“They’re calling, ‘Look at us, look at us dance,’” my guide shouts as she sways to the complex percussion rhythms and insistent call-and-response of the ten-man gwo-ka group that saturates this shabby sidewalk stretch in Pointe-à-Pitre, the principal city in Guadeloupe.
“This is more than music,” she continues, cupping her hands to my ear. “This is a way of living!” If my experiences of the past three hours are any indication, I think to myself, visiting this five-island archipelago definitely involves stepping fiercely outside my comfort zone. So I begin swaying and bouncing, too.
To truly experience this fabulous, gritty, lush, and passionately Creole Caribbean outpost of France, you have to be all in.
Here’s how to make it happen, beyond the beach:
1. Visit the Memorial ACTe.
How often does a museum move you to tears? And then offer up a chic waterfront restaurant with tasty bites and rum punch to help you gather your wits?
The Mémorial ACTe (MACTe) is not a memorial, in the English sense of the word. It’s an immersive cultural experience that introduces visitors to the Caribbean-French view on slavery and the African slave trade throughout the world.
The journey begins when you first see the massive two-part structure, clad in lacy steel filigree, against the cobalt blue of Pointe-à-Pitre’s bay, and continues when you enter the courtyard, anchored by a towering rusted sculpture representing the tree of remembrance.
Inside, the permanent exhibit covers the major chapters of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas from the early-17th century to the present day.
MACTe opened in 2015, but it was a decade in the making. The center’s project director, renowned Guadeloupian anthropologist and researcher Thierry L’Etang, remained true to his holistic vision by integrating contemporary art, historical artifacts, modern interactive technology, and architectural wizardry.
“The permanent exhibit and contemporary art collection present a unified feeling because we started from scratch, instead of building on a pre-existing group of objects,” he told me, modestly, once I’d composed myself after the one-hour self-guided tour.
Factoring in the excellent English translations of the headset text and the exhibit display information, the museum makes for an exceptional visitor experience.
Speaking in French with L’Etang, I also understood the more hopeful future implicit in the “ACTe” part of the MACTe center’s name, brought to life in the last room of the exhibit, where a bank of computer terminals is available for visitors to use, with links to hundreds of human rights organizations worldwide.
There’s also an interactive genealogy library and research center and a skywalk from the building’s roof to a spectacular cliff-top lookout. Oh, and it’s important to make time for that restaurant-bar or the more casual waterfront café-bistro to take in the serene bay-front vista while imagining what the area must have looked like a century ago, when the Darboussier sugar refinery was in full production on the site and the calm waters thronged with ships.
2. Hike to one of 52 waterfalls (or up a volcano).
Guadeloupe’s indigenous people called their home Karukera, or “the islands of beautiful waters.” In fact, the story goes that Christopher Columbus first visited the island in 1496 after noticing a waterfall flowing down the lushly forested mountainside near modern-day Capesterre Belle-Eau. Island waters are still beautiful today, in large part owing to the fact that more than three quarters of the territory is made up of nature preserves.
You could begin your day, like we did, over coffee next to the palm-shaded pool of the remote Les Bananes Vertes eco-lodge (the six rustic cabins cater to tree house-type tourists who want to unplug and commune with nature). Owners Pierre and Deborah also organize guided hikes and canyoning via their adventure travel agency, Vert Intense.
From there, we headed for the nearby National Park of Guadeloupe. Visitors swim in the pools at the base of gushing waterfalls like La Cascade aux Ecrevisses, near the Forest House visitor’s center (where the area’s hiking trails converge).
Another waterfall, Les Bassins Bleus, is on the well-marked trail up the flank to the top of “mildly active” La Souffriere volcano at 4,800 feet. We only hiked up to the caldera’s base before wimpily turning back because it was raining (it’s a rain forest, after all). But we did take a long soak in the Yellow Bath natural hot spring pool near the trailhead. (Always wear your swimsuit under your clothes in Guadeloupe!)
3. Listen to some music.
L’Etang, the project director of the MACTe museum (and general authority on all things cultural in Guadeloupe), calls Pointe-à-Pitre the New Orleans of the Caribbean. Convenient clubs, with zouk bands or DJs, are located in a suburb called Le Gosier at “La Marina,” a nightlife hub just past the University of the Antilles campus.
There are several portside restaurants in La Marina, plus an open-air wine bar, Les Ignorants, where the friendly wait staff is happy to help fellow “ignorants” choose the perfect glass of wine from the excellent (and well-priced) French selection.
For a calm evening in Pointe-à-Pitre, try drinks or dinner at the posh Le Yacht Club on a Friday night when Samuel, the well-connected owner and man about town, books jazz bands. Lunch is also lovely, overlooking the water, though there’s no jazz. But you’ll be rubbing shoulders with the local hoi polloi.
At another waterfront lunch spot in town, La Canne à Sucre, winners of the Route de Rhum ocean yacht race have immortalized their thoughts and drawings in Sharpie pen on one of the walls, perhaps during one of the occasional evening reggae concerts.
On Saturday morning, gwo-ka bands and fans congregate near the statue of revered percussionist Marcel Lollia (known as “Vélo”) by the covered market in Pointe-à-Pitre. And in July, for the full gwo-ka music and dance experience, there’s the annual Gwoka Festival in the town of Sainte-Anne, bigger and better since gwo-ka was listed on UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritage” in 2014.
4. Eat some Creole cuisine.
I couldn’t get enough bokits: street stall baguette sandwiches stuffed with fried fish, meat, or vegetables that are surely the granddaddy of the New Orleans po’ boy, given the number of Creoles who migrated from the French Antilles to The Big Easy in the early 19th century.
If you’re near the daytime roadside market in Sainte-Anne, check out the homemade boudin sausage and hand-churned coconut ice cream at Malou’s Delices Kréyol stall.
The fricassée de lambis (conch stew) was delicious at Kaz Marie-Galante: a simple, home-style restaurant with daily lunch specials across from the Place des Victoires in Pointe-à-Pitre. Our best meal, by far, was near Deshaies, in the vast Botanic Garden’s open-air hilltop restaurant pavilion.
A guest book entry from a Los Angeles family said it best: “This is a heavenly spot!” Although the charmingly presented (and tasty) food, including daily specials, is locally sourced and made to order, the menu pointed out that “laughter and good cheer are the most important ingredients here.”
That goes for the whole island, I thought.