Different Strokes for Different Isles

written by | Posted on October 11th, 2013

Beachside on Marie-Galante.

Beachside on Marie-Galante.

GRANDE-TERRE

The east wing of the Guadeloupe butterfly—the two bridge-connected islands that account for most of this French department’s territory—Grande-Terre has more hotels than any other island in the archipelago, and its low-lying terrain makes it easy to get around. (The good roads help, too.)

Much of Grande-Terre is rimmed with beaches. The windblown shores of the east coast are a big draw for surfers and kiteboarders, while the southern beaches, with their white sand and calm waters, are where most of the hotels, villas, restaurants and clubs have sprung up. Some hotel staffers, maitre d’s, and shop owners will greet guests with a Gallic “bonjour,” but most establishments on Grande-Terre have staffers who can comfortably shift over to English, as well.

Many of the largest hotels, best restaurants, and hottest clubs vie for space on or near the beaches of Le Gosier, near the west end of the south shore. Ste-Anne, to the east, has quite a few hotels, shops, restaurants, and a nice market, too, but the vibe is a bit more local. Many of the people you see in the restaurants and cafes of St-François, yet farther to the east, are yachties moored in this town’s protected harbor; this is also a major stop for ferries visiting other islands.

Concierges at the hotels will reserve tee times for duffers at the Golf Club International de St-François, which was designed by the great Robert Trent Jones, Sr. However, Grande-Terre is such an interesting place—and Guadeloupe’s good transportation systems offer such easy access to Basse-Terre and the other—that it would almost be a shame to spend one’s vacation chasing dimpled balls.

Guadeloupe’s largest city, Pointe-à-Pitre, is on the west side of Grande-Terre, near the airport and the bridge to Grande-Terre. Visitors buy French cosmetics, fashions, and perfumes at the shops on rue Frébault; they find flattering madras-colored fashions for men and children as well as women at Dody Shop, Spice Market Square. Speaking of “spice,” Guadeloupe’s markets, starting with the covered market in Pointe-à-Pitre, are run by women in local madras wraps who display colorful local fruits (Guadeloupe is where Columbus first encountered the pineapple), vegetables, spices, sauces, and hand-made crafts. You might be wondering why there are so many madras fabrics and curry dishes on a French Caribbean island: That’s because after 1848, the plantation owners brought over people from India to fill the labor gap that was created after slavery was abolished.

The Schoelcher Museum, in a 19th century manse in Pointe-à-Pitre, honors French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher with exhibits about him, chains and other artifacts from slavery days—the French who settled here established sugarcane plantations that were worked by slaves—and art. Just outside of town are the ruins of Fort Fleur d’Épée (you didn’t think the British were going to let the French hang onto Guadeloupe without a fight, did you?). Also on the outskirts is the Guadeloupe Aquarium, whose brightly colored reef fish, giant eels, sharks, and turtles thrill children. Better yet, visitors can take naturalist-led boat tours of the nearby reefs and mangroves.

The smart money will rent a car for at least part of a vacation, not only to visit Basse-Terre, but to drive across Grande-Terre’s countryside, past cane and banana plants swaying in the breeze and villages like Morne à l’eau, with its cemetery filled with black-and-white tiled gravestones. Reaching the east end of the island, it doesn’t take long to spot kiteboarders racing across the waves and soaring skyward for 20, 30, 40 ft. at a time. It’s mesmerizing.

Even more mesmerizing is the view from Pointe des Chateaux, a peninsula jutting out of the southeast end of Grande-Terre. Walk out to the tip, and one passes swimmable beaches to the right, on the Caribbean side, while to the left, the Atlantic side, surfers ride rough water. At the tip there are other islands: La Désirade, Marie-Galante, and Les Saintes. They all look so alluring that one finds themselves thinking: “I’d like to see some of Guadeloupe’s other islands, too.” Good idea.

La Cascade aux Ecrevisses on Basse-Terre.

La Cascade aux Ecrevisses on Basse-Terre.

BASSE-TERRE

How can an island that’s literally just a few feet from low-lying Grande-Terre be so different? Basse-Terre is a cluster of upthrust mountains and volcanoes, natural hot springs, flora-fabulous rainforests, birds, waterfalls, and enough micro-climates—wet, dry, tropical, semi-tropical, etc.—to fill an encyclopedia of gardening. Much of the interior is protected within Guadeloupe National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and as if that weren’t pristine paradise enough, the Pigeon Islands area on Basse-Terre’s west coast, teeming with tropical fish and turtles and live coral, is protected as the Cousteau Reserve. It’s a terrific destination for romantics, athletes and ecotourists—hikers, bird and butterfly watchers, canyoneers, photographers, divers and snorkelers—and families with parents who suspect that it’s better for their kids to see real fish and warblers than warbling animatronics.

Visitors can get a good look at La Soufrière—a smoking, rainforest-clad volcano that’s nearly a mile high (tallest point in the Eastern Antilles)—from viewing areas, or hike up to the summit on one of the many well-marked trails that weave through the national park. Elsewhere in the park, sky-high Carbet Falls gives visitors a neck ache (that’s a good thing) and/or an excuse for a hike to the top of one of the cascades. And visitors only need to walk a few feet from the parking lot to see La Cascade aux Ecrevisses, whose cool waters splash into a fern-lined, poster-worthy pool that inspires some people to take pictures nonstop and others to jump into the water. Visitors have a choice of driving through and hiking the park independently or with guided tours.

Diving at the Cousteau Reserve is, not surprisingly, superb, but what not everyone realizes is that the thriving fish populations in shallow water allow amateur snorkelers to see these marvels, too. What’s more, people can take kayak tours of the mangroves and reefs, and go out in glass-bottom boats as well.

Another thing not everyone realizes: That over the past decade, despite the fact that Americans were more or less cut off from Guadeloupe, more hotels, villas, condos, eco-resorts and restaurants have opened on Basse-Terre, so your clients do not have to stay on Grande-Terre and drive over every day. Many of these lodgings are in Deshaies, near unspoiled Grande Anse beach on the northwest coast, but there are still more hotels (and beaches) to the south.

There’s plenty for folks who aren’t athletes to do, too. The Musée du Rhum in the north does not require a whole lot of hand-eye coordination, and the butterfly and model ship collection might entertain Junior while Mom and Dad taste the good stuff. The Jardin Botanique de Basse-Terre has a good park for kids as well as native flora (and fauna). L’Habitation la Grivelière, an agritourism must, features historic farm buildings, an up-close look at how cocoa and coffee are traditionally grown and processed, and a restaurant that serves organic produce.

Near Guadeloupe’s little capital city on the southwest coast, Basse-Terre, is Fort Louis Delgrès. Named after an important abolitionist who made a stand here in 1802, the fort was started in the mid-1600s to keep the British from taking over the island. It succeeded, too, although not without a lot of effort and bloodshed. But obviously, both sides had concluded that Basse-Terre was worth it.

A crayfish dish is one of many seafood specialties on the islands.

A crayfish dish is one of many seafood specialties on the islands.

MARIE-GALANTE

Resembling a big, round pancake in the sea just south of Grande-Terre, Marie-Galante is, like its larger neighbor, mostly farmland, but without a population center as large as Pointe-à-Pitre. It does have lovely beaches, historic monuments, yacht charters, watersports, an airport and good ferry connections, and enough authenticity to seduce any cultural tourist.  Oh yes, and rum—world-class rum.

Most visitors come for the day and take a 4-hour minibus tour or rent a moped; others check into a hotel or cottage for a 3-day stay. All are charmed by the miles of cane tended by farmers driving oxcarts. If that doesn’t remind you to slow down in life, what will? And there are not many other places on earth where you can bet a couple of euros on a tug-of-war between oxen or visit a traditional garden like Jardin de Buckingham, with its organic plants and Table d’hotes/restaurant.

Where there’s cane, there’s rum—at least in Guadeloupe—and the colonial-era buildings and exhibits at Château Murat, a plantation-turned-museum, show how, in an earlier time, cane was king and rum was, well, emperor. Murat also offers a rare glimpse into slave culture, because some of the old slave quarters are open to visitors. Today, cane and rum still take center stage on Marie-Galante, so visitors can stop in at the award-winning Rhum Bologne, Domaine de Severin, Distillerie Poisson (Père Labat), or Bielle distilleries to see how the best estate-bottled rhum is made. And sure, tours end with tastings.

Wind was a power source in the old days— remember, it’s free, sustainable, and not subject to price gouging—so at one point, there were hundreds of stone windmills on the flat, breezy grande galette. The countryside is still dotted with these sturdy structures, and the one to stop at is Bezard, a rarity that was fitted out with some iron parts in the late-1800s and is still working. (With all this agriculture- related history, you might not expect the island to have a major music fest, but it does, and it’s a dandy: Terre de Blues, in May.)

These days, wind power is mostly used to propel the sailboats that moor in the harbors of Grand-Bourg and Saint Louis, while on the Marie-Galante’s east coast, it gives a lift to kitesurfers. The swimmable beaches are back on the island’s sheltered west coast; just for starters, Anse Canot and Plage de la Feuillière will bring a smile to anyone who craves expanses of white sand, soft surf, and the shade of palm trees rather than condo towers.

Farmer on Marie-Galante.

Farmer on Marie-Galante.

LES SAINTES

These tiny, hilly, semi-arid isles south of Basse-Terre were never conducive to growing cane, so the people you see on Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas, the only two that are inhabited, are mostly descendants of Breton and Norman seafarers and fishermen who never imported slaves. Terre-de-Haut is the island visitors are more likely to visit, what with its frequent ferry connections to Grande-Terre. But that’s not all it has.

The harbor at the village of Terre-de-Haut is a beauty: a calm, C-shaped body of clear, clean water. Like the bay at Rio de Janeiro, it’s presided over by a statue of Christ on a hill, and although neither the hill nor the statue are as large as Rio’s, they’re in perfect proportion to everything else. The village is the ideal size, too, just large enough to have sprouted a few shops and galleries, cafes and restaurants.

Some day-trippers rent mopeds or just hoof it up the hills to see the statue up close; admire the locals’ neat, tiled-roofed houses fronted by pots of flowers; or get themselves to Pain de Sucre or Pompiere Beach. Some arrange to go diving in waters where the coral hasn’t been strangled by a million rubber flippers. Still others visit Fort Napoleon, and once there, they may spend more time at the site than they’d planned.

Built in the 1700s on a bluff over the harbor so it could repel—who else?—the British, it was destroyed by the Royal Navy, rebuilt, and it’s still in excellent shape, with the original stone walls, lookout towers, barracks, dungeon cells and iguanas. (Actually, the iguanas are not original.) Galleries within the complex feature depictions of sea battles and an astonishingly good collection of modern art. There’s also a garden planted with succulents.

That said, some day-trippers have such a good time strolling around the village that they never see the fort or anything else. Inevitably, you’ll find them sitting at a cafe enjoying a café au lait and tourment d’amour, the local pastry, followed by—hey, why not?—Ti’punch, a rum-based mixed drink.

Forest trails and Carbet Falls on Basse-Terre.

Forest trails and Carbet Falls on Basse-Terre.

LA DESIRADE

People who savor the peacefulness of Basse-Terre’s forests, Terre-de-haut’s hills, or the canefields of Marie-Galante may be surprised to find that La Désirade has managed to stay even more Olde Caribbean. A slinky, barely 7- by 1-mile island east of Grande-Terre, its attractions attest to its peculiar history. From 1725 until the 1950s, this was a leper colony administered by nuns, and just to keep things interesting, King Louis XV also banished rebellious noblemen there in 1763.

Today, the government helps preserve this sleepy island’s unspoiled character, and that includes the leprosarium, where visitors can see the old chapel and the cemetery where the outcasts were buried. Visitors can see more of the island by renting a moped; they won’t get lost, because there only is one real road. More ambitious types can also hike Le Morne du Souffleur (a 1-hour walk) for sweeping views of the isle, the sea, and looming in the west, Grande-Terre. They can take a boat to uninhabited Petite-Terre—and maybe spot some whales, too.

Or they might take a pass on anything strenuous and just chill at one of the beaches protected by reefs on the south and southwest shores. This is a vacation, so tell your clients they’re allowed to do nothing.

Beachside on Les Saintes.

Beachside on Les Saintes.

Bon Appetit!

Your clients will be familiar with French foods like foie gras and Camembert, but the Creole specialties may be a bit harder to define, so here’s a quick guide to six wonderful dishes they won’t want to miss:

ACCRAS: Appetizers that are seafood or vegetable fritters.

BLAFF: Poached fish that has been marinated in lime juice and spices.

COLOMBO: Meat or fish prepared in an aromatic Creole-style curry that differs from most curries found in India (for example, sometimes it doesn’t include cumin, so it imparts a more exotic flavor).

CRABES FARCIS: Spicy stuffed crabs that Guadaloupean chefs time perfectly so they’re moist, not dry.

GOAT STEW: In curry or other sauces, its flavor is vaguely like that of lamb, but stronger and more fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth tender.

TOURMENT D’AMOUR: A pastry from Les Saintes that resembles a height-challenged cupcake and is flavored with coconut or other tropical fruits.

Fisherman's village on Les Saintes.

Fisherman’s village on Les Saintes.

7 Reasons Why Guadeloupe is an Ecotourism Paradise

1. Each of the Guadeloupe archipelago’s islands has a totally unique ecosystem, from volcanic Basse-Terre to flat and arid Petite-Terre, so visitors can explore a world of tropical environments and possibilities.

2. Basse-Terre’s interior, with its live volcanoes, the tallest peak in the Lesser Antilles— La Soufrière, just short of one mile high— primeval rainforests, spectacular waterfalls, prime canyoning cascades, birds, and hiking trails, is protected forever under the auspices of Guadeloupe National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

3. Named by Jacques Cousteau as one of the world’s top 10 dive sites, the Pigeon Islands and their coral reefs, wrecks, sea turtles, and tropical fish, are also forever protected as the Cousteau Reserve, so it now serves as a wonderland for divers, snorkelers and kayakers.

4. The Guadeloupe Aquarium, on Grande-Terre, is not only the best aquarium in the Caribbean, but as part of its education mandate it offers small-craft tours led by exceptional guides.

5. Because preservation of heritage is one of the pillars of ecotourism, Guadeloupe has preserved and restored historic monuments such as fortresses, colonial-era buildings in Pointe-à-Pitre, the remains of the leper colony on La Désirade, and stone sugar mills and windmills.

6. Preservation of culture, too, is as integral to ecotourism as flora and fauna, and Guadeloupe is one part of the Caribbean where the old agricultural way of life, from the oxcarts to the cuisine, markets, music, dance, crafts, and countless customs, have held its own against the homogenizing forces of modernity.

7. In much of the archipelago, from Basse-Terre to Marie-Galante to the smaller islands, the beaches and other environments on the coasts remain unspoiled. Indeed, the government has protected the entire Petite-Terre island group—including its waters—as a nature reserve. The birds and iguanas are grateful, and thanks to the ferries whose guides lead tours of this rarity, a group of authentic desert islands, so are the visitors.

The Joy of Rum.

The Joy of Rum.

The Joy of Rum

Whereas distilleries in many countries produce rum from molasses and other by-products of sugar, Guadeloupe’s producers distill directly from the sugarcane juice, which results in a purer flavor. Rum cocktails like piña coladas and daiquiris are ubiquitous in Guadeloupe’s hotels and restaurants, but the classic tipple here is Ti’punch, made with rum, cane syrup, lime, and sometimes a slice of starfruit.

Surely the most aromatic tour on earth is a trip to one of the rum distilleries that let visitors see how cane is grown (these bottlers are often right on the farms), crushed, fermented, distilled, and aged. Yes, aged: When you see dark rum in Guadeloupe, its color comes not from additives, but from years of storage in charred oak barrels. Call it rhum vieux (vintage rum) or estate-bottled rum—both terms are accurate—Guadeloupe’s rums have a depth and smoothness that makes them worthy of sipping straight up, like a fine Cognac. And visitors get a chance to do exactly that when they tour the distilleries.

Three of the best to visit produce top-quality white rum on Marie-Galante: Domaine de Bellevue (more than 200 years old); Distillerie Bielle (which also produces must-have pottery); and Distillerie Poisson, maker of Père Labat. On Basse-Terre, the Reimonenq Distillery and the Rum Museum, a producer of darker rums, doesn’t just show how it’s done and then serve samples, it also displays large collections of detailed model sailboats and insects, including butterflies.