Boulangeries selling fresh croissants next to market stalls selling tropical fruit. Boules players on the beach next to homemade coconut sorbet stands. Guadeloupe is a real hybrid – a picture-postcard Caribbean island with a Gallic twist. It’s actually an overseas department governed by France, so you’ll hear French spoken and spend euros. But there’s a spicy side to the island too, with Creole dishes, an annual carnival each spring and plenty of rum. This France-meets-the-Caribbean feel makes it a real favourite with French visitors (and retirees). But beyond France it’s not that well known – though since TV series Death in Paradise started using it as a location, the word is starting to get out, and that’s how we first discovered it.
Read more: On the Death in Paradise trail in Guadeloupe
Guadeloupe is part of the Lesser Antilles in the Eastern Caribbean. It’s made up of five islands – with the two biggest Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre coming together in the middle to make a butterfly shape. We split our time between the two and found each ‘wing’ had a different feel and landscape, from sandy beaches to jagged peaks. Even the weather can go from sunshine on one side to tropical downpours on the other. But it’s this diversity and unique French-Creole culture that made it such a great place to visit (the sunshine helped too). So if you’re planning a Caribbean escape and fancy something a bit different, here are my top things to do in Guadeloupe (other than feast on pastries and rum cocktails – they’re a given).
Grande-Terre (which is confusingly actually smaller than Basse-Terre) is the beachy side of Guadeloupe, with a flatter, drier landscape and plenty of sunshine. It’s where you’ll find most of the beach resorts, especially around the town of Le Gosier. There are lots of sheltered bays with calm waters for sailing and swimming, and plenty of white sand just perfect for lazing on with a book. So if you’re looking for a sunny beach break this is the place to come. But head east or north and Grande-Terre gets a lot less developed, with small villages to explore, rocky wild coastline and some good surfing around Le Moule.
Things to do in Grande-Terre
Relax in Sainte-Anne: Sainte-Anne was the base for the first part of our trip and has one of the island’s most popular beaches, with palm trees and powdery sand. Grande-Terre’s south coast is protected by an offshore reef, so the water’s calm and clear. A mile from town, Caravelle Beach is home to a Club Med hotel but it’s open to non-residents too. Sainte-Anne has its own smaller beach (where you can join the French retirees for morning water aerobics!) as well as a market along the waterfront where you can buy crafts, spices, fresh fruit and homemade rum punch made with pineapple, guava or passion fruit – and a kick.
Soak up the views at Pointe des Châteaux: In the far south-east of Grande-Terre, the Pointe des Châteaux is a peninsula where sandy beaches meet crashing waves and dramatic rocks. The sea currents make it a bit dangerous to swim, but you can wander along the shore – look out for fossilised shells in the rocks. Although the name Pointe des Châteaux translates as Castles Point, there’s a definite absence of castles. There is a 10-metre high cross on top of a hill though, which takes about 15 minutes to walk up to. From the top you can look across Grande- and Basse-Terre and out towards neighbouring island La Désirade.
Explore Point-à-Pitre’s history: Pointe-à-Pitre is Guadeloupe’s largest city – and most people just pass through on their way to or from the airport. But if you do stop off then there are some pretty French colonial buildings to explore as well as the Cathédrale de St-Pierre et St-Paul, the Place de la Victoire and shopping at the covered market. Point-à-Pitre’s also the home to the modern new Mémorial ACTe museum, which opened in 2015 and traces the history of slavery and the slave trade. It’s a moving place, set in an incredible steel structure built on the site of an old sugar factory along the waterfront.
Rum tasting at Damoiseau distillery: Or should that be rhum? The boozy local speciality of Guadeloupe is rhum agricole, a type of rum made with fresh sugar cane juice instead of molasses. You can find out how it’s made (with a bit of tasting of course) on a self-guided tour of the Damoiseau distillery in Le Moule, one of the biggest distilleries on the island. There’s more to see during the cane harvest from February to June, but you can wander around the distillery any time of year and see some of the estate’s historic machinery, including the windmill that was originally used to crush the sugar cane. You can also try and buy their rum, which ranges from white to dark golden rum aged in oak barrels, as well as rum punches.
Where Grande-Terre’s landscape is beachy and fairly flat, Basse-Terre is Guadeloupe’s more dramatic, mountainous side (though the name’s another confusing one as it means low land). The peaks of the Parc National de la Guadeloupe fill the centre of the island, and mean there are a few more tropical downpours. But all that rain makes things incredibly lush and green, with thick jungle, giant ferns, waterfalls and plenty of bird and animal life. It’s the place to come if you love to hike, with hundreds of miles of walking routes to get your teeth into. And on the coast there’s great diving and a mix of golden and black sand beaches.
Things to do in Basse-Terre
Drive the Route de la Traversée: Because the centre of Basse-Terre is so mountainous, there’s only one road across the middle of the island – but it’s a beauty. Route de la Traversée (less poetically known as the D23) travels west through sugar cane fields before heading up into the National Park’s dense, unspoilt jungle. Along the way you can stop off at the Cascade aux Ecrevisses waterfall – an easy 10-minute walk each way – and cool off with a dip. Or visit the Maison de la Forêt, an info centre and starting point for 190 miles of hiking routes (make sure you have decent hiking boots and waterproofs). And on a clear day there are great views across the park from the top of the Col des Mamelles (yep that’s the Hill of Breasts!).
Climb La Soufrière volcano: Right at the heart of the National Park is La Soufrière volcano, the highest peak in the Antilles. Its last eruption was back in 1976 but there was an earthquake in 2004 and there’s still lots going on under the surface (its name doesn’t mean ‘big sulphur outlet’ for nothing, prepare yourself for some seriously eggy smells). You can walk up to the peak at 1467 metres in about two hours each way – though it’s often hidden in clouds so you might not see all that much. The first part of the walk is an easy 30-minute climb through the forest, then it’s a rockier 90-minute ascent, with a bit of scrambling at the end. And afterwards you can soothe any aching muscles at the Bains Jaunes thermal pool near the car park.
Hike to the Chutes du Carbet: Another of the highlights of the National Park is the Carbet falls – with three waterfalls at different heights (€2.50 entry). The tallest is fall number one at 125 metres high, followed by number two at 110m and number three at 20m. The second fall is the easiest to get to and is only around 25 minutes’ walk each way on a flat path (manageable with kids or wearing sandals). The only downside is that a landslide after the 2004 earthquake means you can’t get very close up. To reach the other two falls you need hiking boots, wet weather gear and a decent level of fitness as the paths are a lot rockier and steeper – taking around 1 hour 45 mins each way for the first fall and two hours for the third.
Walk through the forest canopy: If you want to get right up into the rainforest canopy (and don’t mind heights), there’s a network of rope bridges running through the trees at Guadeloupe’s zoo, the Parc des Mamelles (entry €14.90 adults and €8.50 children aged 3–12). A network of hanging walkways runs up to 50 feet above the ground, strung between the trees. It’s a bit wobbly, you’re balanced on narrow wooden boards and only two people are allowed on each one at a time, but it’s the nearest you’ll get to feeling like a monkey! As well as the canopy walk the zoo has wildlife from the Caribbean and Guyana, with lots of monkeys, raccoons, lizards, turtles and tropical birds, as well as some big cats like jaguars and ocelot.
Dive off Pigeon Island: Just off the west coast of Basse-Terre, Pigeon Island’s waters are part of the National Park known as La Reserve Cousteau. Jacques Cousteau rated it as some of the best diving in the world and helped make it a protected area after filming Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World) here in 1955. The coral reef is home to sea turtles, seahorses, angel and parrot fish – as well as a giant underwater statue of Cousteau. There was some damage after Hurricane Maria last September, but you can still dive or snorkel on a day trip from Bouillante or Malendure beach – or hire a kayak and paddle to the islands yourself.
Visit Deshaies and Anse de la Perle beach: Deshaies is just how you’d imagine a Caribbean town to look – all colourful buildings, whitewashed church, palm trees and beachside restaurants with fresh seafood on the grill next to a clear turquoise sea. It’s all so perfectly Caribbean that it’s used as the main location for filming Death in Paradise. Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, it’s a pretty place to wander around and have lunch. Don’t miss the Botanic Gardens just south of town for tropical flowers and great sea views. And about 10 minutes north of Deshaies you’ll find Anse de la Perle beach, a gorgeous long stretch of golden sand with a couple of beach bars at one end where you can watch the sunset with a cold Carib beer.
If that’s not enough, then there are three more islands (or island groups) that make up Guadeloupe – Marie-Galante, Les Saintes and La Désirade. Marie-Galante is the biggest and flattest of the three, with fantastic beaches and a big crop of rum distilleries. Les Saintes are a group of nine islands about six miles off the coast of Basse-Terre. Only two are inhabited, with most visitors heading to Terre-de-Haut for a dose of old-school Caribbean charm mixed with buildings which look like they’ve been transplanted from Brittany. And La Désirade is the least developed – a former leper colony where you can find your own deserted beach.
When to go: The most popular time to visit Guadeloupe is from November to March, when it’s warm, sunny and not too humid. In January we had a few showers but lots of sun and cool mornings and evenings. From July to November it’s the rainy season so expect a lot more showers and higher humidity – and it’s also hurricane season in the Caribbean. Peak times are based around French school holidays, so it’s a lot more expensive and busier around the Christmas, February, Easter and July/August holidays.
Getting there: If you’re coming from Europe, the easiest way to get to Point-à-Pitre airport is via Paris. There’s the choice of budget airlines XL Airways, Corsair and Air Caraibes or Air France (which I can’t really recommend as they bumped us off our flight, delayed us both ways and replaced their planes with another airline!). From North America there are direct flights from Atlanta and Miami in the US and Montreal in Canada. You can also get the ferry from neighbouring islands Martinique and Dominica.
Getting around: There is a bus service around the islands, but timing and frequency can be a bit erratic. So if you want to explore it’s easiest to hire a car – there’s a mix of big name and local car hire firms at the airport. Roads are generally pretty good though they can be hilly on Basse-Terre (our tiny 1-litre engine car wasn’t happy!). If you want to visit the other islands, ferries run to Les Saintes from Point-à-Pitre and Trois Rivières, to Marie Galante from Point-à-Pitre and Saint François, and to La Désirade from Saint François.
Staying there: Grande-Terre has the most hotels, with bigger resorts concentrated around Le Gosier, Sainte-Anne and Saint-François. Then there are a mix of B&Bs, gîtes and self-catering villas and apartments spread around both islands. We stayed in a couple of AirBnB places – this apartment close to the beach in Sainte-Anne and this gorgeous little cabin in Saint Claude, right up in the hills above Basse Terre.
Food and drink: Like everything else on the islands, food on Guadeloupe is a mix of French and Caribbean. So there’s lots of fresh fish and seafood as well as tropical fruits like banana, pineapple, papaya and coconut – fresh from a market stall or juiced. Some of the other local specialities include accras (fish or aubergine fritters with a spicy sauce), bokit (a kind of fried sandwich filled with meat, cheese and a vinegary sauce) and coconut sorbet. And on the French side there’s plenty of boulangeries and patisseries, as well as French supermarkets like Carrefour, Casino and Super U, with prices similar to mainland France.
Good to know: Tourism on the islands is very French-focused, so it’s useful to be able to speak and read at least basic French. The currency is the euro and there are banks with ATMs in most towns. Credit cards are also accepted in hotels and in larger shops and restaurants. And if you’re travelling from the EU, Guadeloupe counts as part of France so you can use your mobile minutes and data for no extra roaming cost.