LES SAINTES –Guadaloupe
Planted amid idyllic Caribbean blues like little green jewels, the group of islands known as Les Saintes is part of Guadeloupe which is in itself part of the nation of France. The Les Saintes collection is made up of eight islands, only two of which are inhabited and together make a destination ideal for the kind of adventurer who loves nature immersion, unspoiled tropical charm and arriving somewhere in which traffic, bustle and noise just don’t feature. For many these islands represent the perfect embodiment of a Caribbean paradise and are the stuff dreams are made of.
Unlike so many other Caribbean islands slavery never played a major part in the Les Saintes history and so its culture is distinctly different. As an overseas territory of France first settled in the 1600s and mainly inhabited by descendants of seafarers, fishermen and pirates from Normandy and Brittany, Les Saintes can feel more than a little like a tiny slice of the European country it is part of. Touches of French sophistication overlay much of what is here but the island vibe and coconut palm-fringed beaches leave you in no doubt that you are in the Caribbean.
The two inhabited islands are Terre-de-Bas and Terre-de-Haut, just minutes apart by boat, with the latter the bigger of the two and the only one with tourist infrastructure, albeit on a small scale. Here you will find the majority of island residents along with a lovely little main village on one of the world’s most beautiful bays. Strolling this tiny town will reward you with the sight of tropical blooms cascading from white-washed houses and a scattering of picturesque beach bars and restaurants along with glorious white-sand beaches ideal for snorkeling There is even an historical fort to explore which offers some of the most sensational views you may ever see in your life. While simply soaking up the laid-back lifestyle is what visiting these beautiful islands is about for many there are also things to do if you want to be more active.
Besides exploring the fort and its museum, hiking trails abound for nature lovers while the fringing coral gardens are adventure playgrounds for snorkelers and divers and are so exceptional they once attracted the most famous diver of them all –Jacques Cousteau. Exploring these underwater wonderlands is even possible by glass kayak so you can enjoy their natural riches without having any negative impact whatsoever on these fragile ecosystems. If you just want a general sightseeing ride you can climb aboard one of the boat tours which whisk you off to the uninhabited islands to discover secluded beaches and stunning coves.
A Morning in Les Saintes
The main island of Terre-de-Haut is compact enough to take in plenty of its highlights during just one day here. You can beginyour Les Saintes adventure exploring the island’s charming main village and a few other sights within the near vicinity.
After a pause in one of the village cafes for refreshment you can continue your morning with a trip by glass kayak to discover the teeming marine life of the coral gardens which fringe the island.
Exploring the Terre-de-Haut Highlights
Tiny it may be –less than three square miles in fact –but almost everywhere you turn on this gem of an island offers visions of the picturesque, charming or scenic. Essentially a fishing island, panoramas are often filled with colorful fishing boats and the sight of the islanders hauling in their nets while the one village and island’s other miniature settlements are pallets of pastel hues and red roofs clustered around gorgeous bays which represent everyone’s ultimate vision of the tropically idyllic.
The main settlement and the only one of any size shares its name with the island –Terre-de-Haut.With only two main streets, this village is the kind of tropical destination that people dream of, suffused by an unspoiled sleepy charm which once-upon-a-time was typical in the Caribbean but today has all but disappeared. This waterfront jewel with its shuttered wooden houses clustered around the bay or tumbling down the hillsides has no major sightseeing spots as such. Instead what you are gifted with is a chance to lazily stroll beneath azure skies as you soak up the distinctive French-tinged charm, watch yachts arrive and depart, breath in the aroma ofhibiscus and bougainvillea blooms which are everywhere and receive the smiles of islanders as they go about their day to day life.
There are a few shops scattered around here where you can hunt down a souvenir or two from the arts and crafts on offer andthe harbor-front cafes and bistros offer plenty of opportunity to rest your legs or grab something cool to drink. Be sure to sample a tourment d’amour from one of the street vendors at some point during your meandering. This traditional pastry –once a fisherman’s snack which translates to ‘torment of love’ –of sponge, jam and coconut or sometimes with banana or pineapple is a must-try while you are on the island.
While in the main village you can also take a pause on one of the benches in the lovely little square shaded by tropical greenery and surrounded by a white-washed picket fence. To one side you will see a picturesque bright yellow building which is the town hall while close by is the lovely little Notre Dame de l’Assumption. Constructed from volcanic rock sometime in the 1800s, this small Roman Catholic church is adorned with a bell tower which still has some of its original historic bells.
Around town you will still see men sporting the traditional Iles de Saintes hats known as Salako. No-one is quite sure from where and when this curious type of flat cloth-covered cap built over a straw or bamboo base arrived here but is thought to have Indo-China connections and dates back to at least the 1800s. Today, local craftsmen on Les Saintes other inhabited island –Terre-de-Bas –still make these hats which offer excellent sun protection and are still favored by many fishermen.
A short stroll towards the airstrip from the village will bring you to an old cemetery which is both a beautiful place to wander and one with historical significance. Many of the graves within this cemetery full of bleached-white monuments are centuries old and clearly show the Breton and Norman heritage. One feature here you can’t fail to miss is the quantity of lambi conch shells which are used as grave adornment and in places to delineate the simple mounds which represent the final resting place of a former island resident or sailor.
Scattered around the island are various other points of interest along with stunning natural surroundings and incredible look-out vantage points. Everywhere can be reached on foot if you have the time and energy and possibilities include a multitude of tropically idyllic beaches (many of them all but deserted), colonial leftovers such as the ruinsof the Fort Caroline battery perched atop Morel Hill and the Maison Bateau. This local landmark is actually a home but resembles the prow of a boat jutting out into the main bay and is much photographed.
The island’s principal sightseeing spot however is Fort Napoleon which is on your afternoon itinerary.
Morning Coffee in Les Saintes
As you meandered this morning you may already have earmarked some charming venue you stumbled upon to return to for a coffee break. If not your best bet is the Terre-de-Haut village where the main street which fronts the water –Rue Jean Carlot – has several options strung along its length.
One of these is the delightful little La Genois which sits alongside the wooden marina pier and offers stunning sea and island views. Like much on this gem of an island La Genois is a humble and unpretentious offering which gifts you a shady spot for your morning pause beneath a blue and white striped canvas canopy.
Another choice along the same stretch where the street name changes is the beach shack-feel Les Pieds dans l’Eau which also offers an absolute waterfront location for the same helping of those gorgeous harbor and sea views. Here you can choose between a table in the colorful interior hung about with surfboards and shells or pause awhile on the exterior deck.
Clear Blue Caraibes Glass Kayaking
While many plunge into the crystalline waters surrounding Les Saintes to snorkel or divethese tiny islands now offer yet another way to explore the enchanting and multi-colored underwater world of its coral reefs. Thanks to an eco-friendly enterprise by a French Canadian couple who operate as Clear Blue Caraibes it is now possible for Les Saintes visitors to meet the teeming and diverse marine flora and fauna without getting wet. Hop aboard one of their totally transparent Hawaiian-built 2-man canoes which offer an up-close aquarium-like experience but with all the advantages of a totally natural environment. The observation quality in these stunning turquoise shallows around the gorgeous Saintes Bay is superb but you can enjoy the spectacular sights with zero impact on these delicate eco-systems. The kayaks are both very stable and easily handled which makes them ideal for even the complete novice. To enrich your experience even further you have the advantage of a knowledgeable guide who can point out rare corals, identify the teeming fish and generally help you to understand this amazing environment.
Lunch in Les Saintes
Combining a strong French aspect with Creole and Caribbean elements thrown into the mix, every meal time in Les Saintes is a wonderful culinary adventure. Additionally, all kinds of aromatic spices are standard inclusions which give the diversity of dishes incredible flavor.
While meats of every kind and vegetarian fare are all on offer the menus tend to be monopolized by fish and seafood which has arrived on the island shores that morning straight from the fishing boats.Whether you decide to explore traditional island dishes, plump for purely French continental fare or mix and match a little the cafe and restaurant settings are more often than not of the idyllic Caribbean postcard kind.
One such in this category is La Case aux Epices which sits at the west end of the village right on the beach. This little wooden building cheerfully painted in pink and green is ideal for those who want a casual lunch just steps from the pale sands of what many insist is one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Here, besides the grilled lobster which is something of a specialty, you can feast on a range of Caribbean, Cajun and Creole options either inside or on the terrace where you are just steps from the sand and the coconut palms. The views are nothing but sparkling blue sea and islands with boats dotting the scenery so gazing on paradise will all be part of your lunch experience.
Another beach-front option is located in the gorgeous little protected bay of Marigot, just 1km north of Terre-de-Haut’s main village. The decades-long established gem of La Pailottes its here, on the edge of a crescent of pale sand lapped by crystalline turquoise waters dotted about with the traditional fishing boats known as saintoises. Backing it all are the houses of the community’s fishermen whose families have made a living in the same way for generations.
With its blue and white color-scheme, wooden structure and shell adornments, La Pailotte has a beach-shack feel although both the cuisine and hospitality here are of the highest standard. Take your pick from inside tables or outside on the sand beneath the coconut palms and choose from a good value menu of Creole specialties, grilled meats and fresh-as-it-gets seafood which arrived this morning, quite possibly from one of the boats you see bobbing about now. Be sure to leave room for dessert as the coconut flan here tends to receive rave reviews from all who’ve tried it. If you can bear to tear yourself away from this beautiful scene once lunch is over you are perfectly placed to explore Fort Napoleon which is just up the hill from here.
An Afternoon in Les Saintes
With a wealth of gorgeous beaches you may choose to spend your afternoon hours at one of these swimming, snorkeling or just relaxing. If you want to be a little more active however the second half of you day can be given to discovering Terre-de-Haut’s historical fort with its sensational views or exploring some of the other islands within the Les Saintes archipelago.
Terre-de-Haut, Guadeloupe – November 7, 2013: Historic french Fort Napoleon at Terre-de-Haut, Les Saintes islands, today hosting a museum.[/caption]
Far and away the most important of the Les Saintes historical sites, Fort Napoleon sits majestically atop Morne Mire and although it was built at a time when the colonial powers of France, Britain and Spain were constantly battling for Caribbean supremacy the fort never saw military action. The original French fort here was razed to the ground by the British following their two-decade rule of the island in the late 1700s and early 1800s after the great naval battle of 1782.
The French constructed the fort you see today in the mid-1800s which although briefly a garrison for soldiers until 1889 served as a prison for most of its history including the World War II years. After this the fort was both abandoned andneglected and has only been restored to its former glory thanks to a project which was completed in 2000.
Now visitors can roam its former prison cells, look-outs, ramparts and terraces where a multitude of cacti sprout and iguanas are forever scuttling off into crevices. Taking a tour with a guide is often recommended as you learn a great deal more of the fort’s history but many also choose to wander on their own too.
The fort’s interior is also home to a museum which tells the Les Saintes and Guadeloupestory from the very beginning. Its collection of artifacts, maps and old photographs are of interest to fans of both island culture and history and include exhibitions on military themes, fishing and sea voyaging. The most detailed exhibit is dedicated tothe great and brutal naval battle fought between the British Admiral Rodney and the French de Grasse in the waters of Les Saintes for several days in 1782.
Even if you have absolutely no interest in military history and architecture it is worth making the journey to the peak of this 400ft hill for what many claim to be one of the most spectacular views in the entire Caribbean. From this lofty perch not only can you view the entire Les Saintes Bay and Terre-de-Haut’s distinctive Pain de Sucre peak on the horizon but also spy the islands of Cabrit, Marie-Galanate and even Dominica far to the south.
An Alternative Afternoon –Exploring the Other Les Saintes Islands
While Terre-de-Haut is the archipelago’s biggest and most populated island and where most will spend their time as visitor’s you can explore some of the other islands too with little effort.The other inhabited island in the group –Terre-de-Bas -sits just 1km to the west and is easily reached by both regular ferries and boat tours. Unspoiled Terre-de-Bas is today mostly the home of fishing communities with its most significant site that of the18thcentury pottery ruins. Its main village of Petite-Anse set on the harbor is a pretty place to stroll as is the settlement of Grande Anse which is home to a lovely beach and a church dating from the 1600s. Otherwise this is a destination perfect for beach lazing and nature immersion.
Exploring the uninhabited islands is also possible and a popular tour as boats typically allow you to see a great deal of the magnificent coast and scenery including the archipelago’s most remote islands of Grand Ilêt, La Coche, Les Augustins, and the Virgin Rock. Depending on which tour you opt for you might have the chance to stop off at idyllic Caribbean beaches and perhapsswim and snorkel in the almost impossibly crystal-clear waters of this corner of the world.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Les Saintes
Les Saintes may in reality be little more than an idyllic speck of islands anchored within the Caribbean but when itcomes to drinking and dining you are still going to have plenty of choice. For such a small destination the quality of cuisine is wonderful, something in no small part due to the islanders’ french heritage where exceptional food creation is all part of the culture. Expect a dash of French-style sophistication wonderfully blended with an essence entirely Caribbean –a combination made in heaven.
The village of Terre-de-Haut isn’t the only place on the island which offers drinking and dining choices but it is most definitely its hub. Here you can settle down for a west coast sundowner right on the beach and then head to one of the restaurant choices where fresh seafood tends to be a primary focus.
A Caribbean sunset, a tropical beach andcolorful cocktails –if that combination sounds like paradise to you head to Coconuts Bar in the main bay of Terre-de-Haut. A riot of bright Caribbean colors within, this lively beach shack has a deck outside so you can be right next to the sand and the sea to take advantage of the glorious sunset with Cabrit Island in the foreground.
It goes without saying that rum punch takes center stage but there are also a great range of other cocktails of both the frozen and liquid kind with some creative local concoctions mixed with fresh tropical fruits for the adventurous.
A couple of hundred meters south of the village center and a little beyond Coconuts can be found another beach-front gem – Ti Bo Doudou. The venue is a little Creole hut but most people simplypass through this space to find a seat at one of the canopied tables right on the powdery sand where they can gaze on Caribbean blues, other archipelago islands and boats in the bayThe west coast location means prime sunset viewing with a diversity of drinks on offer as the venue has a full bar. Additionally, for those who like a smooth transition from sundowners to dining, Ti Bo Doudou typically receives rave reviews for its wonderful food and warm welcome.
While understandably Caribbean Sea views are the dinner setting of choice for many Terre-de-Haut has alternatives and one special venue for those who value amazing food and ambiance over a beach-side spot is Au Bon Vivre. Located in the main village this restaurant offers French dishes with touches of the Caribbean which, blended together, give you the best of both these culinary worlds.
Not simply one for the gourmet diner but also for all those who have a stylish romantic destination in mind, Au Bon Vivre’s 150 year old building’s interior space is a delight of stone walls adorned with contemporary paintings, wooden beamed ceiling and quality wood furniturewhich glows softly in the atmospheric lighting. There is also a little palm-dotted tea-light-lit patio for those who prefer alfresco dining and whether inside or out the mood is enhanced by the sounds of gentle jazz. The menu is a blend of bounty from both sea and land offering fish and lobster plucked freshly from the surrounding waters, meats sourced from both the island and France and Guadeloupe-grown fruits and vegetables. For those happy to leave their choice in the expert hands of the chef there is also a four-course degustation menu which allows diners to sample a diversity of delights. Everything arrives at your table as a work of art and to complete your top-notch dining there is an impressive wine menu sourced principally from France but which also includes choices from other countries.
If you really can’t bear to forego that sea view but want something of equal quality to Au Bon Vivre head to Ti Kaz’ La, 300m to the south. The setting here is a typical stone and wood Creole building with an interior dining space of broken tile flooring, brightly painted walls and exposed stone. Walk through to the rear of the restaurant and you will find an open-sided deck whose steps give directly onto the beach so those sensational Bay of Saintes views are most definitely all part of the experience here.
Drawing on French recipes which incorporate the fresh Caribbean produce and spices available the result is a Caribbean/European fusion which creates some truly creative dishes. The fish and lobster arrive here directly from the restaurant’s own fishing boats while the excellent meat is flown in from France. Choose your meal according to your own individual taste from the a la carte menu or plump for one of the 3-course set options which focus on either meat or lobster with a choice of two dishes at each stage of your feast.
Seafood fans will love the mixed platter with its five crustacean diversity while other options with flavors of the island include the coconut and lime chicken with further mouthwatering options such as the roasted duck drizzled with a raspberry and cinnamon juice. Those with a sweet tooth should be sure not to miss the extra-special mango soufflé which you will need to order at the beginning of your meal.
While the venue has a casual vibe the quality of its food is taken very seriously and the chef is passionate about his craft. He is regularly seen touring the tables to be sure his guests have all they need.
If you don’t want to make any effort after enjoying sunset drinks with your feet in the sand at the lovely Ti Bo Doudou you can simply dine here. Seafood is again a focus with the Creole andWestern themed menu and the dining presentation is of the same high quality as the food.
An Evening in Les Saintes
Even in somewhere as unspoiled and quiet as Les Saintes there are still a few options for after-dark fun if that is what you are looking for. In keeping with the nature of the islands generally everything is low key but dancing and music can be found in a handful of places, one of which is Coconuts Bar on the beach. Infused with a beach shack vibe, this popular venue attracts both locals and visitors and sometimes has live music performances too.
Like much of the Caribbean carnivals and festivals are all part of the annual calendar in Les Saintes so if you are extremely lucky you will be visiting here during one of them. Possibilities include the two month Festival de Guadeloupe which has plenty of food, music and cultural events celebrated throughout Guadeloupe. There is also the island’s own Patron Saint’s Day and Fishermen’s Day which includes sea-blessing ceremonies, processions and lots of colorful dance and music.
Otherwise, spend your after-dark hours with a few drinks at your venue of choice and enjoying what these islands are best at giving you –beauty and serenity
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