From Lamentin, you can drive for 10km (6 1/4 miles) to Ste-Rose, where you'll find several good beaches. On your left, a small road leads in a few minutes to Sofaia, from which you'll have a panoramic view over the coast and forest preserve. You can easily skip this, however, if you're rushed for time.
A few miles farther along, you reach Pointe Allegre, the northernmost point of Basse-Terre. Cluny Beach is where the first settler landed on Guadeloupe, and it's a great place to break up your drive with a swim, although the waters are sometimes rough and there are no beach facilities.
Three kilometers (2 miles) farther will bring you to La Grand-Anse, one of the best beaches on Guadeloupe. It is very large and still secluded, sheltered by many tropical trees, especially palms. The place is ideal for either a swim or a picnic, although, again, there are no facilities.
At Deshaies, immediately to the south, snorkeling and fishing are popular, but you must bring your own equipment. The narrow road alongside the beach winds up and down and has a corniche look to it, with the blue sea underneath and the view of green mountains studded with colorful villages.
Fourteen kilometers (8 3/4 miles) from Deshaies, Pointe Noire comes into view; its name comes from the black volcanic rocks. Look for the odd polychrome cenotaph in town, the only reason to stop over.
If you don't take the Route de la Traversée at this time but want to continue exploring the west coast, you can head south from Mahault until you reach the village of Bouillante, which is exciting for only one reason: You might encounter former French film star and part-time resident Brigitte Bardot.
The winding coastal road brings you to Vieux Habitants (Old Settlers), one of the oldest villages on the island, founded in 1636. The name comes from its founders: After serving in the employment of the West Indies Company, they retired here, but they preferred to call themselves "inhabitants," so as not to be confused with slaves.
Another 15km (9 1/4 miles) of winding roads bring you to Basse-Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe. This sleepy town of some 15,000 inhabitants lies between the water and La Soufrière, the volcano. Founded in the 1640s, it's the oldest town on the island and still has a lot of charm. Tamarind and palm trees shade its market squares. Although there are many modern buildings, some grand old colonial structures are still standing.
The town suffered heavy damages at the hands of British troops in 1691 and again in 1702. It was also the center of fierce fighting during the French Revolution, when the political changes that swept across Europe caused explosive tensions on Guadeloupe. As it did in France, the guillotine claimed many lives on the island during the infamous Reign of Terror.
In spite of the town's history, there isn't much to see in Basse-Terre except for a 17th-century cathedral and Fort St-Charles, which has guarded the city (not always well) since it was established. Much modernized and reconstructed over the years, the cathedral is only of passing interest. On the narrow streets, you can still see old clapboard buildings, upper floors of shingle-wood tiles, and wrought-iron balconies. For the most interesting views, seek out the Place du Champ d'Arbaud and the Jardin Pichon. At the harbor on the southern tier of town, you can see Fort Delgrès, which once protected the island from the English. There are acres of ramparts to be walked, with panoramic vistas in all directions.
Originally selected as Guadeloupe's capital because of its prevailing breezes and location above the steaming lowlands of Pointe-à-Pitre, Basse-Terre today is a city that's curiously removed from the other parts of the French Antilles that it governs, and when the business of the day is concluded, it's an oddly calm and quiet town. The neighboring municipality of St-Claude, in the cool heights above the capital, was always where the island's oldest families proudly maintained their ancestral homes and where they continue to live today. These families, direct descendants of the white, slave-owning former plantation owners who originally hailed from such major French Atlantic ports as Bordeaux and Nantes, tend to live quietly, discreetly, and separately from both the island's blacks and the French métropolitains whose tourist ventures have helped change the face of Guadeloupe.
The big attraction of Basse-Terre is the famous sulfur-puffing La Soufrière volcano, which is currently dormant. Rising to a height of some 1,444m (4,737 ft.), it's flanked by banana plantations and lush foliage.
After leaving the capital at Basse-Terre, you can drive to St-Claude, a suburb 6km (3 3/4 miles) up the mountainside at a height of 570m (1,870 ft.). It has a reputation for a perfect climate and various privately owned tropical gardens.
From St-Claude, you can begin the climb up the narrow, winding road the Guadeloupéans say leads to hell -- that is, La Soufrière. The road ends at a parking area at La Savane à Mulets, at an altitude of 990m (3,248 ft.). At this point, you have to leave your car and climb to the mouth of the volcano. Currently, the belching beast is quiet and it's presumed safe to climb to the summit, the tallest elevation in the Lesser Antilles. (Allow about 2 hr. for this climb.) In 1975 the appearance of ashes, mud, billowing smoke, and earthquakelike tremors proved that the old beast was still alive. In the resettlement process that followed the eruption, 75,000 inhabitants were relocated to safer terrain in Grande-Terre. No deaths were reported, but the inhabitants of Basse-Terre still keep a wary eye on this smoking giant.
Even in the parking lot, you can feel the heat of the volcano merely by touching the ground. Steam emerges from fumaroles and sulfurous fumes from the volcano's "burps." Of course, fumes come from its pit and mud cauldrons as well. Esoteric and technical information is available only with advance reservations, Fridays between 2 and 5pm, at a government-funded laboratory, Observatoire Volcanologique le Houëlmont, 97113 Gourbeyre (tel. 590/99-11-33). Conceived as an observation post for seismic and volcanic activities, and staffed with geologists and volcanologists from the French mainland, it can be toured without charge by anyone who's interested in the technical aspects of this science. A visit here is best for children ages 10 and up.
The Windward Coast
From Basse-Terre to Pointe-à-Pitre, the N1 road follows the east coast, called the Windward Coast. The country here is richer and greener than elsewhere on the island. There's no major sight or stopover along the way, so if your time is limited, you can simply savor the views along the coastal road, with the sea to your right and scenic landscapes to your left.
To reach the little town of Trois Rivières, you have a choice of two routes: One goes along the coastline, coming eventually to Vieux Fort, from which you can see Les Saintes archipelago. The other heads across the Monts Caraïbes hills.
Near the pier in Trois Rivières, you'll see the pre-Columbian petroglyphs carved by the original inhabitants, the Arawaks. They're called merely Roches Gravées, or "carved rocks." In this Parc Archéologique at Bord de la Mer (tel. 590/92-91-88), the rock engravings are of animal and human figures, probably dating from A.D. 300 or 400. You can also see specimens of plants, including cocoa, pimento, and banana, that the Arawaks cultivated long before the Europeans set foot on Guadeloupe. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday 9am to noon and 2 to 5pm; admission is free.
After leaving Trois Rivières, continue north on N1. Passing through the village of Bananier after a 15-minute drive, you turn to your left at Anse Saint-Sauveur to reach the famous Les Chutes du Carbet ★, a trio of waterfalls that are wonderful to behold year-round. If you have time for only one stopover along the route, make it this one. The road to two of them is a narrow, winding one, along many steep hills, passing through banana plantations as you move deeper into a tropical forest.
Les Chutes du Carbet are the tallest falls in the Caribbean. The waters pour down from La Soufrière at 240m (787 ft.) in a trio of stages on the eastern slopes. The upper cascade falls 123m (404 ft.) through a steep crevice. Drawing the most visitors and the easiest to reach is the middle falls at 108m (354 ft.), dropping into a bigger canyon than the upper cascade. The second cascade in the falls is likely to be overrun with tours. The lower cascades drop only 20m (66 ft.) and are less interesting.
You can hike to each cascade. To reach the dramatic second stage from the little town of Saint-Sauveur, head inland via the village of Habituée, going to the end of the road. From here follow the signs for a 30-minute walk along a marked trailway to the foot of the falls. There is a picnic area nearby.
If you have plenty of time and are in good shape, you can also reach the upper falls from here. Follow a signposted trail, but note that this level of hiking takes about 1 1/2 hours and is very steep, difficult, and often slippery.
After your hike, continue northeast on N1 to Capesterre. From there a 7km (4 1/4-mile) drive brings you to Ste-Marie. In the town square, you can see the statue of the first visitor who landed on Guadeloupe: Christopher Columbus, who anchored .4km (1/4 mile) from Ste-Marie on November 4, 1493. If you'd like to see the same view that greeted Columbus, you can stop off here. The statue and that view are the only reasons to take a look.
After Ste-Marie, you pass through Goyave, then Petit-Bourg, seeing on your left the Route de la Traversée before reaching Pointe-à-Pitre.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.