Long regarded among the Caribbean’s greatest “hidden gems,” the Guadeloupe Islands are poised to emerge as one of the most dynamic, raved-about tropical destinations in the region, if not the world. That’s not hyperbole, at least not as much as it is wishful thinking and/or an educated prediction, because to see this place in person is to understand just how magical and spiritually fulfilling it can be.
With the addition of seasonal nonstop JetBlue service from New York City to Pointe-à-Pitre, this French Caribbean archipelago has never been more accessible to U.S. travelers, and it’s high time everyone learns what they’ve been missing out on. The thing about the Guadeloupe Islands, though, is that this isn’t the “typical” Caribbean destination. You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, just pack your bags and board the next flight out of Terminal 5. (Although I certainly wouldn’t blame you.)
Some of this information is common sense, but it still bears repeating and reinforcing. Here’s what you need to know before your first visit to the Guadeloupe Islands.
Brush Up on Your French
I was warned several times that I wouldn’t find many English speakers here, and so I tried my best to keep my Duolingo streak running strong ahead of my flight. Even that barely helped, because when the wheels touched down my brain had stage fright, and I did things like ask, “¿Cómo está?” instead of “Comment allez-vous?” This happened way more than I’d like to admit, but I know I’m not alone.
I recommend planning far enough in advance so that you can put some real effort into learning the basics. It isn’t just about being able to communicate with hotel and restaurant staff, although that is a very important component. You should also want to understand and appreciate the regional cultures, and so being able to communicate with the people is essential.
The people are so genuinely nice and warm here that you’ll want to at least have the opportunity to make new friends and learn from them. After all, they’re the real experts and will offer the best advice on where to eat and drink.
Forget Me Nots
No matter how many times we rehearse vacation preparation in our heads, some of that common sense gets shoved into a packing cube and is forgotten. Like, for example, when we landed in Pointe-à-Pitre and, coming back to Earth from the incredible views from the approach, I mumbled to myself: “I. Forgot. Euros.”
It’s not difficult to take care of this—you land at an airport, after all—but looking at the big picture, if you like to avoid ATM fees or you’re apprehensive about using such machines in a foreign setting, then make sure you pack more than enough cash, because you never know when you’ll come across a must-have piece of jewelry or art at a street vendor’s tent, or when you’ll find someone crafting tropical cocktails after a tiring hike to the cross atop Pointe des Châteaux.
You also might need an extra battery charger. I’m not talking about the Anker you already keep in your bag. I mean [DJ Khaled voice] another one. You will take so many photos and record so many videos that not only will your camera, phone and tablet batteries be put to the ultimate test, you might also want to bring a thumb drive or two to keep your new memories organized.
Oh, and don’t forget your plug adapter. There are only Type C and E outlets to be found in the resorts here, so those battery chargers will be getting a ton of extra use if you forget your adapter. (I had to pick one up at the Club Med La Caravelle gift shop, and fortunately they took Visa.)
Run at the Island’s Speed
My first impression of the Guadeloupe Islands was something like: “Oh my… this place is so green and amazing. Hey everyone, look how green and amazing this is!” My second impression was that everyone on the two main islands, Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, drives like they are vying for pole position at an upcoming F1 race.
However, I’m not saying they’re bad drivers. Anything but. I was caught off guard by how well my drivers navigated the crowded highways and made it feel like we were never really stuck in traffic, even when we occasionally were. I mention this because we were informed upon arrival at the airport that all car rental companies operate here, and I immediately pictured the highway scene from Clueless.
I do not recommend first- or even second-time visitors renting a car. More confident drivers might ignore this advice, but I cut my teeth on I-95 in Miami, and I will gladly cede all driving responsibilities to the professionals.
When you’re out of the cars and vans, everything else runs at the speed of life, maybe even a little slower. There are fast food restaurants on the Guadeloupe Islands, so if getting in and out and moving on to the next adventure is your priority, then grab a Grand McFarmer and a Mars McFlurry from McDonald’s and be on your way. But when you’re dining at an oceanside spot—especially one that is crowded, in a smaller town, or both—sit back, order a Ti’ Punch or two, and chillax.
I’m not saying food service is slow or servers ignore customers. Things just take a little longer. Honestly, I’m glad this was the case, because these islands offer views for days and there wasn’t a TV in sight. Embrace the way time seems to stop, and this will feel like heaven.
Bring a Healthy Appetite
Even if you’re in a hurry and McDonald’s is the best option for keeping to your itinerary, I implore you to stop and reconsider more time for eating. The way so many of the local restaurants blend French, Creole and Caribbean flavors is nothing short of wizardry, and not one hour has gone by since my return that I don’t think about when I’ll have Chicken Colombo again.
And don’t just make time for better food; try something new. I’m not much of a soup guy, but I challenged myself to try three different bowls at An Chodye La in Pointe-à-Pitre, and now I won’t stop talking about the white bean soup. Every fish dish I ate was among the freshest I’ve ever had in my life, and if it weren’t for a pesky shellfish allergy I would have been grabbing lobsters from the ocean with my bare hands (I’m not recommending you do that, because it might be frowned upon).
I don’t even normally have red meat for lunch, what with my desire to be awake in the daytime, but the beefsteak served at Ti Bo Doudou in Terre-de-Haut was fantastic and well worth the sleepiness.
From the resorts to the tiny buildings that look like someone’s living room, the Guadeloupe Islands boast incredible culinary treats for visitors both brave and picky. It’d be a shame to leave without trying most of them.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Sticking with my mantra of trying something new, the greatest strength of the Guadeloupe Islands is variety. This goes for everything from food to accommodations, but more than anything it reflects activities and adventures.
If you simply want a gorgeous beach or a cascading pool with views that seem like they were pulled from your iMac’s default screensaver, that’s fine. Head to Grand Anse beach on Basse-Terre (or the beach of the same name on Terre-de-Bas), Plage Du Souffleur on Grande-Terre, or the pool at La Toubana and your vacation will be made. But just know that there is so much more to enjoy on these incredible islands.
For example, I have never thought about visiting a cacao plantation and making my own chocolate bars, but when I learned that this was offered at Gwakako in Pointe-Noire, I couldn’t wait to try. The same can be said for horseback riding, which I hadn’t tried since childhood, but I was told that some of the best views of Basse-Terre were only accessible on horseback, and so it was off to Ranch de Moreau to see if that was true. (Spoiler alert: It was!)
Best of all, there’s so much left for me to do on the next trip to the Guadeloupe Islands, and that desire to return again and again is really the best gift this glorious destination offers.