Step Back in Time

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On Marie-Galante, the oxcarts are still part of rural life.
On Marie-Galante, the oxcarts are still part of rural life.

FORT LOUIS DELGRES: Built in the 1600s to protect Basse-Terre, this stronghold’s remarkably preserved and extensive fortifications evoke an era when France and Britain battled for control of Caribbbean islands. Later, in 1802, Creole officer Louis Delgrès led his men here in an unsuccessful revolt against slavery.

FORT NAPOLEON: Unlike Fort Delgrès, this Terre-de-Haut bastion against the British was destroyed, rebuilt, and thereafter never saw a day of battle, so it was used as a prison. Its walls, turrets, and an interior building used for barracks and prisoners are in excellent condition, as are the cactus and succulent garden that have been planted there.

THE LEPROSARIUM OF LA DESIRADE: In the 1750s, this quiet isle was designated a leper colony administered by nuns, and it functioned in that capacity for two centuries. Today, the chapel and cemetery bear witness to a tragic era when, in the absence of modern drugs, sick people were ostracized to decline and die away from their loved ones.

THE PRIMEVAL FOREST: As much as or even more than any historic building, the rainforests of Guadeloupe National Park on Basse-Terre evoke the Caribbean of the past, before Europeans or, for that matter, the Caribs had settled here. The misty, verdant slopes of La Soufrière are covered with mahogany trees, vines, bromeliads, and leaves as big as pizza—Adam and Eve would recognize it.

THE OXEN AND COCKS OF MARIE-GALANTE: Rural life on this island is a time capsule of that long stretch between the abolition of slavery (1848) and the post-World War II emergence of a tourist economy. This is the authentic Caribbean, an island that evokes the old days with its 19th century windmills (at least two of which still work), cane fields, oxcarts piled high with just-picked crops, tug-of-wars between oxen, cock fights, undeveloped beaches, and rum distilleries that, despite the need to compete in a modern world, maintain traditional techniques and standards.

THE MARKETPLACES: In Ste-Anne and other towns, women dressed in madras head-wraps and other authentic Guadeloupean garments sell produce that jolts North Americans into remembering how bananas (more than a dozen distinct varieties), pineapples, and other fruits used to look and taste before mass marketing forced farmers to breed crops for ship-ability rather than flavor, and then—as if that weren’t bad enough—pick them before they’re ripe. These women also sell locally grown spices, condiments, and real hand-made crafts; not much has changed in decades.

TERRE-DE-HAUT: The port village of this small island in Les Saintes resembles a quaint coastal town in northern France, of all places, if only northern France had better weather. Its residents, whose ancestors came from that area, have built white, wooden buildings with red roofs, and as you wander in and out of the little church, shops, restaurants, and cozy cafes, you almost expect to hear someone playing an accordion. Thankfully, nobody does.