TRIP COACH

An Authentic Taste of Guadeloupe and Martinique

A South Carolina couple heading for Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the French West Indies, is searching for an authentic experience of the islands' best volcanoes, beaches, and rum.

(Map by Newhouse Design)

Bonnie and Jonathan Sarnoff

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DEAR TRIP COACH...
We can't find any guidebooks in English to help us plan our trip to Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the French West Indies. We're interested in the beaches, the volcanoes, and the food and drink—in particular, the rum! Bonnie and Jonathan Sarnoff, Greer, S.C.

FIRE AWAY!
We want to rent a convertible, but neither of us can drive a stick shift. Are we out of luck?
Most rentals in the French West Indies have manual transmissions. Hertz, Budget, and Avis each have a few automatics, but you should reserve a few months out to make sure you get one. Avis has convertibles, but they're all stick shifts.

We hear Presqu'île de la Caravelle, on Martinique, is a good beach area. What are some others?
The Caravelle peninsula boasts two great beaches: Anse L'Etang and Tartane Beach. You should also check out Les Salines, on the island's southern tip. It's a golden-sand beach on one of the undeveloped chunks of Martinique. Equally striking, Anse Céron, north of St.-Pierre, has black sand and a jungle backdrop.

And on Guadeloupe?
Of this island's two sections—Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre—the former has nicer beaches. At Ste.-Anne beach, just outside the town of Ste.-Anne, tunes from bands at beachside restaurants make every day feel like a party. For something more tranquil, go to Anse Maurice, in northern Grande-Terre. It's not easy to find, but the calm waters are worth seeking out. Drive north from Le Moule on the D120 and look for a small road on your right; the beach is at the end of that road.

Would you recommend the ferry between the islands?
L'Express des Iles runs three days a week, but even people with good sea legs have been known to get woozy (011-596/596-42-04-05, express-des-iles.com, $118 each way). If you're prone to motion sickness, fly instead. Air Caraïbes operates 8 one-way flights every day (011-590/590-82-47-47, aircaraibes.com, $185). Regardless of how you travel, do your best to adopt the local laid-back attitude. That way, if your departure is delayed or your bags get misplaced—both fairly likely—you'll be able to take it in stride.

Jonathan is a historian. What should he see?
He'll love the town of Le Moule, once the French capital of Guadeloupe. Head to the main square to see the old town hall, which was rebuilt after a hurricane destroyed it in 1928 (rue Joffre, 011-590/590-23-09-00, open from 9 a.m. to noon and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., free). Across the way is a church with a neoclassical façade. Four blocks northeast of the town square are waterfront ruins and a 17th-century fortress, from when the French first settled the area.

Are there any cool activities or tours you'd recommend on the volcanoes?
Canyoneering—exploring canyons by hiking, rappelling, and climbing—is a fun way to see a volcano up close. Le Bureau de la Randonnée arranges canyoneering trips on Martinique's Mont Pelée (011-596/596-52-72-60, bureau-rando-martinique.com, $63). Canyoneering isn't allowed on Guadeloupe's Soufrière, but you can book hiking tours with Les Heures Saines (011-590/590-98-86-63, heures-saines.gp, $94). Both Mont Pelée and Soufrière are dormant, so you're not likely to see any volcanic activity.

The dollar is so weak against the euro, which is the currency on the islands. How can we cut food costs?
All three of your hotels—La Caravelle on Martinique, and Caraïb'Bay and La Toubana on Guadeloupe—have kitchenettes in the rooms. Stop at a supermarket and stock up on breakfast fare and snacks. When you're out and about, the best food bargains will be at the beaches. Those restaurants—most of which serve Creole food—and bars tend to be much less expensive than the ones in the towns and cities. For lunches or light dinners on Guadeloupe, look for bokit stands, where $5 buys you the pita-meets-panini sandwich, filled with seafood, ham and cheese, or vegetables.

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