islands

Guadeloupe: the other French Caribbean (Part 2)

In my previous post I covered the basics of Guadeloupe or 'Gwada' as the locals refer--how to get there, where to stay, etc.--but this post is about venturing out of your villa. The main island (or two) of Guadeloupe is really big, plus there are several smaller islands off the coast, so you can easily spend a week without seeing most of what the butterfly-shaped island has to offer. Here is a good list to get you started:

 

SEE/DO

Saint François - Located on the Southeastern part of the island is this charming seaside town and marina. It is a popular spot to vacation due to the casino, golf course and white-sanded beaches. And the town itself has a lot of yummy restaurants and bars, some of which offer fantastic ocean views. You can also catch a ferry for the day to nearby islands of La Desirade and Terre-de-Bas.

Cocktails with a view in Saint Francois
Cocktails with a view in Saint Francois
the Gwada gwoup
the Gwada gwoup

La Desirade - About a 45-minute scenic ferry ride from Saint François, this island is worth the choppy seas sometimes encountered on the journey. There is only 1 road on the entire island, about 3km long, on which you will encounter beach after beach, and it is hardly crowded which means you will have a quiet and enjoyable day relaxing on the sand. Rent a scooter and stop at La Plage du Souffleur, the island's prettiest beach, for some swimming and sunning but beware of the spiny sea urchins! Just when you're getting hungry and thirsty, the beach restaurant La Roulotte opens up offering fresh food fared from the sea and chilled rosé from Provence. Grab a spot under a palm tree and let the afternoon slip away.

La Souffleur Plage…simply gorgeous

La Souffleur Plage…simply gorgeous

Just us and the goats on La Desirade
Just us and the goats on La Desirade

Pointe des Chateaux - As the name might suggest, this is the Southeastern-most point of Guadeloupe marked by unique rock formations. Hike the trail around the peninsula and take in the magnificent views and crashing waves around you. When you reach the cross you know you've reached the very top.

The cross at Pointe des Chateaux
The cross at Pointe des Chateaux

Not listed above but deserving of an honorable mention is Plage de la Caravelle at Club Med. This beach is beautiful and loaded with amenities, but comes with a steep sticker price. For 80 euro pp, you get full access to the resort including food and drink (Club Med is an all-inclusive property). So if you're looking for waiters to bring you cold watermelon as you bask in the sun, or you're looking to partake in every watersport imaginable, this is the place and thing to do. To make it worthwhile, get there as early as possible so you can really take advantage of the free food and drink. In my opinion, there are many places just as pretty in their own way that are free (and less touristy!) but to each their own.

Sailboats are just one of the activities at La Plage Caravelle

Sailboats are just one of the activities at La Plage Caravelle

EAT/DRINK

Au Bon Poulet - At first glance this shack on the outskirts of Le Moule doesn't look like much, but the smell wafting from the large grill outside and its reputation for amazing chicken draws the crowd. I recommend getting it to-go  (with a side of frites that come in a paper bag) and bringing it back to the villa for a delicious feast. Be prepared to wait in line. (Rte. N5, Le Moule)

Les Frères de la Côte - An unassuming but delightful restaurant in Saint François with good food and great service. We showed up unannounced, no reservation on a busy night, and the staff set up a table for us outside. Not to mention, our cheerful waitress went out of her way to make sure we understood the French menu. The fresh-grilled fish was tasty but it is for the wonderful service (and the herbal, medicinal digestifs on the house) that I recommend this place. (Saint François)

L'O - For a more upscale yet refined, oceanfront dining experience in Saint François this is the place to go. The prix-fixe menu is filled with good variety (and value) and leaves you far from hungry. Get the tuna tartare as an entreé (in French that is your appetizer, don't be fooled!), you won't regret it. Reservations recommended. (12 Rue de la Republique, Saint François)

Tuna tartare artwork at L'O
Tuna tartare artwork at L'O

I.Pâtes - A small, charming duel restaurant-gourmet shop in Saint François offering imported Italian meats, cheeses and handmade pastas and desserts. Great for take way, either lunch or dinner, and reservations recommended for dine-in. A unique spot on a French island. (5, rue de la Republique, Saint François)

Accras - You can't spend a week on this island without sampling some of the local fare like accras, or salt cod fritters. These little fried balls of fish make a perfect snack and can be found just about everywhere, but they are best from a small streetside shack.

Ti Punch - Incase you were wondering, the drink of the island is ti punch. It is an espresso-sized beverage that is quite potent. Locally-made white rum, sugar cane, and lime juice is all that makes up this cocktail. Proceed with caution.

I should mention that most, if not all, of the above recommendations are located east on the island of Grand Terre but there is a whole other butterfly wing that we can't forget about. Make it a priority to drive over to the other side of the island to experience the golden or black sanded beaches and the lush tropical rainforest that Basseterre boasts. It seems like a completely different island based on the landscape. Specifically, I'd recommend the town of Deshaies in the north for its nice beaches and quaint village feel. I can't say I've been, but I caught a sneak preview via the BBC show "Death in Paradise" which is filmed there. It was actually this show that planted the seed in my head to visit Guadeloupe!

Anyway, it's easy to stay busy on this island or relax at your private villa and have an amazing vacation. Whichever path you choose, you can't really go wrong (we are already scheming our return). And if not, just know that there is always a good baguette, cheese and bottle of wine to fall back on. Bon vacances!

Pretty island palms
Pretty island palms

Guadeloupe: The other French Caribbean (Part I)

Usually when people think of the French Caribbean or Les Antilles as they are known in French, they are referring to St. Barths or St. Martin. But those two islands make up only half of the French overseas territories. The other half is represented by the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe (and French Guyana in South America). Up until recently, one would have to take several (expensive) flights to get to these islands and with the popularity of St. Barths and St. Martin, both Martinique and Guadeloupe got overlooked by Americans. Furthermore, most people I talked to had never even heard of them. But thanks to Norwegian Air's cheap, direct flights from Boston, we Americans are now able to discover this other part of the (beautiful) French Caribbean. Guadeloupe is a butterfly-shaped island (technically two islands joined by a bridge) located just south of Antigua. The left or west "wing" known as Basseterre is made up of lush, tropical mountains, rainforests, golden and black-sanded beaches and an active volcano. Conversely, the right or east "wing" known as Grande Terre is more flat and where you will find the white-sanded beaches you associate with the Caribbean. It is also where you will find the island's resorts (and tourists, subsequently) which are primarily located in Le Gosier and Sainte Anne. Located in the middle of the butterfly is where you'll find the island's capital of Pointe-à-Pitre and the international airport where you will land in just over 4 hours (from Boston).

Our group consisting of 3 couples was in search of the white sandy beaches but not really the tourists so we ended up staying on Grande Terre but away from the hotels and resorts in a town called Le Moule. We wanted to have as much of a local experience as possible so we decided to rent a private villa. Yes, we had to procure our own food, but going to the grocery store or the local market was a super fun way to experience local life. Plus, our kitchen was so nice it was practically begging us to use it! And everyone we interacted with was so so so nice and welcoming which made our stay that much more enjoyable.

Finding a villa to rent was a little difficult at times due to a language barrier but I ended up finding a great rental agency, Villa Prestige Antilles, through a property I inquired about on HomeAway. Julie from Villa Prestige Antilles was wonderful to work with and she knew English which was really helpful. We were all blown away by the villa she recommended for us (actually not the one I originally found) and overall could not have been more happy with the place and our week stay.

Belle des Alizés was a 3-bed 3-bath villa with an amazing patio and infinity pool overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The view was absolutely breathtaking and the highlight of this property. All the amenities were super modern, clean and looked as if they had barely been used. The kitchen came fully equipped and we had a brand-new grill on the patio which we got lots of good use out of. The bedrooms were well air-conditioned and two of the bedrooms had en-suite bathrooms with walk-in showers and rainfall shower heads. It was definitely one of the nicest homes we've ever stayed in with a view we could never get sick of.

The villa, despite being away from the tourist towns, was centrally located in a quiet neighborhood, about a 5-minute walk to the beach, a 2-minute drive to a grocery store and a 5-minute drive into the town of Le Moule. We didn't spend a lot of time in town, other than the daily visits to the produce stand (fresh banana daquiris anyone?) and the boulangerie for fresh baguettes. I mean, what's a trip to France without the baguettes? There were a few nights that we decided to venture out for dinner and drinks but we decided to go to the nearby town of Saint François which had a cute marina and lots of delicious options. It was definitely more touristy than Le Moule but still felt authentic (more on that later).

Sound amazing? It was and it is. But before you book your plane ticket, there are a few things you should know about Guadeloupe that makes it different from other Caribbean destinations:

  1. Most tourists are from France or French Canada and there are hardly ANY Americans. I think this is because, prior to Norwegian Air's service, it was tough to get to from the States and generally expensive. Which brings me to....
  2. Guadeloupe is technically part of France so people speak French, the local currency is the Euro and there is definitely a European vibe. Do not expect a lot of English being spoken however, unlike Paris where people are rude to English-speakers, the locals (and French tourists alike) are so friendly and really do make an effort to communicate through their broken English and our broken French.
  3. There are very few resorts or mega-hotels and none of them are the chains that we Americans are used to. No Westin, no Marriott, but there is a Club Med if you're really hell-bent on staying at a resort. We visited Club Med to check out the facilities and while the beach was very nice, the hotel otherwise was not very impressive. Private villa rental is the way to go on this island.
  4. A car is a must for getting around, even if you're staying at a resort or at a place in town. But be warned that the roads are somewhat like those you'll find in Europe--narrow, windy and equipped with hidden speed traps. But overall you will be happy you rented one.

The above may deter some but honestly these are the things that made Guadeloupe great and truly unique. Personally, I loved the European vibe and it was super rewarding to exchange some words in French (and actually understand them). And being in a place that is technically part of France meant we ate and drank well too--the Carrefour was stocked full of French cheeses, fois gras, the most delectable butter imaginable, great wine and other yummy French treats (like my fav Krema Régal'ad chewy fruity candies). The pharmacy carried the good sunscreen and skin care products too! For us, it was a win-win.

Overall, Guadeloupe is such a great and relaxing island that you could easily spend an entire week just floating in your infinity pool sipping some French bubbly but there's also lots of good exploring if you do decide to venture out there. Stay tuned for my next post, which will feature a couple of recommendations to do just that. In the meantime, enjoy my pictures :)

The view from our pool
The view from our pool
The patio/terrace of the villa with a lovely infinity edge pool

The patio/terrace of the villa with a lovely infinity edge pool

Modern living room inside the villa
Modern living room inside the villa
Fully equipped kitchen with a bar that leads to the terrace
Fully equipped kitchen with a bar that leads to the terrace
Master bathroom with walk-in shower and rainfall shower head

Master bathroom with walk-in shower and rainfall shower head

Floating all day is hard work

Floating all day is hard work

View of the beach from the villa

View of the beach from the villa

Bringing pool floats with us was the smartest decision made all week!

Bringing pool floats with us was the smartest decision made all week!

The silver lining of the rain shower....a rainbow!

The silver lining of the rain shower....a rainbow!

The BVI's Part Two: Island Hopping and Painkillers

As I began to tell you in my last post, the British Virgin Islands make the picture-perfect island paradise-- crystal clear water, white-sanded beaches, palm trees galore and rum flowing like water. This area of the Caribbean is especially known for being a boater's paradise and anyone would quickly understand why. The islands are grouped pretty closely making it great for island hopping, and the trade winds and calm waters make for perfect sailing weather. Expect to see lots and lots of catamarans and monohulls sailing about as well as expensive mega-yachts practically dripping in cash floating on by. A popular way to spend your time in the BVI's is by chartering a catamaran with a skipper to take you around for the week, which will absolutely be the way I spend my next vacation in the BVI's. Most boats depart from Road Town or Sopers Hole in Tortola or from nearby St. Thomas and you can work with the skipper to customize your itinerary for the week. Some even include meals cooked by your skipper, but the best advantage is being able to wake up in a different place and explore any island, bay or cove you wish. It is important to note that while the boats are very nice, they don't offer the most spacious accommodations and lack many amenities you would get by staying on shore. Unless, of course, you're a millionaire then the boat can be as lavish as you wish.

If you prefer the comforts of being at a resort, that's totally fine, but I still encourage you to get out and explore as much as possible. Thankfully, there are many resorts and charter companies that offer daily boat rentals and there is a reliable and efficient ferry service within the islands of the BVI's and also between the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. For more information on the ferry service, including ferries that can bring you within the BVI's but also to the USVI's, as well as schedules, visit this website. This website is also helpful with FAQs regarding ferry service.

Now that we've established the basics, you're probably wondering where you should go once you hit the high seas. Well, the options are just about endless and could keep you busy for weeks. If you have only a week like I did, you will need to prioritize. I wanted to get as much out of the BVI's as I could so I decided to stick to those islands. Plus, I had been to some of the islands of the USVI's before. Here are the must-sees.

Note: if you decide to go to the USVI's don't forget your passport! You will need it going to/from the British and American territories. 

 

VIRGIN GORDA

The island where the millionaires vacation, therefore home to the most luxurious resorts in the BVI's. A quick 20-40 minute ride from the Trellis Bay ferry dock in Tortola depending on what part of the island you're going to. Includes 3 ferry stops-- Spanish Town (the main part of the island), Leverick Bay and Bitter End.

The Baths and Devil's Bay - Located a short cab ride's distance from the Spanish Town ferry dock, at the very southern tip of the island, is this national park the island is known for. The geological phenomenon consists of a collection of giant boulders left over from volcanic lava creating grottoes you can swim and walk through, as well as a white-sanded beach with some of the bluest water in the Caribbean. Note: Since it is a national park, there is a small entry fee but it includes use of facilities and a locker to store your belongings as you climb through the rocks. To access the Baths, hike downhill for about 15 minutes to the locker area where you can store your clothes and belongings. Climb through the caves, crawl between rocks and wade through water before ending at the beach. End your day after hiking back up with a refreshing drink and a snack (tostones, anyone?) at the Top of the Baths restaurant located near the taxi stand. (Virgin Gorda ferry, Spanish Town stop)

Important note: The Baths can get really crowded especially on days that cruise ships are docked in Tortola, so it's worth checking that handy schedule again to know when to go. Here is the link.

cave at the baths
cave at the baths
boulders in the baths
boulders in the baths
sailboat in devil's bay
sailboat in devil's bay
devil's bay beach
devil's bay beach

Bitter End Yacht Club - This resort offers accommodations but is better known for its sailing school and its large collection of watercrafts for rent. Learn how to sail, windsurf or hop in kayak, Hobie Cat or Boston Whaler for a few hours. The choice is yours, but whatever you do be sure to stop and marvel at the enormous sailing yachts. If you're lucky you will catch a 200+ foot sailing yacht giving birth to a couple of vintage wooden Chris Crafts out of its hull. (Virgin Gorda ferry, Bitter End stop)

Saba Rock Resort - Located on a small island just off the shore of the Bitter End Yacht Club, this resort has a fun bar and restaurant. Nothing fancy, but is a cool spot especially during happy hour. Catch the free water shuttle from Bitter End. (Virgin Gorda ferry, Bitter End stop) 

 

JOST VAN DYKE 

About a 30-minute ferry ride from West End ferry dock in Tortola, this little island is one not to be missed for its authentic, relaxing Caribbean vibe. Despite its fame to many travelers, it still remains an unspoiled oasis. The ferry lets passengers off in Great Harbour, but I recommend visiting this island by charter if you can.

Soggy Dollar Bar - Located in White Bay, this little beach shack got its name from boaters who would throw anchor offshore and from wading through the water to reach the bar their dollars would get soggy, ha-ha. Now they accept credit card and there are waterproof devices to keep dollars dry, but there is still no dock in sight making for a fun and sand-bar-like experience. Luckily, the water is as warm as bath water and you don't need much for a day on the beach here. Be sure to stop at the bar for its famous painkillers, a potent drink made with rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut and freshly grated nutmeg. The bartender is amazing to watch as he lines the bar with cups and mixes the drinks like something out of the movie Cocktail. This place, and the beach it's located on, is truly one of the best experiences in all of the BVI's. (White Bay)

white bay
white bay
soggy dollar bar
soggy dollar bar
soggy dollar painkiller
soggy dollar painkiller
white bay
white bay

Foxy's Tamarind Bar - Not far from the ferry dock is this famous beachside institution. Stop in for a house-brewed beer and a bite to eat while jamming to live calypso music. You may even catch Foxy himself, who is a celebrity around these parts, on the guitar. After the sun goes down this place turns into a big party with a mix of islanders and boaters alike. (Great Harbour)

Foxy's Taboo - On the quieter, eastern side of the island you will find the smaller of the two Foxy establishments. Located dockside in a picturesque bay, this restaurant offers up much of the same fare and brews as the original location in Great Harbour but on a more quaint and relaxing scale. (Diamond Cay)

Bubbly Pool - A natural Jacuzzi located on the Northeast part of the island, formed by waves crashing against a rock formation. When it's high tide and there are waves on the North shore of the island, the water comes rushing in and creates bubbles as if you're in a jetted tub (on calm days and low tide, not so much). From Foxy's Taboo, a 20-minute hike brings you to the swimming hole. Bring a picnic and plan to spend some time enjoying mother nature's wonders. Shoes recommended. Watch out for the poisonous trees, marked by red paint and/or a sign.

So if you're staying on land or if you're on a boat, the goal remains the same-- explore, explore, explore. I stress again that these islands are a must-see to get a feel for the BVI's. Since every island has a different vibe, it's important to see as many as you can and you will find the one that suits you best for for a future trip. Of course if you end up doing a private charter or boat rental, there are many other smaller cays to be found and bays to tuck into. You will be more nimble if you don't have to rely on ferries but ferries do a pretty good job of getting you where you need to go if you prefer to stay at a resort. And that I don't blame you sometimes, there are some very luxurious ones out there! Now, what are you waiting for? Get a move on and plan your trip to the BVI's, or have me do that for you, because Britain is calling!

Sandy Cay
Sandy Cay