at the other side through a dramatically lit archway. Look for mat gorgonians, brain coral, flower corals, elephant ear sponges, sargassum triggerfish, trumpetfish, sergeant majors and damselfish.
Diamant and The Barge, Martinique:
Two of the vessels that went down in the Bay of Saint Pierre during the 1902 volcano eruption - the Diamant, a 27 meter/90 feet wooden ship that provided transport between islands, now sits in 27 meters/90 feet of water, and the barge she was towing sits just behind her in 32 meters/105 feet.
Pearl Rock, Martinique:
This site is a rock located in the clear water of the Domenica Channel. It attracts many varieties of reef fish, horse-eye jacks, turtles, groupers, snappers, parrotfish, turtles and barracuda. Be aware of strong currents.
Teresa Lo Vico, Martinique:
This two-mastered sailboat went down in the 1902 volcanic eruption carrying a cargo tiles, rope, and cement in barrels, which are still visible when peering into her hull. The Teresa Lo Vico now lies on a sloping bottom starting at 30 meters/100 feet.
Pigeon Island, Guadeloupe:
Jacques Cousteau called Pigeon Island one of the world's best diving areas and now it's part of the Cousteau Marine Park. There are at least five separate dive sites around Pigeon Island and its small sister islets, and two wrecks nearby. Look for sergeant majors, spiny urchins, green parrotfish and stands of finger, black, brain, and star coral.
Ane Rouge (Red Donkey), St. Barts:
Characterized by a gentle slope, boulders, gorges and lots of different levels, you'll find big sponges and gorgonians on the walls. Look for lobsters, sea bream, morays, grouper, sergeant majors, French and queen angels, cowfish, turtles and jacks.
Creole Rock, St. Martin:
As part of the French Marine Reserve, this site's shallow depth gives you lots of time to see the amazing marine life that congregates here. On the backside of Creole Rock, the coral is fed by the rich Atlantic currents, and you may glimpse passing jacks, barracudas, eagle rays and an occasional dolphin.