Many years ago, I spent some time at the University of Rennes in Brittany, where most of my friends were students from other francophone countries, former French colonies of North Africa as well as those from les départements et territoires français d’outre-mer (French Overseas Territories). It was there I met someone from La Réunion, a place that just seemed so exotic!?
The towering peaks of this small volcanic island rise majestically out of the Indian Ocean about 400 miles to the east of Madagascar. The French settled here first in the mid 1600s using it as a stopover on the trading routes to India. It was uninhabited, so slave workers were imported from the other colonies resulting in today’s melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. La Réunion is a Département d’outre-mer ‘DOM’ (French Overseas Department), so it is part of La République Française. The island’s official language is French, but Réunion French Créole is the language most commonly spoken. Réunion boasts an incredibly diverse landscape, mountainous with both dormant and active volcanoes, forests with abundant wildlife and spectacular waterfalls. It is surrounded by turquoise waters home to humpback whales, and dolphins. Smaller marine life is protected by a natural lagoon and coral reef, abutting both white sand and black volcanic sand beaches.
Since 2010, most of the island has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If we could escape to this tropical island in the Indian Ocean for the holidays, we might take our Christmas Eve celebration dinner to the beach or perhaps more spectacularly to the Piton de la Fournaise, the very active volcano. We would be eating Réunion Créole pâté, followed by a goose civet (stew) or maybe a carri (curry) and for dessert a Christmas log, made with sweet potatoes or some local lychees for their festive color. Check out the island’s official tourism website to find out more about this fascinatingly diverse island.
La Polynésie française
Let’s set sail across the Indian Ocean, past Indonesia and Australia, way out into the Pacific - to the islands romanticized by Paul Gauguin. Five island groups make up French Polynesia, which has a different relationship with France. As a Collectivité d’outre-mer - COM (French overseas country) it has greater autonomy than La Réunion. The head of government is the president of French Polynesia, elected by the people, but their head of state is the French President. Of the 118 volcanic and coral islands and atolls spanning this huge area of the Pacific, about the size of western Europe, Tahiti is the most densely populated. French is the official language here but the indigenous Tahitian and other Polynesian languages are those you will hear spoken by the locals. As we head into the New England winter, I am so ready for this island paradise! Think bungalows over turquoise waters, palm tree-lined beaches and sailing at sunset. We can explore the markets of Papeete, or share a delicious picnic on the beach of ia ota or poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice). We can island hop and visit those honeymooners on beautiful Bora Bora, do some hiking on Moorea or dust off that PADI certificate for some spectacular diving or snorkeling around any of the islands. The culture here is a blend of French with Polynesian, but it is the Polynesian life spirit of mana that shines through especially in the traditional music and dance which portrays all aspects of life for this resilient warrior people. Not at all like the sights and sounds of holiday shopping in the mall…. Check it out!
The final stop on our round-the-world French tropical island trip will take us to the islands of Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles, Caribbean - a little closer to home. Guadeloupe is also a DOM, (Département d’outre-mer), where French is the official language, but again, Guadeloupe Créole is what you will hear predominantly. Another tropical paradise, the French Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe has two main islands, the mountainous Basse-Terre, home to La Soufrière, an active volcano, and the lively Grande-Terre which is encircled by beautiful sandy beaches. We’ve done a lot of beach, so let’s hit the spice market of Pointe-à-Pitre, where we will be enticed by the stallholders in their traditional dresses and colorful head scarves to smell and taste their wares - and we’re in the Caribbean, so it’s definitely time for rum-punch! If you need a little more time to plan for this trip, you might catch the next Route du Rhum, a solo trans-atlantic yacht race which departs from St. Malo in Brittany in November 2022, destination Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe.
Has this piqued your wanderlust? Have you traveled to these faraway francophone islands? We would love to hear your travel stories!
Liz grew up in England and spent many summers traveling in France with her family, which sparked a lifelong love of languages and travel. She has a degree in modern languages and international studies for which she also studied in France and Spain. Working in international sports marketing while living in Hong Kong and London meant extensive travel, particularly in Asia. A new chapter began after moving to New York and then settling in the Boston area. Liz enjoys traveling, experiencing different cultures and spending time with friends and family.See All Liz's Posts