For a special treat, we decided to replace sub-zero temperatures and blizzards with palm-fringed beaches and volcanoes.
Repeated temptations from our Swiss friends who retired to Guadeloupe enhanced our natural curiosity enough to cross the pond and see for ourselves. A reasonably priced flight with XL Airways from Paris to Pointe-à-Pitre made our adventure a whole lot easier than that of Columbus in 1493.
Le Moule – Anse Bertrand – Le Moule – Pointe-à-Pitre – La Traversée – Mahault – Basse Terre – Trois Rivières – Petit Bourg – Pointe-à-Pitre –
Ste. Anne – Le Moule
Arriving in Pointe-à-Pitre after dark, we were very happy to have a pick-up service organised by our friends, Heidy and Markus, with their local friend Pierre. Three years after retirement, Heidy and Markus have fully acclimatised to this French overseas department and are very content with their new home. They spoilt us rotten and gave us a great insight to life in the tropics. Pierre and his wife, Roselyne wined and dined us on Christmas day Guadeloupe style.
Guadeloupe, shaped like a butterfly, has a volcanic west wing, while the east wing is an elevated coral reef. The east wing, Grande-Terre, is predominantly agricultural (sugarcane, tropical fruit & vegetables) and has some beautiful white-sand beaches. Its rolling hills make it quite pleasant for cycling.
The west wing, Basse-Terre, is a whole lot more strenuous with constant steep ups and downs. It is dominated by La Grande Soufrière, the highest volcano in the area, and boasts tropical rainforest and numerous black-sand beaches.
Travelling during high season, without any prior bookings was not a problem thanks to the diligent, friendly service offered by the local tourist bureaus. The gîtes they found for us were often at the end of an extra steep incline of about 20%, but well worth the super-human effort required to get there!
The hospitality we encountered in the gîtes was second to none and often included a delicious evening meal whipped up at very short notice. Sylvie in St-Claude, (Alizés Mers chaudes), even drove us up to the starting point of the volcano hike and lent us her mobile phone to call for her pick-up service when we had finished.
Known as the land of the beautiful waters, Guadeloupe is a rewarding destination for those willing to brave the inclines.
Roseau – Portsmouth – Calibishie – Pont Cassé – Roseau
A two-hour ferry ride brought us to the Nature Island of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame.
Independent from Britain since 1978, Dominica has English as its national language and the most creative flag we have ever seen! Less developed and much smaller than its French neighbours, Dominica remains somewhat off the beaten track due to the absence of an airport that can cater to Boeing 737s.
The island’s capital, Roseau, has considerable colonial charm in the form of colourful wooden houses with balconies and shutters. However, its skyline is often dominated by huge 12-storey cruise ships docked in the harbour. Their 3,000 passengers spill out into town and avail of 5-hour day-trips to “see” the island, before moving on.
Roseau was also our starting point for an excursion to the boiling lake, the second largest in the world. This volcanic hot spring can be reached on foot from Laudat and is a 6-hour return hike.
We happened to venture out on a day with downpours and gusts of wind that were enough to cancel all ferries in the area, but did little to stop us on our mission to Dominica’s number one sight. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of said lake when the steam and clouds were blown away for about 20 seconds!
Tropical flowers abound
A loop of the northern part of the island and back through the centre gave us a wonderful introduction to this unspoilt sparsely populated paradise of rainforest and tropical fruit orchards.
The locals are a friendly, laid back bunch and we were generally greeted with a delayed “Yah mam!” as we cycled past.
The traffic was light and pleasant making cycling very enjoyable, apart from a few hefty climbs that seem endemic to volcanic islands!
Fort-de-France – Les Trois Ilets – Les Anses d’Arlet – Ste-Anne – Le Fançois – Tartane – Le Lorrain – St-Pierre – Fort-de-France
After another two-hour ferry ride we were in Martinique, the flower island. Also a French overseas territory, Martinique is somewhat more developed than Guadeloupe and accommodates a greater number of tourists. It does boast some beautiful palm-fringed beaches, stately “rhumeries” and a mini-Pompeii.
The Schoelcher library, Fort-de-France was built in France in 1889 and then shipped to Martinique as a monument to Victor Schoelcher, the French writer who fought for the abolition of slavery.
The slavery museum was a stark reminder of how these islands became settled by western powers, who practised slavery until 1848. The creole gardens with medicinal plants around traditional huts give a real insight into life in bygone years, while the torture tree leaves little to the imagination.
The southern part of Martinique is studded with beautiful beaches that are safe for swimming, and we checked most of them out with a quick dip en route. Kurt went diving twice and enjoyed the colourful sponges, fishes and conches of the underworld.
Les Anses d’Arlet
Mangroves in Ste-Anne
Two of the biggest exports of these islands are sugar and rum, so no visit would be complete without a tour of a rhumerie or two. The sweet molasses scent wafting in the air will lead you to one on a daily basis.
St-Pierre, once the capital of Martinique, ceased to exist in 1902 when Mount Pelée erupted, killing 30,000 of its 30,003 inhabitants. The ruins of this catastrophe form a glaring contrast to the newly built town, in the shadow of the 1,395m high volcanic threat.
The most fascinating survivor story is that of Ludger Sylbaris, who was conveniently protected by his solitary confinement in the local prison. Pardoned of his crimes when discovered, he spent the remainder of his days as a circus attraction retelling his doomsday encounter!
Typical specialties in all three islands include accras (fish fritters), lambi (conch), crabe farci (stuffed crab), langouste (lobster), boudin (spicy blood sausage) and Colombo (curry).
Main courses are usually accompanied by plantains, yams, manioc and/or sweet potatoes. Of course, no meal is complete without a ti’ punch (small rum, lime and cane syrup drink) to start.
Darina was delighted with the huge selection of freshly made tropical fruit juices. On the road, the cartons of Caresse Antillaise were a very close second best!
Prior to flying over, we read numerous comments about the 3 islands’ unsuitability for cyclists. These are sentiments that we cannot really echo. Our relaxing and rewarding trip was a real taste of holiday in paradise, with a workout thrown in for good measure!
Views from the saddle
Friendly folk in Ste-Anne
Temperatures over Christmas/New Year hovered around 27°C and rainfall was limited to short drizzles and downpours that didn’t merit raingear. Traffic was considerate, people were very welcoming and the food had a nice exotic touch to it. We’ll be back!