Basse-Terre is Guadeloupe’s trump card. The bigger of the two main islands (and yes, they are separate entities despite being joined by a road), it’s also by far the more dramatic, boasting soaring peaks and thick rainforest within the huge Parc National de la Guadeloupe as well as some excellent beaches and one of the best dive sites in the Caribbean around Pigeon Island.
From the outskirts, Pointe-à-Pitre looks pretty uninviting – a concrete jungle of high-rises and sprawling traffic. Venture into the center, though, and you’ll find a much more attractive old town with peeling colonial architecture and palm-fringed streets. The town hub is Place de la Victoire, an open space punctuated with tall royal palms.
The northern half of Basse-Terre offers interesting contrasts. Starting from the west side of Route de la Traversée, most of the west coast is rocky and many of the drives snake along the tops of towering sea cliffs. There are a couple of attractive swimming beaches – Grande Anse is the most popular.
Lying 10km off Guadeloupe is Terre-de-Haut, the largest of the eight small islands that make up Les Saintes. Since the island was too hilly and dry for sugar plantations, slavery never took hold here. Consequently, the older islanders still trace their roots to the early seafaring Norman and Breton colonists and many of the locals have light skin and blond or red hair.
Bourg des Saintes
Home to most of the island’s residents, Bourg des Saintes is a picturesque village with a decidedly Norman accent. Its narrow streets are lined with whitewashed, red-roofed houses with shuttered windows and yards of flowering hibiscus. At the end of the pier is a small courtyard with a gilded column commemorating the French Revolution.
St-François is a town with two distinct identities. The west side of town is a sleepy provincial backwater that’s quite spread out, while the east side feels a lot like the small upscale marina that it is. The center of the action is the deep U-shaped harbor, which is lined with a handful of restaurants, hotels, boutiques and marina facilities.
This charmingly sleepy spot has just the right blend of traditional fishing village and good selection of eating and drinking options to keep visitors happy. There’s a sweet little beach framed by green hills all around, but as Deshaies is a working fishing port, the best beach for swimming and sunbathing is at nearby Grande Anse.
If a refuge from the troubles of the world is what you seek, look no further: Marie-Galante is your answer. Marie-Galante is a rural and agricultural island beloved by those who enjoy the quieter pleasures in life and particularly by beach-lovers who want to escape the crowds.
Plage de Malendure & Pigeon Island
This long stretch of beachside towns and villages is a mecca for divers who come to dive and snorkel at the superb Réserve Cousteau around little Pigeon Island and to relax on Plage de Malendure’s dark-sand beaches. The entire area is backed by steep hills.
Once you've left St-François, the real wilderness of Grande-Terre begins to unfold, and a sense of escapism becomes tangible. The northern half of Grande-Terre is a rural area of grazing cattle and cane fields; the roads are gently winding but easy to drive. Adjust your camera setting to 'panoramic' and shoot spectacular natural wonders and a smattering of delightful beaches.
Ste-Rose was once a simple little village, primarily involved with fishing and agriculture. While sugarcane is still an important crop in the area, Ste-Rose is increasingly becoming a tourist destination in its own right, not least because it's the main launching pad for boat excursions to Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin.
The town of Le Moule served as an early French capital of Guadeloupe, and was an important Native American settlement in precolonial times. Consequently, major archaeological excavations have taken place in the area, and Guadeloupe’s archaeological museum – under renovation at the time of writing – is on the outskirts of town.
Set 8km southeast of Pointe-à-Pitre, Gosier is really two towns: a cluster of high-rise hotels full of French families on one side and a growing Caribbean village next door. It’s the biggest tourist spot in Guadeloupe, and it’s not a particularly charming place. The hotels are packed one after the other and the lobbies can be madhouses in high season.
The busy town of Ste-Anne sees a lot of tourists but the big resorts are well hidden and there’s a good balance of amenities for tourists and authentic modern village life. It has a seaside promenade along the west side of town, a lively market and a fine white-sand beach stretching along the east side.