Cruise Port Spotlight: Basse-Terre, Pointe-a-Pitre and Iles Des Saintes, Guadeloupe

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A French isle, less visited than Martinique, Guadeloupe is sometimes called "the butterfly island" due to its shape that loosely resembles that beautiful insect --the two "wings" of the butterfly are Grand-Terre (on the eastern side with rolling hills and sugar plantations) and Basse-Terre (on the western side dotted with banana plantations and mountainous landscapes that are dominated by the 4,104-foot peak of still-active, La Soufriere Volcano). A drawbridge over a river, the Riviere Salee (the Salt River) that flows between the Caribbean from the Atlantic connects both sides of the island.

Discovered by Columbus in 1493, Guadeloupe became a French Overseas Department in 1946, and a Region in 1974. Other islands that belong to Guadeloupe's archipelago include Marie Galante, Isles Des Saintes (sometimes called Les Saintes), Petite Terre and La Desirade. Isles Des Saintes, a cluster of eight islands about six miles from Guadeloupe, include Terre-de-Haute and Terre-de-Bas which attract some cruise ships for their beautiful bay, beaches and diving.

On Guadeloupe, some cruise ships call at Pointe-a-Pitre on Grande-Terre, where the main attractions include shopping in the outdoor market, walking along the waterfront and enjoying the "Grand-Terre Riviera" resorts of Sainte-Anne, Saint-Francois and Gosier. Pointe-a-Pitre's town center, La Place de la Victoire, is shaded by palms and royal poinciana trees. Some of the trees in this square are said to have been planted by Victor Hugues, who was the colonial administrator of the island in the 18th century and emancipated the slaves under orders of the French National Convention.

Some cruise vessels, like the computerized mega-sailboats of Windstar, stop at Basse-Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe. Walking tours sold onboard typically start in the Quartier St. Francois, a stone's throw from the cruise ship's pier and visit the main plaza, Nolivos Square on Cours Nolivos. The plaza dates from 1767 and has as its focal point the stately Town Hall built in 1889 in Neo-Classical style and surrounded by some restored late 18th and early 19th century buildings.

Other points of interest on Basse-Terre walking tours include the old slave market at the Place du Soldeur where slaves were bought, sold and punished and where the guillotine was installed during the French Revolution; and the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Guadeloupe on Rue du Docteur Cabre, built in 1736 in Classical style, with statues of Sts. Peter and Paul in the façade and baroque and classical side chapels.

At the Maison du Patrimonie (Heritage House) on Rue Baudot, visitors can see a typical 19th century Creole upper middle class house, a two-story home with red steel roof and kitchen wing and slave quarters flanking a central courtyard. From its second story there is a view of traditional 18th and 19th century houses with wrought iron balconies. The colorful city market on Rue de la Republic --bustling with people buying produce, fish, crafts and other merchandise is yet another point of interest.

A lush rainforest, Parc Naturel National Park, on the flanks of La Soufriere Volcano is another highlight for visitors to Basse-Terre, which can be toured independently if your time in port allows. It is a lush, peaceful, green world with hiking trails to enjoy giant ferns, waterfalls, hot springs, cool mountain pools --and of course, the volcano.

Other organized shore excursions available on cruise ships include snorkeling in the Cousteau Reserve, named in honor of Jacques Cousteau who dived in these waters, and to a working plantation.

Iles des Saintes, a dependency of Guadeloupe, sometimes visited by small cruise vessels, is an unspoiled, green and hilly Neverland-like cluster of islands where one almost expects to see a mermaid lagoon. Tenders take passengers ashore to the small pier in Terre-de-Haut. Settled by people from Normandy and Brittany, the island is very French, with a monument marking July 14, French Independence Day, steps from the pier, and a Town Hall adorned with French flags and the words "Liberte," "Egalite," and "Fraternite" inscribed on the façade.

Signs like "Tabac," "Boulangerie" and "Patisserie" identify some of the stores and a "Transport Touristique" van is available to take people to Marigot Beach or to do an island tour.

A 20-minute walk from the pier via the Rue du Marigot to Pompierre Beach, the best beach on Terre-de-Haut is rewarding: the way to the beach passes pastoral scenery of grazing sheep and cattle and an iguana or two --the island is overrun by them.

Pompierre Beach itself is an idyll with an ample bay with wind-sculpted rock formations in front that almost enclosed it. Palm trees provide shade. Calm, aquamarine waters are invitingly warm, ideal for swimming and snorkeling with sergeant majors, parrot fish, angelfish, eels and other marine life often spotted.

Island flavors include Creole cuisine -- try the crab with hot pepper and coconut in Guadeloupe; on Iles Des Saintes, the grilled fish or a lamb stew at one of the waterfront cafés.

Cruise lines that call on Pointe-a-Pitre include Seabourn, Silversea and Windstar. Lines that call at Iles Des Saintes, a dependency of Guadeloupe, include Holland America, Seabourn, Star Clippers and Windstar.

IF YOU GO -- For more information on Guadeloupe, visit www.antilles-info-tourisme.com/guadeloupe.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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