At the end of my week in “Gwada” — as Guadeloupeans affectionately call their home — I was staring at my calendar to figure out when I could return.
From day two of my visit, I had a burning desire to hop into my own rental car and navigate along the endless and winding coastline, stretching from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, hike the towering hills and explore each colorful market. Hang out with Guadeloupeans and immerse.
Every scene remains vivid in my mind — the dominating landscape of deep greens and blues, the friendly smiles and the sound of gwo ka drums on the beach, vibrating into the night.
In over a decade of solo exploration, I’ve experienced this intense feeling only twice in the Caribbean region: Jamaica and Belize.
There’s something about Guadeloupe.
It is proud of its African roots. Yes, French is spoken here —there are patisseries and pharmacies, and everyone says bonjour. But I never felt anywhere else but the West Indies. There’s an Afro-Caribbean essence that permeates every day life. Gwada is a place effortlessly hanging on to ancestral traditions yet sophisticated; a place where the old and the new happily coexist, one complementing the other. There’s no desire to be like the rest of the region. Unpretentious and raw, yet refined — Guadeloupe is a land of contrasts.
These five islands make up the Guadeloupe archipelago:
4. Les Saintes
5. La Desirade
Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre are connected by a small bridge and are considered “the mainland” if you will. They are huge and their landscapes varied. Grande-Terre is home to most of the traditional hotels, white sand beaches and water sports. Basse-Terre is its wilder sister, green as can be, offering equally stunning beaches — from gold to black sand— lush rainforest and a volcano. It’s home to inns, locally-run guesthouses and jungle lodges. So different is one from the other, that they count as two separate plots.
The other three islands —Marie-Galante, Les Saintes and La Desirade—surround the mainland and are easily accessible by ferry.
I visited four of the above five islands and I could give you many reasons to visit them. But I’ll stick to 15 for now: 15 reasons why you should skip your usual winter Caribbean haunts this season and head to Guadeloupe.
1. Safe and easy island hopping
Hop on regularly scheduled ferries to and from the various islands that make up Guadeloupe. You’re never too far from a boat ride to another stunning plot.
The boats are spacious and tickets can be purchased on site or in advance, online.
In the course of a week, we island-hopped from Grande-Terre to Marie-Galante and from Basse-Terre to Les Saintes. Express-des-Iles is the most popular transportation company (they also have departures to neighboring Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia). We experienced no breakdowns, no long waits. And there was always a café, shop and bathrooms on site at the stations.
You can’t come to Guadeloupe and not island hop, even for a day trip.
2. Glorious beaches
While I didn’t get to visit as many beaches as I’d hoped, the five I saw across four islands were breathtaking.
And beyond the beauty of soft sand and uncrowded space, I felt safe. While on Grand Anse Beach, I left my backpack resting on my towel to go swim, and although I kept a watchful eye on it from the water, there was no need. No one bothers you. I noticed the same thing at Rocroy Beach on Basse-Terre and Vieux-Fort Beach on Marie-Galante. No shady characters, and no loud vendors pass–the ones present are located by the parking lots at the beach entrance, so you can grab your drinks and food on the way in if you choose.
Of course, I don’t recommend leaving your personal belongings anywhere in the world but it was a far cry from the other public beaches in the Caribbean where one minute makes all the difference.
Fun fact: Guadeloupe Islands counts a whopping 270 beaches.
3. Smooth roads
My first clue should have been Guadeloupe’s modern and large Pointe-a-Pitre airport, what felt like a mini version of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle as we were bused from the plane to immigration.
Moments after, we were outside — no massive crowds at baggage claim, no crazy customs line, no forms to hand out (and none filled out on the plane). And that’s when I noticed it immediately, on our ride from the airport to our hotel: the roads! And so it was during our one-week trek around all the islands, driving from top to bottom. Smooth highways.
Sure, one or two potholes and rough roads are fun and part of a Caribbean adventure. But as a female solo traveler dying to explore and fearing getting stuck in mud or losing a tire in the dark of night, give me smooth highways anytime. In Guadeloupe, it’s not just the main highways; it’s the neighborhood roads, side roads, the parking lots. I couldn’t believe it.
Renting a car is easy —they drive on the “right” side here—and the majority of visitors opt to travel independently.
4. Delicious Creole cuisine, with a French flair
I still dream about the Creole dishes — from the accras de morue or cod fritters to the curries and conch stews—the top-notch presentation, the two-hour lunches that begin with a Ti’ Punch — Guadeloupe’s famous aperitif — only to follow with the obligatory bottle of wine. The seafood, the curries, the chicken stews and menus filled with tasty creations: the chefs as much as the mom and pop restaurants blew me away. I can’t say I’ve ever eaten this well anywhere in the Caribbean. It was one of the trip’s best surprises.
The street foods? Plentiful and delicious too. You’ll spot food trucks along the roads, often running in the evenings. Ask for a bokit — a round shaped Johnny cake (though thinner and wider) stuffed with your choice of meat.
5. A fascinating history
Guadeloupe has a long and torturous past marked by long periods of colonialism and slavery — abolished twice because it was reinstated at one point by Napoleon Bonaparte, and finally ending in 1848. While there, I learned that there’s a “route des esclaves” or a “slavery route” for visitors who wish to explore this troublesome time in the island’s history.
6. A varied, surprising landscape
Guadeloupe’s islands are a photographer’s dream.
Beyond the sea and beaches, the interior is breathtaking. My favorite was Basse-Terre because of the winding roads, surrounded by lush rainforests, rolling hills, pineapple and sugar cane fields on one hand, and a stunning coastline and fishing villages on the other. The eastern tip of Grande-Terre was a close second, with its rugged Atlantic side.
7. The National Park
Established in 1989, Guadeloupe’s Parc National (National Park) is an impressive 66 square miles. It’s home to the mildly active La Soufriere volcano — 4,873 feet high — and to over 100 waterfalls, only 20 of which are accessible to the average tourist.
There are clearly marked trails in the park, of varying levels of difficulty. Many hike to the volcano’s summit at sunrise for a glorious view. We just reached its foot and despite the rain and clouds, it was still an impressive view.
I spotted more residents than visitors at the park — they come here in groups of friends and families, hiking and running on weekends or any free time they find. At the end of the hike, we took a quick dip in the sulfur baths— “Les Bains Jaunes” or the Yellow Baths.
And of course, you can’t come to the park and not find a waterfall. Our bilingual guide from Vert Intense who hiked his way around barefoot, mind you–took us on a hike to Les Bassins Bleus, a 13-foot high waterfall and beautiful jade pool you can cliff dive into.
8. The charming inns
There are almost no chain resorts in Guadeloupe, save for Club Med on Grande-Terre island.
And while Grande-Terre is home to a few traditional hotels, the other islands have boutique resorts and charming inns and guesthouses. That’s what’s so great about Guadeloupe. It’s just not your typical Caribbean destination.
My favorite inn was Auberge Les Petits Saints on Les Saintes — as it happens, it’s listed in 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.
9. The beach culture
It’s not just about lazying on the beach in Guadeloupe. If tourists sun themselves during the day, locals show up after the sun goes down. Couples meet up, parents swim and relax on their blankets to the evening breeze, runners pass by and children play ball. I even spotted a group performing water aerobics in the sea! At night, after work and on the weekends, the beach turns into everyone’s playground.
Vendors sell drinks and food at the beach entrance and beach bars have outdoor patios. No rowdiness, no drunks, no crazy behavior; just residents enjoying their neighborhood. I can’t say I’ve seen this beach culture anywhere in the Caribbean, particularly at night. My first thought was, I could live here.
10. The lifestyle
When I look at a destination, I don’t just consider the vacation factor. I look at the potential for slow travel and what would be enjoyable on a daily basis. Guadeloupe hit all of those marks. I fell in love with the scenic boardwalks and manicured parks — above, in Basse-Terre’s downtown area — the ancient buildings and relatively clean streets. There’s a real sense that islanders take care of their home.
11. The colorful markets and shopping
I only had the chance to visit St. Anne’s market but the short time I spent here is one of my most cherished memories. The vivid homemade rum punch bottles, the wide smiles, the colorful madras outfits on vendors, the numerous fragrant spices and the Creole chatter — Guadeloupe’s markets are a feast for the senses.
Equally attractive are the boutiques and brick and mortar shops, carrying handmade textiles and crafts. Located across the St. Anne beach, at the edge of the beach promenade is the colorful Village Artisanal— an open-air shopping village with a row of 15 boutiques — with delightful beach wear and unique souvenirs.
12. The rhum
Guadeloupe’s aged rhum is the best I’ve tasted anywhere in the Caribbean.
Visiting the Bellevue Distillery was a highlight — rather than a rushed tasting, we were encouraged to try as many flavors as we wanted. My favorite? The coffee cream of course — or what the guide called “better than Bailey’s — and that was before they revealed that it’s made with 10% of coffee beans from Guadeloupe and 90% of coffee beans from Ethiopia.
13. Les Saintes: An archipelago within an archipelago
There isn’t enough room on this post to tell you all about this stunning cluster of islands off the shores of Guadeloupe. That’s why I’ve dedicated a separate photo essay for it.
Hugging the third most beautiful bay in the world—as classified by UNESCO— Les Saintes is made up of two inhabited islands: Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas. Terre-de-Haut offers charming inns, outdoor cafes, colorful boutiques, near-empty white sand beaches bordering striking hills and endless hiking paths. Terre-de-Bas is its even quieter sister island, just 10 minutes away by boat, with more rugged paths and hiking trails.
Aside from these two main islands, six more uninhabited plots offer ideal waters for kayaking, sailing, snorkeling and diving bliss.
Residents like to boast that theirs is the “barefoot perfect” version of St. Barth’s, with fewer crowds and no congestion— electric cars and scooters only. I can’t say I disagree.
Les Saintes is the kind of place you almost don’t want to share with the world for fear of ruining it. It’s the dream getaway, where no one will think of looking for you.
14. The snorkeling and diving
For the first time, I went diving outside of Belize! I still remember the days when I was scared and hesitant to discover the underwater world. But thanks to a wonderful dive shop owner in Belize, who has since become a dear friend, I got certified and now look forward to exploring whenever I get the chance. I did just that in Guadeloupe, while visiting Les Saintes. I was anxious because I hadn’t gone diving in a year and I wasn’t sure if the French terminology and equipment would confuse me.
But I had no reason to fear. My dive master from Pisquettes Dive Shop, who also happened to be into underwater photography, was not only bilingual but the equipment was exactly the same. After a quick refresher before going in the water, we explored a dive site right off the Saintes Bay. I only wish the weather had cooperated—it was a rainy afternoon and visibility wasn’t as great as usual. I’m still thrilled I went. I got to test out my new underwater Nikon AW 1 and managed to capture a few underwater shots of sponges and schools of fish. It was good practice for Belize. If anyone wants to give me underwater photography tips, I’m all ears.
No other island felt more rural than Marie-Galante, located just 40-minutes away by boat from Grande-Terre (warning: don’t go in rough weather if you get seasick).
The largest of the offshore islands, Marie-Galante is the Caribbean island that no longer exists elsewhere. Known for is sugar cane fields and award-winning rum distilleries, rural life dominates. The scene is one of farmers and oxcarts, century-old sugar mills, authentic local eateries (where the food is just as impressive) and deserted beaches.
For Guadeloupeans, Marie-Galante constitutes the “real Guadeloupe,” its pride and joy.But the going is much slower than the rest of the archipelago and that’s why you’d stay here, to get away from it all.
Last but not least, I recently shared my experience with Guadeloupe’s warm people.
After my years of Caribbean travel, I can honestly say that Guadeloupe was a welcome breath of fresh air.
Tempted? Just a few months ago, American Airlines and Seaborne Airlines launched direct flights from Miami and San Juan to Guadeloupe. And in February 2014, JetBlue will be teaming up with Seaborne to offer connections from the east coast. For Canadians, there’s a direct flight from Montreal.
I’m still looking at my calendar and planning my return.
My trip to Guadeloupe Islands was sponsored by the Guadeloupe Tourist Board and ATOUT France. As always, all opinions, stories and gushing (if any) are my own.