The butterfly-shaped island of Guadeloupe is both typically
French and typically Caribbean. It's actually two geologically separate islands
that have been forced together - so it offers the tourist a two-for-one package
of contrasting environments.
Basse-Terre – the part of the island where your cruise ship will
dock - is dominated by the Soufriere volcano and some rich tracts of rainforest
that are home to a host of exotic plants and animals. Grande-Terre is a very
different place typified by gnarled labyrinths of mangroves and swathes of palm
trees that fringe the white coral beaches. The south coast of Grande-Terre
offers perfect beaches for sunbathing, swimming or just being lulled to sleep
by the sound of waves on a quilt of soft white sand.
The slopes of Soufriere are blanketed in lush rainforest
vegetation whilst lower down the countryside is dominated by fields of sugar
cane and banana palms. A common sight is the washerwomen or blanchisseuses as
they are known decorating the rocks with a patchwork of colourful laundry
whilst they chatter away in Creole. Markets on Guadeloupe are the scene of
Caribbean mayhem with all manner of goods housed under corrugated iron roofs.
English is quite widely spoken on the island but haggling at the market is very
definitely Creole and French only.
Guadeloupe is more laidback, more free-spirited than
neighbouring Martinique. At the time of the French Revolution the slogan
'Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood' posed something of a problem for the colonial
plantation owners who relied on slave labour. In Guadeloupe, unlike Martinique
the Revolution kicked off a reign of terror. The revolutionaries liberated the
slaves and took a bloody revenge on their masters, plantation owners were put
to death or exiled and their plantations razed to the ground. Whilst the
plantation owners managed to stifle rebellion on Martinique, a measure of the
success of the revolutionaries on Guadeloupe is that not a single
pre-revolutionary estate house survived. However the story doesn't end there:
slavery was reintroduced in 1802 and a bitter struggle ensued - many former
slaves chose death rather than lose their freedom. When slavery was abolished
in the British Caribbean colonies in 1834 slaves set off on rafts from the
French Antilles to claim their freedom. Slavery wasn't finally abandoned in the
French Antilles until 1848. This unpleasant chapter in the island's history is
documented in the Musee Schoelcher, an impressive townhouse in Point a Pitre on
Grande-Terre named for the Frenchman charged with responsibility for
dismantling slavery in the French colonies. Schoelcher became deputy Governor
of Guadeloupe and the museum houses many of his papers as well as collections
of anti-slavery pamphlets, some gruesome death masks and some particularly
repulsive propaganda drawing comparisons between the islanders and wild beasts.
Watersports are well-catered for on Guadeloupe with some
excellent windsurfing to be had on the south coast of Grande-Terre, especially
at St Francois. St Francois also has an 18 hole golf course.
The beautiful and often dramatic natural environment is a big
attraction of Guadeloupe. The national park includes lakes, hot springs,
waterfalls and spectacular rainforest. An extensive network of walking trails -
known locally as traces - criss-crosses the park. If you’re cruising, it’s
unlikely you’ll have time to explore these – but if you do - and the scenery
and wildlife will amply reward your efforts - you should go well-equipped. The
birdlife of the forests is eye-catching, but watch out for rarities like the
island's giant insect: Hercules beetles are six inches long. For a museum with
a difference take a trip to the 'Maison de Volcan' – easily accessible by bus
or taxi from the cruise quay - set in a magical tropical garden up in the
rainforest. The museum of volcanoes will teach you a lot about Soufriere. The
volcano is still quite active and at 4,813 feet its summit is the highest point
in the East Caribbean. Energetic hikers can make it in 3 hours from Savane a
If you're interested in history you'll soak up the atmosphere of
antiquity in Basse-Terre itself. Fort Delgres is perhaps the most impressive of
the old defences. It's a fortress with huge embrasures and acres of ramparts -
walking along them you can almost feel the cannonballs whizzing over your head!
The fort's museum is compact but the exhibits are well-chosen. The Hindu
temples dotted over the island are a reminder of the East Indian immigrants who
came to work in the sugar plantations as indentured labourers when the freed
slaves left to set up their own villages.
Whether you choose to spend your time discovering the rich
natural heritage of the island, uncovering its eventful history, sampling the
watersports or simply relaxing on the beach you'll take away some great
memories of Guadeloupe.