Impressions of Guadeloupe
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.
To read about all the best things to do in Guadeloupe, see my guide to Guadeloupe!
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.
Oh wow I never heard about Guadeloupe! They really don’t seem to want more tourists and that makes it a true gem! The nature is so beautiful. I don’t know why but I like volcanos!
I was there for ten days and it wasn’t enough: so beautiful! I’m not sure I’d climb the volcano again, but it makes for a beautiful landscape, that’s for sure! Thanks for commenting!
Thanks for the info which was not really practical but rather your impressions that is also useful 🙂 We are travelling there in April, 2017.
I did a number of other posts about Guadeloupe: they’re all listed at the bottom of this post and tell about various things to see and do there. I’m so jealous; I’d like to go back!
Happy to know that you had to share Guadeloupe just with few tourists!
I never thought about visiting the island, but sounds quite interesting the mix of Caribbean and french, especially with good bread! 🙂
Really! Beautiful tropical landscape, plus bread as good as any you’ll find in Paris. Could it be any better?
What an interesting post! Thanks for sharing your secret find! I’ve not visited this wonderful island, but need to add it to the list! *sigh* you have me thinking of french bread now….. 😉
Natalie, The Educational Tourist
Seriously good French bread! Which is why I should never live there or in France: I’d end up as big as a house!
Hi Rachel, it’s been a while since I’ve been on your blog….happy to be back though and really happy to have found this post through Nancie’s #TravelPhotoThursday because it would be perfect for my series on “far-flung France”. I’ve been running a series of guest posts about the French Dom-Toms and as you point out, they’re relatively unknown in the English speaking world. Funnily enough I published the 4th in the series today…about Guadeloupe and until now I’d never come across another blog post about it in English. If you take a look at my blog today you’ll see it. I’m going to contact you privately to see if you might like to be involved in the series.
Good to “see” you again, Phoebe! There really isn’t much out there about Guadeloupe in English or in Dutch, which is why my Guadeloupe posts are the ones I’m translating into Dutch first!
Some interesting observations.
I’ve still never visited France (but we had hoped to visit French Guiana on this trip, a plan now shelved) so I’m amazed how noticeable some things were!
Yes, it was a surprisingly French place. I wonder if the British Virgin Islands are very British? Thanks for your comment!
Hey Rachel 🙂 I came across your blog and its been so helpful. I’m still a little nervous because this is my first solo trip. I currently have a drivers permit not a license would I still be able to rent a car out there? Also if not is there a good way to sight see without driving ? What towns would you most recommend to vist?
I doubt you’d be able to rent a car with just a permit. There is a bus system, but I didn’t have to figure that out, since I had a car. I suspect you’d have to start in Pointe-a-Pitre, the biggest city, if you want to be able to explore the country by bus. As far as where I recommend to visit, I liked the western island, Basse-Terre, most, because of the hilly terrain and rainforest vegetation. The main roads go around the edge of the island, so maybe you could just move from one town to the next in a slow circle around, staying at each town a night or more. That way you wouldn’t spend too much time on busses. The distance wouldn’t be very long for each leg of the trip, and you could also do some of them by taxi. People are very friendly and helpful, but nevertheless, if you’re female, as I would guess from your name, don’t hitchhike!
It wasn’t any of the big international companies; I remember that. I think it might have been Guadeloupe car rental but I’m not really sure… Sorry!
Your posts have really helped! All this time I assumed Guadeloupe was Spanish territory until today. You’ve given me an interesting insight into the country which has leaked my desire to travel there.
You should! It’s a wonderful place!
We spent 2.5 weeks there over Christmas and New Years and had pretty much the same thoughts as you. We only rented a car for three days and used public transport and walked the rest of the time. The buses suck big time, I loved all the legit French food, and people were friendly. We did struggle though with the language barrier – my French is basic and so many people didn’t speak a word of English so it was hard. We stayed in three different places during our time there – 1 week in Deshaies on Basse Terre, 1 week near the beach in Le Gosier and 4 days in Les Saintes. This gave us a great overview of the differences of each island – Les Saintes was definitely my favorite.
I did have an advantage in speaking some French and having a rental car for the whole time I was there! Deshaies was my favorite, definitely!
I might be going to Guadeloupe for vacation in a few weeks, and I am wondering how much poverty there is there. I’m just wondering if it is like Jamaica and other developing countries, even though it is part of France.
Because if so, I’d love to bring toys and related to children at an orphanage, preschool, etc. I work with educational programs in developing countries, and I could do some fundraising of materials to bring. Do you know anything about it, or could tell me someone who could give me some information?
It did not seem as poor to me as Jamaica or Haiti; since it’s part of France I suspect there’s more government money coming in for the poor. I would suggest, before you start collecting stuff, that you contact a Guadeloupe charity and ask what they actually want and need. Often the materials people bring miss the mark, and it would be better to give money than bring stuff to hand out. But no, I don’t know any particular organizations. Sorry!
Just got back from Guadeloupe! Loved it!
Great post. I am heading to Guadeloupe in a few weeks for vacation/holiday. I am contemplating renting a car for my entire stay vs a few days. Will I need to know how to drive a manual car or are most cars automatic? Also curious if cars have a cigarette lighter or charging port is I can plug phone in the event I need to charge my phone. My French is super poor but I look forward to smiling a lot and hopeful for a great time. Oh French pastries. Im in trouble. 🙂
I’m jealous! I’d love to go back there; I just loved the place! I think the car rental question depends on where you are going to stay and what you are going to do. I get restless just sitting on a beach, and I booked an Airbnb that was not in any town, so I rented a car for my whole stay. That let me spend whole days exploring all over the island, which I enjoyed tremendously. If I remember correctly my car was manual, but I’m sure that when you book a car you can choose an automatic. I think all late-model cars these days have a cigarette lighter or charging port. Did you read all the other post on this site about Guadeloupe? There’s a lot to see!
Love this article as a « Guadeloupéen » I am very proud to hear that you loved your trip on our island. There were a lot of things that you didn’t really quite get, I mean this is totally normal I am not trying to say that in any offensive way, it’s totally normal normal Guadeloupe is a very complicated island due to it’s past, and rich history. So first when you talked about the problem of racism in Guadeloupe it is pretty much the same as in any other Caribbean island which the descendants of old slave owner which are mostly white people own all of the land, and practically runs the economy of the island. They don’t mix with other people in Guadeloupe to « preserve a pure race ». But except from that there is no big racial issues people are very opened minded in Guadeloupe and their is a lot of mixity.
Sorry for the many grammatical and spelling mistake that I did throughout this comment. I don’t speak English but French so I tried my best.
Again Great work!!
One of the pitfalls of being a travel blogger is that I’m always looking from the outside in, or else reporting what local people have told me. So thank you for adding your views! And don’t apologise for your English! It’s fine!
My sister just spent 5 days there and she called me crying every night because of how they treated her and her friend. There were restaurants that wouldn’t even serve them. Racism is real out there. Mind you, we are first generation Puerto Ricans and speak fluent Spanish and her friend is Russian and speaks French very well. They were being treated poorly purely because of their skin color (both look white). I go to Puerto Rico several times a year and have been to many islands in the Caribbean and have never experienced racism like what she described. I will never suggest this island to anyone.
Are we talking about the same island? I spent almost three weeks there and no one was anything but friendly and welcoming and gracious to me, and I’m white. It astounds me that your sister had such a bad experience!