TERRE-DE-HAUT, Guadeloupe — My normal sport of choice at the beach is people watching. It's less tiring than Frisbee and does not require the pesky hand-eye coordination of paddle ball. But on a hot December morning in the Caribbean I was lying in the sand gazing at goats, not people. Their little hooves pranced down to the surf. A dog chased them up a nearby hill, and when the dog disappeared, the goats reappeared. This went on for quite some time and was oddly captivating.
While I was enjoying the bovid parade, my husband-to-be was not. "Look at their eyes, they're evil," he said, wincing as they trotted to and fro.
"How could an animal that produces such an incredible cheese possess a dark soul?" I countered while shooing away a stray chicken.
I'm rambling about the beach goats not only because I'm obsessed with viral Internet goat videos (who isn't?) but because there were more goats than people on this beach. In fact, most of the dozen or so beaches that we visited in Guadeloupe were blissfully quiet.
On the island of 400,000, we took a week and traveled from east to west with the objective of testing the beaches. The only time we spent in the capital city of Point-à-Pitre was at the airport. I suggest you do the same. If you go to Guadeloupe, you should be in a bathing suit the majority of the time, slathered in fruit salad-scented sunscreen. You should also be stretched out on a large towel discussing goats and gazing at the enticing, pale blue ocean.
Until Norwegian Air started offering bargain rates last fall — some as low as $49 one-way — on direct flights from Boston to Guadeloupe, I had never heard of the island. But suddenly I could travel to the Caribbean for less than a train ticket to New York. Maybe you'd prefer New York in January, but I enjoy feeling my toes in sand rather than slush.
Some basics: It's a French territory, and French and Creole are the main languages. It's mostly devoid of big, all-inclusive resorts, which means, until now, it has also been mostly devoid of Americans. Instead there are charming small and mid-size mom and pop, or, more accurately, mama et papa, hotels.
Until recently there was one direct flight from the United States to Guadeloupe. Now there are at least four. If you want to get to this gem before everyone else, I suggest you buy your ticket soon. Those quiet beaches, mostly filled with Speedo-loving and topless French sun worshippers, will not remain quiet for long. I feel guilty writing about Guadeloupe because it means there will be less room on the beach for those topless sun lovers and playful goats on Terre-de-Haut.
We started on the eastern side of the island, which is called Grande-Terre. If you look carefully on a map, Guadeloupe looks like a ragged butterfly that's lived a rough life. Grande-Terre is the less mountainous, tattered right wing. The left wing is called Basse-Terre. The two are separated by a narrow straight. Guadeloupe is technically an archipelago (Dictionary.com will help you with that term) made up of five islands.
We made an obligatory trip to Pointe des Châteaux in Grande-Terre, where rock formations ostentatiously rise from the bice blue sea. It was the only occasion we saw tour buses of snap-happy, capri pant-loving visitors. They greeted us with healthy rounds of "Bonjour!"
I'm accustomed to visiting countries where I don't speak the language. But I've seldom been to countries where English is simply not spoken. English is not the norm in Guadeloupe. Let's make up a word and call it the abnorm. There are pieces of furniture that probably know more French than I do, so communication was a challenge.
Where some may see the linguistic gap as an impediment to a good time, I saw it as a way to enjoy a place that has yet to be invaded by Tommy Bahama and his obnoxious friend Señor Frog. Yes, I accidently said "Buenas noches" instead of "Bonsoir," more than I should have, but nobody rolled their eyes or smacked me in the head with a baguette. Residents were patient with my toddler-level abilities. Learn from my mistakes people. Bone up on a few phrases, or at least install Google Translate.
Guadeloupe has its own Caribbean flavor, but it's also part of France, which means there is both prime local seafood and fantastic bakeries. My most memorable meal was at a small Italian restaurant called I.Pâtes . We were the only tourists in the petite dining room and both chef and owner came over to check on us. We couldn't really communicate with them, but it was a sweet gesture. I managed "Très bien!," but I have no idea if I said it at the right time.
Christopher Muther reports from Guadeloupe
Travel writer Christopher Muther showcases the highlights of his recent trip to Guadeloupe.
We hopped from beach to beach along the southeast coast. I try to stay away from superlatives, but my favorite beach was Plage du Souffleur on the island of La Désirade, a short ferry ride from Grande-Terre. We rented scooters to get around, and I drove mine straight into a fence. Still, I have fond memories of some of the bluest water I've ever had the pleasure of floating in. The sand was the color of Benjamin Moore's Lancaster Whitewash paint. I marveled at how we practically had the beach to ourselves. Nary a person (or goat) in sight.
Allow me to give you a personal example of how amazing the beaches are in Guadeloupe. My skin tone is not so different from Casper the Friendly Ghost . When exposed to sunlight, I resemble printer paper, which I think is just a shade darker than Casper. But when I returned from Guadeloupe, a shocked friend nearly dropped her Panera tomato and mozzarella on ciabatta and said, "You have a tan!"
Before making the drive to the left wing of the butterfly, Basse-Terre, we stopped to look at the crowded beach of Sainte-Anne, a central hub for tourists, and linger in the outdoor market. We were temporarily leaving the beaches behind to hike la Grande Soufrière, an active volcano that looms at 4,800 feet. In English the name means Big Sulfur Outlet, so let's stick to calling it the slightly classier Grande Soufrière, shall we?
The hike started easily with sunny skies and a straight-forward rocky path. By the time we were halfway up the volcano, it was foggy and drizzling. The climb became steeper, and the rocks were slimy. When we hit the top it was windy, cold, and pouring rain. I'd like to say I enjoyed the challenge, but I was mostly soggy and miserable.
Next beach, please.
The drying out began in earnest on Terre-de-Haut island, a quick ferry ride from the main island. Because the Basse-Terre half of Guadeloupe is more mountainous, it's also more scenic. On Terre-de-Haut, you're surrounded by mountains and rock formations. The main attraction on the island is Fort Napoléon des Saintes. But unless you have a strong interest in walking around a musty fort surrounded by a slightly limited cactus garden, your time is better spent focusing a camera at Les Saintes Bay and enjoying more sun at Pain de Sucre Beach.
The pace of Terre-de-Haut is blissfully slow. People come here for the beach or snorkeling. After spending too much time in the sun, we decided to try another favorite island sport — cocktail sipping. We couldn't resist Ti Kaz La restaurant. Because it's directly on the water, I was preparing for a tourist trap of quicksand magnitude. It wasn't. I ordered a cocktail that was big and fruity with a generous pour of the potent local rum.
I glanced down at the menu, and immediately knew what I needed to order — the goat cheese salad with honey and bacon. Here was the proof that those cute goats frolicking down the street on the beach were not only offering us some prime entertainment, but also the perfect lunch to accompany those very strong cocktails.