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For a taste of France mixed with Creole flair, Guadeloupe has become a breathtaking mainstay in the eastern Caribbean. A French colony since 1635 (and still under the French government), it is composed of two main islands linked by a bridge, Grande Terre and Basse Terre, which form the shape of a butterfly, as well as five outer islands.
Guadeloupe (“Gwada” to the locals) is not an island for the timid. The best attractions are hidden, and take time and effort to unearth. Although there is fun to be had, a day spent only in Pointe-à-Pitre will do little to educate you on Guadeloupe's true beauty. However, if you take the ferry trips to Guadeloupe's smaller satellite islands, Îles des Saintes and Marie-Gallante, you will sure to be enchanted. Les Saintes Bay (pronounced lez SAWNTS) was named the third prettiest bay in the world behind Rio and Ha Long Bay.
Guadeloupe was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Be sure to check into the current state of services if you're planning to visit the island in the near term.
As the largest city and economic center of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre is located on the island of Grand-Terre. Here, visitors can sip some rum punch and learn to dance to the joyful rhythms of biguine, zouk and mazurka, or in January see the elaborate Carnival procession.
Many visitors start with a walk along La Darse, the inner harbor road. You'll see the charming market, full of fruits, flowers, fish, spices and crafts. Be sure to head to Place de la Victoire, the town center. The park's history is more vibrant than its current condition. After defeating the British in 1794, Victor Hugues established a dictatorship, and the guillotine he used stood here for years. Now, you find a pretty park framed by palm trees. Explore Guadeloupe's past at Museum Schoelcher, dedicated to the activist Victor Schoelcher, who worked to abolish slavery in Guadeloupe. Get a glimpse of colonial creole life at the Museum Saint John Perse, memorializing the poet-laureate's life and times.
There are many little islands off of the main coast to visit in Guadeloupe via ferry, but one of the prettiest is the circular island of Marie-Galante. Named for Christopher Columbus' boat, the island is only sixty square miles, but it is full of surprises. Visit the local beaches, including Anse Canot and Petite Anse, the 19th century windmills and the sugar plantations.
On Basse-Terre you'll find the 74,000 acre National Park of Guadeloupe, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The park is at the base of La Soufriere active volcano and has 188 miles of marked trails leading into the rainforest to see raccoons, agoutis (huge rodents), waterfalls and bubbling hot springs. Be sure to visit the Cabret Falls while you're there for a spectacular view.
Guadeloupe offers hidden gems for those who are willing to look for them. Some of the better beaches can be found in and around Gosier, on the southern coast of Grande-Terre. If you're feeling a bit risqué, take it all off at Îlet du Gosier, a popular nudist beach. For the more conservative beach bum, a visit to nearby Plage de Tarare will do just fine. Other good beaches on mainland Guadeloupe include Grande Anse, on Basse-Terre's northwest coast, and the beautiful Caravelle Beach, near Ste-Anne.
Pointe-à-Pitre has plenty of great shops all around the city, many clustered around the town center. Duty free purchases allow for prices to be around 25-30% less than prices in the United States, especially on French products. For the traveler who can't live without an exquisite French perfume, visit Phoenicia (8 Rue Frébault, 590-83-50-36). Use traveler's checks and the discounts go even further. Rum connoisseurs will find their discerning palates quite pleased at Distillerie Bellevue (590/97-31-26) on Abymes Road. They offer samples, although you will probably buy it once you taste it — this is some of the best rum in the Caribbean.
In addition to drinking rum, be sure to try Colombo — a chicken, rice and curry dish with Indian flavor. It's a very popular regional dish. If you're looking for some true French flair in Pointe-à-Pitre, the undisputed dining leader is Le Big Steak House (590-82-12-44). Located near the piers, you won't have to travel far to taste steak imported from France, prepared in one of five delicious sauces.
Guadeloupe is warm and dry between December and May. However, although June through November is rainy, it's also very beautiful on the islands.
Cruise ships dock at the port of Pointe-à-Pitre, a five-minute walk from town.
You will find taxis waiting when you depart ship in Pointe-à-Pitre. Taxis are a popular and easy choice, but be advised that they are expensive. Unlike cabs on many Caribbean islands, many taxis in Guadeloupe are metered. If the cab is driven by the owner, no tip is needed. Otherwise a 10% tip is recommended.
Pointe-à-Pitre serves as the main hub for bus travel throughout the island. The posted directions are all in French, so brush up before hopping aboard.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens will need passports to enter.
Store hours: Most shops are open 9 am to 6 pm with a two hour break about 1 pm.
Internet: Internet is faster in Guadeloupe than elsewhere in the Caribbean because of a direct underwater cable to France.
Tipping: Always check your bill to see if a 15 percent service charge was included; if a service charge was not included, an average tip would be 10 to 15 percent.
Safety: Crime is not a major issue, but it is always good to stay alert and leave valuables on the ship so you can relax. At night, stay in groups while walking through town.
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“It doesn’t look like much from the sea, but Pointe-à-Pitre is a pleasant and safe place to walk around during the day. Try some innovative cooking at the glamorous La Canne à Sucre restaurant, with the best views over the busy harbor.”
“Some of my favorite places to eat on the island are Le Spot in Le Moule, where the chef, Francois, makes delicious Creole and French food. Julien Colmar's Beach Paradise is where to go for local seafood.”
“The Jacques Cousteau Reserve in Bouillante, on the western part of Basse-Terre, is a famous place for snorkeling and diving. The Carbet Falls are the best waterfalls in Gwada.”