The French Caribbean’s sun-soaked beaches are familiar territory for plenty of American vacationgoers, but chances are Guadeloupe remains largely unexplored. Until recently, the French-run, five-island region was accessible from just one Miami flight, and the overwhelming majority of its tourists come from metropolitan France, contributing to the islands’ je ne sais quoi. Don’t be mistaken: You’ll find expected delights like rhum (try the islands’ signature planteurs and ti punches), but among the familiar pharmacie and poste signs, Francophiles may forget they’re in the Antilles. That is, until the symphony of peeping frogs chimes in with the carnival-inspired zouk beats and the call of the conch shell announcing the arrival of the day’s catch.
Set up home base in the middle of the archipelago on Grand Terre’s La Créole Beach Hotel & Spa—it’s in the midst of a renovation, so be sure to ask for an updated room. The small but private stretch of beach hosts jet skis, windsurfing and other water sports and is just a short walk from the main stretch of town, where you can—no, must—grab a bokit. No one does bread and cheese quite like the French, as evidenced by this naan-like chunk of fried heaven stuffed with fish or meat and then packed with cheese. On Fridays, Gosier’s Night Market crowds the street with goods made by local artisans, from colorful woven jewelry to hand-churned coconut sorbet. From there, head to the marina for a taste of the nightlife. At Les Ignorants, oenophiles can flip through an impressive and well-priced wine list, and those not as well-versed can get a hand from expert staff.
Get another authentic taste of France on Les Saintes, a group of nine islands—only two of which are inhabited—home to the descendants of Breton and Norman colonists. From Basse Terre, reach Terre-de-Haut by a 15-minute ferry ride. (Leave extra time for traffic and maneuvering to the dock.) Hike to Forte Napoléon for an unforgettable view or find an equally gorgeous vista underwater while snorkeling at the popular Plage de Pompierre.
But if there’s one reason to make the trek, it’s to wind through the village’s bistro-lined streets to find restaurant Au bon vivre (just take note it’s not open on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons). Lounge in the quaint stone building’s courtyard for a feast courtesy of chef Vincent Malbec. The Toulouse native marries flavors of the West Indies with his Southwestern French background for dishes like conch lasagna, octopus bourguignon and grilled duck magret with a passion fruit sauce.
If you skip dessert here (though that’s not a recommendation) or perhaps need a walk to digest a bit, purchase some tourments d’amour— Terre-de-Haut’s traditional pastry with coconut, banana or guava fillings that wives used to bake while waiting for their husbands to return from sea—from one of many street vendors as you stroll. If a liquid dessert is more your speed, wander down by the bay toward Ti Kaz’ La, where the tide literally reaches the open-air hut. Either way, before hopping back on the ferry, join the topless sun worshippers to float in the bay’s warm but not too warm water, surrounded by magnificent tree-covered hills.
Back on Basse Terre, soak up more nature during a hike in the national park’s rainforest. More than three-quarters of Guadeloupe’s land is protected, making green visible at every turn. From the park’s entrance at Maison de la Forêt, a short paved walk into the lush jungle can easily take you to cascade aux écrevisses (the crayfish waterfall); those up for more of an adventure can climb to a 400-foot shoot while summiting the mildly active volcano La Grande Soufriere—stopping along the way for a dip in the hot springs.
For a peek into city life, walk through bustling Pointe-à-Pitre, where alongside shoppers and businessmen, fishermen wade ankle-deep into the water, fileting fish and dancing along to music. Barter for souvenirs in the markets, chock-full of spices, fruit and the biggest avocados you’ll ever see.
Here, the just-opened Mémorial ACTe, a decade-in-the-making memorial to the history of slavery, is worth taking a break from the beach to visit. The sprawling 77,000-square-foot museum sits on the former Darboussier sugar factory, and inside, a contemporary exhibit rotates every six months, while the permanent collection chronologically maps out slavery around the globe, from the Triangle trade to modern-day trafficking. Even if you’re not one for audio guides, the one-hour tour is worth taking, as you can explore the mix of interactive components and historical artifacts that mingle with modern art, including pieces by Pascale Marthine Tayou—whose work is on display in the Louvre—and RISD grad and MoMA Paris exhibitor Kara Walker. Visitors can use a skybridge to cross to the original factory site, which overlooks the shore where ships once docked. Take in that view. It’s just one of many vistas in Guadeloupe that you won’t soon forget.
-Scandinavians have winter figured out: Through March, Norwegian Air’s direct flights from Boston to Pointe-à-Pitre start at $49.
-Brush up on your French. You very well may run into people who don’t speak English.
Au bon vivre aubonvivre.com
La Créole Beach Hotel & Spa lacreole.com
Les Ignorants facebook.com/lesignorantsbaravins
Mémorial ACTe memorial-acte.fr
Norwegian Air norwegian.com/us
Ti Kaz’ La ti-kaz-la.restaurant-les-saintes.com