Guadeloupe- A Winter Island Paradise

Snorkel with tropical fish, soak up some much-needed sun or explore mangroves and volcanic beaches. Carolyn Boyd finds that Guadeloupe is the d�partement that really does have it all.

Snorkel with tropical fish, soak up some much-needed sun or explore mangroves and volcanic beaches. Carolyn Boyd finds that Guadeloupe is the d�partement that really does have it all. After the summer has drawn to a close in mainland France – souvenir stalls packed away and shutters closed on holiday homes – there's another part of France that is just waking up to welcome those in search of sun. By November, the rains have finished in the overseas d�partement of Guadeloupe and its hotels and restaurants keenly await visitors in search of their own corner of paradise. Once here, they'll find a Caribbean island with a fascinating coastline, which offers everything from turquoise waters lapping against white sandy beaches, to nature reserves that abound with species not found in mainland France. Guadeloupe has been a part of France longer than many more famous destinations, such as Nice, Savoie and Corsica. Yet this archipelago of islands is found in the Caribbean Sea, more than 6,500 kilometres from its governing state and its islands make for a perfect winter holiday destination. Far from cold and rainy northern Europe, you can expect clear, blue skies and temperatures of 25�C to 30�C between November and May. The coastline of the butterfly-shaped main island ranges from wild and rocky cliffs, mangroves and stunning beaches on the eastern wing, known as Grande-Terre, to the beautiful coral reefs and black volcanic beaches of the western wing, Basse-Terre. Our week-long stay was just enough to experience a little of all these areas and in doing so, my husband and I discovered a d�partement that would struggle to find a rival for its variety elsewhere in France. The whole island was easily accessible from our hotel in Gosier, a small seaside town on the south coast of Grande-Terre. And with the island offering the same infrastructure found in mainland France, the roads make for an easy drive in our rented Peugeot. For our first excursion, we headed out to the island's most easterly spot, the Pointe des Ch�teaux. Passing through the towns of Sainte-Anne – with its colourful market in full swing – and Saint-Fran�ois, the road took us out along the sun-drenched peninsula, with white coral beaches on either side. We parked at the end of the road and took the short walk out to the beach that looks out to four limestone needles being thrashed by white-tipped waves in the curved bay. It's a further ten minutes on foot to the top of the cliff where an enormous cross looks out to sea. From the summit, we enjoyed incredible views of the island of D�sirade, the eastern-most island in the archipelago, and back along the south coast of Guadeloupe. Around us, we heard the French chatter of our fellow visitors – not a single Anglophone among them. Wild and rocky

The windswept Route des Ch�teaux marks the southernmost point of the island's east coast where the main town is La Moule. It's a favourite hangout for surfers enjoying the waves and the coastline is wild and rocky all the way up to the northern-most tip at the Pointe de la Grande Vigie, which we visited the next day. It was somewhat quieter than the south coast of Basse-Terre as there are fewer beaches, and so we hiked along a rocky coastal path and looked down on to the cliffs. By standing on tiptoe, we could just about see an impressive circular cove carved out by the sea below, and the sound of the dark blue water could be heard far beneath us. A drive south took us through the sleepy town of Anse-Bertrand and towards Port-Louis, a quiet beach resort with fantastic dive sites off the coast. Its rows of pastel-coloured wooden chalets – each with a shady veranda – lined up alongside the ornately French-style streetlamps on the town's main street reminded us we were still in France. The gorgeous yellow beach is the town's main draw and, finding a spot at its far end with few other people in sight, we settled under a palm tree and then took a dip in the cool, turquoise water, finding it hard to believe we had the place to ourselves. A few miles south of Port-Louis, the coastline changes dramatically. Replacing the white sandy beaches are the mangroves, where the people of Morne-�-l'Eau and Petit-Canal take pride in the conservation of this unique environment. Just before sunset, we boarded a small boat trip for an excursion among the mangroves that had us weaving through narrow canals surrounded by a dark forest of low-level plants. With frigate birds circling overhead and pelicans and egrets flying home to roost, we listened to the commentary from a young Guadeloup�en about how these remarkable plants survive in the salt water. After cruising through the canals closer to shore, a tangled web of roots on either side, we disembarked on a smaller island, where hermit crabs in their thousands scuttled around our feet. We walked through the little island to the other side and waded on to the sandbank. The cool seawater lapped around our ankles as the sun disappeared over the horizon and the birds, whose home we were visiting, glided and squawked overhead. Petit-Canal was the main landing place for slaves, brought from Africa to work in the sugar plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our guide told us about the few brave souls who escaped captivity and fled into the mangroves, where they managed to survive. On the way back from the quay, we stopped in the fading light to look at the Marches des Esclaves, a huge staircase that leads up to the village church, with each step bearing the name of an African tribe. A few days later, we had the chance to explore more mangroves, but in quite a different setting. Off the northeast coast of Basse-Terre lies the R�serve Naturelle du Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin, a huge off-shore nature reserve that boasts mangroves, coral reefs and white sandy palm-fringed islands. Our half-day boat trip with Nico Excursions allowed us to see the best of it and as we motored out across the turquoise water to the reef, our guide pointed under the surface to the dark shadow of a shipwreck – a casualty of the 1967 hurricane. On arrival at the reef we fastened on our masks, snorkels and flippers (le masque, le tuba et les palmes) and slid over the side into the choppy water. Before long, we were surrounded by colourful fish, seemingly oblivious to their oversized visitors. Zebrafish, parrotfish and cardinalfish scurried among the coral and, after swimming towards a larger fish, I hastily retreated, realising it was a rather unfriendly juvenile barracuda. They're harmless (unlike their larger cousins) but he still looked a little fierce. Our next stop on the reserve was the mangroves on their own little island way out to sea. Perched amid clear shallow water that rippled above the white sand, they seemed rather isolated compared to their relatives at Petit-Canal. Their position, however, made them easy to explore from beneath the water with masks and snorkels and so we swam from the boat in the sea which was no more than two feet deep to see the roots from beneath the surface. Starfish and sea cucumbers lay strewn around us as we made our way through the shallow, clear water. Corner of paradise

Our final stop was the heavenly island named L'�let Caret, with its beach huts, palm trees and white sandy beach. We had been beaten there by a few other boats, so to maintain our own corner of paradise we remained a few hundred metres from its shore, where we disembarked to stand thigh-deep in the warm water to be served cups of planter's punch – the tipple of choice in this part of France. While the nature reserve is undoubtedly popular with underwater explorers, so too is the area off the west coast of Basse-Terre. Near the black sandy beach, Plage de la Malendure at Bouillante, the reserve's popularity is mainly due to the most famous French diver of all, Jacques Cousteau who, in the 1950s, declared the area near Pigeon Island to be one of the world's best dive sites. The nature reserve was named in his honour and there is even an underwater statue of him at the Jardins de Corail. Though you may not get deep enough to see Cousteau's statue, those who would like a glimpse of life beneath the ocean wave but would rather not get wet, can do so with a glass-bottomed boat tour. At Bouillante, we boarded the Nautilus for an hour-long visit to the R�serve Cousteau. Seated on benches in the depths of the boat's hull next to the glass, we glided above the coral reef and spied colourful fish darting among the seaweed. While those who wanted to stay dry remained below deck, we were keen to get closer to the action and so, donning our snorkels and flippers, we took a brief dip before the boat returned to the beach front. On our final day, we returned to the south coast of Grande-Terre and the beach resort of Sainte-Anne, a few miles short of the Pointe-des-Ch�teaux. After perusing the colourful market and its stalls packed with spices, rum and souvenirs, we sat for a while in a beach bar watching the world go by. The soft sandy beach was busy as families enjoyed their winter holiday, with the children splashing in the shallow blue water. It was clear that, for these holiday-makers, the beach was the main reason to visit Guadeloupe, yet with so much to do – be it walking, snorkelling, nature-spotting or visiting historic sites, Guadeloupe's coast has something for everyone.�