CaribbeanFamily Travel

Beyond beaches: Guadeloupe's total package

The bay at Terre-de-Haut, one of two inhabited islands that form Les Saintes.
The bay at Terre-de-Haut, one of two inhabited islands that form Les Saintes. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

For some people, a guarantee of warm weather and ready access to a beach and pool are enough to ensure a great vacation.

I'm not one of them.

Call it Type A syndrome or simply culture geek-itis, but without interesting museums, great cuisine and unique outdoor pursuits, I don't see the point.

Fortunately, I found all of the above during a recent visit to the archipelago of Guadeloupe at the invitation of Atout France, the French government tourist office. Our group was taking advantage of new, direct flights from New York JFK via Norwegian to Pointe-a-Pitre Airport, and our itinerary offered a mix of activities designed to appeal to visitors of all ages, including multifamily groups.

For the record, the destination, an overseas territory of France, comprises two large islands — Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre — and nearly a dozen smaller ones in the southern Caribbean. French is the official language, overlaid with a local Creole patois, and the euro is the local currency.

Our visit took place just after Hurricane Irma, which only dealt a glancing blow to the destination, and began with a moderately challenging hike up the Soufriere volcano in Basse-Terre with a mountain guide. The volcano, which has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by Unesco, rises to 4,813 feet and has 246 miles of designated hiking trails.

Although ambitious hikers can climb to the top, we opted for the 40-minute walk to the first level, which features a combination of stone steps and groomed trail. Unlike volcano walks I've done at hot, dry destinations, this one is like trekking through a rainforest with lush vegetation and a mist that turned to rain before we got halfway up. Despite getting drenched, the scenic hike was a highlight of the trip, and visitors with more time can soak away their cares in the Yellow Baths hot sulfur springs at the foot of the trail.

Fort Delgres, named after abolitionist leader Louis Delgres.
Fort Delgres, named after abolitionist leader Louis Delgres. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

Also in Basse-Terre, we toured the 17th-century Fort Delgres, named after Louis Delgres, a key figure in the abolitionist movement in Guadeloupe.

Surfing is big on the island, as we discovered over lunch at Le Rivage Restaurant by Les Bananiers Beach, where we sampled local specialties and watched locals hanging 10.

We got a real taste of the local culture the next day, when we nabbed souvenirs, mostly notably rum, coffee and spices, at the Saint-Antoine market in Pointe-a-Pitre.

The other highlight of the day in Pointe-a-Pitre was Memorial ACTe, a museum located in a former sugar factory that challenges everything I thought I knew about the slave trade and its shared legacy. Plan at least a few hours to tour the interactive venue, designated a Unesco Cultural Heritage Site, via self-guided audio headsets.

The Maison du Cacao exhibit and shop in a former cocoa plantation in Pointe-Noire, Basse-Terre.
The Maison du Cacao exhibit and shop in a former cocoa plantation in Pointe-Noire, Basse-Terre. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

We then switched gears at the Maison du Cacao exhibit and shop, in a former cocoa plantation in Pointe-Noire, also on Basse-Terre. A guide gave us a primer on the long history of cocoa cultivation in Guadeloupe, which dates to the 17th century, and offered a range of products to taste.

We burned off a few calories walking the Cascade aux Ecrevisses waterfall in Guadeloupe's National Park, a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve, where the intrepid among us navigated the slippery rocks to bathe in the fresh water.

Although a lot of Guadeloupe's cuisine is carb-heavy, especially the traditional, deep-fried bokit sandwich, we dined that night on a first-rate trio of soups at An Chodye La in Pointe-a-Pitre, a tiny eatery with a mix of hipster and Creole vibe.

We set out by ferry at Trois-Rivieres the next day for the 20-minute trip to Terre-de-Haut, one of two inhabited islands that form Les Saintes. Day-trippers can spend their time wandering the tiny shops and eateries along the dock or ascend to Fort Napoleon. The French emperor never actually visited the fort, but the beautiful view of the scenic bay is worth the climb.

Trois-Rivieres in Basse-Terre.
Trois-Rivieres in Basse-Terre. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

We were reminded of Guadeloupe's French roots over lunch at the Hotel Kanaoa, where we sampled hybrid French/Caribbean cuisine, followed by a leisurely swim off the hotel dock.

After lunch at the home of a friendly local — which can be arranged by the tourist office — we more or less collapsed on the beach at Sainte-Anne for a few hours of R and R, then feted our last night on the island at Le Relais du Moulin hotel in Sainte-Anne, which, as its name implies, is notable for the huge windmill at the front door.

Our own hotel for the duration of our stay was the 211-room La Creole Beach Hotel and spa in Le Gosier, a four-star property that offers private beach access, three restaurants, a complimentary children's club and a full-service spa. Room rates start at about $240 a night, including breakfast.

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