My Guide to the Butterfly Island: Guadeloupe
I spent six months on the butterfly island in 2018, adjusting to its slower mode de vie, amphibian air and unrelenting heat. I fell in love with its low-key vibe, friendly locals and powerful literature. As an English Language Assistant for the British Council in two local schools, I'd spend my mornings teaching architectural projects or drawing monsters with the little ones. As soon as I clocked off work, I'd drive to the nearest surf break, read Caribbean books under palm trees, climb the mornes to find another thundering waterfall or listen to the locals share their perspectives on life.
Taking a break at Port Louis, watching the third storm come in.
Guadeloupe resembles a butterfly, adorned with a western and eastern wing, joined in Pointe-à-Pitre by a bridge over a mangrove swamp. The microclimate of each wing, and the landscapes that accentuate them couldn’t be more contrasting. The lush, western wing rolls the Parc National into the Caribbean Sea, crowned by La Soufrière, an active volcano. The drier, eastern wing is replete with farmland and exceptional surf spots, fishing villages and blustery cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. I discovered some magical places over those six months that I'd love to share.
Here are my top 10 things to see and do in Guadeloupe, once the world takes flight again.
1. Memorial ACTe
We can all too often visit a country only for its superficial beauty, its azure shallows and lavish jungle. Yet Guadeloupe has fused its bountiful landscapes with an internal exploration of what it means to be Antillean. The inauguration of Memorial ACTe museum in 2015 dedicated the space of an old sugar factory to the Memory and History of the Slavery Trade. As part of the UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, it aims to educate and connect people through the recognition of this tragic legacy.
I spent three full days on this site, wandering alone or with friends, returning to absorb what I had missed. I choked on the brutality of humanity, but was inspired by the hopeful culture that has flourished since, exhibited in the last rooms. The 1700m² exhibition space guides you from the 1492 Christopher Columbus discovery, to recounting the timeline of slavery, to its abolition and beyond. As you wander the halls, you sink into your mind, guided by sculptures and scriptures. It ends in a gallery celebrating Guadeloupean plurality and contemporary expressions of identity in music, art and community. The exhibition can be enjoyed at your own pace or with a guide. I liked to complement the displays by listening to the audio-guide, available to hire at the entrance.
Tickets and details can be found at http://memorial-acte.fr
The spectacular silver-lattice framework represents the roots of Antillean identity.
2. La Soufrière and Grande Anse Daytrip
My favourite way to spend a Guadeloupean day was watching sun rise from the volcano, La Soufrière, and ending the day at Grande Anse beach, to watch the evening pull the sun back down into the sea. Starting at Pointe-à-Pitre, a 3am start is required to drive to Basse-Terre, where the roads leading to La Soufrière start climbing. The day needs to be well-planned as the summit remains cloud covered on all but a few days a year, obscuring the view. However, even in a misty haze, the experience of leaning over a sulphurous, steaming volcano crater is something to behold! Even if it does smell like rotten eggs.
Views looking down from the flank of La Soufrière.
It takes around 1h45 to hike to the summit, or 30minutes if you're a trail-racer! The path begins by looping through plush greenery, up and beyond to a lunar landscape overlooking Basse Terre, then climbs towards the craggy, huffing summit. Your efforts can be rewarded on return to the car park, where a Cleopatra-style stone pond serves as a cooling oasis. One piece of advice: arrive before 9am if you don’t want to battle on extremely narrow mountain roads for a parking space!
Looking up towards the cloudy summit of La Soufrière.
Now in full road trip style, roll down the windows, turn up the soca mix and enjoy the landscape trundling past, all jades and pinks and oranges. That west-coast road from Basse-Terre to Deshaies made my soul sing. Viridian hills lie scattered with a dolly mix assortment of fuchsia- and cantaloupe-coloured villas, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The road runs oceanside, passing Bouillante and Pointe Noire, the concrete seam between wild ocean and untamed mountain.
Grande Anse, an impeccable backdrop for triathlon sessions. 1.5km of sand and sea.
Reaching the upper most point of the butterfly’s left wing, you reach Deshaies, home to Grande Anse beach. 1.5km of Caribbean paradise, it is fringed by consistent palmy shade. The water breathes deeply, ballooning and splurging its waves over the deep sugar sand. You’ve climbed to Guadeloupe’s highest peak at 1,467m, now you can lull in the salty water, read sleepily in one of the many hammocks, or treat yourself to a well-deserved sorbet de coco. The beach is surrounded by excellent restaurants, so if you need to refuel after your adventurous day, you don’t have to go far. Often, I used this beach for long triathlon sessions, running intervals in the sand and swimming the length of its tropical perfection. This is my favourite way to train and I'd do anything to be back!
The oceanside living provides the perfect backdrop for slower, more intentional living.
3. Surf spots (Le Moule, Port Louis, Petit Havre)
Map to show locations of Le Moule, Port Louis and Petit Havre (which is just next to Saint-Felix).
Around the eastern wing you’ll find all the best surf spots. Guadeloupe is famous for its reef breaks and year-round warm (shark free!) waters. It has a range of waves for different abilities, generated by the trade winds and north swell. Damencourt at Le Moule is the most popular, proudly hosting a consistent, steep left. The waves can be extremely powerful here and exit routes are limited, so I wouldn’t recommend it to beginners. My first surf at this spot saw me out with a foot full of urchin spikes and a smashed-up board. But once I got to grips with the idiosyncrasies of this break, I could have a lot of fun! Port Louis is a much easier wave, albeit less consistent. This beach break enjoys pristine water, pelicans flying over and the choice of clean-peeling lefts and rights.
My first surf at Port Louis with my firecracker and hire car.
My favourite surf spot however, and not too far a drive from Pointe-à-Pitre centre, is Le Petit Havre (The Little Haven) by Saint Felix. It is well and truly a slice of paradise, a gem of calm water, curving around a cove that fills with families cooking barbecues on Sundays. You have to paddle out 5 minutes to the edge of the cove, where a small but fun reef break attracts some talented long boarders.
Petit Havre on a weekday, quiet and with a small break over the reef.
There was one more surf break that I feel in love with, but it seemed like it was still a secret. I wouldn’t want to change that for the few who seek their solace at this uncrowded line-up and the odd naked surf! One thing I urge you to notice when surfing this island, is the light play. Run your fingers across the surface of the sea beside your board. Watch the way the sunlight is scattered like a prism, bouncing off the seabed in neat rays, shimmering against your tanned skin. During the calm between sets, floating on the deep water, just soak up that light and watch tropical fish sail past below.
4. Le Gosier for Carnival
Le Gosier is one of the most accessible beaches if you’re short on time. It would be my number one destination if you’re on a cruise stop-off. This beach is around half an hour from Pointe-à-Pitre centre, and I never struggled to find parking. The beach is lined by restaurants and bars, so a holiday cocktail or local dish is easy to find. Many boats are moored in the bay, making swimming relatively safe between the beach and Gosier island, 500m offshore. This beach is perfect for lazing on the hot sand, chatting to the local Rastafarians, watching the pelicans and iguanas, or for some energetic swim sets if you feel so inclined.
The jetty leading onto Le Gosier Island where you can swim or get a boat to. This island has a lighthouse to explore, dozens of iguanas and unassuming restaurants on the waters edge.
This town was also an ideal vantage point to watch the carnival celebrations which bustle past during January, February and March. Place yourself among the swollen crowds and the hypnotic rhythm of drums, orchestrating a resonant history of bals Nègres. These balls spilled into the streets after the abolition of slavery in 1848 and became annual tradition. The carnival has evolved to celebrate Caribbean culture, reverberating along miles of parading, dancing locals, all feathers and smiles. The costumes explode in flaming crimsons, blushed corals and garish golds. Sequins sparkle, voices rise, and eyes fixate. If you’re planning a trip to Guadeloupe, be sure to coincide with the annual carnival!
The fire of the carnival.
5. Petite Terre
Petite Terre is the island located a forty-five-minute boat ride from Saint Francois. Designated as a protected nature reserve since 1998, it’s dusty coasts, blue lagoons, and coral reefs are nurseries for precious ecological diversity. Although boat tickets are quite pricey, it’s worth the splash for the wildcard into nirvana. Day-trippers have the opportunity to swim with turtles and lemon sharks and play Where’s Wally? with the huge, camouflage iguanas sat in the shrub by the lighthouse.
The iguanas blend into the foliage as they hide from the sun.
This self-contained paradise feels like a slice of heaven on earth, where you can swim in spirals around angel-like stingrays, all snorkels and flippers provided. You travel there by catamaran, seemingly suspended above clear blue space. Lunch will be flamed on the barbecue, a Caribbean style paella followed by banane flambée au rum and hydrated with yet more rum! It is a wonderfully magic, merry day.
Unedited colour palate of Petite Terre.
6. Marie Galante
Marie Galante is located to the south of Guadeloupe, requiring a short ferry ride to reach it. I spent many weekends on Marie Galante with girlfriends, snorkelling, drinking wine and cooking fresh fish at the beach. This idyllic, rural island seems caught in the past. Cow carts own the roads while industrial estates are in their infancy, and banana plantations still take precedence of the fields. We'd enjoy kilometres of white sand, sometimes having it to ourselves for the whole day. At sunset, we'd strip off and follow the sun out into the bay, pouring its molten gold into the horizon. Between sea swims we'd be stuck in our books or exploring nearby caves 'aux parois vertigineuses comme celles de l'enfer et, tout alentour, le royaume violet de la mer' - Le Coeur à rire et à pleurer, Maryse Condé, (1999: 104).
Caribbean colours invigorate the oceanside markets selling scarves, drums, passionfruit jam and pineapple-infused rum.
Ferry tickets can be brought easily at the port of Pointe-à-Pitre, and I can confirm that Airbnb is a trusty accommodation source for this island. We stayed on pastoral land, in converted barns, fed stray kittens peanut butter, and watched the sky turn purple between sips of wine. On this island, the pace of life is slower, so you can wander the long, white beaches, skinny-dip at sunset, explore the Ecomusée de Marie Galante, pour your eyes fearfully into the Gueule Grand Gouffre (a large cliffside cave), or hire bikes to cover more distance.
7. Simply CrossFit
Seeing how quickly CrossFit is gaining global popularity thanks to its community driven, holistic approach to health and fitness, why not drop by the local box during your stay to meet the local athletes? Simply CrossFit in Jarry, Baie Mahault, became my support system during my six months, as their family-orientated training style is so much more than a gym. The box is run primarily in French, but the coaches and many members speak English. My trip coincided with training for the Caribbean Throwdown Competition 2018, coming away with some silver wear and new PBs, but more importantly, a close-knit team.
The rope climb set up for the Caribbean Throwdown, 2018.
Weekdays we’d train hard in individual WODs, led at various times of the day to fit your work or holiday schedule. Saturday mornings would be the Team WOD, open to one-off visitors and their seasoned athletes. Sunday’s would be a beach barbecue and sea swim to soothe the aching muscles. Get involved and get inspired, as some of the athletes compete at Wodapalooza CrossFit Festival in Miami (Christelle El Debs) and others qualify consistently to represent France (Liloo Thieffry). The rest of us sometimes just vibe to the quality gym playlist. It’s all exercise, right?
The CrossFit girls at Simply after a Saturday Team WOD.
As a lover of wild swimming, and a seeker of cooler places for peace of body and mind, the waterfalls provided the perfect escape from the heat. Guided by the roaring of water through the cool green canopies, you can bathe in their plunge pools. Waterfalls like Les Chutes du Carbet and the Saut de Bras de Fort tumble into idyllic, carved-out pools like natural spas. All waterfalls are located on the western side of the island and can be accessed relatively easy from the periphery road and a short walk through the jungle. The only safety point here is to spend limited time directly under the falls, because heavy rain spells can lead to trunks being swept over into the plunge pools. Not to mention the slippery rocks!
These waterfalls were seething with life and history.
Living in Guadeloupe with fellow language students, our trips to the waterfalls would inspire fascinating conversations. After jumping into the plunge pools, we’d share readings from Caribbean literature of maroons (escaped slaves) who had probably drank from the same water sources hundreds of years before, their spirits still believed to roam these forests. 'L'esclave vieil homme et le molosse' [The Old Slave and The Mastiff] by Patrick Chamoiseau captures the plights of these maroons.
9. Guadeloupean Literature
Local publications were a side of Antillean culture that I began exploring when local teachers recommended authors that they feel represent their world. Learning from my BA studies that the best way to uncover an authentic, raw voice of a place or experience is to go straight to the source, I began reading only Caribbean literature. I felt anchored in my reading, as books are loyally staged against Caribbean backdrops, grounded in tropical landscapes, vivid colours and extreme weather. I experienced the metaphors in real time as I turned the pages. It is very common to see this metaphorical feature in Caribbean literature - the weather or landscape personified as a character in the story.
Maryse Condé, who invited me to her oceanside home, to discuss her books and my research project.
For example, Maryse Condé equates the strength of a woman to the force of the storms that ravage the islands. I found this to be an empowering metaphor as I curled up with her book, Moi, Tituba sorcière (2009), locked at home by a furious storm for the second week straight. The protagonists of Caribbean literature serve as political allegories, the voice for societal change and the satirical representation of cultural tensions between the islands and the metropolitan centre. It’s poignant to read about the suffering lived on these seemingly paradisiac islands. Authors I recommend include Maryse Condé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Édouard Glissant, Derek Walcott and Edwidge Danticat.
10. Local delicacies
One preconceived idea that the Caribbean is a place of sensory overload definitely stayed true; you could get fat just by smelling the caramel scented, heavy air that hangs around the food markets. Yet, I’ve never felt healthier than when I was living organically from the earth. The more you eat locally, the more connected you feel to your environment and this island makes healthy eating easy. It also makes eating interesting as Guadeloupe has fused expressive culinary delicacies from France, India and Africa. This means that depending on the set up of your day, there is a dish for every palate and whim.
I'd probably book a flight just to go back and savour another mouthful of sorbet de coco.
You may want to cool off with a sorbet de coco, which can be brought from one of the many roadside barrels, churned lovingly by local vendors. It’s sumptuous smoothness melts in a symphony of coconut milk and sugar cane, with notes of nutmeg and cinnamon. For something more substantial, try a hearty bokit, made all over the island from fried cornmeal flatbread, stuffed with a variety of meats and cheeses. This street food was originally the go-to option for low-wage workers after the abolishment of slavery; it still stands as a delicious lunch or late-night snack.
Seafood markets can be found in the town centre, selling locally caught, fresh produce.
The seafood options are as fresh as they are varied, from African influenced accras (fried fish fritters), to lobster, to shrimp, to vivaneau, to marlin. Fish is cooked in lime juice barbecue style, followed up by a spectacular flaming dessert, banane flambée au rum. For meat eaters, the resplendent Indian flavours can be enjoyed with a plate of Colombo, a Creole stew infused with turmeric, cumin, coriander and cloves.
If you’re not passing any restaurants, it can be easy to find fallen passion fruits from the Passiflora vine. Just make sure you only eat the sweetened, fallen fruit, as the taste when picked straight from the plant is citrous sour. Guadeloupe also produces luscious passionfruit jam that makes the perfect breakfast on a French style pastry. Just make sure to finish a few evenings with a Ti’ Punch, a powerful rum-based Caribbean speciality, made with cane sugar and lime. It sure does punch!
The Passiflora vine on which you can find passionfruit.
I hope this blog has allowed you to focus your trip planning, even if, for now, it is a virtual voyage. Guadeloupe gave me some of my most precious memories and taught me some valuable lessons. Primarily, not to trust island motorbikes unless it's had it's MOT done this morning!
I wish you safe travels for 2021 - hopefully Guadeloupe will now be on your bucket list!
Stay wild, stay sane, the end is nigh.