WELCOME TO THE GUADELOUPE ISLANDS, FRENCH WEST INDIES
Paradise got closer—a lot closer—this spring. After years of inadequate connections between North America and Guadeloupe, American Airlines initiated weekly (Saturday) nonstops between Miami and Pointe-à-Pitre (PTP), Guadeloupe, and then Seaborne Airlines introduced four weekly nonstops between San Juan International Airport and Pointe-à-Pitre. What’s more, Air Canada flies nonstop from Montreal. Suddenly, a lot more North Americans can conveniently visit this archipelago that includes some of the most beautiful and welcoming islands in the Caribbean.
That’s right: islands with an “s.” The main butterfly-shaped island is really two islands connected by a bridge: low-lying Grande-Terre, with towns and farms, beaches and resorts; and verdant Basse-Terre, a pristine land of mountains, rainforests, and cascades surrounded by waters teeming with life. To the east and south of these islands, La Désirade offers away-from-it-all tranquility, agricultural Marie–Galante boasts exquisite rum and beaches, and the tiny Les Saintes feature French cafes and history. They’re connected to the main islands by fast, efficient ferries—no trip takes more than 50 minutes—as well as by air. Between those easy connections and the distinctive ambiance of each island, Guadeloupe is one of the best places in the Caribbean—no, make that the entire earth—for island-hopping.
If the islands are so distinct, what holds them together? For starters, the French and Creole languages, Gallic savoir faire, and culinary and other cultural traditions, not to mention the fact that the Guadeloupe archipelago is, just like the Loire and the Rhone in Paris, a full-fledged Department of France, with a French health system, a high level of safety and security, representation in Parliament, and really good baguettes. The islands’ residents also share a primarily agricultural lifestyle; this is not one of those destinations that has covered all its farmland with sprawling resorts or exploited its fisheries into oblivion. In fact, when it comes to preserving its authentic way of life and protecting its rainforests, mountains, beaches, and coral ecosystems, Guadeloupe has been ahead of the game for decades.
It’s no surprise, then, that Guadeloupe offers so much for so many different segments of the travel market:
● Families who want their children to enjoy authentic rather than mass-produced experiences
● Ecotourists who are blown away by the pristine mountains and forests and coral habitat
● Sporting types who sail and dive, hike and take flight on kiteboards
● Culturally curious travelers who love the markets, the music, and the old-fashioned rural and
● Francophiles and even people who can’t speak a word of French but appreciate French sophistication and cuisine, not to mention
● Honeymooners and other romantics
What all these kinds of travelers have in common is an appreciation of the Guadeloupe archipelago’s authenticity, Franco-Caribbean/Creole vibe, traditional family values, and respect for the sun-kissed land and sea. Welcome to Paradise!
10 ESSENTIAL THINGS TO SEE AND DO
1. Hit the Beach at Ste-Anne: It’s hard to single out just one beach, for all the islands have splendid strands, but the public beach at Ste-Anne on Grande-Terre stands out for welcoming the most comfortable mix of locals and visitors in the Caribbean. Good shops, bars, and eateries, too.
2. Visit a Volcano: At 4,800 ft., La Soufrière is the highest peak in the Eastern Antilles, and yes, it’s (gently) active. Visitors can drive to lookouts in Guadeloupe National Park, a vast UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Basse-Terre’s highlands, and even hike up to the smoking mountaintop.
3. Catch a Waterfall: The highest of the park’s cascades, Les Chutes du Carbet, takes a 3-part tumble totaling more than 800 ft. Easily accessed, La Cascade aux Ecrevisses spills into a dream-world pool encircled by lush tropical trees and vines.
4. Join the Route du Rhum Celebration: This sailboat race from France to Pointe-à-Pitre, the capital of Grande-Terre, only occurs every four years and attracts 100,000 or so sailing and partying types—especially the latter—to Guadeloupe. This year’s festivities will last from late-October through much of November.
5. Command a Fort: Fort Louis Delgrès, on the southwest coast of Basse-Terre, and Fort Napoleon in Terre-de-Haut still look much the way they did in colonial days, with well-preserved walls, fortifications, and cannons. Spectacular views, too.
6. Dance, Dance, Dance: Zouk was born here, but the locals also love salsa, soca, calypso, reggae, and American and European dance music. Of the many dance clubs in Gosier, DB9 (it even has a pool) and Five O’Clock are aces, and there are more great clubs at the marina in Pointe-à-Pitre and elsewhere.
7. Savor French-Creole Cuisine: Auberge de La Vieille Tour, a hotel restaurant in a historic sugar mill on Grande-Terre, is just one of many restaurants that serve sophisticated French dishes with a Caribbean twist—richly flavored dishes you’re not likely to find in the United States or Canada.
8. Swim with the Fishes: Jacques Cousteau called the Pigeon Islands, just off Basse-Terre’s west coast, one of the world’s top 10 dive sites. Now protected by law, these waters’ tropical fish, coral, and giant turtles thrill both divers and snorkelers. Divers can also explore two wrecks.
9. Take a Ferry to Paradise(s): A bridge connects Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, but visitors can also visit Guadeloupe’s other islands—each of which has its own history, lifestyle, and terrain—because the ferry service is so good.
10. Buy Yourself a Present: In addition to selling the best bananas on earth, market vendors feature madras head-wraps and dolls, hand-woven items of straw, and spices, while stores sell French fashions and perfumes, and local rhum vieux—vintage, single-estate rum.