The Not Dead Yet Generation will occasionally write a travelogue to describe one of our favorite places. Iles des Saintes is a magical destination and one of the last unspoiled spots of the Caribbean. This travelogue will be updated to provide the correct information about hotels, restaurants and transportation.
ILES DES SAINTES, GUADELOUPE, FRANCE
GALLIC INNOCENCE IN THE FRENCH ANTILLES
As the ferry rounded desolate Pointe Coquelet, the town of Le Bourgcame into view. It felt as if I was visiting some remote French colonial outpost from the nineteenth century. Was everyone from the island out to meet the incoming ferry? Kids straddled their scooters, looking up at the passengers with some mysterious anticipation. Touts shouted out in French what ever they were hawking, from inexpensive guesthouses to tours around the island. I wheeled my luggage off of the “bateaux” amused by the cacophony of sound and stimulated by the unique visage.
I had arrived at the island of Terre-de-Haut, the busiest of the French islands of Les Saintes located off the coast of Guadeloupe. Les Saintes was purported to be what St Barts was thirty years ago, filled with French charm and panache, but absent of pretension and exorbitant prices. According to the email, someone from my hotel, The Auberge Les Petits Saints, was going to meet me either behind or near the church. My French skills were not able to decipher which. I walked around the incredibly picturesque church and had no idea how I was going to recognize someone from the Auberge among the dozens of people who were mingling about. I spied a van, one of the few automobiles allowed on the island, with the name of the Auberge proudly displayed on its side, and decided to wait for the driver. Within a few seconds a man sauntered over looking like a French film star from a Truffaut movie. Nodding at whatever he said, I placed my baggage in the rear and jumped onto the front seat. The short drive to the Auberge wound around a confusing maze of narrow lanes passing colorful and immaculate Creole houses clinging to the steep hillside.
The Auberge was impossibly whimsical and enchanting, the main lodge replete with colorful artwork and delightful antiques and artifacts. Laurence Monjoie and Jean Foraste have taken over the ownership of the Auberge from the irrepressible Didier Spindler, the unofficial doyen of Terre-de-Haut. Laurence proudly brought me to my cottage and was able to communicate to me, in spite of my lousy French, how to work the air-conditioning, the television, and the doors to my deck over-looking the town of Le Bourg and the picturesque bay. These modern conveniences enhanced the original stone walls and antiques that typified the ambiance of the cottage.
The sun was shining, as it does almost every day on Terre-de-Haut with its dry, desert like climate, and I was ready to storm the beaches. There is an assortment of beaches on the island, and it’s just a matter of degree of difficulty in getting there. For my initial plunge, so to speak, I chose La Plage de Pompierre, a pleasant twenty-five minute walk from the Auberge meandering by pastoral goat farms reminiscent of a Provençal District. Plage de Pompierre is a wide stretch of protected beach with picnic tables, sea grape trees for shade, and a couple of vendors selling sandwiches and soft drinks.
Although the sea at Pompierre was purported to be calm, on this day the wind had picked up, and there was a bit of a chop. There is suppose to be good snorkeling at the east end of the beach, but I could not find the coral. Surprisingly, the beach was somewhat crowded. Groups of energetic campers, young mothers and their children, and flirtatious teenagers were enjoying the Pompierre experience. Dismayed at the crowds, I settled down and became immersed in some trashy, summer novel. I looked up after a few minutes, and the beach had emptied! Was there some hostile invasion attacking the salubrious ambiance of La Plage de Pompierre? Hardly, I realized the day trippers were returning to town to catch the ferries back to Guadeloupe. Most of the ferries return in the early afternoon. I now had the beach to myself.
After a couple of hours enjoying the solitude of Pompierre, I needed to stretch my legs and packed up my bags and began the short stroll to La Baie de Marigot, an alluring spot where sailboats and other pleasure craft were docked. It’s possible to grab a lunch at the charming restaurant La Paillote overlooking the Bay. La Baie de Marigot is also the location of The Centre UCPA, a large hostel catering to an international collection of students and aficionados of an assortment of water sports. The Centre has 27 bungalows accommodating close to 120 people. The UCPA clients certainly provide a young and effervescent ambiance to the entire island.
I returned to the Auberge les Petits Saints for a refreshing dip in their pool with a fantastic view of the Caribbean and to freshen up before dinner. My walk into town allowed me to inquisitively glance into the homes of the people who live on the island. With their doors and windows open, and I voyeuristically checked out their quaint homes and simple decorative interiors.
Les Saintes, because of the dry climate, never developed agriculturally, and as a result, did not become involved in the slave trade. The original people are purported to be blond hair and blue-eyed descendents of Norman and Breton sailors. However, there must have been a whole lot of hanky panky going on, because the people of Terre-de-Haut represent every racial group under the sun. They are a kaleidoscope of skin tones and hair and eye color. Consequently, there is very little of the racial tension that can be quite perceptible in the West Indies and Latin America.
Terre-de-Haut has not developed a vibrant night life as yet, and my choice for a “sunset cocktail” was rather limited. I could go to one of the delightful restaurants or I could go to the one de facto bar on the island, Chez Cecile or better known as Coconuts. I chose to imbibe at Coconuts which was packed with an international conglomeration of young people from the Centre UCPA. Coconuts, basically an open Lean-to, is located across the beach just a few minutes from the town center. It was hopping and even had a DJ spinning French Hip Hop. Cecile, an attractive, middle-aged French woman mixed the drinks with a bemused look in her eyes. In my short time there, I heard German, English, Italian, Spanish and of course French. It was the twenty-something United Nations of Terre-de-Haut!
The alcohol stimulated my appetite and it was time to choose a restaurant from the several establishments available. I noticed a place on the main square which seemed quite popular and decided to head there. Le Quai des Artistes is upstairs almost on top of the ferry dock. Confusion settled in when I peered around the restaurant. It was filled with similar objects of art, knickknacks, and antiques as the Auberge les Petits Saints. The restaurant had the same whimsical ambiance of my hotel. I sat down at a table on the porch with a view of the harbor and town square and a server came over to help me. Melissa, a delightful and gracious young woman from France, spoke English extremely well and explained that Le Quai des Artistes is owned and operated by Didier Spindler who used to be the proprietor of the Auberge. Je comprend! Melissa pointed out Didier on a couch conversing with several people. I asked Melissa to introduce me to Didier and she patiently explained that she would find out when he might be available. Did I have to make an appointment? Was this like seeing my internist? Melissa came back and said Didier would be pleased to talk to me tomorrow evening. D’accord.
A couple of days later I discovered that Didier is the “master of ceremonies” and European maestro of the island, and almost every evening the restaurant is reminiscent of the “Algonquin Round Table.” Everyone wants to talk to Didier. He is incredibly charming and accepts his celebrity with aplomb. He wears his artistry well. Didier’s paintings are superbly colorful and depict a tropical delight. All the artwork, antiques, jewelry etc. in the restaurant-gallery are for sale and certainly the pieces are unusual and for the most part marvelous. This gallery would not seem out-of-place on Spring Street in Soho. Besides the gallery in the restaurant, Didier also maintains the Didier Spindler gallery in St. Barts.
The evening menu at Le Quai des Artistes described a “small plates”,tapas cuisine and I wondered why there was not something more substantial on the menu. It was explained that after the sale of the Auberge, Didier had to sign a “no compete” clause and thus, his dinner is served at lunch. The food was delicious at Le Quai, and I couldn’t wait to have a dinner at lunch. The French bureaucratic nature reaches all the way to the Caribbean.
By 10:00 P.M. the island was quiet and I returned to the Auberge for good night’s rest. I woke up ready to attack another beach, but first I had to decide whether to rent a scooter for 25 euros a day and add to the obnoxious din, or utilize the services of a taxi for 15 euros round trip. I chose the taxi and Franck, from Les Saintes Travel Services provided a great service. He spoke English well and because of the pride he obviously felt toward his islands, Franck was a wealth of information. He dropped me off at le Plage de Crawen and promised to return in a couple of hours. In retrospect, I was very glad I took a taxi as I do not know whether a scooter could have conquered the hills we had to navigate.
Plage de Crawen was empty, and although its reputation as the islands best beach is debatable, it was the epitome of a pristine Caribbean beach. Plage de Crawen is the island’s unofficial nude beach. However, I was not about to expose my white, pasty Midwestern skin to the elements. A few people did arrive later and had no problem enjoying the beach and water au naturale. There is not a great deal of protective areas on the beach, so please be sure you have enough melanin in your skin.
Franck arrived exactly on time as he drove me back into town; I glanced at his book of old photos of the island. Terre-de-Haut has not changed much thorough the years. I wanted to check out the boutiques on the island, and to my surprise, there was quite a variety of shopping opportunities. Mahogany, run by the loquacious Yves Cohen, specializes in unique handcrafted cotton clothes for both men and women in a variety of tie dyed colors. The garments are very cool and would be stylish from Saint Tropez to South Beach. Yves divides his time between Forteleza, Brazil where his wife is from, and Les Saintes. He has been on the island since 1976 and has great stories to tell.
L’Armor, directly on the town square, is a representative of the omnipresent French company Le Gall, known in the States as The Legal Clothing Company. Their designs are very attractive and I purchased a trendy T-shirt.
Maritime Cotton is a shop that is both a gallery and a clothing store. The art depicts Les Saintes in watercolor pastels and the clothing is white and of course cotton.
If jewelry is your thing, the Eden Shop has some fantastic designs using stones from all over the world. The unakite, from South Africa, is a particularly interesting stone, and the Eden’s pieces are abstractly interesting. Their wooden bracelets and necklaces are also very cool.
While the prices on the island are not cheap, particularly with how the dollar is doing against the euro, items are certainly less than they would be in St. Barts.
I thought I would try dinner at the Auberge, and I made an 8:00 reservation. Walking up to the main lodge from my cottage, I could not imagine a more romantic spot to have dinner. It was white linen service by candlelight perched on a hilltop overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The dinners on Terre-de-Haut basically consisted of what was fresh and available at the time. Menus listed fresh fish including Dorado, Snapper, Shrimp, and the inimitable Langoustine prepared in a variety of ways. The land based cuisine was French classical and there was a Gallic presence at every table. The French know how to bake bread. At every restaurant les pains was “out of this world,” and I had to be careful not to fill up on the rolls, croissants, and baguettes. The portions at Le Auberge les Petits Saints are enormous and my appetizer of fresh tuna tartar was a meal in itself. However, if I had listened to my stomach and not my taste buds, I would have missed out on the wonderful grilled Dorado, prepared simply but with a delicate and clean taste. The sauces were placed on the side to use at my pleasure. The dessert was amazing.
I staggered back to my bed stuffed to the gills with a pleasurable smirk on my face. The meals on Terre-de-haut were as good as what St. Barts has to offer for much less money.
My final day on the island I was intent on finding the best snorkeling. Franck was picking me up in the morning to drive me to Anse de Sucre which was supposed to have great snorkel opportunities. For the afternoon, I booked a boat excursion to a coral reef with Plongee des Saintes La Dive Bouteille, the premier scuba operation on the island run by the amiable Sylvia and Luc.
Anse de Sucre, sometimes called Pain de Sucre for the cliff north of the beach, was at the end of a ten minute down hill walk on the west side of the island. The water was clear and I splashed into the surf with great anticipation. This is what I was looking for. The snorkeling was superb and I could follow the coral all the way to another fine beach fronting the largest hotel on the island Bois Joli. In fact, there was a third beach a short walk from Anse de Sucre. It was heaven. None of the beaches afforded any protection, but with a little planning, you could pack all the necessities for a wonderful day.
Luc, one half of the team behind Plongee des Saintes La Dive Bouteille, spoke perfect English and I enjoyed the boat ride past Terre-de-Bas, the other inhabited island of Les Iles des Saintes with confidence that my day would finish on the ultimate high note. My fellow passengers were quite cosmopolitan having traveled the world and calling home in a variety of exciting places. The boat anchored at an interesting rock formation and Luc pointed the coral out to me. I catapulted into the blue water but alas, the fish were hibernating and the snorkeling paled in comparison to Anse de Sucre.
My last meal on the island was at the alluring restaurant La Saladerie situated on a hill above Anse Mire, a ten minute walk north of the town square. Again, I was enchanted by the fabulous cooking and the Gallic ambiance. The only discord of the night was when the restaurant proprietor and resident artist gently asked me if I really wanted an egg in my vodka. Miss Severin, my high school French teacher, did constantly remind me how poor my pronunciation was.
After finishing my Tarte Tatin, I walked down the stairs to the restaurant’s dock and glanced at the twinkling lights reflecting off the hills of Terre-de-Haut and distant Guadeloupe. Was this St. Barts of thirty years ago? I couldn’t answer that. Both islands are different and meet the needs of unique parts of my traveling soul. I do hope that Les Saintes does not change and its prevailing innocence remains. I doubt that will happen as everything loses its innocence eventually. As Elizabeth Bowen once wrote, “it is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence, and once we have lost that it is futile to attempt a picnic in Eden.” C’est la vie………………………
Les Saintes consists of eight islands off the coast of Guadeloupe and
politically and geographically a part of Guadeloupe which is part of
mainland France. The islands of Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas are
inhabited and have facilities to attract tourists. Terre-de-Haut is
more developed then Terre-de-Bas which is mostly a day trip
You can fly on Air Caraibes to the tiny air strip on Terre-de-Haut
from Pointe-a-Pitre, the capital of Guadeloupe. The flight takes
about fifteen minutes and costs approximately 200 euros per person
Ferries travel to Terre-de-Haut from several places on Guadeloupe
including Pointe-a-Pitre, Basse Terre, Saint-Francois, Sainte-Anne and
Trois Rivieres. The shortest and least expensive trip is from Trois
Rivieres which only takes about twenty minutes and costs 22 euros
round trip. The longest and most expensive ride is from
Saint-Francois which can take any where from eighty minutes to two
hours with a stop at the island of Marie Galante. The cost of this
trip is 50 euros per person. Some people have described the ferry
excursion as uncomfortable and nauseating due to rough water. That
was not my experience. Companies include: Brudey Freres 0590 90 04
48 and Les Bateliers de L’Archipel 0590 22 26 31.
In the past, visitors to Guadeloupe from the United States were
compelled to stay over night in San Juan or St Maarten before flying
into the island. Delta now has a flight that leaves Atlanta in the
morning and can get you into Guadeloupe by the early afternoon.
Auberge Les Petit Saints is the premier place to stay on the island.
The 12 rooms, including four suites, are all air-conditioned with
private bath and satellite television. Rates range from 90 euros to
180 euros in the off-season and from 110 euros to 240 euros in the
high season. All rates include a continental breakfast.
Hotel Cocoplaya is located a few minutes west of town on the bay. The
12 simple rooms are decorated in a variety of motifs and are
immaculately clean. Each room has air-conditioning, satellite
television, and a private bathroom. The rates range from 68 euros to
106 euros in the off-season to 91 euros to 129 euros in the high
season. All rates include a continental breakfast.
Hotel Bois Joli is the largest hotel on the island. It has a
wonderful location with a beach fronting Pain de Sucre. The
accommodations consist of 8 bungalows with a view of the ocean, 5
rooms with two floors on a hill with a view of the sea, and 13 older
rooms in which about half of them have a view. All rooms have
air-conditioning and a private bath. There is a pool on the grounds
of the hotel. This could be a lovely property, but the Bois Joli
needs some tender loving care. The hotel is also a healthy fifteen
minute scooter ride from town. Remember, there are no available
rental cars on the island. You walk, rent a scooter, or take a taxi.
Rates range from 72 euros to 148 euros in the off-season to 95 euros
to 211 euros in the high season. The rates include a continental
The Centre UCPA can accommodate 120 people in cottages with a balcony
or terrace and private bathroom with a shower. The rates include full
board and a variety of activities.
All the restaurants basically have similar menus of fresh fish and
Gallic specialties. The entrees range in price from 10 to 20 euros.
For a lobster meal you will pay about double that. A crisp Carib beer
will cost about 4 euros on the island and a cocktail will set you back
approximately 7 euros.
Les Objets d’Arts – Upstairs on the main square next to the ferry dock
Le Genois – About one block north of the main square on the water.
Le Triangle – Five minutes west of the main square on the water.
La Saladerie – Ten minutes north of the main square above Anse Mire
Auberge les Petit Saints – In the hotel of the same name. Ten minutes south-west of the main square on the hill above town
Franck at Les Saintes Travel Services 0690 37 55 42