Take a look at a map, and you'll instantly see why Guadeloupe (Gwahd-loop) is called the Butterfly Island -- though its "wings" are actually two separate islands joined by bridges. Smaller surrounding islands, including Marie-Gallant, La Desirade and Iles des Saintes, are also part of this French overseas region in the Lesser Antilles.
The archipelago was originally settled by the Arawak people but later taken over by the Caribs. Christopher Columbus stopped there in 1493 and named the main landmass Santa Maria de Guadalupe de Extremadura after a statue of the Virgin Mary housed in a Spanish monastery of the same name.
While the Caribs were able to fend off Spanish settlement, the French annexed the island group in 1674. Guadeloupe was seized several times by the British for its lucrative sugar production and once even taken over by rebellious slaves. The French have held control since 1816, and in 1848, slavery was abolished. Today, the population is just over 400,000, and the majority is of African or mixed descent.
Guadeloupe's eastern "butterfly wing," Grande-Terre, is home to the largest city, Pointe-a-Pitre, where the cruise port is located. On this island, you'll also find beach towns and, at its easternmost tip, Pointe des Chateaux, where the Caribbean and Atlantic meet. The western "wing," Basse-Terre, is home to Guadeloupe National Park, home to the active La Soufriere volcano and 42,000 acres of tropical forest. Basse-Terre also has lovely beaches and, just off the coast, the waters around Pigeon Island are a designated marine park, named after Jacques Cousteau.
Guadeloupe averages about 70 inches of rainfall a year, with the least precipitation in January, February and March. Because of the varied geography, there are many micro-climates, and weather on the two main islands can be radically different. It might be brilliantly sunny on Grande-Terre's east side and raining in Pointe-a-Pitre while La Soufriere is completely shrouded in clouds. Hurricanes pass through the archipelago, with an average direct hit about every seven years. Hurricane season is late August/early September, well away from peak cruise season.
Upgrades in 2013 smoothed embarkation and debarkation, improved traffic flow and upped security. Because travelers from both Guadeloupe and mainland France begin and end voyages there, you'll find more amenities than at some other Caribbean terminals.
The terminal building features a small duty-free shop, Wi-Fi, restrooms and a lounge area. Outside the building, vendors sell crafts and souvenirs from kiosks. Most likely, there'll be a band adding to the welcoming vibe. An information booth is staffed by English-speaking tourism reps. Taxis await outside the security gate.
Pointe-a-Pitre: Go for a morning walking tour in Pointe-a-Pitre. Grab a map at the portside information booth and head up Rue Peynier. Check out the buildings painted in bright Caribbean color combinations and the impressive edifice of the Musee Schoelcher. After a couple of blocks, you'll reach the covered Spice Market, built in 1874. Walk through the square and admire the fountain, which will remind you that you really are in France. Look ahead and to the right for the pedestrian Rue Saint-John Perse; it's lined with vendors selling crafts and shops filled with Madras plaids. You'll also pass a statue of drummer Marcel "Velo" Lollia, a favorite son. Take a right onto Rue des Nozieres and have a look at the lovely old mansion that's home to the Musee Saint-John Perse, which honors Pointe-a-Pitre's Nobel Prize-winning poet. Double back to the pedestrian street and follow it to the market, where you'll find produce and a fish market. To your left is the vast Place de la Victoire. Walk up the long side of this plaza, then turn left onto Rue Alexandre Isaac, which will take you straight to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, which has iron girders inside, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. After that, you might want to browse shops or stop at a cafe.
Basse-Terre: Visit Guadeloupe's other side, Basse-Terre, for a dose of nature. Guadeloupe National Park (Le Parc National) is France's seventh-largest park, with waterfalls, tropical forest and an active volcano. Your best bet is to get a group together for a driving tour. The Route de la Traversee takes you across the middle of the island, through a wonderland of tropical plants and forests. Popular stops include the small but lovely and easily accessible waterfall La Cascade aux Ecrevisses and the Maison de la Foret interpretive center, with a few displays (pamphlets in English) and a looped discovery trail that leads you through various aspects of the tropical forest. In the forest, you'll see flowers, trees and insect life (Route de la Traversee; open in high season 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Sunday; closed weekends during low season). Also on this route, but operated independently, is the Parc des Mamelles, a zoological and botanic park featuring 85 species of animals, which also lets you explore the rain forest canopy on walkways (Route de la Traversee, Bouillante; +590-0-5-90-98-83-52; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., last entrance at 4:30 p.m.). Bad afternoon traffic jams occur on the bridges back to Grande-Terre, so allow ample time to get back.
Grande-Terre: Consider doing a driving loop of Grande-Terre and its beach towns. Sainte-Anne has a lively outdoor market stretching along its main drag, featuring crafts and food. Saint-Francois is a fishing port, and fishermen hawk the day's catch on the dock. Travel out the island's eastern arm, and you'll reach beautiful Pointe des Chateaux, where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet. To the south, are the Caribbean's calmer waters; to the north, Atlantic waves pound the shore. Stop for lunch at one of the open-air restaurants between Saint Francois and Pointe des Chateaux. If you like rum, pay a visit to the historic Damoiseau Distillery, near Le Moule (see Been There, Done That).
Aquarium of Guadeloupe: This is small complex with an interesting array of aquatic life, including three sharks. Located on the road between Pointe-a-Pitre and Le Gosier, it's a good stop on a rainy day. You can see everything in an hour or less. The aquarium also offers snorkeling tours. (Place Creole, Marina, Le Gosier; +590-0-5-90-90-92-38; open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.)
Deshaies Botanical Garden: This well-maintained wonderland is home to exotic birds, orchids and many other species of plants and trees. You'll also find a restaurant overlooking a waterfall and a rope bridge for the adventurous. (About a mile outside of Deshaies, Basse-Terre; +590-0-5-90-28-43-02; open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., last entry at 4:30 p.m.)
Musee du Rhum: Located next to the Reimonenq Distillery, this rum museum walks you through the history of rum and its production on Guadeloupe, with a short video and exhibits of old distillery equipment. There's also an eclectic assortment of other displays, including 40 models of tall ships and a collection of 5,000 insects. After visiting the museum, you can stop by the distillery's tasting room for free samples. (Off the N2, in Bellevue, Sainte Rose, Basse-Terre; +590-0-5-90-28-70-04; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Damoiseau Distillery: If you want to visit a working rum distillery, have your taxi driver call ahead to the Damoiseau Distillery to see whether they're crushing sugarcane. Production generally runs from January through May, with work stopping at 2 p.m. You can take a self-guided tour even if production isn't going on, but the machinery is less interesting sitting idle. Either way, be sure to walk beyond the production shed to the warehouses. One is left open and you can inhale the heady perfume of rum aging in barrels. At the shop and tasting room, you can sample three rums of different ages, plus rum punches. All the signage is in French, so it may be frustrating if you don't know the language. (On the D101 road in Bellevue, near Le Moule, Grande-Terre; +590-0-5-90-23-55-55; free tours 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, January through June and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, July through December; tastings and shop open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closed holidays)
Golfing: Duffers can get a fix at the lovely Robert Trent Jones-designed Golf International de Saint-Francois. (Avenue de l'Europe/D118, Saint-Francois +590-0-590-88-41-87; tee times 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., reservations are essential and can be made online)
On Foot: Pointe-a-Pitre is pedestrian friendly, and the flat terrain is easy to navigate. We suggest picking up a map at the information booth because, while the streets are mostly in a grid pattern, there are a few that deviate. We recommend exploring the area to the east of the terminal building; to the north, you'll run into an industrial zone and public-housing projects.
By Taxi: Taxis can be found outside of the port security fence. Many are vans, so you'll benefit by getting a group together. Taxis can be expensive, though -- think European rates. They can be scarcer on weekends, particularly Sundays.
By Bus: At the Gare Routiere de Darboussier bus station (southeast of Place de la Victoire), you can catch buses to the beach towns along the south side of Grande-Terre. Stops include the popular destinations of Le Gosier, Saint-Anne and Saint-Francois. Leave plenty of time for your return because bus schedules can be a bit erratic. Buses operate from about 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., but service is lighter on Saturday afternoons, and buses might not run on Sundays; check with the information kiosk at the port for details. It helps if you speak some French.
By Rental Car: There's a wide choice of car rental companies at the airport, but Hertz (+590-0-5-90-31-74-21) has a much more convenient location in Pointe-a-Pitre. Many of the local rental car companies are closed in the middle of the day and on Sundays, although Hertz has very limited Sunday hours (7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.).
Roads are generally good, although traffic can be bad, particularly on the bridges from Basse-Terre to Grande-Terre. Allow extra time if you're driving back in the afternoon, when traffic jams can be epic.
Best for an Easy Escape: Take a bus (numbers G7 through G18) or taxi from Pointe-a-Pitre to nearby Le Gosier, where you'll find the unimpressive public Datcha Beach. But don't despair. You can find better beaches west of it, hidden behind hotels, yet accessible via the Impasse Montout or one of the hotels farther west -- look for Creole Beach, Salako Beach and Arawak Beach. For a true escape, take a shuttle boat from the dock at the end of Rue Felix Eboue (east of Datcha Beach) out to nearby Ilet du Gosier for beach time and snorkeling (bring your own gear). You'll also find trees for shade and a basic, open-air restaurant for grilled fish, barbecue chicken and drinks.
Best for Sunning and Shopping: In Sainte-Anne, a fun, lively outdoor market stretches down the main drag, which runs parallel to the white-sand beach that sits a block away. At the market, vendors of all sorts sell food, souvenirs and crafts. At the popular beach, you'll find water sports, a swimming area cordoned off by floats, and lots of locals. Sainte-Anne is about half an hour by taxi from Pointe-a-Pitre. If you've checked out Sainte-Anne and are ready for a bit more peace and quiet, the lovely stretch of La Caravelle Beach is about a mile west of Sainte-Anne, behind the gates of the Club Med. It's fully accessible to the public -- just pass through the gate.
Best for Nude Sunbathing: This being France, you're bound to find naturists, and on beautiful Anse Tarare Beach, you'll also enjoy good snorkeling. Neighboring Anse a la Gourde Beach has crashing surf and strong currents (not recommended for children) and an equally beautiful setting. Both are on the north (Atlantic) side of the arm that reaches out toward Pointe des Chateaux on Grande-Terre's far eastern side, about an hour and 20 minutes from Pointe-a-Pitre.
Best on Basse-Terre: About a mile north of the town of Deshaies (near where the D18 intersects the N2) on Basse-Terre's northwest coast, La Grande-Anse is the longest beach in Guadeloupe. Stretching more than a half-mile, its golden sands make it one of Guadeloupe's most beautiful beaches, too. There are trees for shade and beach vendors (lolos) selling food. Allow about 45 minutes to get there from the cruise terminal in Pointe-a-Pitre. Be aware of the bad afternoon traffic jams that can occur on the bridges back to Grande-Terre and allow ample time to get back.
Because Guadeloupe has a French connection, you'll find both Creole flavors and European cuisine. And we suspect that demanding French tourists help keep culinary standards high.
Serving sizes can be hearty. As in France, your best deal is often a fixed-price option (menu or formule) with an appetizer (entree), main course (plat) and dessert included for one price. The European tourists who frequent Guadeloupe tend to lunch late, sitting down at 1 p.m. or 1:30 p.m., so you may be the only customers if you arrive at noon. Also, you're definitely on island time when it comes to service, so don't plan to eat at a restaurant if you're in a hurry.
Seafood is the thing there, and there are many choices, including lobster (langouste), conch (lambis), octopus (chatrou) and (ouassou), which are like large, freshwater crayfish. A popular fish preparation is court-bouillon, a Creole dish prepared with tomatoes, garlic and chili pepper. You'll often see accras, fritters typically made with cod, as appetizers. There's also blaff, fish poached with lemon, garlic, herbs and spices (blaff of meat or even green bananas) and crabes farci, stuffed land crabs.
Aside from seafood, Guadeloupe offers curries, goat (cabri) stew, and poulet boucane, which is chicken marinated in herbs and spices, then grilled over a fire partially fueled with sugarcane for a sweet-smoky flavor.
You'll find an abundance of fruits and vegetables, including some that may be unfamiliar. For example: igname (giant tubers in the yam family) and fruit a pain (breadfruit), both served like potatoes.
For dessert, bananas flambe is a specialty. Try delicious exotic-fruit sorbets or coconut sorbet from vendors found at markets throughout the island. These vendors often sell coconut cake and confections made of shaved coconut, as well.
La Canne a Sucre: If you want to stay in Pointe a Pitre and dine on the water, La Canne a Sucre, near the entrance to the harbor (a 15-minute walk from the cruise terminal), is a great choice. Menu choices include French-Caribbean dishes, and the terrace makes you feel miles away from the city. (1 Quai Foulon, between Rue Achille-Rene Boisneuf and Rue Champy; +590-0-5-90-90-38-83; open for lunch Monday to Saturday)
Le Yacht Club: Located behind the fresh market at Pointe a Pitre's inner harbor (a 15-minute walk from the cruise terminal), Le Yacht Club is an indoor-outdoor restaurant serving French bistro favorites that will keep meat eaters happy. Look for duck breast, steak and lamb, as well as a few local favorites, like accras. The classic molten chocolate dessert (moelleux au chocolat) is excellent. (Quai Lardenoy; +590-0-6-90-74-57-11; open for lunch Monday to Saturday)
Chez Dolmare: For fresh seafood right off the boat, take a taxi north of the cruise terminal to Chez Dolmare, located in an unassuming spot at the fishing harbor in Pointe a Pitre. This place is known for its fish court-bouillon, but you'll also find other specialties, like lobster, conch and ouassous, all at fair prices. In addition to seafood, there's also goat stew and poulet boucane. On the downside, service can be particularly slow at this busy eatery. (Port de Peche de Lauricisque; +590-0-5-90-91-21-32; open for lunch Monday to Saturday, reservations highly recommended)
Cote Jardin: For elegant decor, head to Cote Jardin, located a taxi ride away at the marina between Pointe a Pitre and Le Gosier. You'll find local ingredients served with French flair, along with Creole influences. The cigale de mer (slipper lobster) is a specialty. (La Marina, Le Mole Portuaire; +590-0-5-90-90-91-28; open for lunch Monday to Friday)
Delices des Mers: Near Pointe des Chateaux, Delices des Mers makes a perfect stop if you're doing a driving tour of Grande-Terre. You can sit at a shade-covered outside table and dine on seafood, with views of the sea below. A three-course meal will leave you so stuffed you just might want to curl up on the deck for a nap. (Route D118, between Sainte Anne and Pointe des Chateaux; +590-0-5-90-21-03-35; lunch daily during high season, closed Monday in low season)
Guadeloupe's cruise terminal is located at the city of Pointe-a-Pitre. Because the port is right in town, you can easily explore the city, which may remind you a bit of New Orleans, with its lacy iron balconies gracing older buildings. Within walking distance, you'll find restaurants with Wi-Fi, shops, ATMs, pharmacies, two museums, the covered Spice Market and a supermarket (Super U, 72 Rue Jean Jaures).
Dengue and chikungunya are two mosquito-borne diseases present throughout the Caribbean, and you'll see warning signs in the cruise terminal. Avoid contact with mosquitoes, and use a repellant containing DEET.
Some businesses close during lunch and for several hours in the afternoon. Many are only open Monday through Friday or close at noon on Saturday. Few are open on Sunday.
Because this is French territory, the currency is the euro. Some vendors may accept U.S. dollars, perhaps grudgingly. Visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for currency conversion rates. Cash machines dispensing euros are easy to find in Pointe-a-Pitre. L'Agence SGBA (30 Rue Frebault), Societe Generale (Rue Saint-John Perse and Rue Frebault, across from the Spice Market), BNP Paribas (intersection of Rue Frebault and Rue Delgres), BDAF Agence de Pointe-a-Pitre (Place de la Victoire), Caisse d'Epargne (Place de la Victoire), Credit Maritime d'Outre Mer (36 Rue Achille Rene Boisneuf) and Credit Agricole (3 Rue Achille Rene Boisneuf) are within walking distance of the port.
French is the main language, although many people also speak Creole. People in tourism-related industries can usually speak English. Most of the online information is in French only. If you don't speak French, your best bet for information in English is to consult secondary resources, like guidebooks or TripAdvisor.
You'll see bright Madras-plaid fabrics everywhere -- sold by the yard or made into hats, clothing, doll outfits and household items. If you really want to go all out with Guadeloupe Creole style, stop by Dody (13 Rue Peynier, across from the Spice Market). The store features beautifully made traditional dresses, covered with ruffles and flounces, as well as more modern designs. The annex next door sells shoes in Madras fabrics.
Ti punch, island patois for "petit punch," is a blend of rum, lime and sugar. It's often drunk before meals as an aperitif. Just beware: It lives up to its name by packing quite a punch! Also, rum is produced in Guadeloupe, so you'll find all sorts of rum and fruit juice blends. But if you find an expensive aged rum, it's meant to be savored like fine cognac, alone in a snifter. Look for the Damoiseau, Severin and Reimonenq labels.