All the Caribbean islands are awesome and have unique reasons to pay them a visit. The French islands, however, have some absolutely incredible attributes. Islands like Martinique, Guadeloupe (the Windward’s two largest islands), St Martin and St Barts are must-visit destinations. But why sail to a French Caribbean island?
During our first Caribbean season in 2015/2016, we didn’t explore the French islands too much. I think we were simply overwhelmed with how many islands there are and how spoiled for choice we were. I didn’t see the value of the French islands. But now, with more experience under my belt, if given the choice, I’ll choose to go to a French Caribbean island over any other.
8 Reasons To Sail To A French Caribbean Island
1. To soak up the French culture.
Most of the Caribbean islands are very similar. They are tropical, have beautiful beaches, many are hilly, if not mountainous, and quite a few have rainforests. For the most part, the islands have similar style homes, buildings, roads, and man-made infrastructure. Every island experiences the same wonderful climate of 80F degrees year-round.
French islands are similar to the others regarding natural beauty but when it comes to the style of homes, buildings, roads, and infrastructure you’ll notice an immediate difference.
When you sail to a French Caribbean island you’ll think, ‘Where am I?! – This is not like the other islands!’
The buildings, road signs, billboards, and shops will make you feel as if you’re actually in France.
There are the lovely French bakeries, cafe’s and bars. Each village has amazing markets. You’ll find modern shops housing anything and everything you would want. There are shopping malls, a huge selection of eateries and specialty shops for electronics, housewares, sporting goods, DIY hardware shops and more.
You’ll benefit from being able to listen to French music, drink inexpensive French wines, check out the latest fashion trends from Paris and gain an insight on what’s happening on the mainland and locally in the news.
No – it’s not Paris nor will the capital feel like a big city but it most certainly feels like France. If you’ve never been to France but want to get a feel for the beautiful country, stop by a French Caribbean island. You’ll certainly get a taste of France.
2. Provisioning on French islands is the least expensive option sailors will find.
Mainland France subsidizes the French islands, therefore, all the goods are sold at the same price you’d pay if you were in France. Ships are sent from the mainland to the islands providing an amazing variety of goods, produce, beverages and other items.
Not only will you find the lowest priced meats, produce and beverages but you’ll find the largest variety in the Caribbean.
I suppose the best way to explain the difference between the French and non-French islands is that the French are First World and the others are Second. For example, in Dominica, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a modern supermarket and local vegetable stands will see that you’re a tourist and try to charge you $25 for a watermelon!
In Antigua, you’ll find an amazing grocery store called Epicurean however you won’t find some of the prices so amazing. When shopping at Epicurean you have to check every item carefully; otherwise, your bill might be a big surprise.
There are two exceptions – Puerto Rico and Trinidad.
Puerto Rico is America. You will pay slightly higher prices but you’ll have the convenience of Walmart, Costco, Sams Club and many other American stores that you find on the mainland.
Trinidad also has large grocery stores and bulk food stores making it a great spot to provision if you want to get that close to Venezuela! Between those two islands, your best bet is a French island to stock up.
The worst island to provision – The Bahamas. There’s nothing there and what you can get is extortionately priced. If you’re going to The Bahamas fill every space on your boat with food, toiletries, beverages, and supplies.
3. Chandleries and boat services are the best you’ll find in the Caribbean.
St Martin is the best island to get any boat repair, replacement or boat-related item or service. Second to that is Martinique. On the French islands, there are huge amounts of marine stores specializing in anything and everything boat related. So when you sail to a French Caribbean island you can prioritize any boat repairs, upgrades or projects.
4. If a country won’t allow you in due to a technicality, sail to a French Island.
All the non-French islands take Customs and Immigration very seriously. Sometimes too seriously. The worst is the British islands or ex-British such as Antigua and the British Virgin Islands. The people that work in those offices just want to make a sailor’s life hell.
That being said, they like to find reasons to fine you or even decline your entrance.
Many sailors don’t realize it but if you leave an American island and sail to let’s say Antigua, unless you request departure papers, Antigua won’t let you in. American islands don’t give departure papers unless requested.
But…it’s not the end of the world. You don’t have to sail back to the American island to get the necessary papers. You can just sail to a French island. The French let anyone in and entrance is done via a computer at an Internet cafe or gas station. I kid you not. It’s hysterical.
Once you do the internet check-in a live human looks at the paperwork and passports but they don’t look at where you’ve come from or how long it took you to make the journey. So…if you somehow mess up and can’t get into the country you want to go to, go to France. Check-in there and then you’ll have the right paperwork to go elsewhere.
5. You get to fly the French flag and practice a different language!
There’s something about being anchored in a bay and looking up to see that your curtesy flag is the French flag. It’s soooooo…European! Most of the other islands in the Caribbean have their own flag – independent of the motherland. The French islands are not considered a commonwealth or a dependency. They are France and therefore the French flag flies.
And then there’s the French language. Okay…so the language spoken on all Caribbean islands is not the same as the mother tongue. There’s a lot of slang and local dialect, however, if you speak French on the French islands you’ll be able to communicate far easier than you would otherwise. French people, world-wide, don’t speak English (even if they know how).
On every other island in the Caribbean, the locals will know some English or be totally fluent. Not in France!
Just last week, I kid you not, it took Simon and me fifteen minutes to order a white wine and a beer at a tourist bar overlooking the harbor of St Anne in Martinique. I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t use Google translate and we were the only people in the bar. Lucky for us a passerby noticed our frustration and came in to help. (Yes – shame on us for not knowing how to say wine or beer!!)
6. Hire a car just for the sake of navigating roundabouts
Okay, you actually want to hire a car to see the island! All the French islands are amazingly beautiful and have loads to do and see. The villages are picturesque, there’s always waterfalls somewhere and of course, there is usually a volcano to go climb. And once you’ve seen all the beauty, you’ll then want to hightail it to the Hyper-U, Carrefour or Cost-You-Less to fill up on inexpensive food, beverages, and supplies.
And then there are the roundabouts.
If you’re from America these traffic navigation elements are not too common. They’re used in place of traffic lights. The rule, on the islands, is to give way to anyone on the roundabout. When the traffic is clear you can enter and go around until the exit you want is in front of you. Simon loves to hit these at high speed and see just how well the rental car can perform a fast turn.
7. Here’s the whopper reason that you’re going to love most – the best Internet deal in the Caribbean.
We’ve been sailing in and around the Caribbean for several years now. We know every package available…including local island packages and international options such as Google Fi. We’ve looked into satellite, international roaming cards, SIMs from other countries. You name it.
To date, the best package we have found is from Digicel on any French Island.
Why is it the best? You get the most amount of gigs for your money AND it works the entire Caribbean chain from below Turks & Caicos to Grenada. It works on land and at anchor. It works almost all the time. The only time it drops is between islands when you’re in the middle of the sea.
At the time of writing, we are paying a year contract and getting 40 gigs/month for 35 euros. In many of the islands, that amount will get you a couple of gigs and it will only work on that island.
Furthermore, the data doesn’t seem to be measured the same as Digicel outside of France.
With a Digicel package from Grenada, we’ll burn through three to four gigs in a day doing nothing. I honestly think that it’s a conspiracy – I think Digicel is just ripping off people in the Caribbean. Perhaps the French know what to expect so they don’t pay the ridiculous price for such bad service?!
I rarely write bad things about companies. I do believe that if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it at all. BUT…my all-time most disliked company I’ve ever dealt with is Digicel. I really think they’re a bunch of crooks.
Saying that…if you want Internet they’re often the only company you can get it from. The only other package that we’ve found to beat that was in The Bahamas. It was Aliv (or something like that) and it was unlimited data, however, restricted to just the Bahamas. It’s a real luxury to be able to stream Netflix on your boat and not worry about using up all your data 🙂
8. The French islands are set up for sailors.
As mentioned above, the French islands have the best chandleries, boat stores, and boat service options. They also have very good facilities. There are dinghy docks in every town. Many bays or islands have cruiser nets over the VHF so the boaties can discuss the weather, any issues, arrange socials and discuss treasures of the bilge. The VHF talks are all in English and sometimes translated to French.
During the Net you can ask questions about where to locate services whether you need a boat replacement part, a dentist or to share a taxi to the airport. Due to the fact that the French islands are so ‘First World,’ they attract many boaters from around the world. With higher amounts of boats, it only makes sense to form a community to discuss relevant topics over the VHF. So, sail to a French Caribbean island because it makes sense for sailors to do so!
9. Medical facilities are the best in the Caribbean.
The doctors that are in the French islands are part of the French National Health system. They are of the same caliber of doctors that practice in France and spend time on the islands on a rotational basis. Health care is top-notch and yet it doesn’t cost a massive fortune like the States.
Good doctors plus inexpensive fees make a winning formula. Dental is good too. Most boaties wait until they’re on a French island to see a doctor, dentist or medical specialist.
10. French islands are set up for people that want to enjoy the beauty of nature
All the French islands have miles upon miles of good quality trails. You could spend your lifetime just hiking all the trails available on the various islands. Sure, other Caribbean islands have hiking trails too but not to the standard. Furthermore, they don’t have a French bakery, restaurant or bar at the end of the trail!
And the beaches are classy.
The French really know how to do it. You don’t have small shacks with limited offerings. You get beautiful eateries with amazing seafood, great grills and loads of ice cream. And the people that sell items to passers-by provide a high-class selection of sarongs, handmade bathing suits, and gorgeous summer dresses. You won’t be peddled made-in-china fake gold watches or necklaces in France. I just don’t think they’d tolerate it 🙂
Those are my top ten reasons to sail to a French Caribbean island – If you’ve been to a French Caribbean island I bet you can add to my list! If you can, please leave a comment below so all of us can benefit.
Kim’s Top Tips For Visiting French Caribbean Islands
- The supermarkets have a variety of goods that you won’t find in North America, the UK and even many parts of Europe. What I find very interesting is the selection of canned goods. When you’re provisioning in a French grocery store, grab a can of the dauphinois potatoes, duck confit and ravioli. Yes – these are all in cans. Give them a try – I think you’ll thank me for the tip.
- Orangina is one of the most popular soda pops in France. It’s got a fraction of the sugar that Fanta Orange has and it has little orange pulp bits in it. Sienna and I love it! When we sail to a French Caribbean island the first thing I get is a nice cold Orangina!
- Grab yourself a French baguette (can be found anywhere) and in the supermarket find a round brie cheese. It needs to be in a wooden container. Go back to the boat, open the wooden container, unwrap the brie cheese, and put it back in the wooden container. Put the cheese on a cookie sheet. Cut up a garlic bulb into thin slices. Using a knife, make little incisions in the cheese and smoosh the garlic into the cheese. Heat at 375F for about 20 minutes. When it’s done the cheese will be oozing. Cut up the baguette and give everyone a knife. Spread the cheese on the baguette and enjoy. You can also add a sweet chutney, caramelized onions, or eat with white grapes. YUM!
- Wines are so darn cheap so buy five bottles (or more) of the type of wine you like at the 3 euro to 5 euro price mark. Make a note of where you bought them (e.g. Carrefour) and then invite some other boaties over to sample them. Take a picture on your phone of you, the bottle and a thumbs up or down. When you next go to the shop, buy a case of those with the thumbs up! Wine on any other island, of a lesser caliber, will cost you four to five times more.
More Top-Tips on French Islands
- Stock up on things like cherry tomatoes, luxury salad leaf blends, lardons, pate, olives, and any vegetable you really like. And enjoy them while they last! The chances of you seeing the variety that you get in France on other islands is low. This past year we’ve had months at a time where we could not get onions, potatoes, celery, butternut squash, and eggplant. I did see cherry tomatoes a couple of times but not often.
- Don’t bring a backpack with you to grocery stores. Most of the shops will make you check them in at a security desk or leave them behind the counter. In St Martin, I had to leave my backpack with my MacBook Pro in it and I have to say it was unsettling. Anyone could have easily grabbed the bag as it was on an open shelf.
- Do bring your own grocery bags. If you don’t, you have to buy them. Most boaties that sail to a French Caribbean island, or any island/country, have stacks of grocery bags.
- Most grocery stores require a coin to be inserted in the shopping trolly to release it. Make sure you have some Euro coins.
Even More Top-Tips on French Islands
- Whatever is happening in France affects the French islands. If the French are striking, which is a very common thing in France, the islands will be affected. As I write this France is striking and the knock-on effect in that the Islands have a shortage of meat. There’s barely any fresh meat in the stores right now.
- Electronics have a European plug and are 220. This is good if you have a European boat…not so good if you don’t.
- Avoid French mooring balls. They are a ball with a metal fitting on top that looks like a hollow lollipop. Every time I’ve been in a French bay with those mooring balls I have witnessed a boat floating away with the ball and lollipop fitting attached to the boat…but not the sea bottom! These types of mooring balls are notoriously bad. If you do decide to attach to one, back down on it and see if it holds. Don’t leave the boat, keep your anchor alarm on and if you do leave, make sure you have a neighbor keeping an eye on your boat.
Want More Tips – Keep Reading 🙂
- Research French holidays as everything closes – even restaurants! The French seem to have a holiday once a week. If you plan on doing a quick provision run or are expecting things to be open, think again. It seems that more often than not its a holiday.
- Keep in mind that the French islands take siestas. That means that shops could be closed from around 1 pm to 4 pm. I remember one time showing up at a town and thinking it was abandoned. All the shutters were down, tumbleweed ran through the street and there was no traffic. I returned a few hours later and it was a bustling village!
- Do not expect French people on French islands to know English. They are one nation that does not see the value in speaking any language other than French. Bring your phone with you so you can use Google Translate. Or…take a language learning class before you arrive. How awesome would it be if you could speak a little French?!
And More Top Tips!
- If you order meat at restaurants you will get it served rare. In some cases, you cannot even request that it’s cooked well done.
- The French islands use Euros. Often, shops will also take US dollars. You can use your ATM at any cash point to get Euros out.
- Carnival on the French islands is insane. Everything shuts for a week. When I say everything I mean everything. You’d expect shops and restaurants to be open but in some cases, there is nothing open. There is also very little street food so I have no idea how people eat during Carnival. Furthermore, it’s extremely loud music so be prepared. It’s most definitely something to experience but it’s unlike festivals that you’d enjoy in the US or Europe. On Martinique each day has a color theme or some sort of theme – make sure you find out what the theme is so you can dress accordingly.
My last few tips.
- This tip is Caribbean wide – watch out for French-flagged boats. The French sailing schools don’t seem to teach the concept of scope when it comes to anchoring. If you see a boat dragging it’s usually a French-flagged boat.
- Don’t be offended if the French people on the islands are rude. Kindness is just not part of their culture. During our last hurricane season, we spent quite a bit of time with a lovely French couple (from Paris) in Grenada. After a few drinks, I finally said to Gerome, ‘you and your family are so lovely and kind. My experience with many French people has been quite the opposite. Why is that?’ Gerome laughed and said that he’s not so kind when he’s in Paris. In fact, no one is kind. It’s just the way it is.
- My final tip (drum-roll please)… Don’t eat the ballyhoo. Ballyhoo is a fish that most people use as bait. I think there’s a reason it’s used as bait. For some reason, it seems to be a staple on fish platters or appetizer lists. Take my word for it – don’t order it.
Any Comments or Tips To Add About Why to Sail to a French Caribbean island?
There you have it! Ten reasons to sail to a French Caribbean island and some tips on what to, expect and look out for. Do you have anything you’d like to add? Tell me about your experience of visiting a French island. You’ll find the comments section below.
Other Articles or Videos To Check Out.
- Get information about all the islands we’ve been to here: Caribbean Sailing
- Check out my original thoughts about Martinique in 2016 and watch the video here: Martinique
- Have a sneak peek on what you’ll find in Guadeloupe
- Watch our video where Simon and I decide to take a spontaneous 3-day sail from the bottom of the Caribbean up to St Martin. Check out A Spontaneous Sail To St Martin.
- During our video about Boat Life Caribbean Sailing and Taking On Water we stop off at St Bart’s if you want to take a peek at this wonderful island. I think it’s a must-see!
Join Us on Britican For a Sail To A French Caribbean Island.
Sailing to another country can be a bit intimidating. And then knowing that the people in the foreign country don’t necessarily speak English makes things even scarier. But once you sail to one French Caribbean country you’ll feel fine about the others. Join us on Britican and we’ll take you to a variety of islands providing you with the necessary experience to help increase your confidence. Visit Britican Experience for full details.