Guide to the French West Indies

in Trip Locations

As a Francophile, I’m partial to island getaways that give me a chance to use my French and introduce me to another facet of Francophone culture. That’s why I am consistently drawn to the chain of islands in the Caribbean ocean frequently referred to as the French West Indies (“les Antilles” in French). Here is an overview of three of the major French-speaking islands in the Caribbean to help you plan your next island adventure. If traveling on a budget is your thing, then you will want to spend most of your time on Martinique and Guadeloupe, seeing as St. Barth’s is one of the most expensive islands in the Caribbean.


One of the most popular destinations in the French West Indies, Martinique is known for its unique history, rich culture, delicious seafood cuisine, and lively nightlife scene. Because the island receives so much rainfall each year, the vegetation is lush and abundant. The island’s main crops include sugar cane, bananas and pineapples, all of which appear in the local cuisine.

One of the most famous sites in Martinique is the active volcano, Montagne Pelée, that erupted in the early 20th century, destroying the town of St. Pierre and killing all of the city’s inhabitants except for one man, a criminal, who was protected by his jail cell.

Other activities in Martinique include sink your toes into black volcanic sands on the island’s numerous beaches, hiking through the tropical rainforest, strolling through the outdoor markets, or perusing the creations of local artists and craftspeople at the various art galleries in the cosmopolitan capital city of Fort-de-France.

Fort de France photo

The cathedral in Fort-de-France (Martinique) is one of the most famous tourist destinations in the city.


The largest of the three islands in the French West Indies discussed in this post, Guadeloupe, which has traditionally been an agrarian island, has become increasingly more tourist-oriented over the past ten years. The white sand beaches are now frequented by local vendors who sell beach wear (swimsuits, pareos, etc.), jewelry, souvenirs and refreshments to tourists; likewise, more beachfront hotels are being constructed to accommodate the increase in tourism. Like most beaches in the French Antilles, the ones in Guadeloupe are topless.

Guadeloupe is split into two main sections. The rainforest side is home to the island’s best beaches. You can also visit several rum distilleries (and sample their wares, of course). On the volcano side of the island, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, snorkeling or scuba diving. The lively capital city of Port-au-Prince is home to some of the best restaurants in the Caribbean.

St. Barth (St. Barthélémy)

St. Barth’s (short for St. Barthélémy) is the smallest island in the French West Indies and has the reputation for being the friendliest. It is also, by far, the most expensive island in the Caribbean (in terms of food, lodging and shopping prices). But, you get what you pay for and the restaurants and accommodations are top-notch. Unlike Martinique and Guadeloupe, everyone speaks English on St. Barth, especially in the sophisticated capital city of Gustavia, which makes St. Barth’s a very easy and relaxing place to visit.

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