Known in English as the Salvation Islands, these were anything but that for prisoners sent here from the French mainland by Emperor Napoleon III and subsequent French governments. The three tiny islands, 15km north of Kourou over choppy, shark-infested waters, were considered escape-proof and particularly appropriate for political prisoners, including Alfred Dreyfus. From 1852 to 1947, some 80,000 prisoners died from disease, inhumane conditions and the guillotine on these sad isles.
Since then, the islands have become a relaxing delight – a place to escape to. Île Royale, once the administrative headquarters of the penal settlement, has several restored prison buildings, including a restaurant-auberge, while the smaller Île St Joseph, with its eerie solitary-confinement cells and guards' cemetery, is overgrown with coconut palms.
The old director's house has an interesting English-language history display; free, two-hour guided tours of Île Royale (usually in French) begin here. Surprisingly abundant wildlife includes green-winged Ara macaws, agoutis, capuchin monkeys and sea turtles. Carry a swimsuit and towel to take advantage of the white-sand beach and shallow swimming holes on St Joseph. The Centre Spatial Guyanais has a huge infrared camera on Île Royale, and the islands are evacuated when there's an eastward launch from the space center.