The French Overseas Department of Guadeloupe, located in the Caribbean Leeward Islands, consists of six inhabited islands of volcanic origin. The biggest are Basse-Terre in the west and Grande-Terre in the east, which form a distinctive butterfly shape when seen from the air.
The tropical climate makes for lush vegetation with mahogany and ironwood forests and some mangrove swamps. There are two seasons, and the dry season from January to April is best for a visit. The islands are prone to be hit by hurricanes, so it’s best to avoid hurricane season from June to November.
Guadeloupe is known for golden beaches, gorgeous scenery like waterfalls, the active volcano La Soufriere, cliffs and coves, and of course, rum and bananas. You’ll also enjoy dance and music and maybe the well-known carnival in January.
Lively cities are Pointe-a-Pitre, Les Abymes, and Basse-Terre. The official language is French, and the currency is the euro. American citizens need a valid passport. If you don’t arrive on a cruise ship, you may land at Pointe-a-Pitre International Airport instead.
If you can, stay a few days to visit several smaller islands, like Marie-Galante or La Desirade, each with their special charm and attractions. A treat for divers: Jacques Cousteau Underwater Reserve. In fact, the islands of Guadeloupe offer treats and fun for every taste and degree of personal fitness.
1. Climb The Active Volcano La Soufriere
I personally can never resist the thrill of climbing a volcano, active or otherwise. If you feel the same, venture on a hike up La Soufriere. At a height of 4,800 feet, it’s the highest mountain in the area and, indeed, an active volcano. The last eruption occurred in 1976, luckily without any fatalities. Located in Basse-Terre, there are several access routes to the summit; the fastest takes about 2 hours. Bring sturdy shoes, waterproof jackets, and a swimsuit. A guided tour might be best.
Halfway up, you come to a natural spa with hot springs inviting you to a relaxing soak. Therefore, the swimsuit.
In the lower part, there’s dense rainforest and green as far as the eye can see -- mahogany trees, giant ferns, vines, roots, and in between, tropical birds. If you are lucky, you’ll also see or at least hear the famous Guadeloupe woodpecker. The higher up you get, the harsher it becomes until you look down into the crater, still bubbling and belching sulfur clouds. Just so you don’t forget, you are standing on an active volcano!
2. Enjoy The Beach Plage De Grande Anse
Located in Deshaies, Basse-Terre, this is the most famous beach because of its golden sand, tall palms, and picturesque mountain backdrop. However, the waves can be rough, so it’s suitable only for strong swimmers and definitely not for kids.
If you want equally fine, white sand but much shallower water, head for Plage de Bois Jolan in Sainte-Anne, Grande-Terre.
If you want something out of the ordinary, visit Plage de Malendure (Malendure Beach) in Basse-Terre. It’s a beach with volcanic, black sand, a favorite of snorkelers, and the starting point for dive excursions to the Cousteau Underwater Reserve.
3. Explore Pretty Pointe-A-Pitre
Located on a limestone plateau in the southwest of Grande-Terre and facing the Caribbean Sea, Pointe-a-Pitre is Guadeloupe’s largest city, although not the administrative capital, which is Basse-Terre.
A lovely colonial city, one of the first things you’ll want to visit is the Spice Market. Be enchanted by the scents and colors, and the happy people -- locals and tourists alike -- who shop and haggle for products. See the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul and learn about the darker days of slavery and the road to abolition at the Memorial ACTe, established in an old sugar factory in the port.
Visit Pavillion l'Herminier, an example of classic colonial architecture on Victory Square. The nearby Musee Saint-John Perse, nom de plume for Nobel Prize Laureate Alexis Leger, which is named after the famous local writer, features a colorful collection of traditional clothes, plus an overview of his work.
Editor’s Note: English-language information about Pavillion l'Herminier can be hard to find, but the French-language site we’ve linked out to shows its location. If you are using Google Chrome, you may be given an option to translate the page when you open it.
4. Marvel At Pointe Des Chateaux
Located at the far eastern tip of Grande-Terre, you come to one of the most visited and exciting sights in Guadeloupe. Pointe des Chateaux is a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. What beach exists is very rough and does not invite a swim. Never mind, that’s not the point of this excursion. It’s the rocks that are reached via a well-marked trail. Carved by waves and strong winds, several rock formations stand out of the water like castle towers (hence the name) topped by a huge cross. You reach the summit and the cross via stone steps, and then you are rewarded with fantastic views of the Atlantic and the smaller islands, for instance, La Desirade. This trip gives you an impression of Guadeloupe’s really wild and unspoiled nature, which makes it so different from other islands of the Caribbean.
5. Get Sprayed At Carbet Falls
If you don’t find the courage to climb all the way up La Surfriere, you can still have an exciting nature adventure on the lower slopes of the mountain. The Grand Carbet River forms three stunning cascades, surrounded by dense, tropical rainforest. At about 400 feet tall, the first cascade is the highest and the most difficult to access. The second is the most visited because it can be reached much more easily. In recent years, rocks have broken off and fallen down the roaring waterfall, so you can't get too close. Access is restricted to walking across the bridge for safety reasons. Like many other trips and hikes in Guadeloupe, this experience is suited for experienced hikers with adequate gear.
6. Learn All About Rum At The Rum Museum
Sainte-Rose is the location of a distillery and Rum Museum of a very special kind. Learn the story of three enterprising locals who bought land and started to plant sugar cane in the 1900s. Then, proceed to learn all about rum making, especially the all-important aging process, and learn why the distillery is still going strong today. There’s no better place to really learn what the production of rum is all about and to have a tasting or two while you are there.
7. Step Back In Time On Marie-Galante
If you fancy experiencing life in Guadeloupe as it was 50 or more years ago, make your way to the third largest island, Marie-Galante. Though round and flat, the island has a few steep cliffs on the northern side. The island’s most distinguishing features are sugar cane plantations and at least 100 sugar mills, some still in operation. Heavenly, undeveloped beaches are found on the Caribbean Sea, ready to be discovered and enjoyed in peace by you. Added to the time-warp feeling are ox carts in which you can take a nostalgic ride. The island has several small distilleries that have a reputation for producing the best rum in the Caribbean. Taste and judge for yourself.
8. Dive At The Cousteau Reserve
I’m sure that among us over-50 travelers, there are quite a few keen and experienced divers. For an underwater experience like no other, make your way to the black Malendure Beach in Basse-Terre, which is the starting point for several diving excursions in this protected and fantastic underwater world. The Cousteau Reserve features reefs, an enormous variety of fish, and mystery-shrouded shipwrecks, covered in thick layers of sea sponge. Several outfitters provide you with boat rides, diving gear, and experienced instructors to make this experience unique and safe.
9. Get Personal With Parrots In Deshaies Botanical Garden
We have shown you the underwater world of Guadeloupe; now it’s time for the marvels on land. The Botanical Garden of Deshaies in Basse-Terre is one of the best places to visit. Imagine no less than 15 gardens, lily ponds, man-made waterfalls, and about 1,000 species of tropical plants and flowers. To make it even more interesting, you can take part in the daily feeding of rainbow lorikeets that will nibble out of your hand.
10. Move To The Rhythm Of Biguine
Biguine is a blend of Caribbean rhythm with French ballroom dancing and a few more elements from the different cultures that have at one time or another influenced the island. Your stay is not only for day-time trips but also for the joys of dance and music at night. There is no shortage of nightlife in Guadeloupe, and the place to be is Le Gosier. It’s the coolest part of Pointe-a-Pitre, and if you are so inclined, there is even a casino.
11. Tempt Your Taste Buds In Pointe-A-Pitre
One of the greatest pleasures in Guadeloupe is fine dining after a day full of adventure. Local specialties are lobster, fish, seafood, lamb or chicken in lemon juice, and the inevitable rum or rum cocktails. A great place to dine out in style and enjoy the best creole food is Le Plaisancier in the marina of Pointe-a-Pitre.
Guadeloupe is a destination for fit and adventurous travelers. Don’t expect great amenities, even at popular beaches, and bring proper gear for hikes and climbs. Knowing at least a smattering of French is an advantage, but locals are so friendly and helpful that in a pinch, you’ll get by with hand gestures.
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