Floating like a butterfly in the midst of the Leeward Islands, Guadeloupe’s duo of main islets – Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre – stretch out like two fluttering wings.
But oh how different they are! In the west, Basse rises to mist-topped, waterfall-doused peaks that belch plumes of sulphuric volcanic ash into the humid airs.
In the east, the rocky edges of flat Grande cascade down to gorgeous beaches like Plage Caravelle, spotted with sunbathers and stylish resort hotels.
This makes Guadeloupe a place (which also made it to our best islands to visit in the Caribbean) that’s suited to a whole host of different travelers, drawing everyone from intrepid explorers with the promise of the Carbet Cataracts and hiking routes through primeval rainforests, to shoppers with the market stalls of Pointe-a-Pitre, and relaxation lovers with pretty Marie-Galante and the Iles des Saintes.
But it doesn’t end there either, because there’s legendary seafood, potent rum and more to taste, along with a rich history of colonialism, French rule, plantation ownership and more to uncover…
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Guadeloupe:
1. Take in the drama on the Pointe des Chateaux
Jutting its way out dramatically from the extreme eastern edge of the island of Guadeloupe, this craggy headland of rock and salt-washed stone is unquestionably one of the natural must-sees here.
Likened by many a visitor to a shipwreck, the small, sculpted peninsula displays cliffs and geological protrusions aplenty.
The spot is also famed for the blustery trade winds that buffet it all year long, which draw in crowds of kite fliers and makes for some seriously dramatic wave crashes against the shore.
Surfers, meanwhile, will hit the white-capped swells of Grandes Salines, and walkers will look for the tiny islet of La Desirade, which can be made out across the Caribbean on clear days.
2. Seek out the wildlife of the Guadeloupe National Park
Deep in the mountainous heart of Basse-Terre, the Guadeloupe National Park ranges from mist-topped primeval rainforest to endless swathes of mangrove that line the coast.
It’s hailed as one of the most biodiverse areas in the entire Caribbean, with oodles of interesting and rare mammals hiding between its verdant groves of seagrape and jatoba woods.
Take the curious presence of the mongoose (a non-indigenous arrival from India, believe it or not!), or the unusual agouti rodent that scuttles through the undergrowth.
There are also sea turtles in the ocean here, while plans are afoot to rejuvenate the manatee population too!
3. Hike the La Soufriere Volcano
Intrepid types and lovers of the great outdoors should not miss the chance to conquer the soaring La Soufriere Volcano, which towers high above the misty montane forests of the Guadeloupe National Park on the island of Basse-Terre.
The route to the top is a challenging but beautiful one, with a series of well-maintained walking paths weaving into the woods, over the babbling river ways and up to the very summit of the sulphur-spewing stratovolcano.
Hikes on the popular Le Pas du Roy track take around five hours from start to finish.
4. Tour the beaches and distilleries of Marie-Galante
The tiny little speck of Marie-Galante draws far fewer visitors than the mainland of Guadeloupe.
But the sleepy dependency just to the south of Grande-Terre has plenty of treasures of its own.
For a start, it’s a rugged island of sculpted cliffs and headlands, rising almost vertically from the Caribbean waters to a height of 150 meters (think some truly dramatic coastal walks). Secondly, it’s home to the country’s most iconic rum brewers, with the likes of Distillerie Poisson lurking outside Grand-Bourg with potent sugarcane creations aplenty.
Then there are the crumbling ruins of old plantations, their chimney stacks looming large over beautiful and secluded beaches like Petite Anse and Vieux-Fort – both truly paradisiacal spots!
5. Hit the markets of Pointe-a-Pitre
For more than 400 years, the town of Pointe-à-Pitre has been the commercial hub of Grande-Terre Island.
It’s here that the old landowners would have come to sell their stacks of sugarcane; their bottled rum hauls; their piles of spices.
Today, not too much has changed, with stalls and bazaars and local shops still erupting all along the docks.
Check out the lively strip of La Darse, where fishmongers tout snappers and whitefish, sacks of aromatic cumin and nutmeg and cinnamon issue sweet scents into the sultry airs, and locals meet to chatter on the weekend mornings.
And there are more refined shopping opportunities too, with bespoke jewels on offer in Schoelcher Street and Frébault.
6. Swim in the Carbet Falls
Another breathtaking natural treasure of the island that can be found hidden deep amidst the virgin rainforests of the Guadeloupe National Park, the Carbet Falls cascade down the volcanic mountains of Basse-Terre in a dramatic set of three vertical steps.
The second cataract can be easily reached on the winding hiking trails that delve into the La Grande Soufriere foothills, while the highest and lowest section are reserved for only the most intrepid and hardy walkers.
Those who visit can expect eye-wateringly beautiful vistas of the falls, with verdant forests clutching sheer cliffs and the spray of the dropping water misting over the Guadeloupe jungles.
The plunge pools of the third tier of Carbet are also a popular swimming spot.
7. Rum, rum and more rum at the Rum Museum
The Musée du Rhum of Sainte Rose, located on the northern shore of Basse-Terre, is the go to place in Guadeloupe for travelers who want to learn all there is to know about the Caribbean’s most famous alcoholic export.
The exhibitions deal with all aspects of rum production, detailing the cultivation of sugarcane over the centuries of Guadeloupe’s history to the intricate techniques of barrel making employed in the brewing process.
Visitors will also get to see historic copper distillation tools and presses, and – of course – get to sample tipples at the end of each tour.
8. Soak up the sun on Plage La Grande-Anse
It’s easy to see why sun-splashed La Grande-Anse Beach is one of the most celebrated stretches of sand on Guadeloupe.
Enfolded by the great outlines of jungle-dressed hills, it comes hidden in its own pocket of greenery on the north-western edge of Basse-Terre.
Sea vines and swaying palm trees hug the shoreline all around the arched bay, with oodles of shade on offer between the coconut groves.
The beach runs for a whole kilometer around the coast too, meaning it’s hardly ever packed to bursting, while plenty of charming little eateries like Kote Lagon and Karacoli offer refreshments and comfy seating just meters from the lapping sea.
9. See jaguars and more at the Zoological and Botanical Park of Guadeloupe
Peppered with colossal orchids blooming in ochre and red, and stalked by slinky jaguars that slip through the great trunks of jatoba trees, the Zoological and Botanical Park of Guadeloupe is one of the top spots on the archipelago for nature lovers.
Housed beneath the canopies of some primeval, old growth rainforest, it provides a protected section of natural habitats for the country’s indigenous wildlife.
Visitors are invited to delve in to the groves of guava trees and monkey-spotted branches to seek out rare turtles and native Guadeloupe racoons, while that adrenaline-pumping toboggan ride always proves a hit with the younger patrons!
10. Don the snorkels in Plage Caravelle
The jewel in the crown of Grande-Terre’s coastal line-up of beautiful beaches is Plage Caravelle.
Running along the southern side of the island with its verdant backing of coconut palms and the nearby bars and infinity pools of the Club Med Resort, it’s a real favourite amongst family travelers, sunbathers and swimmers (the waters are particularly calm thanks to a fringing of out-at-sea coral reefs that break the waves).
However, Caravelle is also famed for its snorkelling, which is best on the western end of the beach, where the coral gardens feather out into the sand banks and offer up a medley of colourful exotic marine life amongst the beds.
11. Sail across to La Desirade
Once beheld by Christopher Columbus, who sailed around these waters in the 1490s, and later inhabited by hiding buccaneers and pirates, the impossibly beautiful island of La Desirade can just be made out through the sunny haze some eight kilometers across the Caribbean Sea from the east coast of Grande-Terre.
Regular boat departures take around 45 minutes to drop travelers on the jetties of Beausejour, Desirade’s largest town.
From there it’s possible to hit the rugged mountain roads on a 4×4, ending at the wild reaches of the Reserve Naturelle Nationale de La Desirade, where huge iguanas stalk the dry and dusty plateaus.
12. Explore the Iles des Saintes
Peppering the Caribbean swells just south of Basse-Terre Island, the small and often overlooked archipelago of the Iles des Saintes remains one of the most quintessentially tropical enclaves of Guadeloupe as a whole.
Ringed by colourful reefs and coral gardens, the lands here rise in black volcanic rock from the ocean, topped with unscathed pockets of waxy manchineel trees and wrangled gumbo limbos.
Terre-de-Haut is the most-visited of the lot, with its pretty rows of red-roofed homes cascading down to a rocky bay at the sleepy fishing town of Le Marigot, along with the soaring bulwarks of Fort Napoleon and their glimpse of raw colonial heritage.
13. Enjoy the eco foods at Paradise Kafe
If you’re looking for a quintessentially Carib drinking dive just meters from the shore, then look no further than Paradise Kafe in little Deshaies.
Set like a surf-sprayed shack atop the rocky shoreline around the headland from pretty Plage La Grande-Anse, it’s a picture of laid-back island gastronomy.
The focus is on hearty, healthy and organic foods with an Asian twist, with pad Thai noodles served up with fresh spring veggies on top.
There are also burgers for those feeling less inclined towards the detox, while the drinks menu has a medley of fresh fruit juices – the perfect accompaniment for watching the sunset over Basse-Terre’s north-west coast!
14. Wander the greenery of the Deshaies Botanical Garden
Nestled between the rugged volcanic hills just up from the coast and Deshaies, Guadeloupe’s highly-acclaimed botanical gardens offer a glimpse of the rich flora and fauna that coalesce around this seriously biodiverse section of the Leeward Islands.
There are gushing waterfalls and ponds packed with lily pads to see, along with parrots and pretty palm trees flitting and swaying above.
Fern gardens and spiky cacti meet between the beds of orchids on either side of the walking paths too, while there’s also an on-site gift shop for those nature-related souvenirs.
15. Get your fix of Caribbean seafood at La Touna
Overlooking the rocky outcrops of Pigeon Island on the western edge of Basse-Terre (just a little north around the coastal bends from Bouillante), La Touna is a welcoming eatery that promises some of the best dinnertime views on the island.
Elegant and refined inside, the spot exudes a real colourful Carib-French charm, with painted timber décor and red and turquoise fixtures.
The menu is the real pull though, with a mix of tuna tartare and Creole-influenced ceviche salads, fish burgers and grilled catches of the day.
Oh, and the lobster is hailed as one of the best in all of Guadeloupe!