Vivre Une Vie Française en Guadeloupe! (Living a French Life in Guadeloupe!)

We left Antigua at sunrise on December 29th for a lovely 5 hour sail to Guadeloupe. On the way we gawked at Montserrat and the steam coming out of the active volcano. We dropped anchor off the town of Deshaies (pronounced Day-hay), dropped the dinghy, and went to town to check in. 

This place is REALLY French

Our culture shock was immediate. We knew that people spoke French in Guadeloupe, but didn’t realize how culturally French the island is. The first indication was clearing into the country. On the trip thus far, we’ve checked into Bermuda, with the omnipresent and highly efficient Bermuda Harbour Radio looming over the harbour and the formal customs house. Then there was Antigua with the overly bureaucratic customs 3-fer. In Guadeloupe, we waited until 3pm because everything except restaurants that serve lunch is closed from noon to 3pm. At 3pm we dinghied to shore, tied up to the dinghy dock, then walked down the road in search of Le Pelican – a little souvenir shop that has a computer in the corner that you use to clear customs. We filled out the forms (using a non-QWERTY keyboard), printed our clearance papers, and paid a few euros to the proprietor. No customs officials, no reviewing our passports or ship documentation. Got to love the laissez-faire attitude!

The town of Deshaies

As we walked through town, we noticed that no one spoke English, not just the residents, but all the other boaters and visitors. At a restaurant one night we were seated at an outside table and a man walking by stopped and excitedly asked if we were American. He said his family had been in Deshaies on vacation for a week and we were the first English he’d heard.

From Mega Yachts to Fishing Village

Our other culture shock was coming from Antigua, home of the mega-yachts, to Deshaies, a small fishing village. The town center has two roads, each ~¼ of a mile long, one closer to the water and one behind. The roads are lined with small restaurants, souvenir shops, a little grocery, a patisserie (don’t try getting bread at the grocery store!), a wine shop and the local church at the highest point. At one end of town is a marina with about 40 small, mostly wooden, open fishing boats. Each morning between 4am and 7am these boats head out to the open ocean – even when the wind and waves are high. The mountains start just out of town and are lush with rainforest greenery.

Given the lovely surroundings and French culture, the Deshaies anchorage is very popular with French and French Canadian sailors. One day we counted 52 boats anchored in the small harbor. We were anchored fairly close to our neighboring boats. For a few days we had a French flagged catamaran next to us. There was an older couple aboard and the husband wasn’t much of a fan of clothes. Erin was a bit shocked the first time she saw him walking around deck.

Rainbow over the Deshaies Anchorage

From town, a steep and winding road led to the Jardin Botanique de Deshaies. The Botanical Garden was a surprise for such a small town with koi pools, two aviaries with parrots, macaws and other colorful birds, a waterfall, and paths through many different types of gardens. It also has a lovely restaurant nestled on a hill so we felt like we were in the trees.

The aviary at Jardin Botanique de Deshaies
Cool tree at Jardin Botanique de Deshaies

Starting the New Year Lost on a River

We spent a low key New Year’s Eve in Deshaies. After a mean game of Monopoly, Erin really wanted to watch the ball drop, so Doug figured out how to live stream US TV to the boat. It was a little surreal to watch Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve from a little anchorage in Guadeloupe.

The next day we headed out on a hike up the Deshaies River. The hike was described in our guidebook as 1 – 2 hours in the rainforest with a mix of scattered paths along the river and scrambling up the rocks until you hit a road that takes you back to town.

Walking bridge at the mouth of the Deshaies River

After 2.5 hours of often difficult, but very fun bushwhacking over rocks and through dense forest, we hadn’t met up with the road and the river split into two tributaries. The guidebook didn’t mention this! In retrospect, I suspect that all the water from the hurricanes washed out the paths and changed the course of the river, but we didn’t think of that at the time.

Erin making her way along the river

The kid’s blood sugars were running a little low (both kids are type 1 diabetic) given the difficult climb in the heat, and we were running out of carbohydrate-filled snacks. Plus, we didn’t know which tributary to take. So we decided to climb a steep cliff to where we could see more sky and less forest. We came out on a sloping field with tall grasses and rocks, and we heard a motor sound in the distance (a very good sign!). We walked up the field and eventually saw a tall fence with barbed wire at the top. It looked like we were fenced in!  We found a gate with a chain and lock, and were relieved that it wasn’t actually locked and we could get out. We found a tiny road/driveway and passed a guy with a leaf blower (the motor sound) and a nun cleaning up the land.  Neither looked at us at all as we passed, or maybe they looked at how sweaty and dirty we were and pretended not to look!  We kept on our way and passed an entrance for the Mere Du Salut which I assume is a convent. Apparently we had emerged on their land. We were happy to eventually find a sign pointing the way down to Deshaies.  

Entrance to the Mere du Salut

Heading Inland

After spending a while in Deshaies, we decided to rent a car to explore inland Guadeloupe. Doug read that there was a Hertz rental in the next town over with a woman who spoke English that would pick us up in Deshaies. He spoke to her and she agreed to pick us up at the church in town. She arrived an hour later than planned (island time!), but was very nice. She brought two little girls with her, so all 7 of us squished into a compact car (5 of us in the back seat) and drove to her office to do the paperwork. The girls only spoke French and were very interested in Erin’s diabetes equipment. It was a funny ride trying to describe a continuous glucose monitor to a 5 and 7 year old without a common language.

Mainland Guadeloupe is two islands connected by two bridges over a small waterway between. Each island is roughly shaped like a wing of a butterfly. Deshaies is on the northwestern part of the western wing called Basse-Terre. Oddly, Basse-Terre means “low-land” and it’s mountainous. The other island is Grande-Terre which means “big-land” and it’s the smaller island. I have no explanation.

Once we got the car we explored Basse-Terre via Route de la Traversée (Traverse Road), a well maintained road that snakes through the mountains and rainforest with hairpin turns and crazy steep hills. Guadeloupe drivers drive WAY too fast, so it was a bit of a wild ride. Along the way we did a hike in the rainforest and checked out a waterfall.  

Cooling off along the river beyond the waterfall

We stopped in Petit Bourg (Little Town) on the eastern coast of Basse-Terre for lunch. The town looked deserted, which is fairly normal in Guadeloupe between noon and 3 when everything closes. We found a restaurant and walked around inside, but no one was there. A little searching and we found a second restaurant with no customers, but two people who worked there. The waitress was a super nice older woman who only spoke French and had a never ending smile.

We only speak a little French, but we worked it out and had a simple, but amazing chicken and fish lunch. Plus a local specially that came complimentary with our food – Ti Punch. It’s a shot of local rum, with a little sugar at the bottom and a lime. It’s served in a glass about the size of two shot glasses with a tiny spoon to dissolve the sugar and mix in the lime juice. Yum! The whole experience reminded us of how much we like exploring off the beaten path places.

Rocking and Rolling at Réserve Cousteau

From Deshaies we sailed south to Pigeon Island and the Réserve Cousteau, a protected marine area with great snorkeling and diving. We arrived in the late afternoon and put down our anchor. The rocking and rolling started immediately. Unfortunately, the wind and waves weren’t coordinated as the winds whipped around the hills and the waves curved around the headlands. The result was that Boundless’ bow was into the wind as usual at anchor, but the waves came right from our side and rolled the boat back and forth without end. We tried to shore up everything onboard – plates, pots and pans, cans and jars, etc, but it was impossible to stop the incessant banging. Erin and I slept in the main saloon like when we are underway and healed over. No fun.

But the snorkeling was the best we’ve seen so far on the trip and well worth two rolly nights with little sleep. There was interesting coral and a large variety of fish. Plus, we had a fun dinner ashore with a French waitress who couldn’t help but giggle every time she came near Andy after he mispronounced “bottle”. She kept coming by, giggling and saying “boot-tay, boot-tay”!  

Réserve Cousteau snorkeling

Picking up the Grands

From the Réserve Cousteau, we did a day long sail around the bottom of the Basse-Terre island and up to where the two islands come together at Guadeloupe’s largest town, Pointe-à-Pitre. We were there to meet my parents who were flying in the next day. We stayed at the Marina Bas Du Fort just south of town. It’s a huge marina with room for 1,080 boats, mostly locally owned boats along with a few transients and charter boat companies. The marina complex is chock full of restaurants and shops and makes for great people watching.

It was so great to see my folks after not seeing them since Maine in September. They arrived in the evening and the next day all 6 of us headed out on the dinghy (yes, we got wet) to downtown Pointe-à-Pitre and the Memorial ACTe museum.  

Mom and Dad in the dinghy at Pointe-à-Pitre

Memorial ACTe is a new museum covering the history of Caribbean slavery and the role of the Caribbean in the slave trade. We spent most of the day there learning about the important role of the Caribbean not only as a place where Africans were owned, worked and died, but also an important stopover for slave trade boats headed to America. A sad, but important story to understand.  

Outside the Memorial ACTe museum  

The Saintes

From Pointe-à-Pitre, we sailed to Îles Des Saintes (The Saintes for short), a beautiful group of islands to the South of Guadeloupe’s main islands. We grabbed a mooring ball off Bourg de Saintes, the main town in The Saintes that bills itself as a “Little Brittany” in the Caribbean. It’s a picturesque little seaside town with red roofed buildings along the shore and dotting up the hills.

The main street is lined with restaurants and the main transportation is walking, scooters, and golf carts. From town, we hiked with my Dad up a steep road to Fort Napoleon with stunning views all around the island and over to mainland Guadeloupe.  

View of Bourg de Saintes from Fort Napoleon

We also had a great snorkeling afternoon at the nearby Îlet à Cabrit. My favorite part of this site was where the island shelf ends and there’s a steep decline into the ocean. The water was so clear that we could easily see as the coral and fish changed as the water got deeper. There was also a huge school of thousands of small white fish with big black eyes that spent time circling around us and undulating with the water.

We had lots of laughs and fun times with my parents hanging out on the boat, walking around town, and enjoying French and Creole food at the local restaurants.  

Sunset at the Saintes

Getting Caught up with “Real Life”

We sailed my folks back to Point-à-Pitre and sadly waved goodbye as they left for the airport. We sailed back to The Saintes the next day catching dinner along the way (we seem to have a knack for catching Mahi).  

Yum, dinner!

The next few days were spent catching up on chores, getting back to boat-schooling, and resuming the regular cadence of life on the boat. We also watched a parade marking the start of Carnaval in The Saintes. We’re looking forward to the larger Carnaval celebrations at our next stop – Martinique.  

Carnaval begins!

10 Replies to “Vivre Une Vie Française en Guadeloupe! (Living a French Life in Guadeloupe!)”

  1. Kristin – what an amazing write up and what a wonderful experience both for you and your parents to visit in the midst of this adventure. Thank you for sharing these moments with us – it’s a gift each time. Stay safe and keep adventuring!

    1. It is. I knew nothing about Guadeloupe before we came except that the former owners of our boat said that The Sainte’s was one of their favorite places. I loved the mountains, rainforests, rivers and unique French/Creole culture.

  2. Your stories and photos are wonderful — we feel as if we are there with you. All very exotic, and great experiences and memories for all of you. Stay safe and well! Love, carolyn and Jack

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