If Paris Were an Island

"Wait right here. There’s something you must see.” Erique grins, then hurls his muscular figure into a forest so thick he’s invisible within seconds. We hear him wrestling with branches as a light rain falls around us. Erique, our fearless guide, has led us to a ruined sugar mill deep in the hills of Marie Galante, a tiny island south of Guadeloupe. Because of his expertise,
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"Wait right here. There’s something you must see.” Erique grins, then hurls his muscular figure into a forest so thick he’s invisible within seconds. We hear him wrestling with branches as a light rain falls around us. Erique, our fearless guide, has led us to a ruined sugar mill deep in the hills of Marie Galante, a tiny island south of Guadeloupe. Because of his expertise, Erique is known locally as Ser del Terre, a play on words that translates as “Earthworm.”

True to his moniker, Erique emerges from the forest like a worm from the earth and instructs us to put out our hands. Jacqueline and I look at each other nervously, but do as we’re told. In my left hand, he places a lime: “The juice will make the tastiest limeade you’ve ever had.” In my right he places a handful of red seeds: “These are good luck charms. If you pierce them just so, you can create beautiful strands of jewelry. But if you eat them, you die.” Jacqueline suddenly looks wary, but Erique has already put leaves in her hands. He crumples them and says, “Smell.” Jacqueline lifts her left palm, “Cloves!” and then her right, “Anise!”

“Precisely,” grins the Earthworm. “Come now! There’s still so much to see. The cliffs, the bat caves, the ox-cart races and, if there’s time, the beach where the ancients displayed the heads of the colonists after they decapitated them!”

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Located in the heart of the Caribbean, where the Greater Antilles meet the Lesser Antilles, the French-governed “region” of Guadeloupe is actually a cluster of seven islands that offer protected waters and simple line-of-sight navigation. Unlike many Caribbean islands, Guadeloupe is directly governed by a wealthy European country, so it’s clean, safe and modern. The laid-back, friendly people are decidedly Caribbean, but the infrastructure, roads and cuisine are decidedly French. In place of the litter and stray animals found on many islands, Guadeloupe has nature trails, good hospitals and high-end shopping. As Micheline Boulemar of the Guadeloupe Tourism Board tells us, “This is what Paris wishes it could be, if it were warm and sunny all year long.”

The nation also serves as the finish for the Route du Rhum, so our journey begins in Marina Bas-du-Fort on Grande Terre, where the finishers are gathering. IMOCA Open 60s, Class 40s and a slew of performance multihulls line the docks, but the 105-foot maxi trimaran Groupama III steals the show. Franck Cammas has just crossed the Atlantic in her in record time, using a stationary bike to grind the winches. Her hulls tower 10 feet above the docks, and her 110-foot carbon-fiber mast pierces the sky.

After a day at the race village, we set sail from Saint Franois aboard the 55-foot adventure catamaran, Tip Top Two. With sharp winds from the east, we maintain 8-9 knots of speed even as three-foot seas roll against our beam. A well-polished crew deliver a dozen guests to nearby Petite Terre in an hour, where we swim ashore in snorkeling gear, under strict orders to enjoy ourselves.

Petite Terre is the perfect beachfront party place, yet is devoid of beachfront parties. In fact, after 1800 hours, it’s vacant, courtesy of the diligent French park rangers who monitor the island closely. When Petite Terre became a protected refuge, the government planted 220 palm trees: one for every person allowed on shore when the island is at “maximum capacity.” The result? A beautiful islet teeming with birds, trees, flowers and iguanas; a well-kept walking path; a healthy coral reef; and a full-but-not-crowded anchorage where boats respect quiet hours. Trs digne, mon ami.

Back in Saint Franois, we swap the 55-foot cat for Reggae, a Fountaine Pajot Orana 44, and set sail for Marie Galante. The three-hour journey is supreme: a broad reach in 9-12 knots of wind. The seas are still and the sun is warm as we pull into Anse Carnot for a quick swim and a lunch of salt fish pt. We anchor in St. Louis, where Erique the Earthworm gives us his tour of the island’s white-sand beaches, abandoned sugar mills and yellow clay cliffs facing the sunset. Dinner includes kingfish and chardonnay at the beachside Chez Henri, where we watch Reggae peacefully bob on her mooring, looking trs content.

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No Caribbean charter is complete without a heaping dose of history—after all, these islands are soaked in it—so our next stop is Fort du Napolon, a museum atop Terre D’en Haut on les de Saintes, or the “Saintes.” During the 15-mile sail west, we surf down waves and hit 12 knots of speed. After a quick lunch at Pain Sucre—said to be one of the most beautiful bays in the world—we drop anchor in Terre D’en Haut’s main harbor and hike up to the fort, where Jacky Cauet, president of the tourism office, welcomes us. The view is magnificent, stretching from the harbor below to the islands of Guadeloupe dotting the surrounding horizon.

Upon entering the vast fort, which once housed 200 of Napoleon’s soldiers, I am taken aback by the quantity of items on display. Room after room exhibits native boats, art, coral, antiques and naval artifacts that date back to the time of the Arawaks and Caribs. Natural light pours in through tall windows and shines on a whale skeleton, diagrams of 18th century naval battles and an original slave registry. In the courtyard, a garden holds endangered native plants as part of a reintroduction effort. The quality of these collections would be impressive in a big city; that they are tucked away on this remote island makes them astounding.

On the return to the boat, we stroll through a cemetery where a frame of pearl-pink conch shells surrounds the grave plots. The effect is charming.

The final day of our charter takes us up the west coast of Basse Terre to Pigeon Island for some scuba diving in the Reserve Cousteau. This is an ideal dive site for a first-time diver like me, as all of the best scenery is less than 20 feet below the surface. Jacqueline and I swim through a thriving coral reef and dive down to the ocean floor, where a statue of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau keeps watch over the sea.

Back on shore, our guides Micheline and Alain take us through the markets of Basse Terre and the rainforests of Maison de la Foiret, making it clear we’ve only scratched the surface of Guadeloupe. As Alain and I walk the handicap-accessible path to the Cascade aux Ecrevisses waterfall, he comments on the perfect temperature, the sweet smell of nature and the lack of bugs and humidity. “You see?” he says. “This is paradise.”

I still keep a handful of those fire-engine red berries in a small mesh bag. I’m not entirely convinced they’re the good luck charms the Earthworm promised they’d be, but they serve as a reminder of a little French country in the middle of the Caribbean where the food is good, the sailing is better and the living is trs bien.

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