Nonstop from BWI: Guadeloupe, an island chain that's not ready for prime time — thank goodness

For The Baltimore Sun
If you dream of experiencing the Caribbean of yesteryear, Guadeloupe is the right spot.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of occasional articles exploring destinations easily reached from BWI-Marshall Airport.

GUADELOUPE — Sparkling sapphire waves splashed back and forth over my legs as I lolled atop the soft white sand beach. I'd been parked here for nearly an hour.

"Hungry?" my husband asked. I glanced back and spotted him, Kindle in his lap, leaning on a makeshift pillow of sand. The beach was deserted; a pristine shoreline with nary a beach bar or hotel in sight. But he ambled over to one of the kiosks across the street. At the first, he ordered bokits, a mini-baguette stuffed with chicken, saltfish or eggs, plus vegetables and creole sauce, rolled and lightly fried.

Next door, they were cooking up a traditional appetizer: fresh cod fritters with scallions and garlic, slathered in "dog" sauce (addictive local condiment made of garlic, vinegar, carrots, onions, peppers, lime and cumin). As we sat beneath breezy coconut palms happily eating our lunch and sipping cold Corsaire Bieres (a citrusy Guadeloupian lager), we contemplated how to spend the remainder of our day: Hunker down here? Or explore the next beach down the road? It was a quandary, indeed.

That particular day might explain why, whenever I read a review by an American traveler declaring that the island chain of Guadeloupe is not ready for prime time, I breathe a sigh of relief. Because, if your idea of Caribbean paradise involves ritzy five-star resorts and dressed-up restaurants where you can don your new Rene Caovilla mules, forget it. This isn't that Caribbean.

But if you dream of experiencing the Caribbean of yesteryear, a postcard-worthy tropical setting with authentic culture where you can explore quiet beaches whose virgin-sand hues range from sugar-white to gray, gold and black, hike through lush volcanic rain forests sheltering remote waterfalls, lodge in small European-style mama-et-papa hotels, and dine on affordable world-class French-Caribbean cuisine in unassuming cafes… well, then you are in the right spot. You can even drink the tap water here. And you'll want to: It's considered some of the tastiest in the Caribbean.

Guadeloupe is a French-Caribbean archipelago in the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, with five inhabited islands, and is a French overseas territory. Euros are the only currency, and most citizens, a hybrid of African, French and Indian, speak only the mother tongue, Antillean Creole, and French. The majority of tourists are European. Once we left the airport, most local residents we encountered spoke no English. That may partially explain why U.S. tourists and businesses haven't rushed in and "Americanized" the place. There are few recognizable chains. Alas, that is surely about to change, since Norwegian Airlines instituted $99 nonstop airfares from BWI, JFK and Logan airports last winter.

(Potential visitors should take note: Guadeloupe has had Zika outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that women of childbearing age avoid the region. Others should bring insecticides.)

Guadeloupe's two main islands, Grand Terre and Basse Terre, form the shape of a butterfly, separated by a small bridge. A designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, each island offers its own natural marvels. While most tourists prefer the white-sand Atlantic beaches and pretty seaside towns along the southern shore of Grande Terre, we opted to first visit the more rugged, Caribbean-fronting Basse Terre.

Basse Terre

Basse Terre is all about ecotourism and adventure. From its core rises La Soufriere, a semi-active volcano whose lava flow nourishes the surrounding Parc National de Guadeloupe. Twisty Route de la Traversée is the only road into this 17,300-hectare rain forest, where we hiked amid soaring peaks, cascading waterfalls, natural pools and dense vegetation before immersing ourselves in the steamy hot springs of Les Bains Jaunes.

Driving N2, Basse Terre's coastal road, is the best way to see this island, delivering breathtaking vistas of mountainous terrain dissolving into tropical foliage growing freely along the seashore. The coastline is uncluttered. There are many beautiful beaches between the northern towns of Sainte Rose and Bouillante, so we spent a day visiting them all, discovering the sand on each casts a unique hue. Coconut palm-dotted Plage de Grande-Anse is Guadeloupe's longest beach, blanketed with soft golden granules. Snorkeling in the gentle surf of tiny white-sanded Plage Leroux turned up orange starfish, blue-head wrasses and sea turtles. We arrived at Plage de la Perle at dusk, and watched it radiate soft pink tones against the sunset.

We spent a morning at Jardin Botanique de Deshaies, whose mountain landscape abounds with noisy birds: cockatoos, lorikeets and hummingbirds.

On the southwestern coast, we stopped at Vieux Habitants, home to the country's oldest (circa 1638) parish. Basse Terre is also Guadeloupe's agriculture region, rich with plantations producing bananas, sugar cane, cacao beans, coffee and the liquor rhum agricole, made via a distilling process unique to the French West Indies. A mountain road led us to l'Habitation la Griveliere, an original coffee and cocoa plantation still operating today, where we toured its water mill and preserved masters home and slave quarters.

The sea surrounding tiny Pigeon Island, a 15-minute ferry ride from Basse Terre's west coast, is home to Reserve Cousteau, a protected underwater park that Jacques Cousteau deemed one of the top diving spots in the world. Guadeloupe is replete with crystal-clearwater coves fronting empty beaches where we swam out with merely a snorkel amid colorful coral reefs, exotic fish and sea turtles.

Naturally, we were eager to sample local fare. The cuisine, incorporating French, African, Indian and Caribbean flavors and cooking principles, proved excellent, and we didn't have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the best of it. Most ingredients are grown, caught or procured locally, and available in the tiniest roadside patisserie and romantic seaside cafes. Many days, we picked up sandwiches for the beach.

After trying for several days, we finally dined at the acclaimed L'Otentik, near Plage de Grande Anse. Like many Basse Terre restaurants, it opens and closes at random times. But the bass in Caribbean passion sauce was heavenly. Another night, we found the garden restaurant at Habitation du Compte, a plantation manor hotel on a hill overlooking the sea. Perhaps the fanciest we encountered, but we arrived wearing shorts and were greeting warmly. Again, the meal was divine; cod pudding roulade salad topped with smoked salmon and local snapper in a creole mustard. This being France, we couldn't pass up dessert: coconut beignets under coconut sorbet topped with "hot-blown" coconut flakes.

Grande Terre

Midweek, we crossed the bridge to Point-a-Pietre, Grande Terre's metropolitan center, to visit Memorial ACTe. Opened in 2015, this is a worthwhile museum/cultural center commemorating victims of slavery, past and present. The powerful architectural design, on the site of a former slave-worked sugar factory, effectively depicts a tragic history rooted to the land.

Continuing around this island, we headed for the reef-protected white sand beaches fronting the southern towns of Sainte Anne and Saint-Francois. A bastion of elegant summer-clad vacationers speaking in a variety of foreign tongues, Sainte Anne was buzzing with colorful outdoor markets filled with pungent barrels of spices, exotic fruit, seafood, rum punch and homemade delicacies. Low-key resorts and charming inns are tucked behind bluffs by the beach and in the hills above town. We wandered around the craft village and dined in French cafes. The billowy white beaches are never overly crowded. We spent an afternoon on secluded Bois Jolan, with its gentle surf and abundance of shade beneath swaying coconut palms.

Beyond Saint-Francois, Point des Chateau, Guadeloupe's easternmost tip, is a remarkable craggy band of black sand overlooking bold rock formations poking out of the fierce Atlantic. We explored the historic fort and took in the breathtaking views of Guadeloupe's islands.

For a different vibe, we drove along Grande Terre's western shore where the beach foliage is wild and unrefined. We spent the morning at the empty, palm-shaded Plage de la Chappele, known for surfing and magnificent views of Basse Terre. North from there, the coastline gives way to rocky cliffs and sharp overhangs, perpetually showered by a crashing sea. We followed the road around the island's northern tip, until we reached the granddaddy of panoramic bluffs, Pointe de la Grande Vigie. Next we stopped at La Porte d' Enfer, or Hell's Gate, a resplendent horseshoe cove whose limestone rock "gates" protect the golden beach from the roaring Atlantic Ocean.

Then it was time to explore some of the outer islands. As our ferry approached the glimmering blue harbor of Terre-de-Haute, Les Saintes, it was instantly obvious why UNESCO designated the bay one of the world's prettiest. The ferry docked in the yacht yard of a lush green island whose rolling hills were dotted with gleaming white houses topped with terracotta roofs.

Cars aren't permitted, but a handful of outfits rent scooters and open-air electric cars. Soon, we were speeding away, up the steep vertical path toward Fort Napoleon. The current fort is built atop the grounds of the original (18th-century) fort that was destroyed by the English, and includes a museum and a cactus garden crawling with iguanas.

The island's most beautiful beaches, Plage Pompierre and tiny Pain du Sucre, require treks down rocky paths, where we were rewarded with pristine snorkeling pools in protected coves. Before we boarded the ferry back, we stopped at the Tourment d'Amour carts, selling traditional cakes with rum-soaked coconut centers, allegedly created by wives of sailors for their husbands' voyages. The legend goes that when the cakes go stale, it's time for them to come home.

As we reluctantly drove to the airport on our final day, we congratulated ourselves on discovering Shangri-La, and vowed to keep it to ourselves. Then we came home and told everyone.

Guadeloupe

If you go: Guadeloupe, in the Lesser Antilles' Leeward Islands, is an outpost of France. French is the primary language, and many locals speak no English. Temps hover in the 80s year-round. January-April is high season, when rains and humidity give way to long days of endless blue skies.

Getting there: Norwegian Air offers twice-a-week nonstop flights from BWI, JFK and Boston Logan to Point-a-Pitre, mid-November through March, from $99.

Stay:

Hotel Amaudo: Although not on the beach, this boutique property overlooks an emerald ocean cove in Saint-François. Guests rave about the personal service, generous rooms and delicious breakfast. From $170. hotel-guadeloupe.gp/index.html.

Le Jardin Malanga: High in the hills of southern Basse Terre, this lodge-style accommodation offers lovely guest rooms, ocean-fronting infinity pool and epicurean dining. From $249. jardinmalanga.com.

Des Hotels et de Iles: Offering readers 10 percent discount at four of its properties, complimentary Wi-Fi and a welcome cocktail; use code SUN2016, valid until May 2017.

Dine:

L'Otentik: Superb, reasonably priced French/Caribbean fusion fare. From $15. Deshaies, Basse Terre. Search L'Otentik Deshaies on Facebook.

Le Metis Cafe: Lively French-fare bistro in Saint-François, with an English-speaking wait staff. From $15. lestablesdegwada.com/le-metis-cafe-saintt-francois.html#_=_.

Beaches: Just grab a map, your sunscreen and go. Definitely take a day trip to Les Saintes or Marie-Gallant island.

Parc National de la Guadeloupe: A spectacular rain forest surrounding the volcano La Soufriere. Basse Terre. guadeloupe-parcnational.fr.

Reserve Cousteau and Pigeon Island: One of the world's finest marine environments. Basse Terre. reserve-cousteau.com.

Driving: If you can't drive a stickshift, reserve well in advance. Road signs are in French, so bring an English-language GPS.

Zika: Mosquitoes are prominent and the CDC has reported outbreaks of Zika. Women of childbearing age should avoid the region, and other visitors should bring effective insecticides. Choose a hotel with air-conditioning where the windows can stay shut.

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