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Chances are your hotel will be right on a beach, or no more than 20 minutes from a good one. Plenty of natural beaches dot the island, from the surf-brushed dark strands of western Basse-Terre to the long stretches of white sand encircling Grande-Terre. Public beaches are generally free, but some charge for parking. Unlike hotel beaches, they have few facilities. Hotels welcome nonguests but charge for changing facilities, beach chairs, and towels. Sunday is family day at the beach. Topless sunbathing is common at hotels, less so on village beaches.

Most of the best beaches lie between Gosier and St-François on Grande Terre. Visitors usually head for the hotel beaches at Gosier. Stone jetties were constructed here to protect the beaches from erosion. Since this area has the largest concentration of tourists, it's likely to be crowded.

These beaches are not peas in a pod. There's no shade at the Creole Beach fronting Creole Beach Hotel, although you can retreat to the bar there for a drink. A stone retaining wall blocks access to the water. Nearby, the Salako Beach has more sand and is set against a backdrop of palms that provide some shade. Part of this beach also leads up to a jetty. This is a fine sandy beach (although a little too crowded at times), and it also contains a snack bar.

Also nearby, Arawak Beach is a gorgeous spot, with plenty of swaying palm trees providing a bit of shade on the beige sands. It, too, is protected by jetties. Close at hand, Callinago Beach is smaller than Arawak but still has a pleasant crescent of beige sand and palms.

Le Bas du Fort, 3km (2 miles) east of Pointe-à-Pitre and close to Gosier, is another popular area. Guests at the Hotels Fleu d'Eté and Marissol share its beaches, which are also protected by jetties. This is a picture-postcard tropical beach with tranquil waters, plenty of sand, and palms for shade. There are hotel bars as well as snack bars and vendors (some of whom are rather aggressive).

Some of Grande-Terre's best beaches are in the Ste-Anne area, site of Club Med La Caravelle. Plage Caravelle is heaped with white sand, attracting crowds of sunbathers; snorkelers, too, are drawn to the beach's reef-protected waters.

The French visitors here often like to go nude, and there is no finer nude beach than Pointe Tarare, a 45-minute drive from Gosier. This beach lies east of St-François at Pointe des Chateaux. It's one of the island's most pristine, tranquil beaches, but there's no shade to protect you from the fierce noonday sun. You can snorkel here if the water's not kicking up. There's a good restaurant by the car park. Warning: The tourist office doesn't recommend that women come here unaccompanied.

If you're not a nudist, you can enjoy the lovely strip of white sand at Anse de la Gourde, lying between St-François and Pointe des Chateaux. It has good sand, but it tends to become crowded on weekends.

The eastern coast of Grande-Terre is less desirable for swimming, as it fronts the more turbulent Atlantic. Nonetheless, the sands at Le Moule make for an idyllic beach because a reef protects the shoreline. There are also beach bars here -- and the inevitable crowds, especially on weekends. You'll find a more secluded strip of sand north of here at La Porte d'Enfer.

There are two other excellent beaches on the northwestern coast: one at Anse Laborde just outside the village of Anse-Bertrand, the other called Anse du Souffleur at Port Louis. We especially like the beach at Souffleur for its brilliant, flamboyant trees that bloom in the summer. There are no facilities here, but you can pick up provisions in the shops in the little village, then enjoy a picnic on the beach.

In Basse-Terre, a highly desirable beach is La Grande-Anse, just outside Deshaies, reached by heading west from Sainte Rose along the N2. You won't find any facilities here, but we think you'll like the powdery sands, tranquil waters, and palm trees. Another desirable beach is Plage de la Malendure, on the west coast (the more tranquil side) of Basse-Terre across from Pigeon Island. This is a major center for scuba diving, but the sand tends to be dark here.

If you want to escape the crowds, seek out the spurs and shoulders produced by the mountains of Basse-Terre. In the northwest is a string of fine sandy beaches. Although small, these are highly desirable enclaves for sunbathing. Favorites include La Plage de Cluny (near Pointe Allegre), Plage de la Tillette, and Plage de la Perle. Warning: The beaches on the north coast of Basse-Terre are exceedingly dangerous for swimming. Plage de Cluny is especially treacherous (with very large waves), and there have been several deaths by drowning.

South of Pointe Noire, also on the west coast, is Plage des Caraïbes, with its calm waters and sandy strip. This beach has picnic facilities, a shower, and toilets.

Other good beaches are found on the offshore islands, Iles des Saintes and Marie-Galante.

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.