The pink-tinged sky was darkening, and the air was warm and humid when my husband, Bruce, and I landed last February in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, the French Caribbean island. The shops and cafes in the airport were closing, but I could detect from their bright exteriors – decorated in an exuberant scarlet, yellow and chartreuse madras plaid pattern – a joie de vivre.
Returning to Guadeloupe, a butterfly-shape 630-square-mile island duo, which is a department of France, was something of a pilgrimage. We had been there 23 years earlier when our daughter, Joanna, was 2. We spent an idyllic week on Grande-Terre, Guadeloupe’s eastern island, which is flat, dry and ringed with golden beaches, as compared with Basse-Terre, which is mountainous and dense with rain forests. We did child-friendly things like splashing in the impossibly clear, calm, turquoise water at La Caravelle beach in Ste.-Anne and lounging by the hotel pool, gorging ourselves on beignets, the irresistible sweet fritters that vendors hawked on the beach. At night, we headed off in the rental car in search of grilled-chicken shacks and beachfront restaurants serving spicy salt cod fritters, grilled lobster, French wine, rum punch and other French-Creole specialties.
Guadeloupe has long been known for its cuisine, which combines local ingredients with French culinary techniques. As a food traveler who seeks destinations with a strong food culture, it is the reason I went there the first time, and it is why I returned. Guadeloupe is gaining wider recognition in France and the rest of the world for its “nouvelle cuisine Creole.”
France in the tropics. Guadeloupe blends some of the most appealing aspects of France. Yet it is decidedly different, with its mélange of African-Guadeloupeans, Asians, white French descendants and its strong identity as a Caribbean island. These are things we loved about Guadeloupe and another reason we returned.
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Its round-trip airfares of more than $1,000 and complicated flight connections, however, deterred us over the years. About 80 percent of Guadeloupe’s tourists come from France and northern Europe. Because the island is French-speaking, with few concessions for English speakers, it has not been wildly popular with Americans. When we learned in 2015 that Norwegian Air had introduced direct service to Pointe-à-Pitre from New York and several other U.S. cities (prices started at a jaw-dropping $49 one-way), we jumped at the chance. Our French is conversational, at best, but we relied a great deal on hand signals and drawn pictures, as Guadeloupeans speak rapidly, and often in Creole in more isolated areas.
This trip, we stayed on Basse-Terre. Unlike Grande-Terre, the Basse-Terre landscape is cooler, greener and less inhabited. An eruption of the 4,813-foot La Soufrière volcano on its southern end in 1976 resulted in an evacuation, with many families moving permanently to Grande-Terre.
Our small hotel, the Jardin Malanga, is a former 1927 plantation home 900 feet above the sleepy port town of Trois-Rivières, about 40 miles from Pointe-à-Pitre, with a wraparound veranda, a pool and delicious French-Guadeloupean food. Breakfast, for example, consisted of boulangerie-fresh croissants, pains au chocolat and baguettes served with Normandy butter, cubes of coconut, passion fruit, tamarind, tangerines and bananas, with homemade lime, mango and guava preserves. Dinner might feature spicy seafood fritters and rum punch to start, followed by grilled lobster, served with ratatouille containing local plantains, and ending with crème brûlée flavored with passion fruit. Our commodious room, with its exposed pine beams, had the pleasing scent of a cedar closet.
We fell into a languorous routine of daytime excursions followed by a swim at Grande Anse beach, about 15 minutes away, or the pool, and early-evening drinks on the veranda. This time, we were in adult-centric mode, trading the joys of experiencing the island through a child’s eyes for self-indulgent exploration of local history and culture, cocktails and hours of reading, with few distractions other than staring out at the sea.
We wanted to see as much as possible in our seven days there, and we made good use of our rental car.
Driving the perimeter of Basse-Terre on the N1, Guadeloupe’s main highway, is an exercise in gaining and losing elevation. Flat stretches along the coastline, emerald green with sugar cane and large-leafed banana plants, ascend into velvety, verdant hillsides thick with vine-wrapped trees before descending again to the coast. Towns are tidy: one- and two-story concrete houses, with verandas and peaked roofs to repel rain, nestled among vivid, fragrant flowering bougainvillea. Island residents carried baguettes under their arms, chatting in French and Creole while waiting for buses or, occasionally, hitchhiking rides. We noticed more traffic on this trip. The roads were thick with small European- and Japanese-made cars at rush hour and on weekends, primarily on the main corridors between Trois-Rivières, Pointe-à-Pitre and Le Gosier. Workmen in traditional French azure overalls and jackets labored on the sides of roads.
Basse-Terre’s interior purple mountains are nearly always visible. Their peaks, many over 4,000 feet, are within the 43,000-acre Guadeloupe National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the seventh-largest French national park. Park visitors hike on 185 miles of trails up the volcano and other mountains, through tropical rain forests and mangrove habitats, and to waterfalls.
You don’t have to do anything strenuous, though, to enjoy the park. There is a 17th-century coffee plantation, Habitation La Grivelière in Vieux-Habitants, a designated historic monument about 20 miles from Trois-Rivières. There you can get a sense of the natural beauty of the park while learning about the agricultural legacy of coffee, one of the island’s original cash crops.
Access to the plantation is harrowing. A steep, narrow nine-mile road has hairpin turns so blind that signs repeatedly implore you to blow your horn to warn approaching drivers. Our anemic rental car stalled on a blind, slick, nearly vertical rise. After several panicked moments, we backed into a small turnoff, then floored and coaxed it to the plantation’s parking lot, as it belched smoke.
We joined a tour with a couple from France with five sons under 10. They were hardly the jet-setting tourists of St. Bart’s, but rather visitors relishing a tropical setting while speaking their native language.
Our charismatic and barefoot guide, Sophie, an intense young woman with an orange buzz cut, wearing a long traditional madras plaid skirt and toe rings, led us huffing and puffing up a rain-slicked forest path. In rapid French, she identified jackfruit, mango, coffee and cacao trees, wild orchids and vanilla vines, and described their culinary and medicinal uses. We then viewed the steps involved in processing coffee beans, as well as the 45 cabins that had housed slaves. Amid her lively commentary, she admonished the boys for jumping off stone walls and racing into the woods, as their tuckered-out parents stood by. We finished the tour with a rejuvenating cup of plantation-grown coffee.
We ate lunch that day at Chez Sylvie, a cheerful one-room restaurant on Malendure Beach, about 10 miles from La Grivelière. It is a typical Creole eatery in Guadeloupe, with plastic streamers, bamboo tables and chairs, and plastic place mats emblazoned with the ever-present madras plaid motif, a design vestige of the indentured Indians who worked the plantations after slavery was abolished in 1848.
Forget about menus; there is not even the usual table d’hôte, in which the chef offers a number of multicourse meals at a fixed price.
Instead, customers order from the day’s suggestions listed on a blackboard. Ti-punches, with rum and lime, are the order of the day, usually accompanied with fried salt cod fritters, laced with chiles and served with a lime, scallion and garlic-based “chien” sauce. The sauce got its name because all its ingredients are thinly sliced with a “couteau chien” (dog-knife), a popular brand in the Caribbean.
Guadeloupeans have a passion for cuisine.
Many small culinary museums focusing on coffee, chocolate or bananas dot roadsides. And the chefs and servers seem to take genuine pleasure in satisfying patrons.
We marveled as our French neighbors dined on a wood-grilled seafood medley, accompanied by two bottles of wine and followed by bananas flambéed in rum, a Creole mainstay. We ate modestly, but we couldn’t resist the classic French dessert moelleux au chocolat, a molten chocolate cake bathed in crème anglaise.
Guadeloupe’s cuisine has character, taste and subtle flavors, said Babette de Rozières, a Pointe-à-Pitre native and the owner and chef of restaurants in Paris, St.-Tropez and Guadeloupe. “It starts in the morning with a deep and rich smell of coffee and ends in the evening with exquisite aged rum,” de Rozières said. “The whole family gathers around the table and communes in enjoying dishes that are prepared with love.”
Female chefs are revered. An annual Fête des Cuisinières (Female Cooks Festival) in Pointe-à-Pitre features multiple generations of cooks dressed in traditional costumes: a white blouse trimmed in lace, a long madras plaid skirt and an elaborate folded headdress called a coiffe. They attend Mass in their honor at the Church of St. Peter and Paul in central Pointe-à-Pitre, before parading to a nearby public school to feast and dance. The event, to be held this year on Aug. 12, is free.
We did not want to miss the Jardin Botanique, 25 miles from Vieux-Habitants in the beachfront town of Deshaies. It is a restful haven with paths that meander through groves of baobab, jacaranda, bougainvillea and many other trees and flowers, as well as a parrot aviary and a water lily pond. There is a snack bar and the Restaurant Panoramique, which overlooks a waterfall and serves Creole specialties, including grilled lobster and curried chicken Colombo, mostly to well-heeled Guadeloupeans.
We ventured to Pointe-à-Pitre to view the Mémorial ACTe, the Caribbean Centre of Expression and Memory of Slavery and the Slave Trade, whose permanent exhibition provides one of the world’s most comprehensive histories and descriptions of the slave trade. Opened in May 2015, the scope of the 25,000-square-foot complex adjacent to the harbor on the former Darboussier sugar refinery, is huge. Its main building is designed to symbolize silver roots over a black box – a visual juxtaposition of new life emerging from a dark past.
Arawak and Kalinas tribes lived in Guadeloupe before Columbus traveled there in 1493. It was subsequently settled by French colonists, who brought over 90,000 African slaves to power its sugar industry, and, after slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century, it was worked by Indian and Chinese indentured laborers. The exhibition interposes chilling mechanisms of slavery – whips, chains, shackles and a recreated slave ship – with historical commentary, films and works by Kara Walker, Shuck One, Abdoulaye Konaté and other internationally known black artists. We left the exhibition speechless and haunted by the immediacy of the experience.
After, we visited the main pedestrian walk in the town center, where around noon on Saturdays there is live Gwo Ka music, a folk genre featuring drumming and call-and-response singing by professional performers.
Because of a long-held interest in textiles, I had become enamored with the many patterns and vivid colors of cotton madras fabric. We happened upon an intriguing shop, Chez Tatie, which offers a selection of clothing and headpieces, and 54-inch-wide madras fabric in an array of colors.
We returned one evening to Grande-Terre and spent it in Le Gosier, a lively town that holds a Friday night market from 5 to 10 on the main street, Rue Principale. Rambunctious teenagers mixed with strolling couples in a carnivallike setting. Bright lights illuminated stalls at the edge of the market displaying handicrafts like coconut-shell bowls, earrings and flavored-rum punch. Elsewhere, vendors presided over tables loaded with bulbous pumpkins, speckled watermelons, wild greens, homemade medications, dried spices, curls of cinnamon bark and vanilla beans.
At the popular D’Lice restaurant opposite the market, we sampled the street food bokit, a greasy but satisfying deep-fried sandwich filled with shredded chicken, cheese, salad and a spicy vinegar-based sauce.
We ended our vacation on a French note: with an overnight trip to Les Saintes, an archipelago of seven islets and two inhabited islands eight and a half miles off Basse-Terre. The shipping line CTM Deher offers numerous daily crossings that take 15 minutes to the main island, Terre-de-Haut, from the ferry terminal at Trois-Rivières.
We boarded a boat at 9 a.m. in the company of several hundred French tourists, mostly day-trippers, their bare arms and legs lacquered with suntan oil. As the boat accelerated, churning up sea spray (and, accordingly, dousing everybody) passengers shrieked like exhilarated children on a roller coaster.
Terre-de-Haut Island evokes the quintessential French fishing village. Sun-washed, pastel-colored houses and cafes line the main pedestrian street running parallel to the sparkling turquoise harbor, dotted with moored sailboats.
We stayed up the hill from town at Les Petits Saints hotel, a romantic and whimsical property with wooden Balinese elephant sculptures, brightly painted interiors, artfully draped mosquito nets and a pool set in a lush garden overlooking Les Saintes Bay. We dined on grilled fish with salad, and finished with vanilla ice cream layered with warm chocolate sauce.
Instead of the motor scooters that most visitors rent, we opted to walk, for a more leisurely experience. Near town, the beautiful Plage de Grand Anse, facing the Atlantic, is unsafe for swimming because of riptides, but it is a wonderful place for sitting on silvery driftwood. A 45- to 60-minute walk to the powdery Pain de Sucre beach traverses steep, hilly terrain, where grazing goats are your only companions.
By chance, we saved the best for last. It was lunch at Au Bon Vivre restaurant on the main street, Rue Calot, where the owner and chef Vincent Malbec, of Toulouse, France, combines classical French techniques with local ingredients.
Sitting on a shady terrace sipping a white wine from the Loire Valley, we enjoyed an appetizer of tuna rillettes, smoked marlin and tiny cubes of raw mahi mahi marinated in coconut milk, scallions and Scotch bonnet chiles, followed by rare tuna with a slab of melting foie gras. Next came roasted duck breast with a passion fruit and balsamic vinegar glaze. Dessert was crème brûlée, passion fruit mousse and a profiterole topped with chocolate sauce.
As we savored the meal, even as the reek of an after-lunch Gauloise cigarette wafted from the next table, my mind drifted to our first trip, when we were young parents delighting in our little girl’s getting a taste of island life. Guadeloupe still offered sustenance and a joyful, French tropical approach to life. Perhaps it was even better the second time around.
Elizabeth Field is the author of “Marmalade: Sweet and Savory Spreads for a Sophisticated Taste” (Running Press, 2012).