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How falling for a stranger she met on a beach led this woman to ditch the U.S. for the French Riviera

Niki Benjamin had been walking along the beach with her beloved pooch Dylan in tow when a man in a nearby restaurant caught his attention. (Niki Benjamin via CNN Newsource) Niki Benjamin had been walking along the beach with her beloved pooch Dylan in tow when a man in a nearby restaurant caught his attention. (Niki Benjamin via CNN Newsource)

She’d travelled to a paradise island for a few months to do some soul searching, and Niki Benjamin, from the U.S., found her life moving in a completely new direction when her dog ran up to a stranger.

It all began in late 2014, when Benjamin, a former music executive, took an extended trip to the Caribbean destination of St. Martin (Sint Maarten in Dutch,) one of her favourite places, “to figure things out.”

“I’ve often found refuge and solace and made some pretty big life decisions just on vacation [there,]” she tells CNN Travel. “So it’s like my safe place.”

Beach encounter

Benjamin had been walking along the beach with her beloved pooch Dylan in tow when a man in a nearby restaurant caught his attention.

“I saw him [Dylan] licking some shoes,” Benjamin tells CNN Travel. “And then I looked up, and I locked eyes with this man who became my husband.”

Benjamin says she instantly “felt very comfortable” around Sandro Scarafile, a French chef who had been living in the Caribbean for two decades.

“I didn’t know it, [but] I ate his food before I actually met him,” she adds, before recalling how they “were together always” after that chance meeting.

She and Scarafile spent around four months in St. Martin together before Benjamin decided to head to Houston, Texas to care for her aging mother in August 2015.

“He was like, ‘I’m coming,’” Benjamin recalls. “And I was like, ‘OK.’”

A short while after they arrived in Houston, Scarafile pulled Benjamin’s mother aside and told her that he hoped to marry her daughter.

The couple were married in 2015 and lived in Houston together for around eight years.

However, as time went on, and Scarafile’s parents, who are based in Nice, got older, he felt the urge to be closer to them.

Benjamin and Scarafile, who say that “Houston was never the end game,” began seriously considering relocating to France.

“I’ve always been a person that’s kind of wanting to move, explore and feel different places,” says Benjamin, who was born and raised in New York.

Thankfully, Benjamin’s brother volunteered to move to Houston to help with their mother, giving her the freedom to make the move if they chose to.

Call to nature

During a visit to the south of France to visit Scarafile’s parents in the spring of 2022, he was offered a position at a restaurant in St. Maxime, which is located on the French Riviera between St. Tropez and Cannes.

“He just really felt like, ‘This is my time, I need to be here,’ and I agreed with him,” she says.

When Benjamin drove down to visit the town, she was immediately struck by its beauty and stillness.

Niki Benjamin met her husband in St. Martin and went on to move to St. Maxime in the south of France. (Niki Benjamin via CNN Newsource)

“I didn’t know much about St. Maxime,” she admits. “And we turned and drove over the bridge and the water was sparkling, the flowers were just so abundant. And I felt relaxed and calm.”

Benjamin was charmed by the town’s relaxed atmosphere and realized that it was exactly what she needed.

“I felt the call to nature,” she says. “The call to be closer to the sea. It was just a lifestyle I was really into having.

“So it wasn’t a hard sell for me. I was like, ‘Alright, let’s go.’ So it was kind of love at first sight.”

Shortly after that visit, Benjamin left Scarafile behind in France in order to return to the U.S. to begin making arrangements for their big move.

“He took the job, got acclimated, got an apartment,” she says. “And I went back, packed up our stuff and moved back here a month later.”

The couple have been living happily in St. Maxime together, along with Dylan, ever since.

According to Benjamin, word spread quickly that an American was living in the town as “there’s not a big expat community,” and locals were fascinated that someone from the U.S. had chosen to relocate there.

“They’re like, ‘Why would you ever move from New York or L.A. or Texas, to come here?’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’”

Benjamin has taken to life in St. Maxime immensely, stressing that being able to slow down has done wonders for her well-being.

“There’s just a different pace and way of life here that really speaks to me,” she explains.

Slower pace

“There’s a big focus on nature. It’s celebrated. And I like that I feel very much more grounded here because of it.”

One of the other things she enjoys most about living in the quaint town, aside from the close-knit community, is how much time everyone spends outdoors.

“The people here are very active up until into their 80s,” she says. “I have neighbours who are hauling six-packs of water and their own groceries from the store and a little wheelie cart in great health. Then they’ll jump on their bike and go for a swim in the sea.

“I feel like it’s just a great quality of life and it doesn’t matter what age you are.”

Benjamin and Scarafile have moved to a larger property since first relocating to St. Maxime, and she says that it costs about a third of what she had been paying while in the U.S.

“It’s so much more affordable,” she adds. “I live probably 500 meters from the sea, with views of the river, and it’s just a fraction of the cost for my rent, just living in cities, with no sea in sight.

“And then also, groceries, everything is just a little bit more affordable here.”

Benjamin has also found the food in the region to be fresher, adding that area has a number of farm-to table-restaurants.

“I noticed when I got here, I just automatically dropped a lot of excess weight, probably from being outside a lot, and just the quality of the food,” she adds.

During her time in St. Maxime, Benjamin has rediscovered her love of tennis, a hobby she enjoyed during her younger years, and is now a member of a local tennis club.

She loves the fact that there doesn’t seem to be such a huge focus on work, and people are more interested in hearing about someone’s personal interests.

“I would say that’s very, nobody asked like, ‘What do you do for a living?’” she says.

“You could talk to somebody for a long time and not have any idea what they do.”

'I feel like it’s just a great quality of life and it doesn’t matter what age you are,' Niki Benjamin says. (Niki Benjamin via CNN Newsource)

Of course, relocating to a new country undoubtedly comes with challenges, and Benjamin, who spoke little French before moving to St. Maxime, admits that learning a new language “from scratch” hasn’t been easy.

“I just took for granted that I could communicate so freely because I speak the language where I’m from,” she says, adding that she didn’t have much time to begin learning French beforehand because they moved so quickly.

“But being in a new country, and just even being able to communicate a thought really, really quickly, is sometimes challenging.

“Because you have to think, ‘How would I say this? And what’s the right tense to say this?’

“And by the time you’re thinking all of those things, the person is already gone or your mind gets stuck.”

Benjamin currently has a permanent resident card, which she renews each year, and plans to apply for French citizenship in the future.

However, she concedes that she’s had to adapt to French bureaucracy and “learn the art of patience when dealing with paperwork, and the process.”

In 2023, Benjamin, who previously ran a Pilates studio in Houston, launched a wellness retreat company, Wish You Were Here Wellness Retreats, which offers residential stays.

“It has been really fun,” she says, explaining that her clients are mainly women from the U.S. who are keen to get a glimpse into the local lifestyle.

“Because I get to show people that want to come visit here the lay of the land through the eyes of an expat.”

Leap of faith

After around two years in the south of France, the couple are very settled and able to visit Scarafile’s parents in Nice, which is just over an hour’s drive away, every two weeks or so.

Benjamin is particularly fond of the region’s rich art scene, and enjoys visiting attractions like Musée Picasso in nearby Antibes as well as some of the spots frequented by American-born French entertainer Josephine Baker, who once lived on the Côte d’Azur.

“I just love being transported into an actual place where somebody else was standing,” she explains.

“And seeing what I see now versus what they saw back then, and what the differences are.”

When questioned by others who are thinking of relocating to a new destination, Benjamin says she advises them not to “overthink it too much.”

“If it feels like it’s something that’s calling you, just take the leap of faith and go for it,” she says.

“And realize that there’s gonna be ups and downs. Just because you move someplace else doesn’t mean that it’s going to be this perfect Instagram lifestyle.”

She goes on to stress that “nothing has to be 100% permanent,” and you have the option to “change your mind” if “it just doesn’t feel right.”

Benjamin is a firm believer in trusting your instincts, pointing out that following her gut has served her very well so far.

“When necessary, and when aware, I do really think things through,” she adds. “But I do believe that when the stars are aligned and if it feels right, I [should] do it.

“If it ends up not being the right thing, then I just kind of recalibrate and redirect my path.”

Although Benjamin loves St. Maxime, she still misses aspects of her life in the U.S., particularly her family and friends, as well as certain “home comforts.”

“There’s nothing like 30-year relationships where you’ve been through everything together, and you don’t even have to speak… That kind of understanding,” she says.

“I haven’t been here [France] long enough to have those types of relationships as of yet. It’s definitely possible, but it’s just not the reality of now.”

Benjamin returns to the U.S. to visit her brother – her mother had since passed away – as well as extended family and friends, at least twice a year and hasn’t ruled out moving back one day.

“There’s a million reasons that could call me back to the U.S., I just don’t know what they would be, or what they are,” she says. “But I’m open to anything.

“I’m open to continuing to just kind of follow my gut and go where I go. But I’m really happy here for right now.”

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