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Guadeloupe: The French Caribbean’s Best Kept Secret … for Now

Land on the ferry docks of Terre-de-Haut and be greeted by the tourment d’amour, or agony of love. On this small island in Guadeloupe, sorrow comes in a deceptively sweet form—half tart, half cake, and infused with a seductive mix of shredded coconut, cane sugar, rum, and wistful longing.

For generations, island women baked these small round gateaux in anticipation of their lovers’ safe returns from sea. If the cakes staled, heartbreak ensued. Today, ladies wait patiently by the pier, enticing arriving visitors with their pastry-lined madras baskets. They keep the recipe secret, so you can only eat them here. And one taste will leave you spellbound, forever yearning to come back again.

This is Guadeloupe, where sensory pleasures captivate. Breezy and unpretentious—and largely undiscovered by U.S. travelers—this group of French islands in the Eastern Caribbean Sea is perhaps best known for its French-Creole gastronomy, but it’s equally enchanting for its carefree beaches, painted villages, colorful festivals, and majestic, misty volcano.

As an archipelago, Guadeloupe is many destinations in one. The two largest islands, Grande-Terre (with the biggest city, Point-à-Pitre) and Basse-Terre (home to the capital and iconic Soufrière volcano) are like two wings of a butterfly separated only by a narrow sea channel; cross over the bridge and you’d hardly know you were on a different isle. To the south, rural Marie-Galante is blanketed in as many sugar cane fields as white-sand beaches, while Îles des Saintes or Les Saintes (a collection of several smaller islands including Terre-de-Haut) boasts one of the most beautiful bays in the world. La Désirade, the least developed of the group, is a true escape from time and the modern pace of life.

Island Gastronomy

While subtle differences in character set these islands apart, the local food culture unites them. A mélange of traditional Creole and classic French cooking with a dash of African and Indian spice, Guadeloupe’s cuisine is both local and exotic, rustic and refined. It’s as easy to feast on made-to-order street food as it is to linger for hours over a meticulously prepared multi-course lunch.

Down-to-earth and comforting, typical Creole dishes center on the land and surrounding sea, seamlessly blending fresh-caught fish with island-grown fruits and vegetables. Like other sleepy, open-air restaurants, Le Rivage in Capesterre-belle-eau (on Basse-Terre) begins its meals with accras (deep-fried cod fritters) with garlicky “dog” sauce and then graduates to hearty mains like conch fricassee or goat curry served alongside plantains, rice, and beans. Of course, it all goes down better with fruity—and potent—rum cocktails like le planteur or ti punch.

Down-to-earth, maybe, but the islands are essentially French, after all, so life here is imbued with a certain Gallic elegance. Rum might be the local go-to drink, but Champagne reigns supreme (Guadeloupians toast more bubbly per capita than any other people in the world, even out-consuming the mainland French). So it’s no surprise to see a bit of haute cuisine enlivening local dishes. For example, talented chef de cuisine Philippe Dade infuses classic technique into local seafood delights like coquilles St. Jacques in red wine reduction and tuna carpaccio dressed with passion fruit vinaigrette at Ti’Kaz’la, a waterside restaurant on Les Saintes. His final flourish is his signature dessert, an over-the-top mango soufflé served beside a pool of raspberry coulis.

Offering authentic flavors in their simplest forms, the streets reveal yet another chapter in Guadeloupe’s culinary story. Direct from mom-and-pop sellers to eagerly waiting locals and tourists, portable foods like grilled conch in a cone, hand-churned coconut sorbet, and, of course, the tourment d’amour make for affordable, spontaneous snacking at festivals, by the beach, or simply in town squares. Sold from takeout windows alongside French crepes, the uniquely Guadeloupian bokit—a pita-like sandwich made from risen bread that’s been deep-fried and folded over fillings like cheese, egg, vegetables, meat, and tuna—is the West Indian answer to guilty-pleasure fast food.

For those thinking of recreating island dishes in their own kitchens, the spice markets—particularly Marché Saint-Antoine in Pointe-à-Pitre and the beachside market in Saint Anne (both on Grande-Terre)—are the epicenters of local flavor. Among the bustling stalls, you can find anything from aromatic vanilla beans and colombo (a local curry powder) to bois bandé (a type of wood said to have aphrodisiac properties). And if a few recipes and a little skill are what you need, Popots Maison in Saint-Franĉois (Grande-Terre) will teach you the secrets of island cuisine through interactive French and Creole cooking classes.

For further culinary immersion, learn how Guadeloupe’s prized “Bourbon Pointu” coffee is produced at Le Domaine de l’Habitation la Grivelière in Vieux-Habitants (Basse-Terre), or delve into the cacao-growing process in the botanical gardens of Le Maison du Cacao in Pointe-Noire (Basse-Terre). For rum, distilleries like Domaine de Bellevue on Marie-Galante offer a taste along with a brief education on the islands’ prized rhum agricole and rum-based tropical fruit infusions like punch coco.

Island Adventure

As tempting as it is to think food is Guadeloupe’s be-all and end-all, it’s not the complete story. Natural wonders, history, and cultural heritage offer a whole other world.

Supermodel and DJ Willy Monfret, who serves as the islands’ adventure ambassador, reveals in a series of YouTube videos (called “Let Me Show You My Islands”) how hiking, diving, sailing, and even simple sun-seeking are all possible in this French Caribbean paradise. Follow his lead and you’ll discover the wonders of Guadeloupe.

One of the best places to start exploring is La Soufrière Volcano, the archipelago’s most iconic attraction, which towers over Guadeloupe National Park (on Basse-Terre)—that is, if you can see the top though the cloud swirl that often shrouds it. Hike up and down a well-marked path, spotting land crabs and tropical birds along the way, and then relax in Les Bains Jaunes, a natural geothermal pool at the base of the trail.

At Jardin Botanique in Deshaies (also on Basse-Terre), a tropical Eden teeming with flamingos and exotic flowers awaits. Have lunch above the trees at Restaurant Bar Glacier overlooking the arboretum and sea, and then visit friendly lorikeets dressed in green, blue, yellow, and red plumage at the aviary.

Classified by UNESCO as one of the 10 most beautiful bays in the world, Les Saintes Bay and its shallow reefs draw camera-toting travelers and glass-bottom kayakers alike. For panoramic views of the bay and red-tiled village below, climb to the top of Fort Napoleon, a history museum and Les Saintes’ highest point. Spend a lazy afternoon shopping for gauzy sarongs or madras plaid dresses in the pastel-shaded boutiques in town.

Guadeloupe wouldn’t be a Caribbean destination without beaches galore. But instead of sprawling, resort-front bays, the sands here are intimate and cove-like. At Pain de Sucre Beach (Les Saintes), you have to make a small effort to walk down a gnarly path through the woods to reach the semi-secluded swimming haven. The beach is narrow (and uncrowded), but the calm, shallow waters offer additional square footage for fun (or pure relaxation) in the sun. Find similar respite on the sugar-soft beaches of Marie-Galante, such as La Plage Vieux Port and La Plage Feuillère. Climb up the cliff tops while taking on strong trade winds at the dramatic Pointe des Châteaux peninsula (on Grande-Terre) and be rewarded with epic sunsets.

For many years, residents from mainland France have basked in the many wonders of Guadeloupe. Now it’s time for U.S. travelers, who are just a few hours away by plane, to get in on the secret. If you’re thinking of going, though, don’t wait too long, as people are starting to catch on to this destination on the rise. In 2013, Guadeloupe Islands Tourist Board saw a surge in hotel-room bookings compared to the previous year, and the organization has started to heavily promote the islands to U.S travelers through tourism campaigns and air-inclusive themed vacation packages.

When to Go: Visit during one of Guadeloupe’s festivals for an especially vivid and lively time. Every August, the Association Les Cuisinieres de la Guadeloupe hosts the Fête des Cuisinieres, a procession of women chefs dressed in aprons and madras headscarves, in celebration of St. Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks. Other major events include the Route de Rhum, a trans-Atlantic yacht race held every four years in November, and the annual Carnival, which begins on the Epiphany in January and runs through Ash Wednesday.

Getting There: Since 2013, American Airlines and Seaborne Airlines have been offering weekly flights from Miami and Puerto Rico to Pointe-à-Pitre.

Where to Stay: Instead of mega resorts, you’ll find mostly smaller, independent hotels and inns like Les Petits Saints (Les Saintes) and Tendacayou Ecolodge & Spa in Deshaies (Basse-Terre). For those wanting the pampered resort experience, La Toubana Hotel & Spa (Grand-Terre) and Auberge de la Vielle Tour (Grand-Terre) offer low-key French Caribbean elegance.

Have a question for Anne about her trip to the Guadeloupe? Want to share your own Guadeloupe experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Anne on Google+.

(Photos: Anne Banas; map: (Photo: Guadeloupe/Shutterstock)

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