A guide to the islands of Guadeloupe

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Magnificent Guadeloupe, the southernmost of the Leeward Islands and the European Union’s largest territory in North America, has more than its fair share of natural beauty even by Caribbean standards. Stunning beaches, soaring mountains, superb food and spectacular diving are shared over the five main islands, each of which has its own special character and different reasons to visit. The joy of Guadeloupe is that you really don’t need to choose: even if you only have a week it’s perfectly possible to enjoy them all, as ferries go back and forth between them several times a day.

Take in this view of the Les Saintes archipelago from Terre de Haut © GUIZIOU / Hemis.Fr / Getty Images

Grande-Terre

Best for: Dining out

While Grande-Terre has been a traveler favorite for decades due to its gorgeous southern beaches, it’s now generally accepted that it boasts Guadeloupe’s most exciting culinary choices as well. This is particularly true in and around the town of St-François, where a steady stream of jetsetters and yachties has given rise to some excellent establishments. Particularly outstanding are Iguane Café for multicourse gastronomy, Le Mabouya dans La Bouteille for a fusion of classical French dishes with Caribbean ingredients and Le Zagaya for unpretentious but top notch seafood. Destination dining elsewhere on the island can be found at cozy yet sophisticated Koté Sud in Ste-Anne, a foodie favorite for its inventive Creole cuisine, and in the north of the island at Chez Coco, which overlooks a lovely private beach surrounded by the high cliffs of the so-called Porte d’Enfer. The sprawling and rather unattractive city of Pointe-à-Pitre, also on Grande-Terre, won’t be on many visitors’ radar, but its brand new and highly ambitious museum, Mémorial ACTe, tells the story of Guadeloupe’s brutal history of slavery and colonialism, and is an important stop for anyone visiting.

Getting ThereNearly all visitors to Guadeloupe arrive at Grande-Terre’s Pôles Caraïbes Airport or by ferry from neighboring Caribbean islands at Pointe-à-Pitre. Grande-Terre is also connected with direct services to all other islands in Guadeloupe, from Pointe-à-Pitre to Les Saintes and Marie-Galante (jeansforfreedom.com, valferry.fr) and from St-François to La Désirade (Archipel 1) and Les Saintes (comatrile.com), as well as by two road bridges to neighboring Basse-Terre.

Grande-Terre is a great place to expand your culinary horizons © MAISANT Ludovic / Hemispicture.Com / Getty Images

Basse-Terre

Best for: Hiking and Diving

Ironically Basse-Terre means ‘low land’ in French, which is a fairly poor description of this majestic stunner, whose thick foliage rises up to looming La Soufrière, the active volcano that towers over the entire island at 1467 meters and is the highest point in the Lesser Antilles. Around this giant, Basse-Terre boasts Guadeloupe’s only national park, filled with dense forest, misty peaks, rivers and waterfalls. Another reason to visit is the string of beachside villages on its northern coast, most charming of which is the yachtie and foodie hang out of Deshaies, a colorful and rather traditional Caribbean village that has garnered a dozen good restaurants and some very atmospheric hotels in recent years. Finally, Basse-Terre offers magnificent diving just off its western coast in the Réserve Cousteau, which surrounds tiny Pigeon Island.

Getting There: Access to Basse-Terre is a cinch from Grande-Terre, with two road bridges connecting the islands. Basse-Terre also enjoys multiple daily sailings to Les Saintes from Trois-Rivières (ctmdeher.com, valferry.fr)

Hike La Soufrière on Basse-Terre for views of tropical jungles and the Caribbean sea © Plamn Zahariev / Getty Images

La Désirade

Best for: Tropical Escape

Sitting a short distance off the craggy rock nose of Grande-Terre, La Désirade is something of an archetypal Caribbean fantasy, a child’s drawing of a desert island. Its unusual name comes from it being the first island Columbus saw on his second voyage, and thus the desired landfall for which he had been praying. With its huge central bluff running much of its diminutive length, it’s an imposing place, with swaying palms overlooking idyllic white sand beaches and just one road extending along its southern side. The welcome is warm, and while there’s definitely a good number of day-trippers taking the ferry from Grande-Terre, this is the least touristic island in Guadeloupe and there are just a couple of hotels and a few restaurants. The sleepy ‘town’ of Beauséjour exudes old Caribbean charm and is the kind of place where everybody knows each other, while up at the tip of the island things get even quieter and more remote, ending in a dramatic flourish with the island’s lighthouse that looks out into the open ocean.

Getting There: La Désirade can only be reached by ferry from Grande-Terre. There are two crossings per day from St-François (on Archipel 1).

An aerial view of La Désirade and its mountainous ridge © Droits réservés BertrandGrieu@gmail.com / Getty Images

Marie-Galante

Best for: Beaches & Rum

Flat as a pancake and not particularly alluring at first glance, Marie-Galante’s real draw can be found in the wonderful beaches that attract a loyal crowd of French holidaymakers. The island is rather too big to explore easily in just a day, and the locals seem fairly united in believing you should spend more time than that here. Indeed, many hotels don’t accept one- or two-night bookings to encourage just this. Do not miss sunning yourself on gorgeous Plage de la Feuillère and Plage de Petite Anse, and be sure to visit all three of the island’s charming towns: bustling ‘capital’ Grand-Bourg, spectacularly set Capesterre and friendly St-Louis. Marie-Galante also has a number of historic rum distilleries to visit, where you can take a tour to see the entire manufacturing process from sugar cane to bottle. Distillerie Bielle, Distillerie Poisson and Domaine de Bellevue are the most visited­­, and the latter has a gorgeous old windmill.

Getting There: There are daily ferry connections between Pointe-à-Pitre on Grande-Terre and Marie-Galante’s main town Grand-Bourg (express-des-iles.com, jeansforfreedom.com, valferry.fr), while the village of St-Louis has daily connections to both St-François on Grande-Terre and Les Saintes (comatrile.com).

Sample local infused rums on Marie Galante © MAISANT Ludovic / hemispicture.com / Getty Images

Les Saintes

Best for: Utter Charm

Unlike the other four main islands of Guadeloupe, the mountainous archipelago of Les Saintes is made up of nine different islands, though only two of them are inhabited. Tourism is focused on the island of Terre-de-Haut, and it’s quite possibly the loveliest place in the whole of Guadeloupe thanks to its Norman architecture, sophisticated restaurants and a backdrop of high, thickly forested hillsides. The beaches here are superb, too – don’t miss a lazy afternoon on the Baie de Pompierre, with its friendly goats and wonderful little island to swim out to, or check out the stunning sand and wild waves of Grande Anse, where sadly it’s too rough to swim, but great for a long walk along an empty beach.

Head down to Les Saintes for charming villages © GUIZIOU Franck / hemis.fr / Getty Images

Elsewhere on Terre-de-Haut you can visit historic Fort Napoleon, an imposing French defensive battery that now contains a museum; climb Le Chameau, the 309 meter peak that dominates Terre-de-Haut and affords wonderful archipelago views; and if you really want to get off the grid, take one of the hourly boats to neighboring Terre-de-Bas, a sleepy little island where little seems to have changed for decades.

Getting There: There are multiple daily ferries to Terre-de-Haut from Trois-Rivières (ctmdeher.com, valferry.fr) on Basse-Terrre and Pointe-à-Pitre (express-des-iles.com, jeansforfreedom.com, valferry.fr) on Grande-Terre, and less frequently from St-François on Grande-Terre (comatrile.com). The latter service calls at Marie-Galante.

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