I explained in an earlier post why I chose Guadeloupe for my sabbatical travels, but apart from that decision, I didn’t know much about the place.
- I knew that it was French: not just that it’s a former French colony but that it’s still part of France. They even use the euro as their currency.
- I knew that Guadeloupians speak French and Creole.
- I knew there was a volcano.
That was about it. And it was a fun way to discover the place. I didn’t have many preconceptions and was able to just take it as it came, enjoying all my new impressions of Guadeloupe.
I expected, or perhaps I should say I hoped for, all the tropical clichés: palm trees, lush vegetation, bougainvillea plants, delicious fresh tropical fruit, and picture-postcard views.
All of the tropical clichés were indeed true in Guadeloupe, but there were other details that surprised me.
Driving in Guadeloupe
I had read that the bus system is quite limited in Guadeloupe, so I rented a car for the whole ten days I’d be staying there. The roads were relatively poor if you compare them to France, except for the most-used highways, which were well-paved. Even the minor roads winding up the volcano were paved, but some were in need of repair.
The street signs aren’t just in French; they are French. What I mean is that they were obviously produced in whatever factory the French government uses to produce its signage: the same fonts and layouts and colors and so on. It was odd to see those familiar patterns in such an unfamiliar place.
But my impressions of Guadeloupe drivers? That was very different. I was pleasantly surprised by how well everyone drives there, which was very unlike French drivers. They were courteous, letting drivers merge when they needed to merge, for example. They didn’t honk. And, in general, they drove below the speed limit! There are not many places in the world where I’ve witnessed that.
Is Guadeloupe in the developing or developed world?
I saw evidence of both. In some places, people were living in what looked like shacks built from bits and pieces of corrugated iron. My Airbnb host told me that he thought those were the homes of immigrants from places like Haiti, who were there illegally. I don’t know to what extent that is true.
At the same time, most people have working plumbing with safe drinking water. The electricity seems reliable. I was surprised at how efficient the public works must be when I heard announcements on the radio giving a specific date and time for when certain roadworks would be finished.
The supermarkets have a mix of imported (almost exclusively from France) and local foods: “local” meaning from within the Caribbean. The imported foods are more expensive, but they wouldn’t be there if no one was able to buy them, would they?
And they have boulangeries producing proper French bread. I don’t mean bread shaped like a baguette; I mean French bread indistinguishable from what you’d find in France. It’s also subsidized just like it is in France.
Of course, the key to any travel destination is the people, and I didn’t meet anyone in Guadeloupe who wasn’t friendly and helpful. For example, when I stopped to ask directions, which I had to do a number of times, people went out of their way to make sure I understood. One drew me a detailed map. One led me in his car to the place I needed to turn. People were unfailingly patient with my stuttering attempts to speak French.
Everyone says “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” as you pass on the street. The only place I didn’t experience this was on the south coast of Grand-Terre, the big eastern half of Guadeloupe, where most of the French tourists go. On the western side, where I spent most of my time, even the French tourists said “Bonjour.” I could tell if they were from France or Guadeloupe after 12 noon because at that point Guadeloupians switch to “Bonsoir” while the French still say “Bonjour.”
If you’re interested in learning more, here are some more specific impressions of Guadeloupe:
- The Night Noises of Guadeloupe
- Kreol West Indies art gallery in Guadeloupe
- Climbing La Soufriere Volcano
- The Paradise in “Death in Paradise”: Deshaies
There’s clearly still a racial divide, however. I’m not sure how deep it goes. I did hear that because of the system of government used in France, in which people are transferred around within their departments, the top levels of any government agency are usually white, which leads to resentment by the Guadeloupians. In some shops, I spotted situations in which the boss was white or Asian and the workers were black, but also some where the boss was black.
One day I went to the beach, following directions from my Airbnb host to a hotel outside of Point-à-Pitre, the capital city. No one is allowed to own a beach there, so anyone can go and use a hotel’s beach. Not realizing that the hotel had provided an entrance next to the hotel for the public to use, I entered the hotel’s lobby and walked through it, past the pool, to the beach on the other side. There, I realized there was no public restroom in which to change into my bathing suit, so I went back into the lobby and changed in the hotel’s restroom.
As I did this, I wondered whether I’d be stopped. There was a clear delineation between the hotel’s territory, where the beach was well-tended and had lounge chairs, and the public’s territory, which was just uncared-for sand with no services. Clearly the public was not meant to use the lobby or the hotel’s bathrooms, but no one stopped me. Was it because I am white? It seemed likely to me.
The whole time I was in Guadeloupe, I was surprised at the lack of tourists or tourist facilities. There are some, of course: hotels, diving clubs, tours, etc. But they’re clearly not exploiting their potential for tourism as much as they could. Most of their tourists come from France, and all the tourism-related facilities I visited were oriented toward them. Signage was almost exclusively in French, for example, in museums and other tourist destinations.
Yet I know that the Dutch, for example, would love it there. It has just the right combination of beach relaxation and active travel that they like. They could go diving or hiking or boating to their heart’s content. It’s off-the-beaten-track and could be a relatively inexpensive destination as well. And most Dutch people speak a smattering of French, so that would be no problem.
Perhaps that’s the idea. Perhaps the Guadeloupians don’t particularly want more tourists. Perhaps the French government wants to keep Guadeloupe a secret from the rest of Europe. I don’t know. I’m just glad I happened upon it, because it was exquisite.
If you’re thinking of a trip to Guadeloupe, here are some tours you might consider taking:
This post links with Travel Photo Thursday.