The Guadeloupe Islands
An overseas region of France, The Guadeloupe Islands are an archipelago covering some 630 square miles and made up of five main islands. A bridge connects the two most populated ones, Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, while Marie-Galante, Les Saintes (actually a miniature archipelago of its own), and La Désirade are accessed via ferry. With the Caribbean to the west and the Atlantic to the east, these dreamy islands boast multicolored beaches, thick forests, hundreds of waterfalls, rugged bluffs, and offshore coral reefs. Grande-Terre is the main entry point and tourism hub, while Basse-Terre is home to Guadeloupe National Park and its active La Grande Soufrière volcano. Les Saintes melds French sophistication with a Caribbean rhythm, and has upscale shopping and dining to match its natural beauty.
When’s the best time to go to The Guadeloupe Islands?
Guadeloupe enjoys a tropical climate with steady trade winds on the Atlantic side and temperatures hovering between 75 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The rainiest season is June to October but thunderstorms rarely last. Wet days are more common in the forest areas of Basse-Terre. High season is December through February when travelers from Europe and North America flock to the islands, while summer is when the French take month-long vacations. With so many islands to explore, it never feels too crowded in Guadeloupe, but some areas, such as Les Saintes, do sell out quickly during high season. For a more culture-focused experience, visit during Carnival in February, or in August during the Fete des Cuisinières—a colorful festival dedicated to the island’s female chefs and queens of Creole cuisine, who parade in traditional costumes while tastings take place.
How to get around The Guadeloupe Islands
Getting to The Guadeloupe Islands is now easier, with flights on JetBlue from major U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Fort Myers, Denver, and Los Angeles beginning in February 2020. American Airlines and Air France are also options out of Miami. Taxis are abundant—look for their official signage. Most visitors rent a car to have the most flexibility exploring the multiple islands. All the rental companies are based at Pointe-à-Pitre International Airport, and rental pickup and drop off is easy. The infrastructure across Guadeloupe’s main islands of Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre is developed, with well-marked highways and decent roads to most tourist sights, hotels, and attractions. You can also arrange for a driver during your stay if you’d rather not worry about getting lost. Island-hopping to Marie-Galante, La Désirade, or Les Saintes is easy via daily ferries, leaving from Pointe-à-Pitre, Trois-Rivières, Saint-Anne, or Saint-Francois. Book tickets online, or purchase them on-site at least one hour prior to departure.
Can’t miss things to do in The Guadeloupe Islands
There is no doubt Guadeloupe’s beaches are stunners, and the prime reason most visitors venture to the archipelago. Once there, you’ll notice the Guadeloupean way of life is about staying active and healthy. Hike the Guadeloupe National Park, where trails are marked by difficulty, and swim in one of its many waterfalls. Head to popular local beaches like Saint-Anne or La Datcha after sunset during the week, and join locals for an evening of volleyball, swimming, and snacking from food trucks. Pointe-à-Pitre is a must on Saturdays, when the streets come alive with gwo-ka drum performances on the way to the colorful markets. Island-hop to Marie-Galante for a feel of the old Caribbean and for the best local rhum, then head to Les Saintes for the ultimate mix of laid-back beaches and gourmet dining.
Food and drink to try in The Guadeloupe Islands
On the rise as a culinary capital of the Caribbean, the food scene in Guadeloupe is one of its strongest assets. With a blend of African, French, and Indian influences, local restaurants surprise diners not just with their flavors but also with their presentation. Meals kick off with a ti’ punch—a traditional stiff drink made with your choice of white rhum plus cane sugar and lime juice. Neutralize the kick by snacking on delicious accras de morue (cod fritters) or boudin créole (blood sausage). Common entrées include Colombo (a Sri Lankan–influenced curry-like stew with chicken) and seafood prepared in various ways, from lobster to crayfish to stuffed crabs. Try rice and beans as a side, with baked christophine (a type of gourd also known as chayota) topped with cheese. Dip anything in the onion-based sauce chien dip because it’s that good. If you’re roadside at night, find the bokit truck and bite into this fried, stuffed johnnycake. Desserts are taken seriously (you are in a French territory, after all) so be sure to save space for a banane flambée or mango soufflé.
Culture in The Guadeloupe Islands
Guadeloupeans are unabashedly proud of their African roots, taking pains to preserve that heritage alongside their French nationality. You’ll see it in the Creole cuisine, in the lively, colorful markets, in the former sugar plantations turned distilleries, and at museums like the Memorial ACTe, which commemorates the slave trade and Guadeloupe’s tortured history. You will also hear it in the local French Creole language, although French is the official tongue. But more than anywhere else, you will feel the African soul of Guadeloupe in its music. The primary folkloric tradition is gwo-ka (big drum), a high-energy drumming, chanting, and dancing that was born during slavery. A pillar of Guadeloupe’s heritage, gwo-ka (also spelled gwo ka and gwoka) is recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Gwo-ka drummers come out at night on the beaches and will play in the streets on market days, among other occasions. You’ll also hear gwo-ka fused with other music played in the clubs of Pointe-à-Pitre. The other dominant genre of musical expression is zouk, a rapid-tempo, carnival-type beat popularized in the 1980s by internationally acclaimed band Kassav’. Their first hit, Zouk La Sé Sèl Médikaman Nou Ni (which means “zouk is our medicine”) took over the charts worldwide in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and even Asia. It’s no exaggeration to say that people often travel to Guadeloupe because of its zouk fame. You can listen and dance to live music at multiple nightlife and restaurant venues, the most popular of which are in Pointe-à-Pitre and Gosier on Grande-Terre. For the most raucous cultural celebration, visit Guadeloupe during Carnival, with celebrations kicking off in January.
Guadeloupeans love to stay fit and active, and they do so with their families. This healthy spirit, which also translates into other areas like dining and learning new things, helps make The Guadeloupe Islands an excellent destination for families. There are beaches to suit every family’s whim, and you can go surfing on Basse-Terre, windsurfing in Saint-Francois, or snorkeling and diving off Les Saintes Bay. As well as the national park’s multiple trails, waterfalls, and thermal baths, you can stroll through botanical gardens and learn about the flowers and birds there, visit ancient sugar mills on Marie-Galante, and explore historical colonial forts. For something less active but still informative, there’s always shopping the markets. Last but not least, the islands’ multiple Creole and French restaurants are all family-friendly and often have dedicated kids’ menus.
Local travel tips for The Guadeloupe Islands
Guadeloupeans always greet others when entering a place, and you should respond in kind. Sainte-Anne is a dream daytime beach escape, but it’s even better on weekend evenings when roadside stalls sell barbecued conch skewers served on banana leaves. On the road to popular sight Pointe des Châteaux, few know to stop at La Douche (the shower), a hidden cove off the main road with a small, golden-colored beach. The sea crashes against the rocks hard enough to splash high up into the air, creating a cooling spray that falls down onto you like shower droplets.
Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel journalist and photographer specializing in the Caribbean region. A tropical bird since 2005, she’s lived in Jamaica, Grenada, Belize, and the Dominican Republic, aside from visits to other islands, including Guadeloupe. Lily’s writing and photography, focusing on culture, nature, and adventure, have been published in AFAR, Delta Sky, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and MorningCalm (Korean Air magazine), and on the BBC, CNN, Shermans Travel, and more. She is the author of several guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic. In 2016, Lily was honored with the Marcia Vickery Wallace Memorial Award for excellence in travel journalism from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Follow her journey online at Sunshine and Stilettos.