Guadeloupe—Culture, Rum, the Sea, & That Volcano

Mount Soufriere on Basse-Terre.
Mount Soufriere on Basse-Terre.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you understand why visits to Guadeloupe from North America shot up 23 percent in 2013:

  • New nonstops from Miami (American Airlines) and San Juan (Seaborne Airlines) made this previously hard-to-reach island group much easier to reach.
  • The tourist board ramped up its marketing and education efforts to consumers and—this is key—the travel trade with the Guadeloupe Islands Specialist program (visit edu.recommend.com).
  • Guadeloupe is ideal for the boom in experiential travel, a segment of Caribbean tourism that, in 2013, generated more than $300 billion.

What makes it ideal for experiential travel? The archipelago features five (actually more) dramatically different islands, ferries offering easy island-hopping, a safe environment, sublime food, award-winning rum distilleries, historical sites, towering volcanoes, verdant forests, striking deserts, fish-filled waters, and a French-Caribbean joie de vivre. No wonder these islands seduce so many types of visitors: foodies, nature lovers, photographers, romantics, hikers, bikers, divers, snorkelers, sailors, kayakers, wind- and kite-surfers, francophiles….

Where to book your clients? Each of these four properties offers a distinct experience:

la toubana hotel & spa, grande-terre
Of the half-dozen or so Guadeloupe Islands, Grande-Terre is the most conventional tourism destination, with plenty of hotels, villas, white beaches, restaurants, bars and clubs, innumerable watersports, and the international airport. And La Toubana, on the beachy south coast, is the most chic hotel there, looking as if it wandered in from St. Barths.

Translation: It has 32 bungalows rooms/suites sporting contemporary design and private terraces, refined Creole cuisine at On the Beach and Le Grand Bleu, sophisticated wines and cocktails at Le Bar de la Mer, the very cool Ocean Spa (Chinese red walls and all), state-of-the-art fitness gear, an infinity pool, and romantic lighting at night. But look, we’re here for experiential travel, so let us venture forth.

Near La Toubana clients can take lessons and/or rent gear for hobie-cat sailing, kayaking, jet-skiing, and (this being a French island) wind- and kite-surfing. The hotel can arrange for sailing, diving, or fishing. And although La Toubana has a private beach, clients can experience real Guadalupean life by visiting nearby Sainte-Anne Beach, one of the friendliest beaches for mingling with locals in the entire Caribbean. Other good mingling spots: the markets in Sainte-Anne and Pointe-a-Pitre, and the clubs in Le Gosier.

Clients should rent a car for part of their stay and see Pointe des Chateaux, a wild tableau of surf, sky, and rocks on the southeast corner of Grande-Terre. From there they’ll see sister islands La Desirade and Marie-Galante, two lost-in-time islands reached by ferries from St-François. They’ll be moved by the desert-like peacefulness of La Desirade; delighted by agrarian Marie-Galante, with its pristine beaches and world-renowned rum distilleries. They can take a ride in a farmer’s ox-drawn cart, too.

Finally, many of Guadeloupe’s major festivals (Carnival, food festivals, watercraft races, etc.) take place in Grande-Terre. Rooms start at about $300 non-refundable, but we recommend clients spring for a Junior Suite (from roughly $335) or, if they have children, a sleek duplex Classic Suite (from $408). A member of Des Hotels et des Iles, La Toubana pays agents 12 percent commission and offers incentives.

the langley resort fort royal, basse-terre
Basse-Terre encapsulates the best of the Caribbean so well that the PBS/BBC show “Death In Paradise” is set there. This west wing of the Guadeloupe butterfly boasts a nearly mile-high volcano (Mount Soufriere), rainforests, waterfalls, birds, agritourism (e.g. cane/rum plantations), a color chart of beaches, ferries to other islands, and Reserve Cousteau, which Jacques C. considered one of the world’s 10 best diving/snorkeling sites.

The Langley Resort Fort Royal is not only the largest (122 guest units), most full-service resort on the island, but also the best first-timer’s hotel in all of Guadeloupe because its beach location is lovely and its staffers, mostly enthusiastic young Europeans, speak better English than we do. Rooms/suites for families and cottages for couples are on opposite sides of the main buildings, which is another plus, as is the camp for children.

That the restaurant, Le Royal, offers mostly buffet meals may sound unappealing, but the Creole and international dishes use quality ingredients and are carefully prepared. The Langley also offers excellent gear and instructors for sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, bicycling, and stand-up paddleboarding; in addition, the staff arranges diving and snorkeling in the Reserve (aka Pigeon Island), fishing, hiking and canyoneering on Mount Soufriere, cruises to nearby desert islands, and other day trips.

Room rates start at about $152, but for couples we recommend a romantic, circular beachfront bungalow, starting at $170. Breakfast-only, MAP, and all-inclusive add-ons are available; the MAP is ideal for clients who rent cars, and the all-inclusive add-on ($140 per couple) for clients who have children or enjoy watersports, because the camp and water toys are complimentary for them. Airport transfers cost $96 per room, and the commission for agents is 12 percent. Finally, you may ignore the three-star rating; that baffling “3” obscures the four- (if not five-) star service and facilities.

les bananes vertes, basse-terre
A true eco-lodge featuring a few hand-crafted cottages tucked around a pool in a hillside garden, Les Bananes Vertes is owned by the same couple who run Vert-Intense, arguably the best adventure sports outfitter on the island. The lodge lies within walking distance of Saint-Claude and near the starting point for trails into Guadeloupe National Park and up/around Mount Soufriere.

Les Bananes Vertes’ fit, outdoorsy guests either rent cars and explore the island on their own or participate in activities organized by Vert-Intense. Some bring their children (easy and moderate as well as strenuous activities are available), but of course, Les Bananes Verte is for clients whose children appreciate nature, not to be confused with Wii. Although Vert-Intense is best known for its hiking, canyoneering, and overnight camping trips, the lodge also arranges diving, snorkeling, excursions to other islands, and visits to rum distilleries and farms.

Accommodations have an outdoorsy/artsy element to them, with hand-crafted wooden walls, painted local furniture, and some surprises (a large antique urn, a polished stone sink). They start at about $95, including breakfast, but clients will be more comfortable in a 1-bedroom eco-lodge with terrace and kitchen (from $136) or the 1-bedroom with jacuzzi (from $191). Gearheads who want to put their muddy stuff where they don’t have to look at it should, as this reporter and his wife have done, take a 2-bedroom (also $191) and use the extra room as a dumping ground. Some guests have dinner in nearby St.-Claude; others either cook in their cottage kitchens or have dinner delivered (about $14 pp). Packages are available, and the eco-lodge pays 15 percent commission.

hotel le bois joli, terre-de-haut, les saintes
Why is this little island (two sq. miles) so well-loved? Just for starters, its eponymous village is irresistible. Because Terre-de-Haut was too arid for sugar cane, the settlers who came from northern France never developed a slave economy, and the place still seems a bit of Brittany transported to the tropics.

This child of Brittany, though, is far warmer than the original, and it features excellent dive sites, such as Sec Pate, whose stalagmite-like spires are crowded with fish and turtles. The island also offers kayaking in conventional or transparent craft, snorkeling, hobie-cat sailing, mountain biking, hiking, and moped rentals. Less ambitious clients who want to experience Les Saintes can visit the tasteful boutiques, cafes, restaurants, a photogenic colonial fort with exhibits and a fine cactus garden, a rustic Catholic church, and hilly roads where they’ll enjoy views of the perfect little harbor and see blue-eyed locals eating lunch on porches.

Le Bois Joli itself lies a mile or so from the village, to which it operates a shuttle. The largest, most resort-like hotel on the island, it hugs a good beach and has a restaurant, pool, and several room categories. Book clients into one of the new rooms (e.g. #5-8 or 16; from $234, including breakfast), which have contemporary furniture, and large balconies with views of the water. The basic commission is 10 percent, but agents earn 15 percent on the optional meal plan. That plan may be good for divers who expect to be wiped out every evening; otherwise, clients will have more fun going into town for dinner at Au Bon Vivre, Ti Kaz La, and other good restaurants. ●

contact information

Guadeloupe Islands Tourist Board: myguedeloupeislands.com
Hotel le Bois Joli: hotelboisjoli.fr
La Toubana Hotel & Spa: toubana.com or deshotelsetdesiles.biz
The Langley Fort Royal: fortroyal.eu/en
Les Bananes Vertes: vert-intense.com