Guadeloupe: These tiny islands are the French Caribbean’s greatest secret

Le Gosier, Guadeloupe CNN  — 

Seen from above, the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe look like the emerald wings of a butterfly.

Located within the lower crescent of the Caribbean archipelago between the islands of Montserrat and Dominica, these twin islands and a smaller cluster of satellite islets don’t just offer intrepid travelers spectacular white sand beaches.

They also have waterfalls, mountainous rainforests and cultural institutions dedicated to the islands’ pre-Hispanic peoples and subsequent slave trade.

From the main islands of Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, it’s just an hour’s ferry ride to the tiny islands of La Désirade, Marie-Galante or the islands of Les Saintes to visit for the day trip overnight.

As an overseas department of France, Guadeloupe has long been a popular destination for French and other Western European tourists. Francophiles delight in speaking the lingua franca, French, while stopping at boulangeries and cafés to enjoy an espresso and croissant. (Visitors may hear more English since Norwegian Air started offering cheap direct flights from the United States in 2015.)

It’s a rich mélange of African, European, Amerindian, pre-Hispanic and Indian cultures, however, that lends Gwada, as locals call Guadeloupe, a certain “je ne sais quoi.”

Less developed than its French Caribbean cousins, St. Martin and Martinique, Guadeloupe is also more affordable than pricey St. Barths (Saint-Barthélemy).

Here are 10 things to do and see when you travel to this tiny French territory:

1. White sand beaches

Guadeloupe's La Datcha Beach, located on the island of Grande-Terre, draws in locals with its slower paced vibe.

Less than 30 minutes from Guadeloupe’s main airport on the island of Grande-Terre are some of the island’s most beautiful beaches.

Shake off the last vestiges of travel at La Caravelle, a long stretch of beach open to the public on the grounds of an all-inclusive Club Med resort with windsurfing and kitesurfing schools and rentals. Day trippers can rent lounge chairs under the palm trees for 10 euros.

English is often spoken at beaches in the Grande-Terre towns of Sainte-Anne, home to postcard-perfect Sainte-Anne Beach, and Le Gosier, where La Datcha Beach has a slower vibe.

For a more French experience, ask locals for the turn-off to Petit-Havre, a small surfing beach frequented by locals.

Sainte-Anne Beach, les Hauts de Sainte Anne, Sainte-Anne 97180, Guadeloupe

La Datcha Beach, Le Bourg, Le Gosier 97190, Guadeloupe

2. Take in spectacular views of the Atlantic and Caribbean

Along the eastern side of the island of Grande Terre, the peninsula Pointe des Châteaux provides dramatic views of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Stroll along the easternmost end of Grande-Terre, which leads up the cliffs of Pointe des Châteaux for spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Head to Porte d’Enfer (“Gate of Hell”) to explore a trail leading to the Trou de Madame Coco (“Madame Coco’s Cave”), a grotto carved by the waves. Local folklore says it’s the home of a witch who made a pact with the devil.

One of the most spectacular trails on Basse-Terre is le Sentier de la Grande Pointe, located minutes from the town of Trois Rivières. Along the path, there’s a series of three waterfalls that spills into the sea near the black sandy Anse Duquéry Beach. Observant hikers can find pre-Columbian petroglyphs peering out from rocks along the trail, and there are many ruins of some of the island’s colonial-era sugar plantations.

(Pre-Columbian refers to the rich history, cultures and art of the peoples living throughout much of the Americas before the fateful arrival of Christopher Columbus, who first landed on Guadeloupe in 1493.)

Pointe des Châteaux, 6.8 miles east of Saint Francois, drive on D118 towards “Pointe des châteaux,” Saint-François 97118, Guadeloupe

Porte d’Enfer and Trail to Trou de Madame Coco, Route de Porte d’Enfer, Anse-Bertrand 97102, Guadeloupe

Le Sentier de la Grande Pointe and Anse Duquéry Beach. Turn off onto a road just after the village of Trois Rivières in the direction of Pointe à Pitre (after the petrol station), Trois Rivières 97114, Guadeloupe

3. Go to its national park – a giant rainforest

Trade in sandals for hiking shoes to explore the rainforest at Guadeloupe's National Park. Route de la Traversée provides access to some of the island's natural attractions.

Guadeloupe’s National Park encompasses more than 74,100 acres of rainforest on the island of Basse-Terre, where visitors can hike up the side of la Grande Soufrière. It’s an active volcano that is also the highest mountain peak in the Lesser Antilles.

Rent a car at the Pole Caraïbes International Airport on Grande-Terre and head across one of two bridges on Guadeloupe that connect Grand-Terre to Basse-Terre.

It’s worth taking time on Route de la Traversée, the road that cuts across the national park. It’s a stretch of road with turnoffs to some of the island’s most accessible natural attractions. Bathe in a pool beneath La Cascade aux Écrevisses (“Waterfall of the Crayfish”) or take in the breathtaking beauty of the Carbet Waterfalls.

Stop off at La Maison de la Forêt (House of the Forest), where a canopy of majestic tropical chestnut, mahogany and fig trees will make travelers forget that they’re only an hour from the airport.

National Park of Guadeloupe, Montéran, Saint-Claude 97120, Guadeloupe; +590 590 41-5555