A Secret Caribbean

Marie Galante and Les Saintes are islands that the French have been keeping for themselves

In my childhood, people would return from a week in the Caribbean with tales of inexpensive, elemental pleasures enjoyed in exotic but welcoming settings. That particular combination of delights, alas, hasn't been the usual synopsis of a Caribbean vacation for some years now. Elemental pleasures often command an extravagant price these days, and strips of high-rise hotels interspersed with chain restaurants strike few of us as exotic. Nonetheless, what I remember as typical from long ago I found again this past fall in the out islands of Guadeloupe: Marie Galante and the Iles des Saintes. Les Saintes consist of Terre de Haut, where the main town, the main port, a tiny airport, and most hotels, including the best one, are; Terre de Bas, also inhabited and containing a few simple guesthouses; and six uninhabited islets. Marie Galante and Terre de Haut aren't any harder for Americans to get to than, say, Nevis or Belize, but many people have never even heard of them.

No wonder: these places are secrets that the French have been keeping for themselves. Emblems of Frenchness are everywhere, from the baguettes and croissants and café au lait for breakfast to the miniature dogs on leashes or tucked under their owners' arms to the pistes laid out for pétanque, the French equivalent of bocce. Marie Galante (population 12,500) and the Iles des Saintes (population about 3,000) are little promoted to Americans as tourist destinations, and they show scant evidence of a U.S. commercial presence. In a week of driving and walking and ferrying all over these islands, my husband, Julian, and I saw scarcely any shop signs in English and few familiar logos, apart from the yellow Hertz sign on the office in Grand Bourg, Marie Galante's largest town, where we rented a clean, air-conditioned Peugeot.

Usually at this point in the story there turns out to be a catch—say, the island lacks beaches or any semblance of a comfortable hotel. But here there is no catch, apart from the primacy of French. And on balance that works to the visitor's advantage, because along with the language come many of the qualities that so endear France itself to tourists.

For an experiment in how much of an inconvenience francophonie is likely to be for anglophone Americans, Julian and I probably made ideal subjects, because neither of us has mastered French beyond the Inspector Clouseau level. At the hotels where we stayed, enough bilingual people were on staff that we never had trouble communicating our needs and wishes. And when we were out exploring, the cheerful confession "Je ne parle pas français" generally elicited help. The French Government Tourist Office made some of the arrangements for our trip, so no doubt people in official capacities were especially solicitous of us. But—except for one woman in a car on Marie Galante who told us off because (I guess; I can only infer here) we'd been driving ahead of her too slowly—people to whom we had no introduction were charmingly solicitous too.

Marie Galante, in particular, is so unaccustomed to American visitors that most locals seemed amused by us. That island's culture is richly spiced with Afro-Caribbean ingredients; the Iles des Saintes are more purely European, and more worldly. On Terre de Haut some people we met seemed to find our linguistic ineptness gauche, as some do in France. But there were also people like a cheerful Italian waitress at our hotel, who was equally able to converse in Italian, Spanish, French, or English—whichever we were in the mood for.

We made ourselves the subjects of another experiment, too, rigorously testing our belief that middle-class French tourists, who do much to sustain the economies of these islands, refuse to put up with bad food. Some early successes—grilled red snapper with piquant creole sauce and a carafe of chilled house rosé, savory cod fritters whose texture was like that of fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts, a perfect tomato salad, a split lobster tail lightly buttered and smoky from the grill—went to our heads, I suppose, and soon we grew reckless. One lunchtime on Marie Galante we simply meandered down the beach with a few hundred francs (now, since the first of the year, it would be a few dozen euros) tucked into our bag, along with the beach towels and the Coca-Cola Light (locally a rare commodity, equivalent to our Diet Coke), until we happened upon a "cyber-café." We didn't bother to ask whether the seafood was fresh, so maybe we deserved what we got: tough, bony steaks of mystery fish. The salads and the fries and the cold Carib beers with lime made an ample lunch in themselves, though.

For every uninspired meal like that we had two or three or four happy surprises. The day we drove, slowly, all the way around Marie Galante, at lunchtime we came upon a tidy seaside terrace, where we ordered salad and—what the heck?—"blaff de palourdes." This turned out to be succulent thin-shelled clams in a thyme-flavored broth, served with wedges of lime and slivers of fiery, Christmas-red Scotch bonnet pepper. From the road it hadn't been clear that the place was even in business: the remaining wooden letters on its stucco wall read HOTEL BAR STAURANT. Only as we left, and because I insisted on knowing, did we learn the name of the establishment. The proprietress apologized for being all out of business cards and wrote the name with her finger on my place mat as she pronounced it: Hajo.

And one dinnertime we happened on Chez Henri, in Saint Louis, Marie Galante's second city. From the street Chez Henri looks like a snug Breton bar, complete with a bored waitress hunched over a table in a wood-paneled room, reading the paper and smoking. But the waitress led us through that room into an open-air dining room and then out onto the beach, where she seated us beneath a majestic, dramatically lighted breadfruit tree. The harbor twinkled in the distance. She returned with a mosquito coil, the menu (there was only one, handwritten, for everyone to share), and a kerosene lantern by which to read. After we placed our orders (one fish creole, one fish colombo, as curry is locally called), the waitress asked us what time it was. About two before eight. Well, then, Henri would be along soon. And sure enough, a few minutes later a tall, handsome black man strode in wearing an aloha shirt, made the rounds of the tables shaking hands and welcoming his guests, and then retreated to the open kitchen, where we could see him change into a spotless white T-shirt and apron and set to work cooking. His movements were precise, the results delicious, the evening magical.

What is there to do between meals? Much of the coast of Marie Galante is beaches: rent a car, drive around, stop at will. The island has a few other tourist attractions, too, all of them redolent of that more innocent age of tourism—an ocean blowhole, the ruins of some ancient sugar plantations, rum distilleries where you can take a tour (ours lasted all of three minutes) and sample the wares.

In the Iles des Saintes, Terre de Haut has eight swimming beaches—one for every day of the week plus an extra for good measure. Between the tiny Pain de Sucre beach and the Hôtel Bois Joli, on its own beach a short distance away, is some of the best snorkeling I've found anywhere. The accommodations at the Bois Joli, unfortunately, are spartan, but the open-air bar and restaurant are pleasant enough. A walk to the Bois Joli (no rental cars are available on the island, though there are motor scooters for rent, and also vans that will take you around) combined with a swim in the sea makes a nice day's outing.

So does a visit to Terre de Bas. A little catamaran ferry with clean, white-painted wooden benches takes about fifteen minutes to deliver you from Terre de Haut to the Terre de Bas ferry dock. Here, as on Terre de Haut, you can hire a van with driver to give you a tour of the island. In either place, but especially here, hiring one is a good idea. The island may be called Bas ("Low"), but it's actually quite hilly, and if you insist on walking, you'll either exhaust yourself or miss seeing the views.

Our driver on Terre de Bas suggested that we start out by making reservations for lunch at one of the two restaurants in the town of Grand Anse, a mile or so from the ferry dock, and he drove us past them to allow us to make our choice. We preferred the looks of A la Belle Etoile, for no reason other than that it was on the beach side of the road. The proprietor came out to take our "reservations," which turned out to consist of placing our order—we chose fish—and agreeing to return when our tour was over.

We made short work of a beautiful fresh grilled red snapper apiece, and then had perhaps an hour before our driver was to return and take us to meet the midafternoon ferry, so we wandered out the restaurant's back door onto the beach. There were picnic tables, under thatched roofs and set upon cement floors, and even a booth in which to change into a bathing suit, in a tiny municipal pavilion whose bulletin board advertised, for instance, an upcoming doubles tournament at the local pétanque club.

For a romantic vacation that keeps the traveling to a minimum, your best bet would be to settle in at the Auberge Les Petits Saints aux Anacardiers, high on a hill overlooking the harbor of Le Bourg, the only town on Terre de Haut. The view is gorgeous, across the water to little Ilet à Cabrit and, beyond, to the green hills and sparkling lights of Guadeloupe. The hotel itself, with ten rooms tucked into the main house and a couple of cottages around a swimming pool, is an over-the-top fantasy of tropical languor, crammed full of the antiques and handcrafted furnishings that the owners, Didier Spindler and Jean-Paul Colas, bring back from their frequent trips to other Caribbean islands, France, and Asia. The food served at dinner (and cooked by the jovial French husband of that Italian waitress) is widely acknowledged to be the most ambitious and best on the island. No doubt, though, some evenings you'll want to head into the heart of town and try the more traditional Caribbean fare available there.

From the archives:

"A Moveable Feast" (February 1996)
A barge makes a splendid base from which to visit some of the most scenic parts of France. By Barbara Wallraff

It was when Julian and I went for a stroll one evening after dinner at the Auberge that we fell under the spell of Le Bourg. Immediately a little ginger cat appointed itself to be our guide, trotting ahead of or behind us as we made our way downhill along paved alleyways between yards spilling over with flowers; through a brightly lit square where a few people sat on the benches, talking quietly; past a fenced lot containing goats, which had bedded down for the night. Later I told Jean-Paul about our walk, explaining that Le Bourg reminded me of nothing so much as the French villages that Julian and I had explored in the evenings one summer when we took a barge cruise in Champagne country. Jean-Paul nodded knowingly. "Here you can go for a walk at three in the morning and you feel the people sleeping around you," he said. "It always feels safe."

Nonetheless, if it's a family vacation you want, the ideal place might be La Cohoba Hôtel, on Marie Galante. This is a modern, 100-room resort adjacent to, though not quite on, the beach; a rickety gate and a hundred feet of rain forest separate the grounds from the beach and the water-sports kiosk. Our bungalow was intriguingly French, with the toilet in a separate cubicle from the shower and sink; the blue, yellow, and white color scheme characteristic of French seaside resorts; sleek wooden furniture; and built-in reading lights on both sides of the queen-sized bed. A child or two could have slept in the separate living room, and the air-conditioning was heavenly. The one negative was that outside our airtight bungalow we encountered more biting insects than we ordinarily enjoy spending time with. I was told that this was an unusual consequence of recent rains—but take insect repellent and something to cover you up lightly but completely at dinner, just in case. (And here's a handy tip: use water in the shower or a hair dryer, like the one that's to be found in your bathroom at La Cohoba, to heat a fresh mosquito bite just enough that your skin smarts; the heat will denature the toxin, and the bite will itch no more.) La Cohoba has a fine restaurant, a bar, a big swimming pool, two tennis courts, a volleyball court, billiards, foosball, water-sports equipment, a pétanque piste—what more could anyone want? Well, maybe that rental car, to get out and explore the island, admire the blowhole, and make your way to Saint Louis one night a little before eight, to await Henri.

Information about Marie Galante and Les Saintes is available on the Web sites www.ot-mariegalante.com and www.les-saintes-direct.com. At the Auberge Les Petits Saints aux Anacardiers rates for a double room with bath and Continental breakfast range from about $80 to $165 a night in high season, and from $60 to $135 in low; phone 011-590-99-54-55 or e-mail petitssaints@yahoo.fr. At La Cohoba Hôtel rates for a bungalow (the middle of three categories of rooms) for two, with a substantial buffet breakfast included, start at $115 a night in high season, $85 in low; phone 011-590-97-50-50 or e-mail cohoba@leaderhotels.gp. It's easy to fly (we traveled on American and American Eagle) to Guadeloupe, and from there to fly or travel by ferry to either Marie Galante or Terre de Haut; the ferry ride costs about $14 and takes less than an hour. In season daily ferries run between Marie Galante and Terre de Haut; at any time of the year one can otherwise travel between the two islands by chartering a plane or taking a ferry into Guadeloupe and another back out again.