We had absolutely glorious weather flying over the Caribbean. The spectacular, other-worldly images speak for themselves. On touching down in Guadeloupe, a small principality of France in the Lesser Antilles, our wonderful hostess (Marie Jo) drove us at least an hour over mountainous passes and hairpin turns to our "gite." She is the third generation owner at Gites Les Mangiers, a family passionate about their island and welcoming guests for over 30 years. Our comfortable cabin had everything we could need, nestled in a garden filled with hummingbirds and songbirds. We even had hanging hammocks that were so comfortable I told Marie-Jo that they deserved their own review! Not only did Marie Jo arrange a lovely French-Creole meal nearby on our first night at 9:00 pm, but she also brought over a large breakfast for us the next morning. Hooray for Marie Jo!
Subsidized by France, Guadeloupe is very civilized, with beautiful roads and tidy, quaint views. This fairly large island is the ideal place to bring your discriminating relatives or friends who enjoy a little luxury (including their own vehicle). We really didn’t see much of a backpacker culture (although we were unable to explore most of the eastern island of Grand Terre). The island is actually comprised of two islands (shaped like a butterfly), and we were on the western side (near Pointe Noire) of the western island, Bass Terre, which has a lush national park and the Jaques Cousteau underwater reserve off shore where he filmed "The Silent World." I would liken Guadeloupe to Hawaii in terms of development and dependence on private transport. You can drink the water, take a hot shower, flush your toilet paper in the toilet, and basically have all of the comforts of home. The language, people, cuisine, and lifestyle are decidedly French. We particularly loved the wonderful French wine, cheese, and charcuterie! However, most people speak French, the tours and signage are mostly in French, and you really have to work to find some English-speaking help. Luckily the islanders are very friendly and did their best to help us muddle our way through French! After all, our duolingo program says that we are over 50% fluent! That's being generous, to say the least!
Our first order of business was to fill our cupboards with some food as the "gite" is self-catering. We walked through intermittent rain and beautiful beach views to a market about 2 miles away only to find out that, like France, it closes for lunch at 1:00 (just when we arrived) until 4:00 pm. We decided to take the bus to the nearest larger town of Deshaies where a market was open all day (no lunch break for the Asian owners!). We were lucky to catch a ride from an accommodating local, as we soon learned that the buses are few and far between here. We wandered around picturesque Deshaies, bought our groceries, and then waited by the coconut ice cream lady who helped us board the correct bus. Mission accomplished!
Wasting little time, we soon explored the offshore snorkeling at Plage Petit Anse, the closest beach to our Gites des Mangiers. We saw an impressive range of fish despite somewhat limited coral. A little further on, Plage Leroux, had better coral but less fish. In fact, the sargassum turned out to be a real highlight, where we saw pipefish, pygmy filefish, some other type of filefish with long tails, and even three banded baby squid, trying to blend into the sargassum with their legs all kinked up! But best of all, we took a snorkeling tour to the Jaques Cousteau underwater reserve with the nearby Dutch-owned dive shop, Les Baillantes Tortue. What a wonderful day! Fabulous coral and huge schools of a wide variety of fish. We saw an eel and two octopus, one with an entire entourage including two coneys, a beautiful Nassau grouper, and a trumpetfish trying desperately to camouflage itself into the grouper. What a wonderful day that turned out to be!
We then decided to brave the bus system, against Marie-Jo's advice, to experience the beautiful rainforest of their National Park and climb the highest peak in the Lesser Antilles, and an active volcano to boot, La Soufriere. Our journey started at 6:30 am (which is definitely an effort for me!), and three buses later (one to Pointe Noire, the second to Bass Terre, and the third to St. Claude) we found ourselves staring up a very steep street before we even got to the trailhead. Luckily some wonderful French guys picked us up and took us to the beginning of our hike, and thus began our climb. The rainforest was beautiful but steep, and when we got to the base of the mountain it was clear that some scrambling would be involved. Cheered by fellow hikers and an occasional beautiful view, we finally made it to the top! Unfortunately, it was rainy, foggy, and windy, so we couldn't linger, nor could we really see much. I was a bit irritated that they didn't have an actual sign saying (in French) "The summit." I even asked someone speaking French and they also didn't know where the summit was, so we just assumed it was the highest point and got our selfie in front of the sign there. Luckily, it was correct! We could glimpse over to people looking into the smoking crevice of the active volcano but then the fog totally obscured our views, so we decided it was a good time for lunch. Lots of happiness ensued at the lunch spot. Bon Appetit!
The walk down was so much quicker, and the weather improved so that we got some beautiful views of Les Saintes, some small islands off the southwest coast of Guadeloupe. We asked a friendly English-speaking couple for a ride back into town, and waited just a short time for the first of our three buses home. A gregarious islander chatted with us and we had a wonderful little talk on the bus from St. Claude to Bass Terre (the capital of the island). The buses actually worked like clockwork; we rarely had to wait for one, and typically the onward bus was right there where the previous bus dropped us off. The only drawback was the price; it cost us about $40 roundtrip for the entire 30-40 mile trip (there and another 40 back). So really, it would not have been much more to rent a car to the tune of $50/day. The trouble with that was we never really got a definite answer about how insurance would work. Besides, we really like the slice of local life we get on the local transportation. Overall it was quite a successful day and Marie-Jo was impressed that it could be done by public transportation (and a little help from vehicle-driving friends!).
Luckily we got used to splicing things together with the buses. On the last day we decided to check out the Grande Anse beach north of Deshaies. After dropping us off, our bus driver told us that there were no more buses due to a local festival. We walked about twenty minutes north over a hill to see the beach (which was nice but we preferred our little beaches closer to home), and then enjoyed a nice fish lunch in Deshaies overlooking the water. To return to our “gite,” we ended up hitch-hiking back with a local woman, who pulled over when she saw us looking desperate at the hilltop bus stop south of Deshaies. Fortunately, the locals are all quite friendly and seem used to helping out those in need.
Our cruise ship left from the busy city of Pointe-a-Pitre, spent a week in the Caribbean, and then returned to the same port a week later. We took that opportunity to explore the bustling Francophone city. Filled with lovely turn-of-the-century architecture, including classic wrought-iron balconies mixed with Caribbean gingerbread touches, even the abandoned buildings were picturesque as the jungle foliage reclaimed its space. We particularly enjoyed taking in the touristy fish market, smells and all, along the waterfront and watching the fishermen scaling fish with a tool made from old beer bottle caps. Across the street, we had the opportunity to enter one of the beautiful old homes (showcasing a world-famous Guadeloupean singer) in the Place de la Victoire, a square dedicated to Hughes’ defeat of the British. He also reportedly used the guillotine here during the Revolution to chop the heads off of hundreds of French royalists (mostly prosperous plantation owners). While the Victor Schoelcher museum appeared closed for repairs, we were lucky that the Museum Saint John Perse was open, allowing us the opportunity to experience the interior of one of these classic old homes and see several costumes of the day. Whew, those poor women must have been warm! Signs indicated that the Europeans refused to give up their old-country customs, insisting on wearing these crazy, totally inappropriate outfits (and making their servants do so as well) in the humid Caribbean climate. Of particular interest was the metal architecture of some of the structures, including the main market building and the Basilica Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul, which was not only practical (being earthquake-resistant) but also aesthetically reminiscent of the Eifel tower (as much of the structures in the French islands were designed by an intern of Eifel). The rivets in the church instantly recalled the famous tower.
But the most interesting and highly recommended sight in Pointe-a-Pitre is the new Memorial ACTe, an architecturally stunning museum devoted to the history of slavery. An easy walk from downtown, visitors can see the memorial right across the water from the fish market. Edgy graffiti lines the streets along the way and transforms crumbling walls. This new museum has state-of-the-art audio headsets that provide information in several languages, as well as highly sophisticated and engaging displays. The history of slavery is traced from ancient civilizations, with an emphasis on the transportation of Africans to the Caribbean islands to work the sugar cane industry. Newer exhibits also stress the ongoing human trafficking and human rights violations that continue throughout the world. We spent hours in this museum and applaud Guadeloupe for devoting their resources to this tragic yet crucial topic. It serves as a fitting testament to the resilience of these people who continue to make this island their home and welcome all visitors with open hearts and open arms.