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HIDDEN GEMS OF THE FRENCH CARIBBEAN, PART 2 of 2
by Marie Lee


This two-part article focuses on the smaller islands of the French Caribbean such as St. Barts, Marie-Galante and Les Saintes, which are associated with Guadeloupe.

MARIE-GALANTE (continued)


What to Do


Marie-Galante is a place of simple rural traditions, it fosters the art of living calmly and peaceable, but don't trust too much in this appearance of quiet - in no time everyone will be ready to party to the rhythm of music, joining in the fun with family and friends.

The Island offers numerous possibilities to lodge with a local family, in independent villas, furnished flats or else hotels, one of which has three stars.  To properly visit Marie-Galante you must take at least three days. In any event, there are many tour-bus services that propose one-day tours of the Island; some include lunch with the price. On the other hand, various rental possibilities exist (bicycles, scooters or cars) for those who prefer to discover this tranquil Island on their own.

There are many things to do from water sports to hiking or discover the Island in an ox drawn wagon. Don't forget the museums, hiking paths as well as Marie-Galante's astonishing countryside and beautiful points-of-view.

The traditional folk dances, contest of tug-of-war with ox drawn wagons and rooster fights are all part of the natural rhythm of the Island's life. Among other things, the night revelers will appreciate the piano bars and nightclubs that produce the mischievously wild and turbulent beat of the West Indies.  Marie-Galante is a thrown back to another time, another era that does not exist in the current world of French nations and territories; and so, it is a “must” experience that should not be missed.  

THIS GROUP OF QUIET FISHING VILLAGES IS SCENIC AND BREATHTAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL – IT HAS NOT BEEN CORRUPTED OR MODERNIZED BY TOURISM AND INDUSTRIALIZATION.

LES SAINTES

Les Saintes is a wonderful travel destination for persons seeking a relaxed vacation away from the hustle and bustle of tourism. Les Saintes is home to the most beautiful islands in the archipelago of Guadeloupe.

This group of quiet fishing villages is scenic and breathtakingly beautiful – again, another place that has not been corrupted or modernized by tourism and industrialization. Those places are few and far between in today’s world. In fact, ninety percent of their economy relies solely on fishing and the sea. The native language is French, although several natives speak Creole as well, and very few natives speak English, so if you are not fluent in French, make sure that you bring along a phrase book and English to French dictionary. If you are looking for an action-packed thrill-ride of a vacation, Les Saintes will not be the destination for you. Les Saintes is the place to go for peaceful relaxation and a retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the modernized world that most Americans are accustomed to.

Les Saintes are perfect for the kind of traveler who relishes unspoiled tropical beauty and the serenity that comes from doing next to nothing on a vacation, but doing it à la française. While Guadeloupe's bustling epicenter, Pointe-à-Pitre, is just a short l5-minute plane hop away, it seems continents apart from the eight pristine volcanic dots that comprise Les Saintes.

The Îles des Saintes (literally, "Islands of the (female) Saints"), also called simply Les Saintes. Les Saintes are dependency islands of Guadeloupe, which in turn is an Overseas Department and Region of France. A mayor and town council oversee the day-to-day operations of the island. They are part of the Lesser Antilles group of islands. Their land area is a mere 4.9 square miles and they had a population of 2,883 inhabitants at the 2005 census (down from 3,269 inhabitants at the 1967 census). Just six miles south of Guadeloupe, these idyllic tropical jewels float like exotic dreams in the Caribbean Sea.

Of the eight little islands, only two are inhabited, and picturesque Terre-de-Haut is the one travelers visit first. In addition to superb beaches, gorgeous bays, exceptional snorkeling and fascinating historical sites, this romantic island offers a charming village with excellent restaurants, interesting shops and unique art galleries. About half of the population lives on Terre-de-Haut where only a few dozen four-wheeled vehicles travel its roads. There is just one doctor, and his home, designed to resemble a ship's bow, is something of a local landmark.

Terre-de-Haut is only three miles long and about two miles wide. The five-minute walk from the airstrip to Bourg, the island's only village, takes you down a bougainvillea-shaded lane lined with tiny brightly-painted houses and past a centuries-old cemetery. The names engraved upon the weathered headstones reflect the island's Breton and Norman ancestry; the conch shells decorating the graveyard honor its sailors lost at sea.

The other populated island, peaceful Terre-de-Bas, is only a few minutes by boat from Terre-de-Haut and is definitely worth a visit. Terre-de-Bas Island is dominated by agriculture, including coffee, cotton, pepper, and bananas. Historically, Terre-de-Bas Island was the more populated of the two, but Terre-de-Haut Island now contains a larger population.

The men of Les Saintes are fishermen, reputedly the best in the West Indies, and watching them haul in their filets bleus (blue nets dotted with burnt-orange buoys) can fill an entire morning. On Bourg's main street you still occasionally see some of the men in an odd kind of headgear, a flat straw or bamboo platter covered with cloth called a salako. It is patterned after one said to have been brought here ages and ages ago by a seafarer from China or Indonesia. Whatever its origin, the salako is unique to the Iles des Saintes.

The islands were named Los Santos by Christopher Columbus, who arrived there on All Saints' Day of 1493. The first French settlers arrived in 1648. Because of their strategically important position, the Îles des Saintes were fought over by the French and the British in the Battle of the Saintes; they have remained under French control since 1816.

LES SAINTES ARE UNIQUE FOR BEING ONE OF ONLY A FEW ISLANDS IN THE LESSER ANTILLES TO HAVE A MAJORITY WHITE POPULATION…


The people of the islands are known as Saintoise and have historically been renowned as skilled fishermen. Les Saintes are unique for being one of only a few islands in the Lesser Antilles to have a majority white population, many of whom trace their lineage back to Breton settlers, as evidenced by the strong Breton cultural influence on the island.

Some of the history is recalled in Terre-de-Haut's most important annual event, La Fête des Saintes, a two-day affair celebrated every August. On August 15, it commemorates the first expulsion of British invaders in l666 and on August 16, it honors the Virgin Mary and all local sailors ever lost at sea. There are speeches and parades, a blessing of boats and ribbon-cutting for various enterprises related to fishing and the sea, which support the bulk of the island's economy. It is also, of course, a time for wining, dining, and dancing. But because Terre-de-Haut is so small and its festival so popular, these two days in August are best left for the homefolk to enjoy by themselves, or with visiting relatives and yachtsmen from nearby islands.

WHAT TO DO, SEE AND KNOW


Fishing and Boating

If you enjoy fishing, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to fish in the beautiful waters around the islands of Les Saintes. To find out about fishing trips that you can get involved in during your stay, visit the local tourism office, which is located in the town of Bourg on Terre-de-Haut. You can also visit the tourism office for information on scuba diving excursions, sailing trips (which are very popular), and boating trips.

Swimming and Sunbathing

Since rest and relaxation are the first and foremost priorities on the minds of Les Saintes tourists, it’s no wonder that swimming and sunbathing are such popular activities. Topless sunbathing is acceptable at pretty much all of the beaches in Les Saintes, although you certainly don’t have to partake if you don’t feel comfortable.

High Season


Keep in mind that the most popular time to visit Les Saintes is between December and February due to the holiday season. If you plan on vacationing in Les Saintes during this time of year, make your reservations early as accommodations are limited.
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Climate

The temperatures in Les Saintes are fairly stable all year round, but the “dry” season runs from December to May, while June through November is characteristically more humid. Most days are sunny in Les Saintes, and rainstorms generally occur in short bursts when they come, so they aren’t likely to take over an entire day of your vacation.

Money Matter

While US dollars and travelers checks are accepted at many hotels and businesses in Les Saintes, the official currency is Euros, so it is a good idea to exchange some of your US currency for Euros before heading to Les Saintes.

Beaches

Sensational beaches are easy to find in Les Saintes. On Terre-de-Haut, Plage Pompierre is the most popular beach with its calm waters, excellent snorkeling and covered picnic tables. However, Pompierre is often very crowded and windy and, if you don't watch your things, the ubiquitous goats can create some problems. The small beach at Pain de Sucre is also a favorite with visitors for swimming and snorkeling. Plage Crawen, near the Bois Joli Hôtel, was formerly an official plage naturiste (clothing-optional beach) but the local politics have recently changed that. At the end of the airport runway, Grande Anse (Big Cove) is a magnificent arc of sand but is definitely not safe for swimming. On Terre-de-Bas, a second Grande Anse is considered one of the best beaches in Les Saintes.

Local Customs


As with most islands, and especially those with a small population, it is important to remember that you are a guest in another culture. Please don't expect others to speak or understand your language, you are in France after all. If you make some efforts to speak a little French, it will be greatly appreciated. Les Saintois may exhibit a serious demeanor but a genuine smile and a friendly "Bonjour" will usually be returned. When you treat others with respect and kindness, they generally reciprocate.

If you want to take someone's photo, please remember to ask their permission first. And don't forget that everything moves at a slower pace in the tropics, so you shouldn’t expect or demand speedy service. If you can downshift and relax, you will blend right in and have a great time doing so.

The local iguanas may look ferocious but they are actually quite harmless and protected by local laws.  Take as many pictures of them as you want, but please don’t harm one!

Entry and Customs


In addition to local entry requirements, your air or sea carrier may request additional documentation for passengers. Please check with your carrier in advance of travel.

Valid passports are recommended for all US, Canadian and European Union citizens traveling as tourists to Guadeloupe / Les Saintes. For citizens of other countries, a visa may be required in addition to a passport.

A return or ongoing ticket is required of all visitors. No vaccination papers are required unless arriving from an endemic area. Items for personal use (e.g. tobacco, cameras and film) are admitted without formalities or tax if not in excessive quantity. For other items, French regulations apply. Rien à déclarer marks the entry point for travelers with nothing to declare.

What to Wear


Relaxed, informal clothes are acceptable just about everywhere, but scanty beach attire is considered improper in town. A hat and sunglasses for solar protection are highly recommended. Women tend to dress up a little more than men in the evening. Jackets and ties are rarely seen. At hotel pools and beaches, topless swimming and sunning is common. The beach at Anse Crawen, near the Bois Joli Hôtel, is no longer officially designated as clothing-optional.

Getting Around

Most area hotels will pick you up from the airport or ferry dock.  Only a few cars are registered on Terre-de-Haut, and the only vehicles available for rent are motor scooters and bicycles. A few minivan taxis give guided tours, but if you don't speak French, they probably aren't an option for you. Most people walk everywhere on the island, but motorbikes are an excellent alternative. Regular bicycles are less efficient because of the steep hills.

The little network of narrow roads has little traffic, so you can zip around the island on your scooter with little danger of being run down by a car. However, be aware that it's against the law to drive a motorbike in the main town from 9am to noon and between 2 and 4pm.

Several rental companies are located near the ferry dock and more are on the main road south of the pier. If you are on the island for the day, it's possible to rent a motor scooter.

Exploring the Island


Terre-de-Haut is the largest and most beautiful of the islands in the archipelago of Les Saintes. If you have time, take a ferry to Terre-de-Bas, the only other inhabited island. Both are small enough to see during a day-trip from Guadeloupe, but consider staying overnight so that you can enjoy the tranquility after most of the tourists leave.

Le Bourg

The main town on Terre-de-Haut is Le Bourg, which sits in the curve of a large bay midway along the ragged northern coast. Charming homes, restaurants and shops line the narrow streets, which are full of colorful flowers and tropical plants. In the center of town you'll find a lovely church, town hall and public square, but the primary is Fort Napoleon  east of town.

The fort is at the top of a  steep hill. Originally named Fort Louis, the bastion was built by the French to protect Guadeloupe from the English. It was completed in 1867, but was never needed because the British stopped fighting for control of the island after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1815. Nevertheless, the Fort is interesting to explore, and the view of the harbor from its ramparts is extraordinary. Take time to see the two museums and look for iguanas in the botanical garden.

Hiking Trails

Le Chameau,  the camel, is the highest point on Terre-de-Haut (1,014 feet), and hikers will want to make the hour-long uphill trek to the top on foot. Others may opt to ride their motor scooter up the winding paved road, which takes less than 10 minutes. From the tower at the summit, you can see most of Terre-de-Haut as well as the other seven islands in the archipelago and Marie-Galante.

From the ferry dock, head southwest toward Bois-Joli. (This western part of the island is fairly untamed, but the views are excellent.) Follow signs to Le Chameau.

Coastal Treats


The beaches on Terre-de-Haut are gorgeous, and the best are within walking distance of Le Bourg. La Plage de Pompierre,  sometimes called Baie de Pont Pierre, is less than a mile northeast of town. The crescent-shaped golden-sand beach is shaded by palm trees and the bay is protected by two rocky offshore islands. It's often crowded with locals and tourists, so try to arrive early or late in the day to enjoy the calm waters. Expect some company from the resident goats.

Anse du Pain-du-Sucre, southwest of Le Bourg on the road that leads to Hotel Bois Joli, is divided into two semicircular beaches by spectacular 200-foot Sugar Loaf Hill. There's good snorkeling on both sides of the strip of land that joins the hill to the island. Nearby Anse Crawen is secluded and a fine place to work on your all-over tan. Get there by taking the path at the end of the main road, D214, which runs through town and along the northern coast.

Grande-Anse, directly across the island from the airport near Le Bourg, is a lovely long stretch of sand, but the water is too rough for swimming. Hikers will enjoy exploring the cliffs above the beach. Farther south, Anse de Rodrigue is calmer, and the water at Baie de Marigot, below Fort Napoleon, is gentle enough for children.

Best Places to Stay


Signs posted around Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas advertise rooms for rent in private homes and small inns.

As in France, taxes and service charges are included with your room rates. Most hotels accept major credit cards, but be aware that small inns, rental agencies and individual villa owners may require cash or money order--probably in French francs.

Inns and Hotels:


HOTEL BOIS JOLI, Anse a Cointe, Terre-de-Haut
LE PARADIS SAINTOIS, Route de Pre-Cassin, Le Bourg de Terre-de-Haut
LA COLLINE, Fonds du Cure, Terre-de-Haut
HOTEL LE KANAOA,Anse Marie, Terre-de-Haut
AUBERGE DES PETITS, La Savanne, Terre-de-Haut

Best Places to Dine

The food that restaurants in Les Saintes serve is mouth-watering and impressive. Their seafood is unbeatable, as you would expect from a fishing town. They serve a wide array of French cuisine, and they also have an abundance of Creole dining selections. The restaurants are small and quaint – you won’t find any chains or fast food joints! Chez Line is one of the best restaurants to visit for classic Creole meals, and a spectacular place for French cuisine is Auberge des Petits Saints.

The two best treats on the islands are homemade coconut ice cream sold from mobile carts, and still-warm Tourment d'Amour sold by young Santoises at the ferry dock. This local specialty, translated as "agony of love," is a tart filled with some type of fruit jam, which usually includes coconut.

Restaurants


LES PETITS SAINTS AUX ANACADIERS, La Savanne, Terre-de-Haut

LA SALADERIE, Le Bourg, Terre-de-Haut

CAFE DE LA MARINE, Mouillage, Terre-de-Haut,

LES AMANDIERS, Le Bourg, Terre-de-Haut, Place de la Mairie


Hopefully I’ve wetted your appetite for more than the wonderful food found in these islands as both Marie-Galante and Iles Saints, although off the beaten track, are truly two of the most fascinating places you’ll ever visit…and if you stay a few days, the tranquil lifestyle will sink in to such an extent you may never want to go home! 

Author: Marie Lee is a freelance journalist whose passion is the environment, and eco-tourism. Born in France, she travels quite often throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

Email : Marie Lee

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