Friendly, unfettered, Terre de Haut doesn't even have traffic lights

THE BALTIMORE SUN

See if you can relate to this vacation image: You stroll out of your affordable French West Indies apartment as the sun gives up for the day. The mission is to run into town on the Peugeot scooter to pick up some wine and bread to go with dinner.

It's a small island, maybe 6 square miles, and the unpolluted night air envelops you as you wind down past the main harbor.

Now that the hot part of the day is over, the merchants are swinging open their shuttered doors again, inviting business.

After five minutes, you pull up directly in front of a small grocery store. No stoplights, no parking spaces and no lines. You leave with a nice bottle of French table wine for the equivalent of $4 or so. The 2 1/2 -foot-long loaf of bread, baked that afternoon and good enough to make you tear off a chunk on the way home, costs less than $1.

The perfumed air, so sweet you feel like driving home more slowly just to savor it, is free.

Welcome to Terre de Haut (pronounce it tare-duh-oh), a one-hour ferry boat ride south of Pointe a Pitre, Guadeloupe. This island and its neighbor, Terre de Bas (tare-duh-bah), are the only inhabited islands of a small group called "Les Saintes" (lay-sant).

The playground of choice

Several Americans we met on our latest trip say that for them Terre de Haut has replaced St. Bart's, the better-known French playground off St. Martin. Terre de Haut, they told us, is what their old favorite was like 20 years ago -- before its own success made it too expensive and too "resorty" for them.

As on St. Bart's, mountainous terrain kept Terre de Haut from being planted with sugar cane, thus avoiding slavery. Instead, both were settled by fishermen and their families from northern France. Now, Terre de Haut's population of 1,500 is a mixture of people who are white, black and all shades in between. The locals seem to like, not resent, well-mannered foreigners, especially if they try to speak French.

While tourism is growing in importance, fishing is still the mainstay here. Clustered around the irregular shoreline of this 2 1/2 -mile long island, you'll see brightly painted wooden boats tugging at their moorings and blue nets drying in the sun.

There are only 200 hotel rooms on the island. They fill up during the winter season, which runs from Dec. 15 to April 15, and in August, a traditional vacation month in France.

Many of the island's devoted fans -- mostly from France, Switzerland and Belgium -- come for more than a week and choose to stay in studio apartments offered for rent by the locals. These cost less than the hotels and put you in the mainstream of island life, which is centered around "Bourg," the closest the island has to a downtown.

It's part of everyday life here, with stores, sidewalk cafes and an open-air produce market. But it also has been protected as a historic district by the French government. The result looks like New Orleans of a century ago. Everywhere you turn you will see colorful old buildings, their tin roofs painted red, their balconies decked out with gingerbread trim, their open windows framed by heavy wooden shutters.

The price for all this charm turns out to be very reasonable.

One American traveler told us he gave up on St. Bart's when he took two friends for pizza and beer and received a bill for $90. At Terre de Haut's charming little waterfront equivalent, Le Pizzeria Genois, the bill might have been a third as much.

Lodging, too, is reasonable by Caribbean standards. You can rent a harborfront, two-bedroom apartment at Le Village Creole for $81 a night off season, or $137 a night in season. A well-furnished studio apartment rented from a local might cost $40 to $60 a night. And a charming room with a view, plus access to one of the island's three swimming pools, can be had at the Auberge Les Petits Saints for $100 off season, $120 in season.

But the reasons why adventurous Americans are drawn to Terre de Haut go way beyond price.

Preservation a plus

Being off the beaten path means Terre de Haut has kept more of its beauty. Iguanas, an uncommon sight on most of the islands these days, are common here. Like the birds and the wild goats, they are protected by law.

Unlike on St. John and St. Bart's, where hundreds of rental cars crisscross the roads daily, you will find no cars for rent here. The island's small size makes cars unnecessary. Walking downtown from most of the rental units might take 10 or 15 minutes. You can rent a scooter, but there is a law designed to cut down on traffic. It prohibits tourists from riding scooters through town from 9 a.m. to noon and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The result: an island with no traffic and no traffic lights. People just walk down the middle of the streets, occasionally moving aside for one of the 10 vans that carry day-trippers back and forth to the beaches or a local on his scooter. You find yourself saying "Bonjour" to passers-by.

The island's main disadvantages for Americans are the language gap and the relative difficulty in getting here. Almost no one speaks English, so you better bring a phrase book and brush up on that high-school Francais.

Getting there

As for getting here, most North American visitors arrive in Pointe a Pitre too late to get to Terre de Haut the same day.

The choices in the morning are a ferry boat ride or a more expensive hop squeezed into one of the little airplanes of Air Guadeloupe. Unless you absolutely, positively hate sea travel, you should try the boats that leave every morning from the main harbor at Pointe a Pitre.

Called La Darse, the harbor is a jumble of open-air merchants at this time of day.

There are dozens of produce ladies, with freshly picked mangoes, bananas and oranges from their own yards spread out artistically on table tops. Nearby, the owners of mobile food trucks dispense luscious French pastries and impeccable cafe au lait.

Also, when you go by ferry boat, you arrive the way the first settlers did, passing uninhabited Ilet a Cabrit to enter a postcard-perfect natural harbor.

Up high on your left, you can see the well-restored Fort Napoleon, which has guarded the harbor since the early 1800s.

But let's face it: Not many people go to the Caribbean to see the forts. They want a good beach and great restaurant meals, and this place has both. However, just as with the language situation, Terre de Haut makes you work a little for your fun.

Except for one hotel, none are right on a beach. Often, you have to hike down a dirt path. But it's worth it.

Pain de Sucre and the clothing-optional Anse de Crawen are both perfect half-moon-shaped beaches with snorkeling possibilities at the outside edges. There are others to choose from, too. For those who want a deeper involvement with the crystal-clear waters that surround Terre de Haut and the other "saints," there are small boats for rent and there is a dive shop that takes both divers and snorkelers out to the Les Saintes' untrammeled reefs.

For us, great restaurant meals have become another major reason for going back. There are at least two dozen serving home-style Creole food, plus the pizzeria, a fancy French restaurant, and even its first burger-and-fries place, which the owner has proudly dubbed First Food.

You might start the evening with a ti punch. This potent drink, a standard on the island, is made with a shot of rum, some sugar and fresh lime juice.

A great place to imbibe is at La Jardin Creole, a second-story restaurant with a narrow balcony overlooking a waterfront park next to the docks where your boat arrived.

It's a three-minute walk from there to one of the island's best-known Creole restaurants, Chez Line (shay-leen).

Wooden shutters swing open at each window, allowing breezes to float freely through the old bungalow that Terre de Haut native Line Dourrifourt has converted into a restaurant. For 60 francs, equal to 12 U.S. dollars, she will serve you a full meal of appetizer, main course with side dish and great French bread, and dessert. For the main course, you will probably be offered a choice of fresh fish or chicken, prepared with wonderful Creole sauces.

Terre de Bas

If your trip to Terre de Haut has boosted your pioneer spirit, try spending a day or even a night on Terre de Bas. A new boat with a canvas awning overhead will take you on the 15-minute journey the even less-developed sister island. You can take a rental bike with you for free, but taking a scooter costs extra.

Bigger than Terre de Haut, Terre de Bas is wild and overgrown, except for two settlements, Grande Anse (big beach) near the boat dock and a fishing village named for the Petite Anse (little beach) on the other side of the island.

If you want, you can be the only overnight guest on Grande Anse. Just give Josephe Pineau a call at La Belle Etoile, a combination bar, restaurant and lodge. Her apartment is a romantic contraption of open rafters with sunlight peeking in over the walls and under the metal roof. Its selling feature is the wide, shuttered window facing the sea. The studio rents for 200 francs a night, or about $40. For only 300 francs ($60), Madame Pineau will include dinner for two, served on the restaurant's beachfront veranda.

Plan to stay in Les Saintes for at least a week. Instead of feeling like you are on vacation, you may feel more like you have been allowed to drop in on a relaxed circle of friends. Like us, you may find you are more comfortable riding your scooter "home" with a loaf of French bread than you ever felt driving home on the freeway.

B6 There, you've been warned. The place is addictive.

If you go . . .

As you might expect, lining up a trip to an "undiscovered island" like Terre de Haut is harder than, say, buying a package plan to Antigua.

From many U.S. cities, you can take American Airlines to its Caribbean hub in San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there, you fly to Raizet Airport, located on the outskirts of Guadeloupe's largest tTC city, Pointe a Pitre. From Washington, D.C., I have paid anywhere from $320 to $500 for the round trip.

Unfortunately, the American Airlines flight doesn't arrive in Guadeloupe until 11 p.m., so you'll have to spend the night, then take a boat or plane to Terre de Haut the next day.

The best place for overnighting is the shiny new Hotel Saint-John which overlooks La Darse, the pier where the boats leave for Les Saintes each morning. The cab ride from the airport should cost 50 francs, or around 10 U.S. dollars.

(To directly dial any Guadeloupe or Les Saintes telephone number from the United States, start by dialing 011-590, then the six-digit phone number.)

The two main ferry boat companies are Brudey Freres (90-04-48) and ATE/Trans Antilles Express (95-13-43). The price is the same for either company. Both leave Guadeloupe at 8 a.m. and Terre de Haut at 4 p.m. Brudey operates the fastest crafts, the sea-skimming Tropic and Regina, which make the trip in around 45 minutes vs. 1 hour and 15 minutes for Trans Antilles' Emeraude or Agathea. You'll pay 150 francs, or about 30 U.S. dollars, for an "aller-retour," or round-trip ticket. You can use the return portion any time. There is no need to make reservations with either ferry boat company. Just show up at least 15 or 20 minutes before departure.

For $30 one-way, Air Guadeloupe runs two round trips to Terre de Haut -- at 8 a.m. and again at 5 p.m., except on Sundays, when there is no morning trip.

American Airlines or a good travel agent should be able to book Air Guadeloupe flights for you as part of your ticket package. If you speak French and need to call the airline: Air Guadeloupe (82-28-35 on Pointe a Pitre; 99-51-23 on Terre de Haut).

Whether you are going by air or sea, let your hotel-keeper know in advance so he can arrange to meet you and your baggage. There is no charge for this service. The owners of both Village Creole (99-53-83) and Auberge Les Petits Saints (99-50-99) speak English.

If you want to explore Terre de Bas, Brudey Freres again is your ferry boat operator, with five round trips most days, four on Sundays and holidays. The crew will collect 25 francs ($5) for your round trip after the boat shoves off.

There are several restaurants on Terre de Bas, where you can enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner by calling ahead. I've enjoyed Chez Arlette, located near the pier (99-81-66). Or call Josephe Pineau to dine or stay at La Belle Etoile (99-83-69).

While most lodgings and restaurants accept VISA and MasterCard, you will need French francs and franc-denominated traveler's checks for cabs and groceries, incidentals and some restaurant meals.

The dollar has fluctuated in value between 5 and 7 francs within the last year. We divide franc prices by 5 for a quick fix on the dollar amount.

American Express is one good source for francs. You can also convert dollars or dollar-denominated traveler's checks at a currency exchange inside the San Juan airport. On Terre de Haut, there is only one bank, Credit Agricole. Located near the dock, this little branch is only open on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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