The islands making up Guadeloupe have not really been on the British tourist trail until recently, although this Caribbean territory is very popular with French visitors. Even though they’re 7,000 km from Paris, and nearer to America, Guadeloupe is a French department. It’s quite odd when you see baguettes and the same French road signs and magazines you would find in Brittany or Biarritz, but then you’re reminded where in the world you are as you catch a glimpse of the island’s volcano or brightly coloured tropical fish.
The reason more Brits are now visiting is the hit BBC TV series, Death in Paradise, which is filmed there. The island is the fictional Saint Marie. There are five islands that make up Guadeloupe. The two biggest are Basse-Terre, where I stayed, and Grande-Terre. They’re separated by a very narrow water channel, criss-crossed with bridges. People describe the shape of these two islands as looking like a butterfly. If you can imagine that, Grande-Terre is the right wing and Basse-Terre is the left wing. International flights land at Grande-Terre where you’ll also find the largest town, Point-a-Pitre.
Even though the islands are essentially right next to each other, they’re very different. Volcanic Basse-Terre is the younger of the two twins in geological terms and it has black sand. Grande-Terre is older and has white sands and resort developments. The landscape of each is different and so is the vibe.
François of wildlife boat trip company Bleu Blanc Vert explained. “Basse-Terre is different because of the mountains, Grande-Terre is flat, more crowded with more people and more traffic on the roads.” Because of that, Basse-Terre is considered much more laid-back and less developed. “I know some people that have not been to the other side of Guadeloupe for 20 years because they like the relaxed feel of Basse-Terre,” he told me.
Basse-Terre’s palm-fringed coastline and blue sea offers the vision of paradise that visitors expect in this part of the world. Lisa from marine trip company Aquatique Aventure told me, “In Basse-Terre, we are in the Caribbean Ocean. On the other side of Guadeloupe is the Atlantic Ocean. It is rougher. We are in the part where it is calm and you can enjoy more aquatic activities. And the sea temperature is warm. Even in December when it becomes a little chilly on the land, the temperature of the sea only goes down to 24°C.”
Most of Basse-Terre’s activities revolve around the water and they include glass-bottom boat trips, kayaking, snorkelling and diving. Many of these are centred on Malendure Beach, a small bay that you reach on the coast road by a short, narrow cutting in the cliff face. The exposed rock strata are striped like a block of Neapolitan ice cream – red at the bottom, a band of white and then black volcanic. There are about two-dozen rainbow-coloured wooden huts occupied by activity and tour companies, including Lisa’s, which operate from this dark grey volcanic sandy beach.
The rich marine biodiversity is protected by the National Park. The waters were named The Cousteau Reserve after the famous French diving pioneer. He expressed his wish for the area to be conserved because he found the sea life around the offshore Pigeon Isles to be exceptional. Locals realised that Cousteau had a major impact on publicising and protecting the nature of Guadeloupe. There’s even an underwater artwork installation in his honour. “In 2004 they put a statue of Cousteau in the Coral Garden,” Lisa told me. “It was him who founded it. The statue’s twelve metres deep and on a nice day, when the visibility is good and it’s sunny, you can see it.”
Lisa went on to tell me what you can see on a diving trip. The area is renowned for its colourful sea life. “You’ll see plenty of fish, like parrot fish, trumpet fish and the ‘mademoiselle’ otherwise known as the ‘missus.’ It is a bluefish with a diamond on it. It is very nice. And when it is sunny you can see lemon sharks as well.”
If you don’t fancy getting in the water, you can still experience the vast shoals of colourful tropical fish on one of the glass bottomed boats, including one with a completely submerged viewing platform, similar to a submarine. And the area has another wildlife attraction. “There’s a nice bay called Japanese Garden where there are turtles,” Lisa continued. “There are more than eighty living around there, so it is certain that you will see one.” You might also see turtles where you don’t want to spot them. Road signs running along the beachside carriageways warn motorists of their presence.
Around 38 km north on the coast road you’ll find François and his boating company Bleu Blanc Vert. He moved from Brittany to operate environmental trips on a small inflatable rib from Sainte Rose. His boat carries up to four passengers into the heart of the mangrove swamp, with their eerie, twisting, winding treelike roots. These are important fish habitats François told me. “It’s like a nursery, so the fish are pretty small. The water is clear and we have a lot of colourful fish to see.”
François says the fish here behave differently to those living outside the National Park. “In the park they stay around you. Outside the park the fishermen try to catch them and they hide inside the reef. You have to stay quiet and wait for a few moments until the fish come out,” François explained. “Fishermen are not allowed in the park and the fish know that they are safe within the boundary. A friend of mine told me they can hear when a fisherman is preparing a harpoon gun. They can hear the little noise when the arrow is ready.”
François’ trips head out into Grand Cul de Sac Marin Bay, which is over 3,700 hectares in size. This massive nature reserve is closed off by a 25 km long coral reef. “This lagoon is the biggest in the little West Indies,” François told me. His business is named after the most prominent colours visible during the excursion. “Blue, white and green. Those are the colours you are going to see. The green of the mangrove, the blue of the water and the white of the sand.”
His trips also visit White Island – or Îlet Blanc – a shallow expanse of sand where you can see nesting pelicans. “It’s the result of the last hurricane in 1999, called Hugo. It reached 340 km/h. The day after, a new island appeared. It could disappear one day. That’s nature!” François told me the island is just 18m long and 15m wide. You can only visit the island outside the summer months because it is a breeding ground for birds.
Basse-Terre is a volcanic island. You will be in no doubts when you see the towering mountain rising to almost 1,500m. It is one of the most active volcanoes in this part of the Caribbean and last erupted in 1976. Visitors can experience different levels of geothermal activity, depending on how fit you are. Let’s start with the easiest! “Along the coast we have three hot springs in Bouillante,” Lisa told me. “That’s where the name comes from. It means boiling. They are right next to the beach. It’s nice because the cooling water of the ocean comes into the hot spring and mixes to create warm water.” One of the easily accessible hot springs is a rocky pool right on the foreshore. It is no larger than your average bedroom and it is hemmed in by big boulders so can become crowded.
If you’re more athletic you could climb the volcano with Laurence Vaillot. She runs a green tourism business, Vert Intense. She acts as a mountain guide service for walkers to ascend the slopes of the mighty, green, towering mountain La Grande Soufrière. But you need to be fit to reach the top. “It’s around one-and-a-half hours of walking. You have 590m elevation to climb,” she told me. “It’s an active, explosive volcano. People go up to see the volcanic activity. There can be a lot of gas but with a guide you can enter the closed-off part where you can hear and smell it. It’s like a pressure cooker,” she laughed.
The view from the summit is impressive, Laurence told me. “The mountain you climb is very green but the gases emitted at the top change the appearance of the landscape. You have acidic conditions that burn the vegetation. Half is green and the other half looks the same as if you were on the moon.”
UNESCO designated Guadeloupe a biosphere reserve because the islands have one of the highest rates of biological diversity on the planet. There’s over 300 different species of tree in Basse-Terre and 90 varieties of orchid. But there is a reason for all of this greenery. Guadeloupe receives around 70 inches of rain a year. It means there is water everywhere and Lawrence can arrange canyoneering – for the very active and brave – down fast flowing rivers and ravines. Around 200,000 people visit the waterfall, La Cascade aux Ecrivisses, each year too. It’s a 10m high attraction that is easy to drive to, with a 10 minute walk from the car park. It is named after the crayfish that once lived in the basin. If you’re prepared for a hike you can reach a massive waterfall, Carbet Falls, the highest in this part of the Caribbean, where water plunges 245m.
The rain certainly helps the beautiful flowers in the Deshaies Botanic Gardens bloom. You can spend a pleasant morning wandering around the 1.5 km of manicured paths as they twist and turn around the sloping mountainside. There are five hectares containing over 1,000 species including orchids, vanilla vines and hibiscus. Most of the signage is in French, but you can rent an iPad and scan the codes on signposts for more information. The narrator will explain what you are looking at. There are amazing manmade waterfalls and if you need to cool down, some of the living green tunnels mist you with water.
The kids will enjoy the garden inhabitants. There are flamingos and a colourful tropical bird enclosure with lorikeets that you can feed. I spent ages trying to get Jazz and Roger to talk. I don’t think they spoke English! If you’re lucky, and I was, you will see a wild hummingbird in the garden, but it was too quick for me to get my lens cap off! For 50 cents, you can buy food to feed the koi carp in the pond and enjoy their feeding frenzy. If you’re a fan of Death in Paradise Ben Miller’s detective inspector, his character died here!
As I said, things grow well with the volcanic soil and the rainfall and coffee has been an important crop for centuries. After slaves were freed, labourers were brought in from India to work on the plantations. You can visit the Coffee Museum and learn about the role it played in Guadeloupe’s history from 1721 onwards. The wooden buildings on site include a restored drying house and a roasting plant, which is still used today. They also serve up an exceptional cup of coffee!
Many people try to visit Basse-Terre in early spring for the island’s Mardi Gras carnival. The date shifts because the event is dependent on Lent. Over 80% of the islands’ population are Roman Catholic and carnival is a time for locals to let their hair down. The carnival teams work for months on the costumes. They are big, extravagant and colourful. As they march, musicians stroll alongside the procession and you can feel vibrant, positive Caribbean beats pounding.
“I’d say it’s even better than the Notting Hill Carnival in London,” said Lisa. ”And there’s a contest element which makes it more fun.” On carnival day, the event runs from around noon until after 10pm because there are so many entrants who need to be scored. “We have got more than 60 groups to go through, so imagine how long it takes! Each of them has to stop in front of it you to be judged. They have just a few minutes to show what they have got,” said Lisa.
The celebrations take place over a week and begin with a carnival procession on the adjacent island of Grande-Terre, in the biggest city of Pointe-a-Pitre. There’s a night parade the following day and then the big celebration in the largest town on the island of Basse-Terre, which is also called Basse-Terre. “Basse-Terre is the best,” said Lisa, “because it started in Basse-Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe. It is the show you have to see.” Guadeloupe is said to offer one of the world’s best carnival experiences. “The Carnival is number six within the carnivals of the world,” Lisa proudly told me.
The capital, Basse-Terre, isn’t particularly interesting and probably won’t feature in your photos on Facebook. It’s a functional low-rise town, set on two sides of a river, which flows through the centre in a concrete conduit. Some of the town’s mainly concrete buildings have been brightened up with painted corrugated iron roofs and in the centre of town you’ll find a vibrant fish market and fruit and veg stalls.
It’s a pleasant 80-minute drive from Basse-Terre on the twisting coast road to Deshaies – the village that becomes Honore on TV’s Death in Paradise. That programme has helped boost local tourism. “I don’t know who made that TV show but I’ll say thank you!” Lisa laughed. The coastal conservation organisation has started putting on Death in Paradise walks, Laurence told me. “The Conservatoire du Litoral organise a hike to Deshaies along the coast. A lot of British guests like to see where the filming happens,” she explained.
Deshaies is not too touristy despite its new-found television fame. It has two main streets with a few gift and craft shops and mainly essential stores. There are a number of small bars and restaurants too. Just one cafe was open for breakfast, a French patisserie and bakery where you can sit under the awning at the side of the main road, looking out over the main street as chickens peck at the dropped baguette crumbs around your feet.
Deshaies is surrounded by a semicircle of lush green hills with colourful villas peeking out from the foliage. The waterfront is simple. There are brightly-painted wooden villas with their decking overhanging the brown volcanic sandy beach. A short concrete jetty allows ocean access for small wooden boats and inflatable ribs. I sat on the wooden beachside deck of the bar of La Madras, shaded by its thatched roof. The structure doubles as Catherine’s Bar on the TV series. As I enjoyed a cool drink, I watched the pelicans diving vertically and at speed straight into the water before they rose up with fish.
The fictional police station from the TV show is a building that appears to be empty. It is next to the church. The nearby sandy beach at Grande Anse was home to the inspector’s house on the show. You won’t find that unless they are filming. It is a prop that they place on the beach. Everybody seems to be getting in on the Death in Paradise theme. I laughed out loud when I went for a pizza at the Metis restaurant. They were offering a Death in Paradise pizza – consisting of bacon, pepper, onions and two eggs – for €14.
So what about local food? Nadia from tour company Nico Excursions told me that there is one meal you have to sample. Indian servants introduced the unique dish of Columbo. The meat and vegetable mix includes Indian spices but the heat of its chillies has been toned down for the French pallet!
If you are going to Basse-Terre you will need to hire a car, as public transport is hard to track down and there are long distances between communities. Some basic French language skills would be an advantage too as English isn’t widely spoken. You can’t fly directly to Guadeloupe from London, but there are a number of services to the islands direct from Paris. You can also connect in Miami. The total travel time from the UK is around 11 hours.