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Trip Report 10 Great Days in Guadeloupe

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I know there are not many (any!) trip reports about Guadeloupe on this board, so I feel compelled to post a report with the highlights of a recent trip to the island. We started with 2 nights in Bouillante near Malendure Bay on Basse Terre to take advantage of the spectacular diving at Pigeon Island and explore the west coast a little, then headed back to the right wing of the butterfly to the marina at Bas du Fort to catch a boat, and spent the next week sailing a 60-foot catamaran around Guadeloupe and the incredible islands of Les Saintes. It was absolutely amazing – one of the best trips we’ve had in a long time.

We haven’t been to Guadeloupe in years, but jumped at the opportunity to do a week-long sailing adventure around the island. We have really fond memories of trips where we stayed in a condo at the marina in St. Francois years ago (way down near the tip of the right butterfly wing – Grande Terre), but Grande Terre is all white sand beaches (yeah!) with really boring scuba diving (boo!), so we spent a lot of time driving over to the west coast of the left wing, Basse Terre, to visit the beautiful black sand beaches and dive on Pigeon Island, the famous Jacque Cousteau marine park and dive preserve. We also remember very fondly that the best days on previous trips involved either sailboat adventures to out islands like Petite Terre or ferry boats to Les Saintes, the spectacularly picturesque islands off the southwest side of the mainland, so a sailing adventure seemed like the perfect way to reacquaint ourselves with this beautiful place. My French has improved very little since our last trip so we were prepared to do a lot of pointing, but it worked out fine.

Getting down there…
The main problem with a visit to Guadeloupe these days is how hard it is to get there. American Airlines is the only US carrier that flies to the island, and they are making it harder and harder to get there from the States. What was an easy one-hop, 7 hour trip last time we were there (about six or seven years ago) now takes two days each way if AA no longer flies non-stop from your town to San Juan. On the other hand, if you live in Europe or Canada, you can get a non-stop flight straight to Pointe-a-Pitre from Paris or Montreal any day of the week. It might be worth a weekend in either city next time just to have an easier plane connection.

After an overnight in Miami and a long layover in San Juan, we finally arrived in Pointe-a-Pitre mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving Day. We picked up our rental car and drove about an hour straight west, through the mountains of Basse Terre to Malendure Bay and the little town of Bouillante, where we found a little B&B halfway up the mountain, overlooking the bay and Pigeon Island, called Le Jardin Tropical. Darling little place with a pool, wifi, and 11 cute-as-can-be little cottages, each with a couple of bedrooms, a shower, and an outdoor kitchen. I must confess it was not exactly where I was expecting it to be – I was originally aiming for a reservation at the little bungalows connected to a seaside restaurant in the area called Le Rocher de Malendure, but I could never find out the name of the place (still don’t know it!), and research found this place instead. A very happy accident. The owner of course spoke no English, but he had our reservation and was waiting for us. Along with his very happy island Labrador puppies, he made us feel very welcome. (Note – we had initially planned to stay at Deshaise, but fortunately was talked out of that by a traveler on tripadvisor that I was corresponding with. Since the main reason we planned to stay on the west coast was to do some diving at Pigeon, I was advised to stay as close to Malendure Bay and Bouillante as possible, because the drive between Malendure Bay and Deshaise is MUCH longer than you think it is. I am FOREVER grateful for that advice!)

So… checked in, quick change to swimsuits for a splash in the pool and the chance to watch a beautiful sunset from the deck (sunset is about 5:30, btw), then a change back to shorts to drive down the hill to the beach and start actually relaxing. The little beach bar at Malendure Bay is the perfect spot for drinks, and I am happily reminded I’m in France when I have no trouble finding a good Provencal rose or a good white burgundy or white bordeaux at any bar or restaurant for the next 10 days. The restaurants start opening up for dinner at about 7 or so, so about 7:30 (early, I know, but we’ve been travelling since the wee hours and I’m starving!) we head over to Le Rocher de Malendure – a lovely restaurant on the cliffs above the bay – for a spectacular Thanksgiving dinner of tuna tartare, island boudin sausage, stewed octopus and grilled wahoo, accompanied by a terrific white Bordeaux. Happy Thanksgiving!

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    Friday – Let’s go diving!
    We know we only have Friday and Saturday morning to get in some diving before heading back to Grande Terre to meet the boat, so we wake up bright and early Friday morning to the musical accompaniment of birds and tree frogs. After a lovely breakfast (café grand noir, pain chocolate, cheese, fresh baguette… we could just as easily be in a café in Paris as on a beautiful tropical island) we head down the hill and back to Malendure Bay to check out the string of dive shops all side by side on the beach. Only one has someone tending shop (everyone is already out of a morning dive!), so we show them our C-cards and communicate in very broken French that we want to dive Pigeon this morning. There is a boat going out in an hour, so we have plenty of time to get organized (hopefully!) and get equipment set up. Guadeloupe is the only place we have ever been diving that uses European standard equipment, so it takes a little brain adjustment to get used to tanks that measure in bars instead of PSI, and figuring weights in kilos instead of pounds. Still, we manage, and spend the morning as the only English speakers in a large group of French tourists diving the sublime waters of the Pigeon Island preserve. A great morning!

    Happily tired, it is back to the room for a quick shower and change out of swimsuits, then off to lunch at La Touna, a beautiful seaside restaurant in Bouillant. Once again I’m reminded that I’m in France, as the restaurant has big signs proudly announcing that this year’s Beaujolais Noveau has arrived. We opt for a fabulous Provencal rose instead, but there are no wrong answers. Tuna tartare (not quite as good as last night, but still excellent) and grilled fish round out a lovely lunch by the water. The sun is bright, the water is beautiful, and all is right with the world.

    After lunch we decide to take advantage of being on the west coast to explore the northwest corner of Base Terre. We’ve never been up to Deshaies before, but everyone keeps saying how pretty it is and this will probably be our only opportunity to get up that way, so we head north. There is only one road, so it is impossible to get lost, but it is definitely a long, winding road! 45 minutes later we finally make it up to Grande Anse, the beautiful big beach just above Deshaies. This is widely considered the most beautiful beach on the western island, and I would not disagree – it is gorgeous! Huge shady beach, lots of palm trees, and it is clear enough to see Montserrat big and bright on the horizon. There are a smattering of cute shops and restaurants surrounding the beach, so we do a little shopping and indulge in a little homemade passion fruit sorbet from a beach side stand before heading back to Deshaies. I have to say I’m a little bit disappointed in Deshaies – it is quaint, I suppose, but I just don’t see that much “there” there, if you know what I mean. Still, there are some very pretty shops and very friendly shopkeepers, and if we were staying in the area there are plenty of cute little restaurants to keep you busy. Still, I’m very happy that we opted to stay closer to Malendure Bay. Another 45 minutes and we are back to our little B&B in plenty of time for sunset.

    On previous trips to Guadeloupe we spent a lot of time exploring Basse Terre, making the loop from the Route De La Traversee, down the west coast and returning up the east coast of Basse Terre, hiking the volcano and hiking to the Chutes du Carbet along the way. This time, with only 2 days, we concentrated heavily on diving and exploring the northwest corner, so we didn’t make it down to the south side at all. Next trip, maybe!

    For dinner tonight we want to explore something a little more local, and so settle on a little roadside restaurant (Delice Creole) that looks fun. No one speaks English, of course (not that we expected it, but the other restaurants we have visited so far have been a little more geared to tourists, with bilingual menus), but we can make out most of the chalkboard menu and order whatever the fresh fish is, with a bottle of rose, of course. It turns out to be one of the best meals we’ve had in a while – fresh made accras, followed by whole grilled red snapper with salad and veggies. So tonight I learned that “vivaneau” is red snapper (sorry, but French menu translators rarely have the names of different kinds of fish, and while I can easily translate “dorade,” “vivaneau” is a new one for me). Off to bed.

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    Saturday -
    Last night we touched base with the hotel owner to let him know that we were planning an early morning dive, and then would be back to the hotel by 11 for a quick shower, then pack up and be checked out by noon. It worked out great. An early morning wreck dive on the Franjack, a lovely ship in about 75 feet of water with a few strategic swim throughs, a couple of giant lionfish, and the biggest moray eel I’ve ever seen. Good times. It was a little nerve wracking getting the group dive instruction for the wreck dive entirely in French, but between the major words and the pantomiming, we were fine. After the dive it was back to the hotel to clean up and pack up (with a nice leisurely stop in the lounge for really good wifi to check email and internet), before heading out to lunch at La Touna (marlin tartare today instead of tuna tartare, along with a trio of smoked fish salads and another outstanding rose). Our visit to Bouillante and Malendure complete, we head over the mountain back to the airport to check in the car and get a cab to the Marina Bas du Fort to meet up with our catamaran for the great sailing adventure.

    So it’s about 4 pm on Saturday afternoon, and we are supposed to meet our boat crew at the boat in the marina at 5 pm. We’ve been told to go to Quai 9, but it turns out there isn’t really a Quai 9… the boat is at Quai 6 (not a real problem, unless you have been lugging a couple of duffle bags of beach clothes and snorkel gear around for a half hour looking for “Quai 9”). Problem remedied (and we found other shipmates in the search, also looking for the elusive Quai 9). Bags are dropped at the boat at about 4:30, and we head out with our new-found shipmates for a drink or two at the local marina bar (still working the Provencal rose!) while the crew finishes prep. At 5 pm we come aboard, stash the gear, introduce ourselves to the third couple and the fabulous captain and first mate that will make up our little microenvironment for the next week, and get ready to leave the marina for seven perfect days of sailing, diving, and exploring. Sail out to the harbor to get away from the noise of the marina, see the stars, and relax with exceptional beverages and beef tenderloins fresh from the grill. Let the adventure begin.

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    Let me just say that the next week is filled with sublime relaxation, beautiful scenery, fabulous diving and snorkeling, and very good company. This is not a cruise ship. This is sailing taken to an art form. A 59-foot catamaran with only 8 people aboard, including a crew of two that serves as captain, chef, dive master, and entertainers-in-chief. We got incredibly lucky in that both of the other guest couples on the boat are from North America – one from the US and one from Canada – so we are not the only English speaking people aboard. Being the only non-French couple was a real possibility, considering that so few Americans or even English-speaking visitors make it to this island. Most Americans usually opt for either Martinique or St. Barths if they decide to visit the French West Indies. This is our third visit to Guadeloupe, and we are definitely looking forward to seeing it from a different perspective than our previous land-based visits, as the boat will give us the opportunity to visit the out islands as well as the opportunity to spend a lot of time sailing (a sailing trip is usually the highlight of any island vacation, and this week we will get to do it every day!).

    One of the most popular side trips for anyone visiting Guadeloupe is to take at least a day (overnight if you can manage it) to visit Les Saintes, the picture-perfect out islands off the southwest coast that are home to charming villages, insanely beautiful beaches, and hidden coves. It was the possibility of spending multiple days in this area that made the idea of a sailing vacation even more appealing. So, first thing Sunday morning we sail toward Les Saintes, in open blue water but constantly within sight of the east coast of Basse Terre. We arrive in a cove by a small village in time for a quick dip before a fabulous lunch is ready onboard. After lunch we spend the afternoon diving, snorkeling and generally relaxing, taking in the scenery. A long, leisurely, and not too deep dive today is mostly a good check out dive to make sure everyone’s equipment is working properly in preparation for some of the more anticipated dives later in the week (we’ll be heading up the west coast to Pigeon Island tomorrow for diving in the Cousteau preserve – the place we left yesterday!).

    Over the next two days we sail up the west coast to Malendure Bay and Pigeon Island, where we spend a night in the beautiful bay that 2 days ago I was looking at from the bar on the beach. Fabulous diving, and even more impressive is the spectacular snorkeling along the rocks on the north side of the bay – I’ve never seen so many turtles in one place at one time! Then another day of sailing north to Deshaies to visit the Botanical Gardens (lovely, but I don’t think it is on my short list of things to do again), followed by a long afternoon sailing back down the coast and into the protected harbor at Terre-de-Haut in Les Saintes just as the sun is setting. Tonight we are going ashore for dinner at a lovely little restaurant in town near the dock. Once again I am reminded that I’m in France when I see that the special that evening is fresh tuna accompanied by seared foie gras. Bon appetit!

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    Today we get to spend the morning exploring Terre-de-Haut on foot. It is absolutely charming, with great little boutiques in town to satisfy the “shopping gene” as well as hiking trails up to the fort for history buffs and trails to a couple of insanely beautiful beaches for those who feel the need to feel the sand in their toes. Back to the boat to cool off with a nice leisurely snorkel in the bay before lunch. After lunch we move the boat around the point to another protected harbor for more snorkeling and a nice dive that will be our last dive of the week (this is Thursday, and you can’t really dive on Friday if you are flying on Saturday).

    The next morning we do a little more exploring on land, visiting an almost-uninhabited island in the harbor that is home to an old fort, many goats, and a lone caretaker that makes decorative masks (i.e., more shopping for the girls, and more historical exploration for the boys!). By early afternoon we are ready to leave the mooring and start an open water sail back to the main island. Although there was some hope that we would be able to sail over to visit the large out island of Marie Galante today, the winds are not favorable, so that island will have to wait until the next visit. Instead, we sail back toward Bas du Fort and make it in good enough time to stop at Isle de Gosier (a small park island just off of the mainland town of Gosier) for a final beach and snorkel break. As we sail in to the island we see a large iguana swimming in front of the boat, trying to make his way to the island from the mainland. I’ve never seen an iguana swimming before, but I’m told it is a common way for them to cool off in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, the poor thing is having trouble against the current, and it looks like he might be in real danger of being carried out to open water. As we pull alongside of him he even tries to climb onto the side of the catamaran but it is too slick and he can’t get a grip. We tried holding an oar out for him to climb, but couldn’t get close enough. So, what do you do? We bring the boat to a full stop, anchor, and concentrate on rescuing the iguana, of course! The captain lowers the dinghy, hops in, and powers over to him. The iguana is definitely losing ground to the current, and is obviously getting tired. But when the dinghy comes slowly alongside of him the little guy knows exactly what do to, and eagerly climbs onto the dinghy. The captain then very slowly motors the dinghy to shore, hoping that the iguana will hop off when he is in the shallows next to the beach. Nope. This guy isn’t going anywhere without encouragement! Finally, the captain is able to give him a little push , and he happily makes his way on to the island, where shade, some beautiful palm trees, and hopefully some nice little lady iguanas are waiting.

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