Ashore in Guadeloupe: Things to Do and See
The remarkably alluring butterfly shaped archipelago of Guadeloupe features a French-Creole culture, rainforests, picturesque beaches, coral reefs, an active stratovolcano, and banana, pineapple, and sugar plantations. Made up of two main islands separated by a narrow mangrove channel, this overseas region of France is a captivating place with an assortment of activities as different as each island in this gem of the Leeward Island chain.
Basse-Terre, the western wing of the butterfly, is home to volcanic mountains, more than 66 square miles of tropical rainforests, miles of hiking trails, and the Guadeloupe National Park. Off the western coast is Cousteau Marine Reserve, the underwater portion of the park, with plentiful opportunities to snorkel and scuba dive. On shore, if you would like to stretch out your sea legs, there are 190 miles of hiking trails within the park, identified by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve. As you hike along the jungle trails, you will notice a diverse range of plant and animal species including over one hundred different varieties of orchids and a multitude of native bird species.
More adventurous hikers should take the Chemin des Dames trail up to the still live (but as of now not active) La Soufrière Volcano, the highest peak in the Lesser Antilles. To learn more about the steaming and gurgling seismic wonder, make advanced reservations to tour the Observatoire Volcanologique le Houëlmont. On the lower eastern slope of La Soufrière, hike to the multiple waterfalls known as Les Chutes du Carbet tumbling down the volcano’s face. Also take time to investigate the Etang As de Pique, a large crater lake surrounded by hills and valleys.
An alternative and more relaxing way to stretch out the sea legs is to visit one of the dazzling beaches on Basse-Terre. Plage de Grande Anse is one of the most beautiful settings in Guadeloupe. Relax in the shallow clear water, sit on the sandy shore or enjoy a crepe in one of the waterfront cafes. Another option is Anse de la Perle, where you can imbibe at one of the small beach bars and take in the delightful Caribbean vistas.
While on Basse-Terre visit Deshaies, the setting for the British television series, Death in Paradise. The waterfront village is the epitome of a Caribbean Island town with its pastel colored buildings and shorefront eateries grilling freshly caught seafood. While in Deshaies, grab a bite at Paradise Kafe, a true island “dive-bar”. Close-by is the Jardin Botanique de Deshaies, where you can meander along paths beside lush tropical plants and colorful birds, past lily ponds, manicured gardens and the ever present views of the sea. Just around the corner is Sainte-Rose, where the Musée du Rhum presents exhibits showcasing the history and techniques for making rum. Visitors can see the equipment and process of making rum in barrels and can then sample the product.
Renting a car is the best way to get around the largest island in Guadeloupe and the Route de la Traversée is a destination in itself. For the non-hiker, this coast to coast scenic highway is an optional way to enjoy Parc National de la Guadeloupe with many roadside overlooks and picnic areas as you pass through rainforests and sugar cane fields. The route takes you by the Cascade aux Ecrevisses, a natural waterfall fed swimming pool. Additionally, this scenic stretch of road takes you past the Zoo de Guadeloupe, a jungle habitat for over eighty-five species of animals, even some rare and endangered. Enjoy the animals as you walk across rope bridges along the Rivière aux Hérbes.
Several miles south across the Caribbean Sea, Iles des Saintes consists of two islands and several small uninhabited ilets. The most popular of the two inhabited islands is Terre-de-Haut, a quintessential Caribbean setting with a European flair. Rent a scooter or golf cart to tour the beaches, villages, and cultural sites of this quaint island inhabited mostly by fisherfolk. If you desire to relax sur la plage, Anse du Pain du Sucre is the most known and preferable for swimming, but Plage de Pompierre and Anse Crawen are also notable for their alluring scenery.
If you prefer more activity, Bourg des Saintes, the largest town, is set on a hillside overlooking one of UNESCO’s “most beautiful bays in the world” Les Saintes Bay, and is a wonderful village to stroll down main street and take in the sights and smells of the boulangeries and cafes. Visit Fort Napoleon and enjoy modern art and marine battle exhibits, then tour the historic seventeenth century barracks and prison cells. If you enjoy historic ruins, you can also hop across the bay to Ilet à Cabrit and explore the ruins of Fort Joséphine.
Terre-de-Bas is the larger of Les Saintes and is more primitive. There are small villages, local arts and crafts, beaches, and hiking trails to discover on this mountainous island. Gros-Cap is the main village and the rendezvous point for the hiking trails. Hike up Grand Montagne for a panoramic view of the azure waters surrounding Guadeloupe.
About 35 nautical miles to the east of Iles des Saintes, Marie Galante is a round island with flat terrain and an impressive sandy shoreline. Sugar farms are plentiful as are the ruins of windmills, beaches, and rum distilleries. Grand-Bourg is the main village on this island named after Christopher Columbus’ ship, and consists of a neo-classical church and art deco inspired architecture. Just outside the town is one of the more prestigious artisan rum distilleries, Domaine Poisson, offering tastings and tours where Père Labat rum is made using the same process as cognac. To learn about the history of the key ingredient for rum, visit Château Murat, a museum that pays tribute to the culture of Marie-Galante and the sugar industry. Tour a restored colonial mansion, ruins of the sugar factory, a windmill tower and herb garden. Must see beaches include Anse Feuillard, Anse Canot, Petite-Anse and Vieux-Fort.
Head back north to the eastern wing of the butterfly that enjoys a somewhat different topography and climate than its western neighbor. Grande-Terre is the more populated economic center of Guadeloupe and Point-a-Pitre is a delightful example of the Creole culture. There is much to see and do in this Caribbean hub city that has been the center of commerce for over 400 years.
To appreciate this island nation more thoroughly, begin with a visit to Mémorial ACTe, a museum that exhibits the history of slavery and colonialism, from plantation slavery to post abolitionist times, to the modern day influences. Through paintings, sculptures, film, and photographs, Caribbean artists portray varying viewpoints. Built on the site of a former sugar factory along the waterfront, this dramatic granite and steel structure houses a poignant and inspiring collection. At night, the multicolored lights of the museum twinkling on the water is an amazing sight.
As the center of trade, Pointe-a-Pitre offers a gamut of shopping experiences. Search for perfumes, jewelry, and luxurious French imports as you stroll along Frébault, Nozières, and Schoelcher Avenues. Additionally, Center Saint-John Perse is a lively shopping area that provides a variety of goods. For a more local flavor, Saint-Antoine Market is a colorful outdoor market that offers up spices and other local food goods. At Marché de la Darse, the main produce market, sample the variety of fruits, vegetables, seafood and spices. Take a break from shopping under a palm tree in Place de la Victoire, a public park in the heart of the city.
Outside of Pointe-a-Pitre, Grand-Terre is home to many scenic and unique beaches. Head north toward Port Louis to visit the Plage du Souffleur, considered one of the islands best beaches, or east along the southern coast to the lively beach town of Sainte-Anne for a more active beach scene. If you are looking for waves, Le Moule on the northeastern coast, is known as a surfing destination. While on this side of the island, visit Damoiseau Rhum, the largest distillery in Guadeloupe, before heading to the far eastern tip of Grand-Terre, La Pointe des Châteaux. This rocky windswept point is a place of craggy beauty with its namesake rock formations that simulate castles.
Five miles off of Pointe des Châteaux, La Désirade is the oldest island in the Lesser Antilles and is a geological reserve. Once a leper colony, this remote spot is desired for its incredible beaches Fifi and Souffleur and Le Morne du Souffleur, a rugged hiking trail. For adventuresome visitors, hop on a 4 x 4 and enjoy the wild terrain of the Reserve Naturelle Nationale de La Desirade.
There is so much to see and do in the island paradise of Guadeloupe and this is only a morsel of what this French overseas territory has to offer. On land, on water, or underwater, this Caribbean destination with a delightful climate provides some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.