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.
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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.
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.
On Martinique, we're staying on Presqu'île de la Caravelle, and on Guadeloupe, we'll be near Ste.-Anne and Deshaies. Any restaurant suggestions?
Your hotel on Martinique is just a 15-minute drive from Tartane, where there's a row of well-priced restaurants. In La Trinité, a village next to Tartane, locals go to La Tartanaise restaurant for the unofficial national drink, ti-punch, made of rum, lime, and sugar (5 rue Galba, 011-596/596-58-54-87, dinner from $16).
Kouleur Kreole, in Ste.-Anne, serves French and Creole fare (chemin de la Plage, 011-590/590-91-45-76, entrées from $13). If you want to enjoy rum drinks and not worry about driving home, make a reservation at L'Americano Café, next to the town market. A shuttle will pick you up at your hotel and bring you back when you've finished dinner (blvd. Georges Mandel, 011-590/590-88-38-99, entrées from $12). In Deshaies, stay away from the main strip, where the restaurants are expensive. Instead, go to Barbuto, a tapas place on the water, for cappa santa, or seared sea scallops (Le Bourg, 011-590/590-89-87-28, barbutonyc.com, plates from $11).
How much time should we allow for each capital city?
A half day in Guadeloupe's Pointe-à-Pitre is plenty. Spend the morning shopping for traditional crafts and flavored rums at the Marché Couvert, on the corner of rues Peynier and Schoelcher, and then have lunch at the Paella Grill (29 rue Frébault, 011-590/590-82-12-34, lunch from $11).
In Martinique's Fort-de-France, you'll want a full day to explore the compact downtown. Some highlights: the colorful Schoelcher Library, built in Paris for the 1889 World Exposition and later shipped to Martinique (rue de la Liberté, free); La Savane, the main park in the center of the city; and Fort St.-Louis, a historic naval fort that's still an active naval base. Stop for the French-Creole cuisine at CyberDeliss, a café/bar six blocks west of La Savane. The owners love to serve—and talk about—their favorite island rums (113 rue Ernest Deproge, Point Simon, 011-596/596-78-71-43, entrées from $9).
We'd love to visit a rum distillery.
Guadeloupe's Musée du Rhum, at the Reimonenq Distillery in the village of Ste.-Rose, does a great job of explaining the process that turns sugar cane into rum. In addition to the historic stills and old cane-crushing machines, there's an interesting—if random—collection of model boats, butterfly specimens, and coiffes, or madras head wraps. From Pointe-à-Pitre, take the N2 and then just follow the signs (011-590/590-28-70-04, musee-du-rhum.fr, admission $9).
Unasked-for advice Book a tour to dive or snorkel at Guadeloupe's Cousteau Reserve. It's said that if you touch the head of the Jacques Cousteau statue, you'll have only good luck in the water (011-590/590-98-86-63, heures-saines.gp, $78).