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The Americas & Caribbean

About Guadeloupe

Equal parts soaring natural beauty and vibrant tropical culture, the French territory of Guadeloupe is one of the Caribbean’s most intriguing destinations. It is composed of two main islands linked by bridges, and is often referred to as the “Butterfly Island” because the land masses resemble a butterfly’s wings. The port city and capital, Pointe-à-Pitre, is on Grand-Terre, the flat eastern island. Here, the bright colors and delicious flavors of Guadeloupe, from pungent spices to tropical fruits and handmade crafts, bring village markets to life. By contrast, a string of picture-perfect beach towns beckon travelers to relax amid nature. On Basse-Terre, the western island, Guadeloupe National Park is revered for its spectacular La Soufrière volcano and lush rainforest beauty.

In its early history, Arawaks inhabited the islands until they were displaced by Caribs. In 1493 Christopher Columbus landed here, leading to a Spanish settlement that lasted until the French established their own flourishing colony. Guadeloupe was annexed to the Kingdom of France in 1674. It was taken over by the British at various points in its history, but eventually returned to France for good in 1816. Now it is an overseas region and département of France, and is part of the European Union.

Guadeloupe Lifestyle and Culture

This group of islands in the Lesser Antilles is just as French as it is Caribbean, evidenced by the mix of French and Antillean Creole you’ll hear spoken. Folk culture plays a significant role here; colorful native costumes are worn for various celebrations and events. Some women can still be seen wearing the Indian-inspired madras, a colorful headdress made of scarves tied in a number of symbolic styles.

Events and energetic festivals play a major role in Guadeloupe life; there is a celebration on the calendar every month of the year. Many incorporate music and dance, combining African, French and Indian influences. The annual pre-Lenten Carnival features Creole music and folk dancing. The Terre de Blues Festival celebrates the island’s, and the region’s, top musical performers. Creole Week commemorates the island’s heritage. Several crab and conch festivals throughout the year pay tribute to these seafood delicacies.

Guadeloupe’s heritage extends beyond music, food and a rich past. Literary roots are also strong here: the 1960 Nobel Prize–winning poet Saint-John Perse hailed from Guadeloupe. Many award-winning writers, poets and journalists have followed in his footsteps.

Guadeloupe Sights and Landmarks

Most of Guadeloupe’s sights can be found on Grande-Terre. In Pointe-à-Pitre, the impressive Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul (Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul) is nicknamed the “Iron Cathedral” for its sturdy support system. Built in 1807, the church boasts beautiful stained-glass windows and Creole-style balconies. The art deco Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice), a civil courthouse, is next door.

Two museums in Pointe-à-Pitre pay tribute to iconic figures in Guadeloupe’s history, and both are housed in attractive colonial buildings. The Musée Saint-John Perse celebrates the Nobel laureate with displays of his life and work, while the Musée Schoelcher honors abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, an island hero who fought against slavery in the French West Indies.

About 10 miles from Pointe-à-Pitre is the town of Morne-à-l’Eau, where you’ll find a most unusual cemetery—the most visited on the islands. Black-and-white checkerboard graves adorn this French historic monument. Farther afield in the former capital of Le Moule on the Atlantic coast, the city’s main square features a 19th-century neoclassical church and town hall.

Guadeloupe Entertainment and Activities

Guadeloupe is a paradise of rainforests, waterfalls and beaches. Only 15 miles from Pointe-à-Pitre, across the bridge on Basse-Terre, is the Domaine de Valombreuse botanical garden, one of the island’s most extensive collections of trees, plants and flowers. Orchids, ferns and palms cover the landscape while woodpeckers and other birds fly above.

Guadeloupe National Park preserves island beauty on a much grander scale. One of France’s seven nationally protected wilderness areas, it has been recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. The park includes enormous swaths of rainforest, coastal forest and mangroves throughout its biodiverse terrain. Numerous birds, bats, mammals and a diverse range of insects call the park home. On the lower slopes of La Soufrière volcano, the three powerful cascades of Carbet Falls tumble down a towering hillside.

On the west coast of Basse-Terre, tastings of award-winning rums await at Domaine de Bellevue, a worthwhile visit for liquor connoisseurs. On Grande-Terre, you might relax and take in the beautiful coast on the beaches between Le Gosier and Saint-François. While beaches dot both islands, the ones here are regarded as some of the best.

Guadeloupe Restaurants and Shopping

Guadeloupe is one of the true culinary capitals of the Caribbean. Combining French, African and Indian flavors, its Creole cooking is not short on flavor (or spice). Seafood is often the centerpiece, with crab, conch, smoked fish and other shellfish gracing most menus. Chicken, fresh fruit and local vegetables make an appearance, too, in recipes that have often been handed down through generations. Regional specialties include stuffed crab, matété (a hot crab curry) and accras (cod or vegetable fritters).

In Pointe-à-Pitre, restaurants are plentiful. La Canne à Sucre combines French and Créole cuisine with breathtaking ocean views. Don’t pass up dessert. Fresh seafood is the focus at Chez Dolmare, a quaint and breezy local establishment right next to a fishing harbor. For a break from the standard fare, Fairouz serves up spectacular Lebanese food.

Another worthwhile dining destination lies just south of Pointe-à-Pitre in Le Gosier. Le Zawag in the La Creole Beach Hotel & Spa is perched just above the sea. Dine on simply grilled seafood while listening to the crashing waves.

When it’s time to shop, feast your eyes at Marché Couvert, a covered market selling a variety of souvenirs and handicrafts, including straw dolls and African woodcarvings. Women vendors wearing brightly colored madras headdresses add to the experience. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, try Le Marché de la Darse right nearby. Many French imports are easy to find on the islands, so treat yourself to a perfume from the continent.