As we woke on the first morning of our cruise we were just arriving in Guadeloupe. The wooded slopes passing by our balcony doors were our first real view of the Caribbean, as we had arrived very late the previous evening in Fort De France and been transferred straight to the MSC Poesia. We had seen little of Martinique in the velvet darkness & the ship had left shortly afterwards. Two days previously we had left a foggy grey London for a crisp bright Milan. There we had spent the day exploring that city, wrapped in coats and hats, admiring the Christmas market and decorations. It was a bit surreal as we ate our first meal of the holiday in a family run trattoria, trying hard to remember that we were actually on the first stage of a Caribbean cruise!
We had checked our bags into the left luggage overnight at Milan Airport and once we picked them up and checked them in for our MSC charter flight we didn’t see them again until they arrived outside our cabin, most efficient! The flight itself was pretty good, we were the only British on board and all the announcements were in Italian, so after each one a member of the crew was meant to come and translate for us. This wasnt needed at all as immediately at least three people turned round or came over to make sure that we had understood what had been said; it was the fastest way to make a lot of new friends at the start of a cruise that I have ever found
So after this protracted and very Italian start to our holiday it was slightly confusing to wake, tired, jet lagged and feeling slightly blurry round the edges, to find that we were in France! Guadeloupe was once a French Colony and is now actually a Département (Region) of France. The currency is the Euro and French is the official language (although Créole is used in daily life), laws and institutions the same in both places. This slight feeling of otherworldliness was further enhanced because the only thing we really knew about Guadeloupe was that it is also the fictional island of Saint Marie, setting for our favourite winter escapist TV programme ‘Death in Paradise’, which for some reason has a British policeman installed as the Detective Inspector on French island……
So as the sun came up we watched the low islands do by and admired the yachts anchored in the bay flying their tricolour ensigns. Beyond them, hidden in cloud, the slopes of the volcanic hills that stood between us and a rum punch in TV’s ‘Katherine’s Bar’…..
We left the ship through the pleasant little Saint-John Perse cruise terminal, very close to the centre of Pointe a Pitre. There wasn’t a huge amount there but a steel band played and there were obviously a lot of vendors setting up in the covered stall area but we had a plan so we weren’t to be delayed by shopping! There is a courtyard where both Cruise and Private Tour buses seemed to be waiting. Taxis were outside the security gate but the drivers largely seemed to be inside, obvious from the ubiquitous map on a clipboard. Many taxis are actually vans that are looking for groups of people to hire together and that might be quite a good idea as we had been warned that local taxi rates are quite expensive for the Caribbean. Their prices are closer to European rates although to be fair they are paying European taxes. As we wanted to go to the far side of the island, and didn’t know anyone onboard with a penchant for fictional detectives, we were expecting it to be quite pricey. We set off to find a taxi…..
Now I should say at this point that we had only booked this cruise, as a last minute holiday, about two weeks earlier. It was an extremely good deal, partly because we had to get ourselves to Milan and partly because we would be flying home on Christmas day! Consequently most of my holiday preparations had involved wrapping presents, filling the freezer and organising our girls and their partners to spend a day decorating our tree so that we could all have a lovely Christmas together when we got back (and they had all returned from their first ‘in law’ Christmases!) So although we had a plan for each port, it wasn’t as detailed as we would normally expect to have! So on this particular morning our plan was simple…. Leave ship, get taxi to the fictional Honoré, (In reality a pretty village called Deshaies on the north coast of Basse-Terre), a forty kilometre, one hour drive to the north coast of the island. Sorted!
Euro currency all ready we set off to ask the first driver for a price. “why do you want to go there?” he asked. We tried to explain but he was firm, “not worth going, all shut”, so we tried other drivers “ too far, road difficult, nothing there“. We got the message; no-one wanted to take us to Deshaies! Now since then I have spoken to people who have done that trip by taxi and also on been on an organised tour so I really don’t know what the problem was that day…..Early season? Sunday? Were there really problems on the road? Maybe they were not expecting UK ‘Death in Paradise’ fans on an MSC cruise?!? No idea but, as they say, discretion is the greater part of valour (no, me neither!) so we decided to change our plan and spend the day in town. We were tired, jet lagged and didn’t have a detailed enough idea of what our options really were; it would have been extremely silly to go against local advice and insist!
We decided to just wander and see what we found, we had seen from the ship that Pointe-a-Pitre looked quite flat and pedestrian friendly. Turning left out of the port gate and then right up Rue Schoelcher took us past some stunningly dilapidated colonial mansions, very picturesque with their added vegetation. We walked up a gently sloping road to the Spice Market. Built in 1874 this is an an open sided, wrought iron structure, set in a square surrounded by cafes and bars. The market has lots of stalls run by local womene (mainly) and you seemed to be able to buy most things; fruit, vegetables, hats, shoes, other tourist stuff and spices (obvs!) Weirdly we fell across very few spice markets on this Caribbean cruise & I really wish I had bought more at this one! The vanilla pods in particular were amazing value and excellent quality. The hat salesman seemed particularly happy and was swaying to the music from the bar. He invited me to dance with him but I am ashamed to say that I wasn’t yet in a Caribbean mood and I declined! A troupe of dancers in local costume were obviously there because there were tourists in town but they were having a great time together and there seemed no suggestion that they wanted any money or were even that bothered about the visitors.
Pointe-a-Pitre is a small town and definitely much more interesting than it first appeared, although it seemed quite run down in some ways that added to its charm. We decided to stay fairly central in town and not wander too far as we knew that Guadeloupe is officially the poorest part of France and subject to the usual warnings about being careful, especially not to flash expensive watches, cameras or jewellery about but to be fair we didn’t feel threatened at all in the town, even when we reached some slightly dodgier parts. We had a map from the tourist information booth but chose to ignore it, wander in a loop and see what we found, I always think the best thing is to look as if you know where you are going and what you’re doing even if you don’t!
We wandered on along Rue Saint John Perse – named, along with the cruise terminal, after the French Nobel Prize winning poet born in Guadeloupe in 1899. This information was on a street plaque, I LOVE them and always have to stop to read, but I have to admit that some of the following information was researched later as I was struggling to understand some of the older signs with my schoolgirl French! We followed the road through the town and found ourselves back at the waterfront at the foot of the Place de la Victoire. This area of grass and scrub was obviously once a central place in the history of the island. Guadeloupe has been occupied by the Spanish, French, British and even the Swedish in a rolling battle of wars and treaties brought on by greed for the islands great wealth and its sugar plantations.
At the time of the French Revolution this area is where Victor Hugues set up the islands Guillotine to behead monarchists who refused to free their slaves in line with the new French laws of equal rights for all (this eventually led to British rule in the island). The victory referred to in the name of the square was the final time that the island changed hands, when the French retook it from the English in 1815. At the time the British still had slavery in their colonies whereas the French didn’t (not our finest hour!) so this is also where the abolition of slavery on the island is commemorated with a sculpture of 100 chains by local artist Jacky Poulier. We could see the Slavery museum, The Memorial Acte, a little further along the waterfront, which was closed so we decided to carry on, up away from the water and see the rest of the square. This showed what an elegant lifestyle there must have been on the island at the beginning of the 20th Century. We saw faded mansions, the first cinema on the island which is now a bar and a lovely 1930s bandstand. The crisscrossing paths & statues of various governors and dignitaries showed that it must have once looked like a Parisian park….. although it doesn’t now!
It was then that we fell across one of our highlights of the day! At the top lefthand side of the park there was goat racing! No idea if its every week or just on this particular Sunday morning but we had fallen across the racing goat trials! We couldn’t quite work out if it was the goats or the drivers who were being trialled but it was brilliant fun to watch and we really felt part of local life! There were goats tethered around the square so that people could see their strength and size, apparently the main goat racing season is in the spring but they train in the months leading up to it. This was the start of that process; a pair of goats are tethered to a handmade wooden cart and pull a passenger as the driver runs beside and keeps them in check. The animals are chosen for endurance, speed and strength and from what we saw the drivers are too! I’m not sure if all the drivers are kids (none intended!) or if we just caught the junior division but it was all being taken very seriously and I have to say that I wouldn’t have been able to hold onto those goats if my life depended on it! How they actually teach them to do a proper circuit is beyond me, I was quite glad we caught them early when it was so obvious how hard it was and we spent a jolly hour or so cheering everyone on, wonderful!
Heading back into town past the old presbytery we found a lovely little market square with a flower stall ( apparently there are more in the week) but we looked at the exotic blooms for a while before turning our attention to the Saint Louis Cathedral which was right behind us! Built at the end of the 19th century after the previous cathedral was destroyed by fire, this version is built in iron with a 200 ft high spire, rounded windows and a metal framed roof that managed to put me in mind of both several large London Railway terminals and the Eiffel Tower! There is a beautiful Carrara marble altar, wooden benches, a light and airy interior and a wonderfully friendly congregation! It turned out that we had just crashed a large christening and the church was full of smartly dressed families all celebrating together. We quietly made to leave but were shooed into a pew by a jolly lady in a large white hat and so managed to hear some singing that made me well up!
I’ve been told variously that the cathedral was designed by Eiffel, that it was designed by his friend Picq but built by Eiffel’s own team of engineers and also that it has nothing to do with Eiffel at all! So I will leave that for you to investigate, either way it is definitely worth seeing the interior although it is in need of some repair as you can see from the added traffic cones in the pictures.
By now if was nearly lunchtime and we wandered back down to the harbour looking for a bar on a nice terrace but we seemed to have hit the wrong part of town somehow as nothing was really open and then suddenly we were back at the ship. So that was our day in Guadeloupe, we hopped off again later for a quick look at the Duty Free and the craft market outside the terminal but spent the rest of the day investigating the pools and bars on the ship.
Our completely unplanned morning has given me a very soft spot for Guadeloupe and its people! Hopefully we will be back one day and see more of the island, maybe even get to Honore….