A journey to Caribbean that was not just about lying on the beach. Something about nature, sights and how terribly hot it was until the rain came to the country of rum in September 2015.
The summer was just about to start when me and my friend Sýma decided to travel somewhere far. This meant Caribbean, Asia or something like that with clear criteria – cheap flight ticket. We checked my favourite Pelikán (Czech version of Skyscanner) and found several tickets around 440 euro. Our interest was caught the most by a town called Pointe-a-Pitre that we had never heard of. It came out that it is on Guadeloupe, a small island from the category of Caribbean where some of the best rums come from. Further investigation revealed even more interesting facts connected to Guadeloupe being French and therefore practically in the EU. This means that you can for example bring back home more rum.
A journey to the country of rum
As already said, Guadeloupe is basically France. Bit exotic but still France. This means no visa for EU member countries necessary, it is safe there, things work quite in a European way (just French style) and with no special vaccinations needed. Yep and guess how much it costs to call home to Europe. Of course, the same like from Paris. These rules also apply to export of alcohol (hell yeah!) and cigarettes. It might be forbidden elsewhere but people take from their holiday here bags stuffed with incredibly good ripe mangoes and delicious passion fruit. I don´t know how it would work with direct flights to Prague but no one gives a damn in Paris. The biggest problem of this holiday appears to be a language barrier. French firmly believe there is no reason to learn foreign languages and we were not able to overcome this presumption with any of confronted individuals.
The departure was getting nearer as it showed that Sýma, as usually, can´t go. If you ever tried cancelling you flight ticket, you will know that majority of the price are different fees but not the flight itself. Not worth the effort with the cancelation. Anyway, I managed to find a substitute in one day which, even with a driving licence, was a big relief. You don´t want to travel on Guadeloupe without a car.
You can get these flight tickets for a similar price regularly as it is a sort of longer French public transportation. People travel from France to their exotic weekend houses and islanders send their kids to schools in France and go visit them. A cardboard box strapped up with a string and polystyrene boxes filled with fresh fish are a common sight at the baggage reclaim belt. You can even buy a bouquet of flowers at the airport florist´s to take with you on the plane.
If you fly from Prague, you have to change flights in Paris between Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports. This fact deserves its own paragraph. We had known this might be tricky and 90 minutes might not be enough. Therefore we had just cabin bags to save time. Lucie was not such a confident traveller but I believed in myself. I always find my way round and have been to sooo many different airports. I have the skill and can´t be surprised by anything. At least I thought so. However, Charles de Gaulle is not a normal airport! This place is the essence of everything French that the rest of the world hates!!! Yes, three exclamation marks. No one will help you and if they give you advice, it will be bad. We did not find the bus transfer to the second airport, I gave up and we took a cab. Black page in my travel history. At least the service on plane was good and they kept serving us wine and as the journey proceeded even traditional rum punch.
Things to pack and to bring back
This is a warm place which means several t-shirts, shorts, skirts, underwear and beach stuff is necessary. Flip flops on your feet and some light hiking shoes. Don´t forget to get a bottle of repellent with high percentage of DEET. Can be difficult around Europe, I got mine from a special shop for mushroom pickers (Czech national hobby) Les Houbeles. Also concerning suntan lotion there is no time for bravery. Use some with UV filter 50 already before you exit the plane. I got burnt anyway after my first day by the sea. Both repellent and high quality sun cream can be easily purchased at any local chemist´s. If you packed reasonably, a cabin bag should be enough for two week holidays but better take some bigger bag with you as you will be bringing back a lot of souvenirs. My bag was 10 kilos heavier on the way home. European alcohol import limits you know…
Export of alcohol is desired and supported, it is usual to get some agricole (a type of rum made in this area using fresh sugar cane juice) in a box like for wine with contents between 3 and 5 litres. I managed to buy 3.5 litres for approximately 22 euro. What you can´t get here is bad rum. Even the cheapest ones are better than most average ones back home. Sky is the limit when it comes to price and both gourmands and snobs will be satisfied.
Markets (the most beautiful was in Saint Anne) offer vanilla, exotic spices and high quality extracts for baking. If you like exotic fruit, get yellow passion fruit, avocado the size of baby´s head and sweet smelling ripe mangoes
I don´t really fancy trying my luck most of the time. Hitchhiking and sleeping where it would work out is a thing a stopped doing some ten years ago. That is why we chose air bnb to book our accommodation in advance. What a brilliant idea! There are not many hotels here, the island is mostly visited by the French who just rent flats for the summer, bnb´s are hard to identify from the street.
The place is not very multicultural. You might spot one or two English speaking tourists a day, tourists from neighbouring islands don ´t come here much. Locals are proud of low crime rates, because they are neither British nor Americans and don´t have much drug business going on (main cocaine routes avoid the island) as they claim. Some would say the reason for lack of non- French visitors is that French don´t speak any foreign languages which discourages a lot of travellers and also it is a bit boring here (because main cocaine routes lead somewhere else).
We were warned it would be expensive here. I don´t think so. Just groceries were above average. We found great accommodation including almost empty family house with a swimming pool in a typical suburb or our own yacht. The yacht was 15 euro per night per person and was parked in the marina of Saint Francois as long as its owner was not needing it. Don´t picture a billionaire´s super yacht. It was just a nice small boat with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a toilet. Unfortunately it is no longer available. The owner has probably arrived.
Trips and transportation
They say you can get around the island by bus. Talking about bigger towns, I would agree. Anyway it is much better with a car as you would not get to most spots without it. So we booked a car for quite a good price before our arrival and then picked it up at the airport. There is a lot of car rentals here and they are used a lot. Our car was small, cheap, chipped, vain, with a very weak engine and French. Or should I simply say we rented a typical cheap French car? Roads were full of them. The good thing was nobody cared about the scratches when we brought it back. One or two more…the guy from the rental company just checked the number of rear mirrors and tyres and wished us a nice day.
If you plan trips outside the island then of course by ferry. There are many going from Saint Francois but only in the touristic season. Lot of them are cancelled or go only from Pointe-a-Pitre in parts of the year like September. The boats are modern, prices are affordable. You can rent a scooter or a car for a day on surrounding islands. We just managed to visit Desirade, if you have more than one day, try Marie Galante, where the best rum (allegedly) in the world is produced.
Who has not checked the map yet, might appreciate the information that the island has a shape of a butterfly. Right side Grande Terre is more civilized, the left one called Basse Terre is mostly covered in forests. Both parts have road network on west European level and can be pretty busy as a lot of people commute to work.
What to eat, see and visit
I can´t help myself but when I get the choice between top tourist season and risk of worse weather, I always take the risk. We were here in September at the time when even bars were closing for their regular maintenance and own holiday. The rain season was coming, it was terribly hot and mosquitos biting like hell, but there were no people either. So when we set off on a snorkeling trip to Sainte Rose, we were the only people there together with our guide and three young French. If you also want to try this great experience, just go to the port and find one of the stalls selling different combinations of snorkeling, diving, picnic and boat rides. However, most of them were closed during our visit. We went to several small islands, saw a birds nesting place, smoking Soufriére on Montserrat from the distance, snorkeled by a shipwreck in crystal clear water full of colourful fish, got several cups of punch and tasty baguette, meeting just one fisherman during the whole trip. In the port, there were only pelicans waiting for fishermen to throw them some of the fish they were selling to god knows who…
It was similarly calm and empty wherever we went. The only lively place around was the area around port in Saint Francois at night, when locals (not the white ones) went out to have fun. And maybe a little bit on Saint Anne beaches which are the cleanest, most beautiful and best known. There is the already mentioned market as well, selling spice, fruit, punch etc.. Punch or Ti punch is terribly good mix of white rum with passion fruit juice, but there are many other varieties. While lying on the beach you might spot an old lady standing by a wooden barrel and putting some stuff into it. Don´t hesitate, stand up and go to her. The barrel is full of fresh homemade coconut sorbet made of coconut milk, sugar, vanilla and ice. It is not yellow as some Central Europeans might suggest. Vanilla ice cream is not supposed to be yellow either. It is snow white with small black pieces of vanilla. The real shit! Cup of this sorbet in your hand adds the extra portion of laziness and feeling like a billionaire while lying on the beach. There are also bars serving cocktails by the beach. Don´t try them because you would probably never want to drink European version of piňa colada again.
We got fed up with the beach pretty quickly. If you are like us, you can then go to Saint Francois which was our base for almost a week. The town was nice with a fish market near the port every morning and bbq stands offering creole specialities in the evening. There is also a with good prices and first class fruit and vegetables in the centre (at the round place) and one big Casino supermarket offering European as well as local produce close to the marina. If you need wi-fi, you can catch at/near most cafés in the marina.
The end and beginning of everything can be found round 20 minute drive from Saint Francois at Pointe des Chateaux. You can go swimming, surfing, buy more sorbet and in the first place enjoy a breathtaking view. Unfortunately, swimming on Guadeloupe is not what it used to be. Sea currents bring an immense number of algae that pollute water and decompose on the coast. They used to arrive in later part of the year but there are more and more. They come from the entry of Amazon that is full of dirt with fertilizers coming from fields on its banks. This causes their excessive growth.
There are a lot of places recommended by guide books (just don´t try any apps, they don´t work properly and one of them even had comment in French saying: “I don´t understand why this should be in English, we are a French speaking country!!!”) and they all have one thing in common – you usually expect amusement for at least half a day and then have seen it all in 30 minutes. This applies to most visited towns and sights. Let´s take the windmills as an example (Oh, a windmill, sweet! Is that it? Nothing inside? Really?) or a slave burial site, where we only late realised that they probably would not built tombs for slaves in those good old times and the only thing to be found there were several stones, some signs telling how much EU paid for the signs or whatever and rotting algae (well I actually found a kitten there as well).
A one day trip to the national park on Basse Terre (website in French only) with a well-known waterfall Cascade aux Ecrevisses and subtropical forest, ended up surprisingly the same way. We didn´t have time to see it all but for me one of the highlights was a humble walk around the country side near Lamentine in the evening. Avocados on the ground like apples in our orchards, bushes carrying star fruit just waiting for me to take out my bag, fields of sugar cane, a buffalo and exotic trees and sounds…
Tale of a kitten (cause people love kittens) and how the rain season started
Image being thousands of kilometres away from home (where you know each and every cat shelter) and finding an abandoned kitten. On a place where you actually didn´t want to go to and had almost changed your plans of going their twice along the way. First you try to find an excuse why to leave it where it is. This can be a bit difficult taking in account following: the meowing minikitten runs out of bushes in an area with no sweet water, just rotting and smelling algae, house ruins, boiling hot and you. And it refuses to stop following you.
This tiny piece of cat was following me up the steep hill on the hot road with temperatures around 35 °C in the shade and not giving up. Lucie was already bitching about it, having guessed what would follow and not being keen on cats at all. So the three of us walked until we reached the car. Lucie tried to prevent the kitten entering the car by claiming it would definitely have fleas which are always after her. However, her defence was not strong enough. With the cat on my lap I realized that it was in fact just a walking dehydrated skeleton that grabbed its last chance to survive. Also part of its leg was missing not stopping it from running for its life. I thought that even if I just let it out in the streets of Saint Francois among gangs of street cats, it would have better chances than here.
I called Jean, the guy who was looking after the boat we were staying on and he promised he would look for some new owners. It was actually our last night here. Then we bought some cat food and went home to stuff the kitten with food until it´s unconscious. I locked it in my cabin and got a litter box which it immediately used. Lucie was repeating something about evil fleas and I was praying to a cat god hoping she would not notice that the tiny tomcat really had them. As no one was calling I decided to give it a try and find a new home for him myself. It was too hot for it to stay on the boat another day.
The first person I asked was doing something on his boat and there was a huge cat sitting next to him. Not his and he was not interested in getting his own. Craving for a happy ending? You can have it. I went to the first shop in marina and asked a young shop assistant whether he wouldn´t want to become a cat owner. He replied. “Well, not really, but my girlfriend probably would.” She came from the other room and immediately fell in love with it. The cat again showed its ability to survive purring loudly in her arms. I pointed out the defect part of the kitten but they didn´t mind and the girl went with it home straight away. I hope, today there is a big tabby tomcat with three legs strolling around Saint Francois..
As I was returning to the boat, I realised this had been the last chance. First heavy drops of rain reached the ground and the season was over. Rain started and last shops and bars closed for holiday.
Two more places that should not be missed
Well, there was some snorkelling in Sainte Rose, a beach in Sainte Anne, nightlife and markets in Saint Francois, wild nature in Basse Terre, worth more exploration, some sightseeing and what about some cherry on our pie? My two last tips are pleasant and relaxing.
If you stay near Pointe-a-Pitre, try swimming by La Datcha. You can park your car straight next to the turning to the beach. The sea is full of locals and you will also notice a pier. This is the place where a small boat goes from, taking people to Illet de Gosier. The tiny island is just around ten minutes from the mainland with return ticket probably for 3 euro. You can sunbathe here, explore a shipwreck left here after some hurricane and see an old ruin of what might have been a restaurant with a lighthouse. Illet de Gosier is popular with locals, they spend their free time here preparing sophisticated barbeque. They are really good at that and it is a mouthwatering show. Got hungry? Enjoy great grilled fish from the only restaurant on the island.
Another experience that can´t be left out at any price is the rum museum by the Reimonenq distillery. There is not much to be exhibited about rum, so they tried to camouflage the small volume of the exposition by filling it by an extensive collection of bugs and butterflies from all over the world. But we know what this is all about. Just a cover up. They let you pretend to be interested in a poster with 50 types of sugar cane knifes but the real thing starts at the exit where a nice lady presses a small plastic cup in your hand and directs you to the degusting station. No sophisticated explanations, you are simply standing there, all alone with a plastic cup in one hand, around 10 bottles of rum and elixir in front of you and all the time you need. Offer of the museum souvenir shop is overwhelming. Cost me a lot but made a lot of people extremely happy. Another overwhelming experience is a short look in their guest book. 90% of the posts are in French, the rest is in Czech. All Czech comments are very positive mentioning the low level of exposition being made up for getting brilliantly drunk just for the price of entrance fee in the end. Luckily I didn´t have to drive. We then went to world known distillery Damoiseau with an old wind mill etc. but it was closed without any warning.
Guadeloupe in the whole is an exotic destination suitable also for less experienced travellers, who want to get some nature, history, taste good food and drinks, not have much stress and spend some time on the beach. Moreover it is safe here. Just remember – speaking at least a little French is essential.