Beautiful beaches are like the famous Tolstoy quote about happy families: They're all alike. A far harder thing to find on a tropical island is a beach that makes you think.
When we came to Guadeloupe, we thought we wanted a place to think about nothing. We planned to sunbathe and relax, and if we were looking for more, it was for the best off-the-beaten-path, not-in-the-guidebooks spot that could feel like ours alone.
We figured it would be soft, sandy and lined with palm trees, with a vendor selling rum punch nearby. But we found a lot of things we weren't expecting: a perfect sandwich, a mountain that smells like eggs, and a few ancient human bones. It is the kind of place you go to find some frothy, rum-flavored fun and come away with something meaningful instead.
Guadeloupe consists of four islands. The two biggest are connected by a land bridge and form the shape of a butterfly: Grande-Terre, the flat island with white, sandy beaches, is the right wing; Basse-Terre, the mountainous, volcanic, rainforest island, is the left. It originally was called Karukera ("Island of Beautiful Waters") by the Caribs and was renamed by Christopher Columbus. It came under French rule in the 1600s, when colonists brought slaves to establish sugar plantations. As a present-day overseas département of France (and thus on the euro), it has its own Afro-Caribbean culture with a hint of Europe - such as the pain au chocolat in its bakeries. More important, it has grappled with its history, having opened one of the largest museums dedicated to the history of slavery in the Caribbean.
The flight is not much longer than those to the well-trod Virgin Islands and St. John's, but American tourists were few and far between. It might be due to access. There are multiple daily direct flights to and from Paris, but not nearly as many from the U.S. You need to know a bit of French, too. You'll also need to rent a car, and most have a stick shift.
We flew to Pointe-a-Pitre as the sun was setting. I'm no entomologist, but I'd call the capital city the butterfly's thorax. We set off for the tiny harbor town of Deshaies, at the top of the left wing. We drove there in the dark.
The view the next morning at the beach of Fort Royal, just outside of town, would be a surprise. Picture turquoise water lapping at the sand, bookended by cliffs that drop directly into the ocean. Another wind-whipped beach on the other side of the resort was empty, and we could see the island of Montserrat in the distance. It was pristine, a textbook-perfect beach, the "Dayenu" of beaches. Imagine starting your trip with this, knowing that there are somehow even better beaches.
That first day, and every day after, we'd roll down the windows and blast Bel'Radio, a local station that plays zouk, a Caribbean music genre that sounds as if it's drenched in sunlight, and drive to another beach in search of our perfect spot.
First, Plage de la Grande Anse, a bustling beach shaded with palm trees serviced by several beachside shack restaurants and food trucks, then Plage de la Perle, which was quieter and more secluded.
Everything moves slowly on the island, except cars. Basse-Terre's main roads hug the coastline and the sides of steep hills with no guardrails, and we would regularly pull over to let others, going faster than the posted 70 kph around hairpin curves, pass by.
Dog sauce and rum
Deshaies, we later learned, was one of the most remote parts of the island, only connected by road about 50 years ago. It is the kind of charming place where you might spot a flier asking for help finding a lost pet, and upon closer inspection, see that the fugitive animal is a peacock named Sidonie.
At nearly every Guadeloupe beach, stands sell bokit, the island's specialty sandwich. If some entrepreneurial food truck owner took them on as a concept in the U.S., they'd have an instant hit. Take a piece of fried dough about the shape and size of a pita and stuff it full of meat or fish, vegetables, a peppery sauce and maybe an egg, and you have a bokit. Morue crudites, or spicy salted cod with vegetables, was our favorite lunch. For dinner, restaurants offered more elaborate meals of langouste (spiny lobster) and lambi (conch), and fish topped with sauce chien - literally "dog sauce," a mixture of onions, garlic, lime and hot peppers that some say gets its name from its spicy bite.
Locally made rum was everywhere. We cooled the fire of our sauce chien with the island's traditional drink, ti punch - short for "petit punch" - a cocktail made by pouring seemingly any amount of white rhum agricole into a cup and muddling some cane sugar and lime in with it. It's a DIY endeavor: Order one ti punch and, at some restaurants, trusting servers just drop off a tray with all of the ingredients, including a whole bottle of rum.
The highest point on Basse-Terre is a volcano called La Grande Soufriere, and we drove - the sunny zouk music a contrast to the perilous cliffside roads - to see what the island looked like from its peak. The best approach is to put "Les Bains Jaunes" into your GPS instead. The "Yellow Baths" are a natural hot spring that welcome you to a well-maintained trail, with railings and stone steps in a few particularly tricky parts. It will take you above the tree line, past canyons covered in yellow moss, then above the clouds to the peak of the volcano, which has the sulfurous smell of rotten eggs.
Back at the base, other hikers had stripped to their swimsuits and were contentedly soaking in the bathwater-temperature Bains Jaunes. It had all the makings of a perfect spot - the smell of rainforest, the sound of birds, the comfort of a warm dip exactly at the time we needed it. That is, until we read a nearby sign in French: "Attention aux amibes" it said, warning of the chance of brain-eating amoebas and advising guests not to put their heads underwater. The mostly French swimmers, who were up to their chins, seemed unfazed. We didn't go in more than ankle-deep.
Postcard-perfect, sandy white beaches were on Grande-Terre, the other half of the island. So we drove southeast across the butterfly's wings to a city called Sainte-Anne, leaving the solitude of Basse-Terre for an Airbnb on the edge of town, within walking distance of beaches brimming with French tourists and restaurants. It was even easier to bop from beach to beach there, where destinations are a little closer together.
On the city beach, there are boats for rent and the Floup tropical fruit ice pops we came to love. Another day was spent at the Plage de la Caravelle, the chichi, peninsula-shaped beach of Club Med, with shallow turquoise water and views of La Soufriere in the distance. And a few, magical hours were spent at the Plage de Bois Jolan, a beach that had no bokit vendors, no ti punch, and somehow no other people.
We thought no spot could surpass it. And none of the beaches that came after were ever as perfect, as relaxing, as completely pristine as that one. But as nice as it was to lie on that beach and listen to the waves, it wasn't a feeling we could take with us. It was as shallow as that turquoise water.
Beach of human bones
We went to Plage des Raisins Clairs - the beach of light grapes, inscrutably - because we'd heard it had good food trucks. The beach was striking: On the other side of the road were the black-and-white-tiled mausoleums of a beautiful old Catholic cemetery. So when we approached a large sign that said "Cimetiere colonial de la plage des raisins clairs," that's what we assumed it meant.
A sign described an old cemetery from the 1800s that was unearthed by beach erosion in the 1980s. With my basic-level French, I puzzled out the phrase, "Ne pas collecter ni extraire des ossements." Or, "Do not collect or extract the bones."
Bones? We looked at each other, and then down. A few feet away, a bone was lying in the sand.
"Someone probably put it there as a prank," my husband offered, feebly. "It's probably a goat bone."
It was not. We walked farther onto the beach, where people were sunbathing and drinking ti punch, and saw a barricaded dune that contained an active archaeological site. Up close, you could see ribs sticking out. Farther down, some tiny bones that may have been fingers. A partially uncovered pelvis. The undeniable ball-shaped cap to a femur.
"Dormez tranquille!" (Sleep well!) an older French man joked to me, seeing my reaction of morbid fascination and alarm.
In the U.S., such a sight would be shielded from children, the bones exhumed at once and transferred to a proper resting site. In Guadeloupe, tourists swam and read magazines where the island's history was poking out of the sand. Maybe it was a memento mori - a poignant reminder that vacation doesn't last forever. But I'm not the type of person who can casually sunbathe near ghosts.
It started to rain. It was our last day. We got in the car and cued up Bel'Radio, as if it could magically bring the sun back. It didn't.
So we did what we did every day: We drove to another beach. We drove all the way to the edge of the butterfly's lower right wing, a spit of land that we hadn't seen mentioned in any travel stories about Guadeloupe. We only knew it was called Pointe des Chateaux ("Tip of Castles"), that we'd be surrounded by water on three sides and that it would be the last place we'd see on this trip, so it had to be meaningful.
It was. It was a place where we watched clouds roll in over the nearby island of La Desirade and felt the wind whip through towering rocks. Where 20-foot waves crashed over the rugged shore and sent salt spray toward us as we climbed stone steps toward a small peak with a cross on top. Where we stood and saw half the island behind us and a scene that looked like a Turner painting in front of us - the kind of work made when the world had not yet fully been explored, depicting an ocean that inspires fear and awe in equal measure. Where we thought about how we had seen a lot of beaches that week, but never one that made us feel anything like this.