When we came to Guadeloupe, we thought we wanted a place where we could sunbathe and relax. If we were looking for anything more, it was for the best not-in-the-guidebooks spot that could feel like ours alone.
We figured it would be soft, sandy and lined with palm trees, with a vendor selling rum punch nearby. But we found a lot of other things we weren’t expecting. Like a peacock that had gone missing, a mountain that smells like eggs, and, um, a few ancient human bones. This tropical island is the kind of place where you go to find some frothy, rum-flavored fun, and come away with something meaningful instead.
Guadeloupe is composed of four islands. The two biggest are connected by a land bridge and form the shape of a butterfly: Grand-Terre, the flat island with white, sandy beaches, is the right wing; Basse-Terre, the mountainous, volcanic, rain forest island, is the left. The island, originally called Karukera (“Island of Beautiful Waters”) by the Caribs, was renamed by Christopher Columbus. It came under French rule in the 1600s, when colonists brought slaves to establish sugar plantations. As a present-day overseas département of France (and thus, on the euro), it has its own Afro-Caribbean culture with a hint of Europe — such as the pain au chocolat you’ll find in its bakeries. More important, it has grappled with its history, having opened one of the largest museums dedicated to the history of slavery in the Caribbean.
American tourists were few and far between during our stay. It might be due to access: There are various daily direct flights to and from Paris, but not nearly as many from the United States. You need to know a bit of French to get around, too. You’ll also need to rent a car, and most of the available rentals have a stick shift.
My husband and I flew to Pointe-a-Pitre as the sun was setting. We set off in the dark for the first stop on our list of the island’s most beautiful spots: the tiny harbor town of Deshaies.
A first perfect beach
The view the next morning at the beach of Fort Royal, just outside of town, would be a surprise. Picture turquoise water lapping at the sand, bookended by cliffs that dropped directly into the ocean. Another wind-whipped beach on the other side of the resort was devoid of people, and we could see the island of Montserrat in the distance. It was pristine, a textbook-perfect beach. Imagine starting your trip with this, knowing that there are somehow even better beaches.
That first day, and every day after, we’d roll down the windows and blast Bel’Radio, a local station that plays bright Caribbean music, and drive to another beach — first, Plage de la Grande Anse, a bustling stretch shaded with palm trees and serviced by beachside shack restaurants and food trucks, then Plage de la Perle, which was quieter and more secluded.
Everything moves slowly on the island, except cars. Basse-Terre’s main roads hug the coastline and the sides of steep hills — no guardrails! — and we would regularly pull over to let others, going faster than the posted 70 kph around hairpin curves, pass by. Deshaies, we later learned, was one of the most remote parts of the island, connected by road only about 50 years ago. It is the kind of charming place where you might spot a poster asking for help finding a lost pet peacock named Sidonie.
The highest point on Basse-Terre is a volcano called La Grande Soufriere, and another day, we drove — the sunny music a contrast to the perilous cliffside roads — to see what the island looked like from its peak. The best way to get to La Grande Soufriere is to put “Les Bains Jaunes” into your GPS, instead: The “Yellow Baths” are a natural hot spring that welcome you to a well maintained trail, with railings and stone steps in a few particularly tricky parts. It will take you above the tree line, past canyons covered in yellow moss, then above the clouds to the peak of the volcano, which has the sulfurous smell of rotten eggs.
Back at the trail base, other hikers had stripped down to their swimsuits and were contentedly soaking in the bathwater-temperature Bains Jaunes. It had all the makings of a perfect spot — the smell of rain forest, the sound of birds, the comfort of a warm dip exactly at the time we needed it. That is, until we read a nearby sign, in French: “Attention aux amibes” it said, warning of the chance of brain-eating amoebas in the water, and advising guests not to put their heads underwater. The mostly French swimmers, who were up to their chins, seemed unfazed. We didn’t go in any more than ankle-deep.
Bones on the beach
There were postcard-perfect, sandy white beaches on Grand-Terre, the other half of the island. So we drove southeast across the butterfly’s wings to a city called Sainte-Anne, leaving behind the solitude of Basse-Terre for an Airbnb on the edge of town, within walking distance of beaches brimming with French tourists and numerous restaurants. It was even easier to bop around from beach to beach there, where destinations are closer together.
There was a morning spent on the city beach. There was another day at the Plage de la Caravelle, the chichi, peninsula-shaped beach of Club Med, with shallow turquoise water and views of La Soufriere in the distance. And there were the few magical hours we spent at the Plage de Bois Jolan, a beach that had no food vendors, no rum punch, and somehow — miraculously — no other people.
We thought no spot could possibly surpass it. And it’s true that none of the beaches that came after were ever as perfectly relaxing, but we moved on.
We went to Plage des Raisins Clairs — the beach of light grapes, inscrutably — because we’d heard that it had good food trucks. The beach was striking: On the other side of the road were the black-and-white-tiled mausoleums of a beautiful old Catholic cemetery. So when we approached a large sign about a colonial cemetery, we assumed it referred to that burial ground. Then, with my basic-level French, I puzzled out the phrase, “Ne pas collecter ni extraire des ossements.” Or, “Do not collect or extract the bones.”
Bones? We looked at each other, and then down. A few feet away, there was a bone lying in the sand.
“Someone probably put it there as a prank,” my husband offered, feebly. “It’s probably a goat bone.”
It was not. We walked farther out onto the beach, where people were sunbathing, and saw a barricaded sand dune that contained an active archaeological site. Up close, you could see ribs sticking out. Farther down, some tiny bones that may have been fingers. A partly uncovered pelvis. The undeniable ball-shaped cap to a femur.
Tourists went swimming and read magazines where the island’s history was poking out of the sand. Maybe it was a poignant reminder that vacation doesn’t last forever.
On our last day, it started to rain. We got in the car and cued up Bel’Radio, as if it could magically bring the sun back.
Amid the drizzle, we did what we did every day. We started to drive to another beach. We drove all the way to the edge of the butterfly’s lower right wing, a spit of land that we hadn’t seen mentioned in any of the travel stories we’d read about Guadeloupe. All we knew was that it was called Pointe des Châteaux (“Tip of Castles”), that we’d be surrounded by water on three sides when we reached it and that it would be the last place we’d see on this trip.
There, we watched clouds roll in over the nearby island of La Desirade and felt the wind whip through towering rocks. Twenty-foot waves crashed over the rugged shore and sent salt spray toward us as we climbed stone steps toward a small peak. We stood, and could see half the island behind us, and in front of us, an ocean that inspired fear and awe in equal measure. We thought about how we had seen a lot of beaches that week, but never one that made us feel anything like this.