Like a butterfly hovering over water, the island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean appeared on the horizon and shimmered before my eyes like a mirage in the sunlight as I was about to land. Guadeloupe’s unique topography has two main islands that look like the wings of a butterfly and are joined together by a mangrove swamp. While it’s one of the more developed islands in the Caribbean, there are still plenty of charming rural patches between villages and you won’t want for choice.
Guadeloupe mixes the best of France – a fully modern infrastructure and fantastic food – with a local Caribbean culture that its people are proud of and want to share. Grande-Terre, the eastern wing of the island, has a string of beach towns that offer visitors every variety of fun in the sun known to humankind.
From surfing schools to beach bars to long stretches of beautiful sand where azure water laps at the toes of dainty French mademoiselles, it’s all here. Basse-Terre, the western wing, is home to the national park, crowned by La Soufriere volcano. Hiking trails and a Jacques Cousteau underwater reserve offer adventure for those who want more go than slow in their holidays.
But for the gourmets and sun worshippers there are still plenty of places to lay back and recharge while everyone else tires themselves out. South of the butterfly-shaped ‘mainland’ of Guadeloupe are a number of small archipelagos that give a taste of Guadeloupe’s yesteryear.
Ranging from sheer chill on La Désirade to the cosmopolitan Terre-de-Haut and the largely rural Marie-Galante, the smaller islands each have their own character and round out the long list of ingredients that make Guadeloupe.
The sunrises were magnificent, with the Sun’s orange glow peeking through dark, drifting clouds. Once it rained and I thought I missed out on the sunrise, but up came a double rainbow instead to steal the thunder. Bravely, I waded into the water neck deep to take a photo of the rainbow falling into the sea!
The nightfall brought romance of another kind. In Guadeloupe, the most prominent voices in the night were the crickets chirping sweetly, though loudly. Frogs joined the chorus with their melodious croaking and mating calls, accompanying the pitter-patter of raindrops falling with tiny plops from trees onto the tropical foliage below. Charming, and oh so Caribbean!
Exploring the two islands is an adventure in itself. It abounds with banana trees and wildlife, and is suited for hiking and trekking and visiting fishing villages. Deshaies, in the north-west corner of Basse Terre, is a charmingly sleepy spot which has just the right blend of traditional fishing village and good selection of eating and drinking options to keep visitors happy.
Right in the heart of the town is La Savane, a popular green-painted restaurant with a divine location right on the seafront and a terrace from which to drink it all in. It is owned by a Portuguese lady whose influence on the menu is clear, and the dishes, from bacalhau com natas (cod in cream) to foie gras with mangos, is some of the best on the island.
The islands are mostly inhabited by descendants of plantation labourers who came from Africa and India to cultivate the land almost 150 years ago. There are about 4.5 million inhabitants and the islands’ main occupation is banana and sugar cultivation and tourism. The land, called Pointe de la Verdure, was the property of ‘Compagnie des Indes’, during the time of Louis XIV.
The largest city of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre, is located at the junction of Guadeloupe’s two main islands, three km from the airport. Cathédrale de St-Pierre et St-Paul, its weathered sand-colored church, nicknamed the ‘Iron Cathedral,’ is supported by iron girders intended to brace it against earthquakes and hurricanes and is worth a visit. Check out the Ali Tur–designed art-deco Palais du Justice next door. There’s a fun, colorful open-air market running along La Darse, the inner harbor.
Our next halt was the busy town of St. Anne. It sees a lot of tourists but the big resorts are well hidden and there’s a good balance of amenities for tourists and authentic modern village life. The beach offers good swimming and is shaded by sea-grape trees, is particularly popular with islanders. St. Anne is a good base for those who want to visit the islands of Les Saintes.
The lovely beach and boulevard merge into the surf where you can throw off your inhibitions. But children making sandcastles, beauties sunbathing, and the adventurous sailing in their bright boats did not tempt me. I simply soaked in the heady combination of fine white sand, enticing green and blue sea and wind caressing my hair by lying and chilling in the shallow sea.
The next day it was on to Saint Francois Plage, a more upmarket area, with a golf course and fancy shops. The beach here is popular and was quite crowded with sun-worshippers. Arawak Surf Action is the place to come to for surfing, windsurfing or stand-up paddle boarding in Saint Francois.
I had heard that the sunrise at Pointe des Chateaux was unique. So next day we sped on to a long road, only to be surprised by the clouds, but my prayers were finally heard and the clouds parted for a surreal sunrise with an orange-yellow glow and rock formations in dark silhouette. In the distance, a huge cross over the tallest peak completed the dramatic effect.
Morning tea was at Le Moule, a town with an ancient square and Church and the place looked as if it guarded thousands of conversations waiting to be heard. Its waters are ideal for surfing. The Indian origin community celebrates the Diwali Festival in the huge grounds of Petit Canal with many activities. She sold handicrafts in the Artisanal Village and I purchased a curio made of mango wood – four fish surrounded by a creeper – which still brings back memories of her and of Guadeloupe!
Last but not least, Jacques Cousteau brought Pigeon Island in Guadelope to international attention by declaring it to be one of the world’s top dive sites. The waters surrounding the island are now protected as an underwater park. There’s even a sub-aquatic statue of Mr Cousteau near the Jardins de Corail dive site. There is a tourist information booth and a number of dive shops on Plage de Malendure. In addition to the standard dive offerings, it rents underwater cameras and offers Soufrière volcano hikes, canyoning, dolphin-watching trips and deep-sea fishing.
Next morning, I lay back in the sea, floating away, looking up at the sky till the rain thought it time to meet the sea. The soft waves lapping my body from below and the rain falling on me from the clouds was exhilarating! To top it all, a rainbow emerged, but the treasure at its end needed no searching, for it was Guadeloupe!