When we tell people that we’ve just come back from a week in Guadeloupe, it’s surprising how often the response is, “Where’s Guadeloupe?” It’s right in between several other popular Caribbean winter getaways that we northerners seek out – even the most winter-hardy of us – with Antigua, the British West Indies, and the Dominican Republic just to the north and west of Guadeloupe and St. Lucia, Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago just to the south of it. And, it has a robust tourist industry to boot.
So why is this gem of a sun destination so little known to many of our friends and acquaintances? Because it traditionally has catered to tourists from France. Nearly 84% of tourists to Guadeloupe are from France, 10% from the rest of the EU, 3.5% from the U.S., and 1.5% or so from Canada. Wow. And why would that be??? Because Guadeloupe (and Martinique and Dominica) are part of France. And they’re not overseas territories of France with some partial status, they are full-fledged departments (like provinces) of France. A visit to Guadeloupe is not just a marvelous place to bask on white sand beaches, eat delicious French and Creole gastronomic creations, and learn about their history and varied geographic landscapes, it’s also the perfect place to practice your French!
Like most of the islands in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe was originally populated by Amerindian tribes, first the Arawaks and then the Caribs. It was the Caribs who “welcomed” Christopher Columbus in 1493, during his second trip to the New World; Columbus gave the island the name Guadeloupe during that visit. A Spanish attempt at a settlement was repelled by the Caribs early on. The French arrived in 1635 and established a trading post; not a good-news story for the Caribs. Subsequently there was a long and somewhat tortuous back and forth between French rule and British rule, with brief oversight even by Sweden in the midst of various wars in Europe. It was the Treaty of Paris in 1763 in which France and Britain agreed to “give” Canada to Britain and Guadeloupe to France. Canada and Guadeloupe, talk about apples and oranges! Guadeloupe became an extremely important producer of sugar cane (that would not work well in Canada!), and hence refined sugar and rum, which of course was made possible before the days of mechanization by the importation of slaves and the sad, sad history of slavery. Slavery ended in Guadeloupe in 1848.
Today, Guadeloupe is a safe, stable, friendly department of France with a population of around 400,000 people. Tourism is by far and away their biggest industry, with agriculture (bananas – 50% of their exports, sugar, pineapples, etc.) and light industry (rum, etc.) and service filling out most of the rest of their economy. Their main market is continental France. And French – and a French-based Creole – is definitely the predominant language.
Guadeloupe’s main two islands (out of 12 in its archipelago) are striking in their geographical contrasts. The western island, Basse-Terre, is mountainous, with an active volcano, dense tropical rain forests (with requisite localized rain clouds), black sand beaches (volcanic sand from old lava), and stunning waterfalls. The eastern island, Grande-Terre, boasts rolling countryside with coral outcroppings, fields of banana trees, sugar cane and other fruits and vegetables, and beautiful white sand beaches. A third cluster of islands we visited, Les Saintes, was different again, with a very dry microclimate and mainly cactus-type vegetation. There’s definitely something for everyone.
A look at Guadeloupe through pictures
All in all, well worth a visit for some serious mid-winter sun and beach time, and also for learning lots of interesting new things. 🙂
Image credits: Jane Fritz, Wikipedia