Pointre-a-Pitre, the largest city of Grande-Terre
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Pointre-a-Pitre, the largest city of Grande-Terre
Photo by the author
One of the main markets for souvenirs in Pointe-a-Pitre
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One of the main markets for souvenirs in Pointe-a-Pitre
Photo by the author
The first Carbet waterfall (of 3)
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The first Carbet waterfall (of 3)
Photo by the author
Calabashes, used to make many instruments and decorative items
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Calabashes, used to make many instruments and decorative items
Photo by the author
Dancers at a local modern Gwoka performance
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Dancers at a local modern Gwoka performance
Photo by the author
A demonstration on making hats from coconut leaves
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A demonstration on making hats from coconut leaves
Photo by the author
The author putting craft instruction to use
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The author putting craft instruction to use
Photo from the author
The main highway
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The main highway
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Point de Chateau (Outside St. Francois)
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Point de Chateau (Outside St. Francois)
Photo by the author
The musicians of Akiyo playing on the streets of Pointe-a-Pitre, a Saturday ritual
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The musicians of Akiyo playing on the streets of Pointe-a-Pitre, a Saturday ritual
Photo by the author
A river outside of Capesterre Belle Eau
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A river outside of Capesterre Belle Eau
Photo by the author
Adjacent island of Les Saintes
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Adjacent island of Les Saintes
Photo by the author
Place de Victoire: The main plaza of Pointe-a-Pitre
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Place de Victoire: The main plaza of Pointe-a-Pitre
Photo by the author

"No, I’m not going to Mexico” is what you’ll often find yourself saying if telling an American you’re going to the French Department of Guadeloupe. I confess, I’d never heard of the small, Caribbean island either before visiting a friend there during Carnival in 2006. But I found, after returning home, that whenever I mentioned Guadeloupe minds always jumped to Guadalupe, Mexico.   This actually makes sense, as Americans generally don't hear the island referenced as a common vacation destination. As such, I am making it my mission to increase awareness of the island I now know and love.

 
Before I delve into the “bests” the island has to offer, I figured a little background might be in order. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive account of the island and its attributes — just a bit of information to give a frame of reference for the upcoming series of brief articles regarding the sights, sounds and attractions of this relatively little-known destination.
 
Guadeloupe: A general overview  Guadeloupe is an archipelago (fancy word for a group of islands) located in the eastern Caribbean Sea.  Guadeloupe comprises five islands: the main islands of Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre (separated from Basse-Terre by a narrow sea channel) and the adjacent islands of La Désirade, Les Saintes and Marie-Galante. The archipelago covers a land area of about 629 square miles (1,628 sq. km).  There are well-maintained freeways that make traversing the main islands convenient and regular ferry service that make the adjacent islands very accessible.
 
Guadeloupe is an overseas department of France, meaning it’s a full-fledged region of France that happens to be off the main land (think Hawaii). As part of France, Guadeloupe’s currency is the euro. European electrical standards and the metric system apply, while the vehicles driven are largely stick shifts.
 
A Very Brief History While searching for fresh water during his second trip to America, Christopher Columbus became the first European to land on Guadeloupe in November 1493. He called it Santa María de Guadalupe de Extremadura for the Virgin Mary, but the expedition did not leave any settlers ashore.
 
The French took possession of the island in 1635 and wiped out many of the native Caribs. Guadeloupe officially became a French possession in 1674, but was seized several times by the British over the next century. The island was one of the largest sugar producers of the era and one indication of Guadeloupe's value and prosperity at the time is found in the Treaty of Paris (1763).  France, which had been defeated in the Seven Years’ War, agreed to give up all its territorial claims in Canada in return for British recognition of French control of Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe remained a French possession until it was made a department in 1946.
 
Landscape  Guadeloupe is a volcanic island that is home to many beautiful beaches, rivers and waterfalls. Basse-Terre is the more lush of the two main islands featuring most of the rivers, waterfalls, and a large national park that covers most of the area. It is also the site of “La Soufrière,” an active volcano that reaches up more than 4,800 feet. The hike to the crest of this young volcano is one of the most popular on the island.
 
Grand-Terre, on the other hand, is more flat and arid. It is home to the majority of the beaches, cane fields, and mangrove forests along with their unique ecosystems. Many of the water activities such as surfing and kayaking take place on Grande-Terre. The most popular beaches are found in the towns of St. Anne and Le Gosier — the former acting as the main tourist hub on the island.
 
There are many attractions built around the landscape and agricultural heritage of the island. Banana plantations, rum factories, and large cane fields offer tours. While boat rides traversing the mangrove forests and programs aimed at helping locals and tourists to discover the national forest are also readily available. The small islands off Guadeloupe have unique attributes as well:

  • La Désirade is a tiny, somewhat hilly piece of land with little more than one main road. It is largely undeveloped and known as the nature island. It is great for hiking, off-roading, and is the site of various festivals throughout the year.
  • Marie Galante is the largest of the islands with its three main towns. It is mostly flat and boasts stellar beaches and a long heritage of sugar cane cultivation belied by the relatively large number of historic and active windmills and distilleries. It home to one of Guadeloupe’s largest music festivals, the Terre de Blues.
  • Les Saintes is a small archipelago itself, though its main islands are Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas. The small, hilly island of Terre-de-Haut is known for large iguanas, great vistas and natural rock formations. While Terre-de-Bas is known for its maritime activity and hiking trails that traverse the small island.
Language & Culture  The way of life on Guadeloupe is decidedly Creole in that both French and Caribbean rules apply. Meal times and work hours are consistent with mainland France; large meals take place at mid-day and many businesses and schools close for two hours for lunch. The atmosphere though, tends more toward the Caribbean. Most people are laid back and friendly, while fashionably late can sometimes be an understatement. French style food is readily available in restaurants big and small, but it is often infused with Caribbean spices and local produce. There are many boulangeries and crepe stands to be found, though again, local produce is widely used and local specialties such as bokits (various types of sandwiches fillings in fried dough) and accras (cod fritters) are widely sold.
 
Guadeloupe's culture is very much tied to its history as an agricultural colony. The population is comprised largely of the descendants of slaves that worked the sugar cane plantations, though there are also sizeable Indian and Caucasian populations. While French is the island’s official language, Creole (a tongue derived from French and the native languages of slaves brought to the island) is widely spoken. This is especially true outside of city centers. Much of the music and story telling indigenous to the island is expressed in this language and references the experiences of those who struggled through out the island’s history.
 
The interaction of cultures on Guadeloupe has given birth to some original forms of music and dance specific to the archipelago and the neighboring French department of Martinique. Music specific to the region includes Biguine, Zouk and Gwoka, while local dance styles include the Quadrille (danced to Biguine), Zouk and Gwoka. Gwoka is the type of music played during Carnival; western music, reggae and other types of Caribbean music are also popular.
 
Along with musicians, there are many talented artisans that produce and sell their wares to both locals and tourists. Their booths and small studios (ateliers) should not be missed. Traditional mediums such as painting and photography can be readily found. However, jewelry from indigenous seeds, handmade drums and cha-chas (instrument like a maracas made from calabashes), as well as, calabash bowls and lamps are also widely sold. The cultural scene on Guadeloupe is vibrant and active. There are often exhibitions, classes, concerts, and festivals of a cultural nature taking place. If at all possible, they should be experienced while visiting the island.
 
With its unique culture, breathtaking landscapes and a multitude of potential activities and experiences, Guadeloupe has much to offer its visitors. In future pieces I will delve further into specific locations, attractions, and events in hopes that all, especially those interested in French language and culture, consider the island as an upcoming vacation destination.