A Caribbean Charter With a French Twist: Guadeloupe

If you are looking for contrasts for your next Caribbean charter, look no further than the island of Guadeloupe. You will find a charter destination that is a unique blend of France and the tropics with a twist of African and East Indian heritage. Located halfway down the Lesser Antilles chain- equal distance from the Virgin Islands and Grenada- and within the Leeward Islands, this French West Indies Island lies between Antigua and Dominica. Guadeloupe actually comprises five islands: Basse Terre, Grande Terre, La Desirade, Marie-Galante, and Les Saintes. At 629 sq. miles, this is the largest of the French overseas departments.

Guadeloupe’s History

Arawak Indians first populated the island prior to 1000A.D. The Caribs than settled Karukera – the land of beautiful waters. Seeking fresh water, Columbus landed on Guadeloupe in 1493 and christened it Santa Maria de Guadalupe after a famous image of the Virgin Mary. Fiercely guarded by the ferocious Caribs, no Europeans settled on Guadeloupe until the arrival of the French in 1635. Within five years, a thriving sugar economy existed with the institution of slavery. Guadeloupe was annexed by the King of France in 1674. As the island prospered, it became the scene of fierce battles between the French and British, who wanted to control the profitable plantations. The British occupied Guadeloupe for seven years beginning in 1759.

In 1763, however, the island was restored to France in exchange for Canada. Victor Hughes was sent to Guadeloupe in 1794 to abolish slavery, but in 1802, when Napoleon came to power, slavery was reestablished. It was not until 1848 that slavery was permanently abolished on Guadeloupe. When the former slaves refused to continue working the plantations, 40,000 East Indians were recruited to work on the sugar plantations. Their cultural influence is still present today. Guadeloupe went into economic decline during the two world wars. In 1946, integration into the 3rd French Republic as an overseas department of France seemed the only way towards economic recovery. The promise of political decentralization in the late 1900s gave birth to pro-independence uprisings. In 2003, however, after two years of severe draught, residents of Guadeloupe voted to uphold the status quo- rejecting a referendum that would have allowed for greater autonomy from France.

Guadeloupe Today

The main butterfly-shaped Guadeloupe is actually two islands: Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre separated by a narrow sea water channel called Riviere-Salee. The two halves create an island of contrasts. It is France with a Caribbean twist! The arid lowlands of Grande-Terre with its flat fields of sugarcane dotted with colorful towns and rimmed by long, white sandy beaches is a distinct opposite from the mountainous rainforests ( marked by waterfalls, rivers, hot springs and volcano), black beaches and diving grounds of Basse-Terre. Although a part of France, the people and lifestyle are a beautiful blend of European, African and East Indies cultures. You will feast on spicy Creole cuisine washed down with fine French wines. Fishermen with brightly painted fishing boats will take a break with a café-au-lait or perhaps at croissant-packed patisseries.

Ladies in traditional madras headdresses will be seen shopping at stylish boutiques with the latest French fashions. And on the street, you will hear French mingled with Creole. Grande-Terre is low and agricultural with cane fields, stands of pineapple and many ancient windmills. Fringed with coral limestone cliffs and white sandy beaches, it is also where most of the tourist facilities are located. Pointe-a-Pitre, the island’s bustling commercial center with its modern buildings, busy streets, chic French boutiques and open air markets is reminiscent of the French Riviera. Many French imports, such as wine, perfume and Lalique crystal can be bought at a discount, together with local artifacts such as madras-clad dolls, objects of straw, bamboo and spices. The harbor is crowded with schooners, freighters and often cruise ships. Most of the large resort hotels are in the Gosier area – a playground for water sports by day and dining, discos and gambling at night. Basse-Terre is mountainous with numerous banana plantations and some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular scenery. The 74,000 acre Parc Naturel is a wonderland of waterfalls, lakes, tropical rainforests and cascading rivers. The still active volcano of La Soufriere rises 4,813 feet to crown this remarkable preserve. The town of Basse-Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe, and one of the oldest towns in the Caribbean (1640), has narrow streets, many beautiful parks and a 17th century cathedral. The town of Malendure is the launching site for the 150 acre Reserve Cousteau, a marine park around the Ilets Pigeon. For those that like to dive, hot volcanic springs around the island have created a wonderfully warm environment for a much wider variety of sea life than other Caribbean coasts. Underwater forests of hard and soft corals and large communities of tube and barrel sea sponges in all colors give shelter to a universe of fish in all shapes, sizes and hues.

Must Do Activities

Diving: With clear waters, multitudes of fish and some wrecks, there is enough to enchant any level of dive enthusiast. In addition to La Reserve Cousteau, popular dive sites include Aquarium, Jardin Japonais and Jardin de Corail. Most of the sites are located in Petit Cul-de-Sac Marin south of Riviere Salee. North of Salee, is another bay, Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin, where the islets of Fajou and Caret also offer great diving. Note that most instructors have been certified under the French CMAS rather than PADI, so make sure you understand the differences and feel comfortable before you go.

Beaches: Guadeloupe has both Atlantic and Caribbean beaches – some of volcanic black sand, others shimmering white. Dozens of secluded beaches are scattered at the ends of dirt roads across the island. Wherever you go, you are never far from a beach.

Hiking: The top of La Soufriere is almost covered in heavy clouds and drenched in rain, yet you will no doubt be drawn to the volcano and its slopes. Le Parc National has over 180 miles of marked trails that twist through the park’s rainforest and up into the mountains where waterfalls cascade into crystal clear ponds. The park is an ideal mix of rugged hikes, unhurried walks, and leisurely driving tours. Over 300 types of trees tower over a thick jumble of vines and flowering bushes that house tropical birds, small mammals and shy reptiles. Do not miss the Chutes du Carbet. The Grand Carbet River, which feeds these 3 waterfalls, begins at the La Soufriere Volcano and empties into the Caribbean at Capesterre-Belle-Eau. There are 3 different hikes, varying from easy to the second falls to moderate to the third to difficult to the first falls. The waterfalls plunge from 360 feet, 65 feet and 377 feet respectively. Wherever you hike, make sure to wear good shoes, bring water and a change of clothes. Hiking in the rainforest is wet, humid and muddy! Be sure to buy a detailed map from the park office, and better yet, hire a professional guide!

Fishing: The waters off Guadeloupe are filled with blue marlin, yellowfin tuna and dorado.

Dining: You will find great Creole and French cuisine throughout the island. Seafood is a staple on any menu, with everything offered from spiny lobster to stewed conch. The island’s East Indies influences are reflected in curry dishes. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are served with traditional French sauces, spicy Creole spices or a combination of the two. Meals are often a mixture of cultures. It is not uncommon to have a meal begin with ti punch (made from local rum) and spicy fritters followed by a gourmet French meal prepared by a Paris-trained chef. The main meal is usually lunch, and both lunch and dinner are accompanied by a fine French wine. Small cafes serve just as wonderful a meal as the restaurants. Word of warning: Although there is usually someone on staff that speaks English, sometimes descriptions of food get lost in translation. Hence, I was served a traditional Guadeloupian dish called bebele- a dish of boiled tripe -stomach lining- and green bananas! Oh,boy!!!

Culture: Guadeloupe’s culture is shaped by a diverse ethnic mix of African, European and Indian influences. It can be seen in the dress (women in particular wear many layers of colorful fabrics and the madras headdress), the dance (traditional quadrilles) the music (zouk which is uniquely Guadeloupian), the unusual black and white tiled cemetery at Morne a l’Eau and the numerous celebrations that take place throughout the year including sailing regattas and the Festival of Creole Music. Two events not to miss are: Fete des Cuisinieres (Festival of Women Cooks) – a colorful celebration in August that honors the patron saint of cooks, and Carnival that starts with Lent in January and culminates around Ash Wednesday.

Sailing: Of course, anyone on a Caribbean charter to Guadeloupe is there to sail. Internationally known as a favored spot among sailors, you will be thrilled with the perfect trade winds and calm waters. A myriad of anchorages around Guadeloupe offer everything from full-service marinas to secluded bays. Word of caution: Med-style mooring is frequently used. Make sure you know how to do it, or be able to ask for help.

The Offshore Islands

La Desirade (“Sought After Land”) lies just 6 miles from Pointe des Chateaux on the far southeastern tip of Grande-Terre, and yet it is mostly untouched by tourism. Inhabited by about 1,700 people, the appeal of this barren expanse is its quiet seclusion along with sandy beaches and reef-protected bays. Caribs lived on the island long before Columbus stopped there in 1493. With no fresh water, poor soil and little rainfall, Europeans did not think much of this tiny island measuring 8 miles long and 1 ½ miles wide. In 1725, however, Guadeloupe authorities did find a purpose for this little island – a place to banish all lepers and their slaves. Later, wealthy Guadeloupeans also banished their undesirable relatives here as well. The island was slowly populated by a ragged band of outcasts and convalescents. Today, desalination plant supplies fresh water and tourists have begun to discover the uncrowded white sandy beaches. Since only one road goes from one end of the island to the other, you will only need a bike or motor scooter to get around. The main village is Grande-Anse with its little town square, art-deco town hall, marine cemetery and pretty yellow church with a presbytery and flower garden. The tiny town of Le Souffleur is a boat-building community. It is nothing more than a handful of wooden houses at the base of some hills dotted with windmills. The ruins of the old leper colony are located at Baie Mahault. The best beaches are along the island’s south side between Souffleur and Baie Mahault. You will find white sand shaded by palm trees.

Marie-Galante: Low and pastoral, the circular 60 square mile island of Marie-Galante is a sugar and rum island. The island is bordered by white sandy beaches, of which the hidden coves of Anse Canot are the most secluded. Located just 20 miles south of Grand-Terre, the three main towns are home to approximately 13,000 inhabitants. The island is a world time forgot. The ruins of approximately 100 stone windmills dot the countryside, traditional ox carts still carry crops in from the fields and the best thing to do is enjoy the superb beaches. Columbus first anchored here in 1493. Although the Carib inhabitants prevented him from spending time on the island, he named it Santa Maria la Galante after one of his ships. French troops finally ousted the Caribs in 1660 and began setting up successful sugar refineries and farms. The island was invaded by both the Dutch and English until 1815, when it became a permanent French possession. Today, the island produces about 140,000 tons of sugar which is turned into some of the best rum in the Caribbean. If you want to visit a distillery, check out Distillerie Bielle and sample their chocolate and coconut rums. Other residents make their living as fishermen. There are several beaches to explore on Marie-Galante. Near the main town of Grand-Bourg is Plage de Feuillere, considered by many to be the most beautiful beach on the island and perhaps one of the most stunning on all the Guadeloupean islands. A long stretch of white sand (1 ¼ miles) is protected by offshore coral reefs, making it a great spot for swimmers and snorkelers. A series of beaches across the northern coast offer calm waters, relaxation and solitude. Two in particular worth seeing are Plage du Masscre (also called Plage du Vieux Fort) – a ½ mile stretch of white sand, and Plage de l’Anse Canot- a semicircular bay of white sand.

Les Saintes: Just six miles from the mainland, the Iles des Saintes are a huddle of eight islands, of which only two- Terre de Haut and Terre de Bas are inhabited by about 3,000 people. Like the rest of Guadeloupe, Columbus discovered Les Saintes during his second voyage in 1493; however, they were occupied by the Caribs and were left alone until 1648 when the French governor of Guadeloupe ordered them occupied to protect them from British settlement. After the fierce Battle of the Saintes in 1782 when the British destroyed the French fleet, the British gained control of the islands until 1815 when the French won possession again. Fort Napoleon was built on Terre de Haut, but since no attacks where ever again made on the islands, the fort became a prison during World War II. The soil on Terre de Haut is poor, thus the French that settled became fishermen. The population today is descended from Breton pirates. They are skilled sailors and fishermen identifiable by their wide hats called salakos. In contrast, Terre de Bas has better soil and thus many slaves were brought over to cultivate the land as plantations developed. Today, the population on Terre de Bas is mostly of African descent. Terre de Haut is the largest of the islands in the archipelago of Les Saintes and probably the most interesting. The only town, Le Bourg, sits in the curve of a large bay midway along its ragged northern coast.

The picturesque village has charming homes and restaurants and shops line the narrow streets which are full of colorful flowers and tropical plants. The bay is one of the prettiest in the Caribbean! Only a few cars are registered on Terre de Haut, so if you do not want to walk transportation is mainly by scooter which you can rent at the ferry dock. It is a fun way to “beach hop” your way around the island. The main tourist attraction is the 18th century Fort Napoleon, located on top of a steep hill with panoramic views overlooking the sea. The view of the harbor from its ramparts is also extraordinary! In addition to the barracks and prison cells, take time to visit the two museums, as well as tour the botanical gardens and look for iguanas. Finally, just relaxing with a café au lait in the pretty town square is extremely tranquil and dining on delicious seafood from the morning’s catch cannot be beat!

The islands of Guadeloupe abound in natural beauty. They mix the best of France with a local culture that is rich in tradition and pride. From bustling modern towns to charming, quaint villages; to rural patches of sugar cane to soaring mountain rainforests; to arid deserted islands to an underwater wonderland – Guadeloupe has something for everyone on a Caribbean charter. Treat your senses to the fairyland known as the Guadeloupean archipelago. Whether you spend a day or a month- you will never be bored!