France’s overseas territories and departments: the new eden for hiking and trekking
Behind stunning beaches, footpaths lead hikers away from the coast, into lush forest and along the slopes of volcanoes. There’s no time like the present to explore France’s overseas territories and departments scattered across three of the world’s main oceans, where you’ll be rewarded with some truly stunning walks.
French Hiking Federation (FFRP): topoguides dedicated to France’s overseas territories and departments.
In addition to practical advice provided on its website, the federation also publishes booklets and topoguides which describe the hiking paths and trekking routes on offer, particularly on the islands of Guadeloupe, Réunion, Martinique and Mayotte.
One of the globe’s “hot spots”, the island emerged from the Indian Ocean as a result of volcanic activity, hence its extravagant and spectacular landscapes, its strong identity and its potential for hiking and trekking, despite its small size (70km long and 50km wide). Its highest point is an old volcano, the Piton des Neiges, rising to 3,070m, the top of which is occasionally whitened by frost or a few snowflakes and which serves as a backdrop for 3 mountain cirques (Salazie, Cilaos, Mafate), all of which act as a tempting playground for a range of hiking activities.
The footpaths around Mafate, which are still used by the local postman (the local doctor travels by helicopter nowadays!), provide the only access to the “îlets”, seven small villages clinging to the mountain slopes and home to a scattered total population of just 800 inhabitants, hence the sense of isolation and spirit of adventure which seems to inspire hikers. Nowadays, however, trekking routes are well signposted and maintained, and dotted with stopover gîtes with a traditional Creole atmosphere.
Activities in the southern part of the island are centred around another active volcano: the Piton de la Fournaise (2,631m), where hikers can skirt around its large crater, strictly following marked paths through multi-coloured rocks, solid lava flows and fumiroles. A recently designated national park (“Les Hauts”) covers a large part of this contrasting mountainous area: from rocky desert to what is almost the world’s wettest tropical forest; from fields of sugar cane and the panoramic crests of the Le Dimitile peak to the dense undergrowth of the Bélouve forest and the meadows of the Les Palmistes plain etc. It is also possible to hike along the incredibly wild coast towards Sainte-Rose, on the east coast.
Réunion’s success as a “hiking and trekking” destination (lots of professional companies offering hiking packages can be found locally, in addition to numerous specialist tour operators on mainland France) is further enhanced by the small time difference and the promise of an exotic yet completely safe holiday. As a result, many hiking groups flock to the island, although it’s still easy to find quiet and unspoilt areas where you can experience the incredible intensity of these extraordinary landscapes on foot.
Every hiking route is described in the FFRP’s topoguide (including the main long-distance footpaths, the R1 and R2). Numerous service providers (qualified guides etc) are available locally: prices vary between €60-180 for a 2-day guided hike, including 1 night in a gîte. However, it’s also possible to arrange your own independent itinerary using IGN maps (nos 4401 to 4406 RT to a scale of 1: 25.000).It is essential that you check local weather forecasts as the skies here can be very unpredictable.
Some local service providers:
Randonnées à La Réunion
Nature & Volcans
Rando Outre Mer
Created 20 years ago, the Parc National de Guadeloupe covers mountainous and coastal areas between Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre. The slopes of the La Soufrière volcano, the highest point in the French Caribbean (1,467m), are perfect for hiking, with the marked trails of today following the historic network of the “Traces” (Trace des Vasques, Trace du Morne etc) – a network of paths with a total length of around 300km, which in some cases date back to the 18th century, and which were used in olden times by enslaved peasants. From the tops of ridges and peaks the views are superb, although on occasion you’ll have to “walk through the clouds” to enjoy them. Even when the island’s beaches are bathed in sunshine, coastal winds bring humid air to the island’s summits, which has resulted in the park’s lush forest (home to 300 species of tropical trees and plants) and turbulent streams and waterfalls (Chute du Carbet, Pas du Roy etc).
As a result, hiking in this part of the Caribbean (pre-Columbian American Indians called it “karukera”) is an incredibly rewarding experience, with numerous gîtes catering to walkers, alongside qualified and highly professional local companies specialising in outdoor activities.
It was 30 years ago that a part of this “leeward” Caribbean island was awarded “parc naturel régional” status, in an area which partly covers the slopes of the Montagne Pelée volcano (1,397m) and other “mornes” (local peaks rising to around 500m) between Grand-Rivière and Sainte-Anne. Close to 130km of footpaths wend their way through rustic landscapes and unspoilt nature in areas where the Caribbean sun is pleasantly warm but not too hot.
In addition to its idyllic beaches, picture-postcard lagoons and perfect conditions for yachting and scuba-diving, this ocean paradise is also teeming with more “mountainous” attractions, particularly on the volcanic islands of Moorea, Raietea and Tahiti, with their ragged peaks and wild landscapes covered with virgin forest. Not far from Papeete, experienced hikers might want to consider tackling the 5-hour ascent of the 2,066m Mont Aorai (take care with tricky sections on slippery rocks), avoiding the rainy season from December to February.
Examples of exotic hikes include the Afareaitu waterfalls on Moorea and Mont Tapioi on Raietea.Even wilder and even further away from Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands will also enchant budding explorers. Other activities that can be enjoyed in Polynesia include horse-trekking and canyoning.
The island of Grande Terre was formed 250 million years ago in the Pacific Ocean, but is not volcanic in origin as is generally the case. 400km long, the “island of the kanaks” (the indigenous Melanesian people) boasts a variety of landscapes: the dry plains of the northwest coast known as the “savane à niaoulis” (Niaoulis savannah) or the “brousse” (the bush) have an appearance more associated with Westerns! In contrast, around Bourail you’ll come across numerous cattle farms and local cowboys of European and kanak descent, who are happy to take tourists on horse-trekking excursions (a dozen or so ranches around Bourail organise this type of activity).
To the north of Koné, you’ll still find swathes of primary forest. From the sky, you can make out the famous Cœur de Voh, a symbolic and naturally formed heart-shaped area of vegetation, photos of which are admired around the world. Shorter hiking paths (Petites Randonnées) provide the perfect opportunity to get away from it all, taking in local villages and Melanesian communities who will be happy to welcome visitors and provide overnight accommodation, enabling you to discover sights only familiar to locals.
To the south, around Nouméa, nature can be enjoyed at its pristine best. As an example, the GR 1 is a superb long-distance footpath which follows the line of peaks and ridges overlooking valleys and lakes, with the ocean on the distant horizon.
Some local service providers:
GR, NC1 and PR in New Caledonia
Gîtes in New Caledonia
A large part of Guiana’s Amazon area is made up of one national park and one regional park, which between them cover 3.4 million hectares, an area four times the size of Corsica. Its perimeter is predominantly marked by rivers marking the border with Surinam to the west (the Maroni) and Brazil to the southeast (the Oyapock).
This jungle region boasts landscapes with an average altitude of 500m (the Guyanes plateau) which are home to natural sights such as the source of the Sinnamary river and beautiful waterfalls. Journeys into this area often begin in Saint-Laurent du Maroni (to the north) or Régina (to the southeast).
Overnight stops involve eating and sleeping in simple palm-covered huts (carbets), where a hammock will provide your bed for the night! When darkness falls, life in the jungle continues, as witnessed by its thousand and one sounds! In the heart of the primary forest, the vast Kaw swampland is one of a number of unmissable sights, with its multi-coloured and exultant birdlife and lurking caiman.
Hiking trips are often combined with excursions by dugout canoe, as rivers are the best form of transport here.
Author: Philippe Bardiau