Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
French, but proudly Guadeloupean, this is an island of contrasts, from the arid lowlands and white beaches of Grande-Terre to the volcanic mountain forests and diving grounds of Basse-Terre.
Musée Archéologique Edgar Clerc
Chutes du Carbet
Butterflies have a short lifespan, but the two unequal wings of Guadeloupe - one dry and rocky, edged with a white ring of beaches, the other mountainous, verdant, and crisscrossed with hot and cold rivers - have been spread for centuries. It is said that when Columbus first set eyes on Guadeloupe in 1493, he immediately encased it in a casket and presented the jewel to the Catholic king of Spain.
Spices on sale at St- Antoine Market, Guadeloupe.
At 555 sq miles (1,438 sq km) Guadeloupe is one of the larger islands of the Lesser Antilles and is not only diverse, but also complex. Banana plantations crawl up the sides of volcanoes, flat expanses of sugar cane grow alongside winding mangrove swamps, international hotels contrast with wooden huts perched on four stones, and major highways cross paths leading over the mountains through giant ferns and dense forests.
Antillean creole dress.
Philippe Giraud/The Guadeloupe Island Tourist Board
A piece of France
Guadeloupe, along with surrounding islands - Marie-Galante, Les Saintes, and La Désirade - is a département of France and therefore part of the EU. These islanders, like Martinicans, have French citizenship and French passports and have the same rights as those living in France, around 4,500 miles (7,000km) away. Arriving in Guadeloupe from another Caribbean island may make you wonder if you have taken a wrong turning somewhere: the four-lane highway from the airport is jammed with French cars, the large supermarkets and furniture stores are the same as those in France.
Guadeloupe’s main export is bananas - most of which are eaten in France - and sugar cane, mainly used for making rum, still accounts for 40 percent of agricultural land. However, tourism is rapidly taking over as the country’s biggest earner.
Land of beautiful waters
The Spanish made several attempts to settle the island after Columbus had dropped by long enough to name it for the Virgin of Guadelupe in Spain. However, they were foiled by the resident Caribs who tenaciously guarded their Land of Beautiful Waters (Karukera) until the arrival of the French in 1635. Within 5 years, the Amerindians had been suppressed, and soon a thriving sugar economy was in operation, underpinned by the labor of African slaves.
The British cast a greedy eye on the island, invading twice and taking control in 1759. They agreed in the 1763 Treaty of Paris to return the island to Louis XV - in exchange for keeping Canada.
Life took a downward turn for the békés (rich white planters) when during the French Revolution slavery was abolished in the French colonies and a revolutionary commissioner, Victor Hugues, was sent to Guadeloupe in 1794 to enforce it. This he did with gusto, defeating the British, who had been invited in by the békés to maintain the status quo, and then guillotining 850 royalist planters.
When Napoléon came to power, Hugues was replaced and slavery reinstated until abolition was decreed in the 1848 Revolution that established the Second Republic in France. After that, 40,000 East Indians came to work on the sugar plantations.
Guadeloupe and Martinique went into decline during the two world wars; thousands of islanders went to fight for France, and in World War II they suffered an Allied blockade during the German occupation of France, cutting off the import of basic essentials. Afterward, in 1946, integration into the Third Republic as départements d’outremer (overseas departments) of France seemed the only way toward economic recovery for the French islands.
There have been several groups advocating independence and many Guadeloupeans who, although not wanting to break away, resent France because of the way top jobs are given to incoming French when unemployment is high (3-4 percent of the population leave each year to work in metropolitan France); they also feel that their créole culture - a mix of African, East Indian, and West Indian - is being swamped by all things French.
The two “wings” of mainland Guadeloupe are divided by the Rivière Salée. Paradoxically, the smaller, flatter eastern “wing” is called Grande-Terre, which means large or high land, and the large, mountainous western “wing” is Basse-Terre, meaning low land. It is believed they were named by sailors for the winds that blow greater in the east and lower in the west.
Pointe-à-Pitre - the unofficial capital
Pointe-à-Pitre 1 [map], the economic capital of Guadeloupe, has little architectural beauty. But if you close your eyes to the low-cost housing developments and delve into the old town, you discover its appeal. In some places its balconied wooden houses rival those of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Place de la Victoire A [map] is bordered by sidewalk cafés and old colonial buildings. This is the historical heart of Pointe-à-Pitre, and several monuments in honor of local personalities and events are exhibited here. The square opens out onto La Darse B [map] (the harbor) with boats that go to the islands of Marie-Galante and Les Saintes. La Darse continues along the wharf where for three centuries the import-export houses traded their goods, but the buildings have now been transformed into the modern US$20-million Centre St-John Perse, housing 80 shops, restaurants, and a hotel. Cruise ships drop anchor at the cruise terminal several times a week.
The streets of Pointe-à-Pitre.
Behind, the small Musée St-John Perse C [map] (9 rue Nozières and rue A R Boisneuf; tel: 590-590-900 192; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 8.30am-12.30pm) celebrates the life and work of the Guadeloupean poet who was born into a béké family as Alexis Saint-Léger in 1887. Although he left the island when he was 12, never to return again, he idealized the Caribbean in his poetry and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960.
Mingle with the crowd thronging the rue Frébault, Pointe-à-Pitre’s busiest street, another block away from the harbor. Stop at the Marché Couvert (Covered Market) close by, bordered by rues St-John Perse, Schoelcher, Frébault, and Peynier. It is at its bustling, colorful best in the morning. Here you can pick up stylish cotton clothing, straw bags, and local crafts, and feast your senses at stalls piled high with fragrant spices and exotic fruits such as sugar apples, sweetsops, soursops, mangoes, and passion fruit, or tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, and madera, as well as home-grown vegetables.
A few minutes to the west on rue Peynier is the Musée Schoelcher D [map] (24 rue Peynier; tel: 590-590-820 804; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm), dedicated to the French politician Victor Schoelcher, who persistently campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the French colonies and signed the decree in 1848.
On the way back to place de la Victoire turn left up rue Nozières and, nearby, tucked away to the right, is the Marché aux Fleurs (Flower Market) in front of the sand-colored facade of the basilica of St-Pierre et St-Paul E [map]. Built in the 1830s with metal supports and exquisite stained-glass windows, it successfully withstood the huge earthquake in 1845.
Traditional Caribbean Creole houses in Grand Terre, Guadeloupe.
On Grande-Terre the flat landscape of sugar-cane fields is dotted here and there with the massive stone silhouette of a sugar mill, the dark green foliage of a mango tree, or the scarlet splash of a flame tree. On leaving Pointe-à-Pitre on the N4, the south coast road, you come to Guadeloupe’s main resort area, starting with one of the biggest marinas in the Caribbean at Bas du Fort, about 2 miles (3km) from the center. On the hilltop above, looking across to Marie-Galante and the mountains of Basse-Terre, is the coral-built, 18th-century Fort Fleur-d’Epée 2 (daily; free) which holds art exhibitions and has lovely gardens.
To discover the island’s writers and artists, visit the Librairie Générale Jasor, 46 rue Schoelcher, Pointe- à-Pitre. Here you will find books on every subject from fishing in Guadeloupe to local magic and architecture, and on the walls are paintings by local artists.
Le Gosier 3 [map], 2 miles (3km) farther on, is the hub of the holiday scene, where there are countless little restaurants. The service is slow, but a Ti-punch (rum with sugar-cane syrup) helps to pass the time. Try the humbler dishes not to be found on every menu, such as breadfruit migan (breadfruit slices cooked slowly with lemon juice and salt pork) and bébélé (plaintains, green bananas, congo peas, tripe with salt pork) from Marie-Galante, or maybe a bokit, a large round fried sandwich, the local answer to fast food. This is the real Guadeloupe. The town comes alive at night to the sound of zouk emanating from the nightclubs.
There are several sandy beaches along the south Atlantic coast but the typical French West Indian village of Ste-Anne 4 [map], 9 miles (14km) away, sits on one of the best, while the Club Med resort enjoys another fine beach at Caravelle. The road slopes down a farther 9 miles (14km) to St-François 5 [map], once a quiet little fishing village and now an upmarket resort with its own airport for light aircraft and private jets, and a golf course. Ferries depart regularly from the opulent marina for the island of La Désirade, 6 miles (10km) away. The road out of the town ends 7 miles (11km) on at the craggy Pointe des Châteaux 6 [map] where, as a final gesture, the rocks have been lashed by the Atlantic at its juncture with the Caribbean into spectacular castle-like formations. You can walk up to the cross planted at the Pointe des Colibris in 1951 for some fine views.
Back on the N5 heading north, after about 8 miles (13km) you reach Le Moule, once the capital and now the surfing capital of the island. The beach restaurants are perfect for lingering over a plate of seafood. Just outside at La Rosette is the Musée Archéologique Edgar Clerc 7 [map] (Mon-Tue, Thur, 9am-5pm, Wed, Fri 9am-1pm; free), which houses one of the Caribbean’s largest collections of pre-Columbian items, and other treasures.
Follow the coast road and take a swim in one of the many sheltered, hidden coves, or push on farther north, on the N8, which cuts across country of thornbushes and acacias for about 15 miles (24km) to the Pointe de la Grande Vigie 8 [map]. Here the land ends. Only a few years back this area was a wild and desolate place, but is now the haunt of scuba divers and strong swimmers who are not duped by the apparent calm of the blue, blue water.
The dense forest around Capesterre- Bell-Eau.
Philippe Giraud/Guadeloupe Island Tourist Board
On your way back to Pointe-à-Pitre, stop off at Morne-à-l’Eau, home of the island’s most magnificent cemetery, which is a true city of the dead, with funeral palaces of black and white checkered tiles. On All Saints’ Day in November the cemetery at night is aglow with the flickering of tiny candles.
The Basse-Terre mountains
Now for the western wing, the mountainous Basse-Terre. From Pointe-à-Pitre, the N1 heads down the eastern coast. You can stop at places such as Les Jardins de Valombreuse (www.valombreuse.com; daily 8am-6pm), lovely gardens in a rainforest setting, where you can buy flowers, have them packed for export, and collect them at the airport. Capesterre-Belle-Eau is the third-largest town, notable for its seafront avenues of flamboyant trees and royal palms. South of the town at St-Sauveur, turn inland on the D4 (Route de l’Habituée) to reach the Chutes du Carbet, three spectacular waterfalls with pools of warm, sulfuric water you can swim in.
Les Saintes, Guadaloupe.
Jean-Marc Lecerf/Guadeloupe Island Tourist Board
Cousteau’s silent world
When Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-97) was filming his award-winning film Le Monde du Silence (1955) at Ilets de Pigeon, he discovered what he considered to be one of the best dive sites in the world. As a result of the enthusiasm of this French underwater explorer and cameraman extraordinaire, the Réserve Cousteau, a large 2,471-acre (1,000-hectare) submarine park was set up around the tiny islands off Malendure on the western coast of Basse-Terre. The reason this site is so much more beautiful than most others is because the hot volcanic springs around the islands have created a wonderful warm environment for a much wider variety of sea life than other Caribbean coasts. Forests of hard and soft corals and large communities of magnificent tube and barrel sea sponges in violets, yellows, flaming red, and greens give shelter to a universe of fish in all shapes, sizes, and color schemes. Gorgonias gently sway in the silvery gentle sea in temperatures of around 82°F (28°C), and the visibility is still perfect at depths of 65-130ft (20-40 meters).
To experience such a spectacular site, well-equipped dive shops with licensed instructors at Malendure organize individual dives or courses. You can also rent tanks for beach dives, as the underwater scenery starts close by.
Back on the N1, head towards the Parc Archéologique des Roches Gravées - ancient rocks etched with images of men and animals, which were carved by the Amerindians who originally inhabited Guadeloupe - at Trois Rivières on the southeast coast.
Alternatively, the N2 heads west round the north coast of Basse-Terre. Modern art lovers should stop in the town of Lamentin, a 15-minute drive west of Pointe-à-Pitre. Massive modern-art sculptures, called Karuptures, pop up at intersections, in school yards, in the countryside, and at the fishing port. For rum aficionados, there is the Domaine de Séverin distillery at La Boucan, where they still use a paddle wheel; and the Musée du Rhum at the Distillerie Reimonenq, Ste-Rose. Heading down the west coast you get to Pointe Noire, where you can visit the Maison du Bois 9 [map] (tel: 590-590 981 690; under renovation), a woodworking center which has an exhibition of wooden household implements.
The N1 and the N2 are linked by a dramatic road bisecting Basse-Terre. The Route de la Traversée cuts across the 60,000 acres (24,000 hectares) of the Parc Naturel de la Guadeloupe (www.guadeloupe-parcnational.com). About halfway along the 15-mile (24km) route, edged with giant ferns, bright red flamboyants, and rainforest, is the Maison de la Forêt ) [map] (Nov-Apr and July-Aug Mon-Sat 8.30am-1pm, 1.45-4.30pm, Sun 9am-1.15pm, May-June and Sept-Oct Mon-Fri 9am-1pm, 1.45-4.30pm; free), a good information center that provides maps for well-signposted walks, some lasting only 20 minutes - such as the one to the beautiful Cascade de l’Ecrevisse - others, like the Pigeon Trail, taking 3 hours. South of the junction with the N2 you quickly come to the dark sands of Malendure, the launching pad for the Réserve Cousteau ! [map], a marine park around the Ilets de Pigeon.
The popular British-French TV comedy-drama series Death in Paradise, starring Kris Marshall and Joséphine Jobert (following the departure of original leads Ben Miller and Sara Martins), has been filmed on Guadeloupe since 2011. In 2015, the show’s creator Robert Thorogood published a novel, A Meditation on Murder (A Death in Paradise novel), featuring characters from the series.
Bois bandé (the local Viagra), for sale in the market.
Philippe Giraud/The Guadeloupe Island Tourist Board
The N2 twists and turns along the coast for about 16 miles (26km) to Basse-Terre @ [map], the administrative capital of the département of Guadeloupe. Under the shadow of the smoking La Soufrière, which last yawned and fell back to sleep in 1976, the old, colonial port, founded in 1634, has neatly planned squares, narrow streets, a 17th-century cathedral, and the well-preserved ruins of Fort Louis Delgrès, named after the black commander who died resisting the re-imposition of slavery.
Several roads lead up through lush countryside to the smart resort of St-Claude, 4 miles (6km) into the foothills of La Soufrière, where there is an informative Maison du Volcan £ [map] (Bains-Jaune, Route de la Soufrière; daily 9am-1pm, 2-4pm) and the start of some scenic trails. You can drive farther up the mountain to a parking area at Savane à Mulets by steaming fumaroles, and those fit enough can tackle the arduous 90-minute climb to the often cloud-covered crater.
Trips to the islands
At Trois Rivières on the coast south of the volcano, ferries make the 25-minute trip to Les Saintes $ [map] where, in 1782, Britain’s Admiral Rodney foiled the French fleet’s planned attack on Jamaica in the Battle of the Saintes. Of this huddle of eight islands, only two - Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas - are inhabited. Their tiny population is of Breton origin, descended from the pirates who used to stake out the seas. Today, they are skilled sailors or fishermen, identifiable by their wide hats, called salakos. It is worth staying the night in one of the several small hotels and inns on Terre-de-Haut to experience the tranquility of a beautiful island with white-sand beaches after the day-trippers have left. While you are here, try the delicious seafood, or buy torment d’amour (torment of love) cakes at the ferry port.
From Pointe-à-Pitre boats go daily to Les Saintes and to the circular 60 sq mile (155 sq km) island of Marie-Galante % [map], which Columbus named for his own ship. Bordered by white sandy beaches, one of the most secluded being the hidden coves of Anse Canot on the northwest coast, the island still grows sugar to make rum. Tour one of the rum distilleries and visit the atelier of local sculptor Armand Baptiste.
La Désirade, a melancholy place not typical of Guadeloupe, is reached by ferry from St-François, on the southern coast of Grande-Terre (an hour’s drive from Pointe-à-Pitre along the N4); the island once served as a leper colony and was often a final destination for its inhabitants.
A local craftsman demonstrates the skill of basketry.
Philippe Giraud/The Guadeloupe Island Tourist Board