Three hours from Miami and a stone’s throw from San Juan lies a paradise most Americans haven’t even heard of. Grande-Terre, Basse-Terre, Marie Galante, Les Saintes, La Désirade: these are the islands of Guadeloupe, a French territory that’s half française, half antillaise, and fully worth experiencing.
The islands are beautiful, but the heart of the country is the nearly half a million residents who call Guadeloupe home. Guadeloupeans are French citizens, but their culture is a Creole melting pot of music and dance, literature and independence. Ask anyone from Gwada and they’ll tell you how they overthrew their slavers — twice.
Guadeloupe is to France as Hawaii is to America: a tropical outpost that flies the mainland’s flag. Thousands of French people flock to the islands of Guadeloupe each year to swim, sail, hike, and eat their fill of mouthwatering Franco-Afro-Caribbean food. Each island has its own feel, so visiting Guadeloupe is like four or five mini-vacations in one.
Grande-Terre is full of gently rolling hills and farms. Some of the islands’ biggest cities are here, and most tourist resorts are based on this island. A small strip of land connects it to Basse-Terre, its lusher and more volcanic twin.
When in Grande-Terre, make sure to visit Pointe des Châteaux, the easternmost point on the island. Wind meets sea meets rock in this dramatic outcropping, and neighboring islands shimmer in the distance.
Basse-Terre is home to Guadeloupe’s plantations, which grow mainly bananas, coffee, and sugar. La Grande Soufrière, the tallest mountain in the Antilles, rises off Basse-Terre’s face into blankets of mist in the sky.
Fort Delgrès is one of Guadeloupe’s most important historical sites, home to a battle where Guadeloupeans decided they'd rather die than live as slaves. Formerly a working military encampment, it’s now a destination for tourists and locals alike.
Marie Galante is a paradise of beaches. It’s flatter than the other islands, and is the source of some of Guadeloupe’s finest rhums. Quieter than Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, Marie Galante is an island for those who wish to leave the rest of the world behind.
On Marie Galante, visit Rhum Bielle Distillerie. The distillery’s been making its distinctive rhums since the 1700s. They use the same processes today to make environmentally friendly, small-batch liquor.
Les Saintes is charming and scenic — the Capri of the Caribbean. Yachts and fishing boats share the water next to towns of colorful restaurants and narrow winding streets.
Les Saintes Bay has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the ten best bays in the world, and it’s easy to see why. The placid waters are almost unbelievably blue, perfect for sailing, kayaking, or simply floating for hours at a stretch.
La Désirade is unspoiled and full of wildlife. Although tourism is regulated, it is possible to visit the smallest and least populated of the Guadeloupean islands. Nature lovers especially should look to visit this island and its thousands of rare plants and animals.
The island is a former leper colony, and ruins of that old infrastructure still dot the island. Take a day trip to see the crumbling stone walls that are being slowly reclaimed by nature.