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A Caribbean Secret: 10 Reasons To Love The Guadeloupe Islands

The French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe are a popular vacation spot for French sun seekers—they’re far less crowded and more affordable than St. Barth—but virtually unheard-of among Americans. When I told friends I’d be visiting the islands, which are an overseas department (like a state) of France, several looked blankly at me. One googled to see what I was talking about and was taken to pages about Guadaloupe, Mexico.

That’s part of the charm of these French-speaking islands. They’re undiscovered. Even during the height of tourism season, they aren’t a place where it feels like everything revolves around tourism, as so many Caribbean islands do. There’s no slickness here. What does exist in the way of restaurants and hotels are less polished than on many islands, but more heartfelt and colorful. (The roads are generally excellent and the infrastructure is functional, it should be noted.)

And then there’s the nature. It's there on all five of the main islands in the archipelago, which together are home to just 400,000 people, and which together have been designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, one of just 25 in the world. The two largest islands, Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, are close enough to be connected by a short bridge, and together their outlines form the wings of a butterfly. If that’s not enough poetic nature, the native people who first inhabited this land called it Karukera, meaning “the place of beautiful waters.” Whatever the word is for “the place of beautiful rain forest” would have been a strong contender too.

Here’s what won my heart on a trip earlier this month. (I visited as a guest of the Guadeloupe Islands Tourist Board.)

Soft-sand beaches in three shades

The islands are large enough—some 600 square miles, which admittedly makes for some long travel times—and diverse enough (one is volcanic; others are not) to create serious sand variety. There’s the black sand of Plage des Bananiers in Basse-Terre, popular with boogie boarders and beginner surfers; the chalk white sand of Plage Vieux Port and Plage Feuillère in Marie-Galante, which I had virtually all to myself; and the golden sand of Plage Grande Anse, a beautiful long crescent on the other side of Basse-Terre. What’s consistent, though, is the fineness of the sand, and its softness underfoot.

Les Saintes

A 20-minute high-speed ferry ride from the main islands, the islands of Les Saintes feel as much like a French seaside village as they do a Caribbean hideaway. Unlike the other islands in Guadeloupe, Les Saintes had no plantations and therefore no slaves, so its vibe was more closely influenced by the French fishermen from Brittany who settled there. Now it’s popular with yachties and day-trippers who come for its very low-key vibe—there are virtually no cars on the island, so everyone rents a scooter or just walks. At the island’s highest point, the very well-preserved Fort Napoleon gives visitors a 360-degree panorama over the island and Les Saintes Bay, designated by UNESCO as one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

La Soufrière volcano

The centerpiece of the seventh largest (and very likely the most beautiful) national park in France, the volcano is still mildly active, last oozing out lava in 1976. It’s also a rewarding, accessible hike—easier than Gros Piton in St. Lucia, and on better paths—that can be done in about two hours. English-speaking guides with the hiking-and-canyoning outfit Vert Intense (ask for cofounder Laurence), will lead you up it, explaining about the sulfurous, therapeutic clay on the way up, and making stops at the warm, mineral-rich Yellow Baths and the waterfalls Les Bassins Bleus.

Tendacayou Eco Lodge, Boutique Hotel & Spa

An excellent home base for volcano excursions (it’s partway up, which cools off the jungle air a bit) or diving in the nearby Cousteau Reserve, Tendacayou can also be an immersion in nature on its own. Built by French-mainland expats Sylvie and Georges—she’s a wiz at hospitality and design, and he’s a carpenter who built it all—as their own home in the rain forest, Tendacayou has grown into a luxurious little eco resort, with 11 brightly painted open-air cottages and tree houses, a restaurant serving Thai-inspired dishes made by a Thai chef with local ingredients, and a very substantial spa, whose offerings range from Thai massage to Watsu to energetic massage with volcanic stones.

Rum and punch

It’s the Caribbean. Of course there’s local rum, and distilleries (tasting rooms, really) where you can sample it at its source. Some of it’s pretty good, though the 50-proof stuff that seems to be popular is rather potent. While the unofficial national drink is ti punch—here a small glass with brown sugar and a lime wedge, presented with a bottle of rum from which you can pour your own preferred amount and stir with the sugar—they’re serious about fruity rum punch too. It’s not just on offer at the beach bars. Every market is full of vendors selling their coconut, tamarind, ginger and other versions of punch, often in beautiful hand-painted bottles, which make for lovely souvenirs, whatever you think of the hooch inside.

Les Sentiers de la Canne in Marie-Galante

The sleepy island of Marie-Galante is not the easiest day-trip from the main islands—a rocky hour in a high-speed hydrofoil. But the journey is worth it for lunch at this B&B, which is owned by Jean-Paul Rousseau, staffed by his family and serves lunch from his organic garden—cross your fingers that a luscious avocado will be part of the day’s menu—and his fisherman neighbors. It’s well-prepared in French Creole style, served in a pretty open-air pavilion and enjoyed after a round of rum punch with the Rousseaus.

Scuba diving at the Cousteau Reserve

The reefs around the Pigeon islets off the west coast of Basse-Terre struck Jacques Cousteau as so beautiful and biologically diverse that he shot several scenes there for his feature film Le Monde du Silence (“The Silent World”) in 1955, and worked for the area’s protection. Les Heures Saines is a reputable dive operator, with at least one English-speaking dive master, offering easy resort dives for beginners and deeper dives for the PADI-certified.

Excellent bread, pastries, butter and cheese

You’re in France!

Small beach towns like Deshaies

This is where the popular BBC/PBS drama Death in Paradise (fortunately it’s fictional) is filmed, and for very good reason. Deshaies, on the sleepy western coast of Basse-Terre is the kind of laidback beach town where a short row of swimsuit shops and charming seaside restaurants, all serving just-caught seafood, of course, line the main drag. The place embodies that “hidden Caribbean” dream that’s become so desirable, and so elusive, and is in fact a stop on Seabourn Cruises’ “Caribbean Yacht Harbors” itinerary of secret spots.

Charming small four-star hotels

While Guadeloupe has some lovely villas to rent, it doesn’t have an Eden Rock or a Cap Jaluca. But it does have some perfectly pleasant, small luxury-lite hotels. Built in 1985 and renovated in 2007, La Toubana has 37 colonial-style cottages set along a hillside, 12 sleek new suites (more like duplex apartments, actually), a spa and a spectacular swimming pool, plus three new luxury villas debuting later this year. The grande dame of the island since the 1950s, Auberge de la Vieille Tour has a convenient location in Gosier and a pretty terrace for breakfast, and the rooms are slated for a major update next year. Unsurprisingly, the food at both is superb.