There were more than a few surprised faces in JFK International Airport on a recent Saturday morning, when a parade made its way through the crowded Terminal 5. You couldn’t blame travelers for being a little confused—after all, you don’t see many parades, let alone parties, in airports these days. But this occasion? Some might argue the party wasn’t big enough.
On that morning, JetBlue launched its debut winter seasonal service from JFK to Pointe-à-Pitre’s Pôle Caraïbes International Airport, making it the only airline to offer service from the Northeast U.S. to the Guadeloupe Islands. While this is business as usual for the “leading airline in the Caribbean region,” this represents something much bigger for the Guadeloupe Islands. This service opens the archipelago’s doors even wider to the U.S., welcoming a swath of travelers who may have never before considered—or even heard of—the Guadeloupe Islands.
And this is crucial because it is time for these islands to shed their reputation as a “hidden gem” and take center stage as one of the most beautiful, entertaining and captivating destinations in the world.
First Impressions are Everything
While the inaugural flight is likely to be the only one that begins with a parade and party in the terminal, the Guadeloupe Islands are a destination so special that you probably wouldn’t think anything of it if a parade was scheduled for every flight. If you doubt that any place is this special, then you haven’t made the approach into Pointe-à-Pitre—perhaps quietly playing “Name That Island” as the plane passes by St. Kitts and Antigua—and listened to the audible gasps of your fellow passengers as they witness that first spot of impossibly turquoise water, followed by the lush greenery that seems so pure and undisturbed by the outside world that you wonder if your plane has traveled backward through time.
Some people think if you have seen one Caribbean island then you have seen them all, which is absurd, we know. No place shatters that stereotype like the Guadeloupe Islands, and few places on this planet are so cool and remarkable when you’re simply looking at them from an airplane. Here, beauty is hardly in the eye of the beholder; it’s a foregone conclusion.
This is a destination that captivates you from the moment you step outside the airport (which, if we’re being honest, also puts a lot of island airports to shame). But, like any destination, the Guadeloupe Islands are defined by those who call it home.
The People Make the Place
The most important advice we can offer to anyone visiting the Guadeloupe Islands for the first time is to brush up on your French. Very little English is spoken on these islands, and it can lead to awkward, even frustrating moments. The people are so friendly and charming here that not having a better grasp of their language made me feel like I was missing out on an even bigger opportunity to make friends and connections that will last from trip to trip, for years to come.
This was especially the case when we grabbed a van into Pointe-à-Pitre for a memorable dinner at An Chodyè La. We couldn’t shake that “old familiar feeling” of the island’s largest city, as it has a fun New Orleans vibe, which makes perfect sense. And having gotten lost in the Big Easy a few more times than I’d care to admit, trying to find this highly recommended soup restaurant made me feel like I was lost in New Orleans all over again (and I loved it). This divinely decorated restaurant made it feel like I was in the living room of a person who could tell me stories for months, and I hope to have that chance when I return with a little more French in my repertoire.
After, we grabbed drinks at 1973 Food and Sound, a place so downright cool that an Instagram check-in won’t cut it. You want to put up a billboard on the roof that lets everyone know you’ve been there and will be back again and again. But again, the hardest part was not being able to strike up conversations and learn about the area. At times, I felt like I let myself down by not trying a little harder. Duolingo certainly has a devoted new customer.
Blue to Green, and Everything in Between
What catches most people off guard about the Guadeloupe Islands is the size, especially if you’re watching the aforementioned smaller Caribbean islands on your approach. People love to say that this island group is shaped like a butterfly, but once you’re settled in it feels bigger than Mothra.
This archipelago is made up of more than 12 islands, six of them inhabited, but the butterfly’s “wings” are the two main islands, Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, which are separated by the Rivière Salée, or Salt River. For some Caribbean vacations, one island does the trick. That is not the case with the Guadeloupe Islands, where each island offers something different—beaches, reefs, jungles, landmarks, etc.—that will make visitors wish they had just one more day… and that still wouldn’t be nearly enough.
First-timers will likely head east to Grand-Terre to check into a resort, like the poster child for all-inclusive bliss, Club Med La Caravelle, or the five-star La Toubana Hôtel et Spa, which boasts views of Anse Accul (and beyond) so stunning and romantic that a pool selfie should be the equivalent of a 50-point buck for Instagram influencers. Or, if you prefer a spot closer to the heart of the city, La Creole Beach Hotel and Spa and Arawak Beach Resort will keep you content on the sand, at the pool, or even around the corner at the popular bokit spot.
Basse-Terre is the largest of the Guadeloupe Islands, and it is home to both La Grande Soufrière, an active volcano and highest peak in the Lesser Antilles, and Guadeloupe National Park, which features some incredible off-the-beaten path natural swimming spots and waterfalls, as well as the Zoo de Guadeloupe, a home to 85 species and a canopy tour that will fill a Facebook photo album in very little time. And if you brought your snorkeling and diving gear, Réserve Cousteau awaits just west of the zoo.
But that’s not to say Basse-Terre doesn’t also offer unique and/or romantic accommodations. To the north, in Deshaies, Tendacayou Ecolodge and Spa embraces and highlights the Guadeloupe Islands’ natural beauty, while offering the best of both worlds as it sits almost equidistant between the Deshaies Botanical Garden and Grande Anse Beach, which some eagle-eyed visitors might recognize from the BBC series Death in Paradise. (Devoted fans of the series will want to head a little further north to Plage de la Perle, which serves as the home of Detective Mooney’s shack on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie.)
In the south, Le Jardin Malanga Hotel is great for anyone looking to spend a day (or week) exploring the forestry, before taking a ferry from Trois-Rivieres to Les Saintes, which can also serve as a vacation of its own.
Les Saintes is home to two inhabited islands, Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas, which both deserve your attention for at least a day (the days add up quickly, I know). As its name suggests, Terre-de-Bas is almost like a miniature version of Basse-Terre, with plenty of green to hike and explore, but don’t let that distract you from Grande-Anse beach (not the same as the Deshaies spot, but just as beautiful), which is considered one of the best in Guadeloupe. There aren’t many places to stay on Terre-de-Bas, but the quaint vibe is sure to please any digital detox travelers who want to unplug and appreciate the surrounding majesty.
Terre-de-Haut, on the other hand, is the “place to be.” Local merchants offer handcrafted goods in shops that line Rue Jean Calot, and the only difficult decision you’ll make is picking a favorite waterfront spot for Ti Punch. This island has plenty of accommodations to choose from, including quaint and charming rentals, but my personal favorite was Le Kanaoa, which overlooks Anse-Mire and has views for days. The pool and private patch of sand aren’t shabby either.
Planning a trip to the Guadeloupe Islands can be as simple as booking a room at Club Med La Caravelle and taking advantage of world-class, all-inclusive amenities and an incredibly kind, attentive staff (they have an incredible trapeze training facility for older kids and a nursery and toddler facility so nice I want to send my son there for daycare). It can also be as complex as mapping out three islands over just a few days, so you can cover as much ground as possible, visiting must-see landmarks like Fort Napoléon, Pointe des Châteaux and Chute du Carbet, among many others.
The introduction to this stunning archipelago can be overwhelming, but nothing about this destination can be overstated. If you tell me you don’t believe in love at first sight, then I’ll simply tell you that you’ve never been to the Guadeloupe Islands.