Like a cluster of emeralds displayed in a sparkling showcase of Caribbean blue, Guadeloupe dazzles with all the classic elements of a tropical paradise.

For the U.S. market, at least, these leeward islands of the French West Indies tend to play third fiddle to its flashier siblings of St. Barts and St. Martin. That’s especially palatable with escape artists craving an unpretentious exotic respite away from flashier celebrity haunts.

Gobbling up “101” scoop during the flight from LAX to Point-a-Pitre International Airport (PTP) via San Juan, I learned that this “overseas department” of France is a provincial archipelago encompassing the butterfly-shaped main islands of Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, and the smaller neighboring isles of Les Saintes, Marie Gallante and La Desirade. While close in proximity, each surprises with its own distinctive personality.

Separated by a narrow sea passage, Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre are as different as day and night. The former is celebrated for its fine beaches and offshore coral reefs, while the rainforest-cloaked latter is a mountainous mass thrust up from the ocean floor by the La Soufriere volcano, which is still active. Visitors tend to flock to the east “wing” to dive, surf and boat, then the west to hike, bike, zipline and explore lushly vegetated national parks.

In a snap, visitors are swept into a spirited fusion of French and Caribbean cultures—the musical menagerie of calypso-reggae-mazurkas-biguine styles, authentic Creole cuisine, and homegrown delicacies like coffee, cocoa and sugar cane still used to distill its coveted rum. As time would reveal, consuming the region’s alcohol-rich Planter’s Punch is considered more ritual than vice.

Pointe-a-Pitre is located on the southern coast of Grande-Terre near Gosier. That’s where we found the four-star La Creole Beach Resort & Spa that would serve as home base for the next few days.

The recently refreshed 211-room property lays out in a series of seven low-rise, Creole-style buildings nestled among tropical palms and hibiscus along a white sandy beach. Guestrooms are decorated with vibrant fabrics reflecting the lively Caribbean character—each with individually controlled air conditioning, terrace, mini-bar, LCD TV and wireless Internet access. Arriving mid-afternoon, we had ample time to unwind and soak in the stunning seaside setting. Munching on a tasty panini from La Case Beach Pizza, it’s a toss up whether to rent a kayak at the resort’s gear shack or kick back and gawk at the more ambitious who’ve actually done so. Today, gawking it is.

Especially appealing after the long flight, the 2,700-sq.-ft. Spa La Creole offers PAYOT skincare product treatments in its three therapy rooms and seaside cabana, steam room, sauna, and both indoor and outdoor relaxation areas. Recommend your clients book their treatments before arriving if they’re hoping to revive right off the bat. Other La Creole amenities include a trio of pools, two restaurants, La Rhumerie lounge with live music in the evenings, tennis courts and fitness center. Strolling the grounds after dinner at the global Route des Epices, we wondered if the serenading throngs of tree frogs might hinder a good night’s sleep. On the heels of such a full day and filling feast, that simply wasn’t the case. Including breakfast, rates range from $115 pp through Nov. 14, 2011.

touring and grazing through grande-terre Driving more than diving into Guadeloupe’s rich menu of land and ocean activities, we were fortunate in balancing that with a bounty of local cuisine typically accompanied by Planter’s Punch and fine French wines. Guadeloupe’s Creole specialties mirror its many cultures, combining French fare with African and Indian spices.

Perhaps the most pleasant of these edible ventures was Le Grand Bleu at the four-star La Toubana Hotel & Spa in the small fishing village of Sainte-Anne. Etched into a hillside with tables fringing an infinity pool, the open-air eatery is known for its fresh lobster pool where you can size up your crustacean. Above its white-sand beach, 32 pleasant bungalows are furnished with individually controlled air conditioning, telephone, flat-screen TV, kitchenette with refrigerator and terrace. There’s also a full-service spa—although on this particularly toasty afternoon, most guests congregated at the pool’s swim-up bar instead. With continental breakfast, nightly rates are from $140 pp through Nov. 7, 2011.

eco-oriented basse-terre If your clients are looking for five-star headliners, Guadeloupe may not be their cup of tea since accommodations max out at four. But if they’re into ultra-cool eco-lodgings with an artsy edge, they’ll fit right in at Tendacayou Home & Spa.