A cluster of eight islands off the southern coast of Guadeloupe, the Iles des Saintes are certainly off the beaten track. The two main islands and six rocks are Terre-de-Haut, Terre-de-Bas, Ilet-à-Cabrit, La Coche, Les Augustins, Grand Ilet, Le Redonde, and Le Pâté. Only Terre-de-Haut (Land of High) and, to a lesser extent, Terre-de-Bas (Land Below) attract visitors; Terre-de-Haut is the most interesting, and the only island with overnight accommodations.
Some claim that Iles des Saintes has one of the nicest bays in the world, a Lilliputian Rio de Janeiro. The isles, just 10km (6 1/4 miles) from the main island, were visited by Columbus on November 4, 1493, who named them Los Santos.
The history of Iles des Saintes is very much the history of Guadeloupe itself. In years past, the islands have been heavily fortified, as they were Guadeloupe's Gibraltar. The climate is very dry, and until the desalination plant opened, water was often rationed.
The population of Terre-de-Haut is mainly Caucasian, all fisherfolk or sailors and their families who are descended from Breton corsairs (pirates). The very skilled sailors maneuver large boats called saintois and wear hats called salacos, which are shallow and white, with sun shades covered in cloth built on radiating ribs of thick bamboo. Frankly, the hats look like small parasols. If you want to take a photograph of these sailors, please make a polite request (in French -- otherwise, they won't know what you're talking about). Visitors often like to buy these hats (if they can find them) for use as beachwear.
The main tourist attraction of the island is Fort Napoleon, Bourg, Grand Bourg (tel. 590/37-99-59), which is open daily 9am to 12:30pm, charging 4€. Walk uphill to enjoy the panoramic views and a garden filled with cacti and iguanas. Explore the barracks and former prison cells, and take in the collection of some 260 contemporary paintings, focusing largely on surrealism or cubism. As a curiosity, note the large exhibit of the world's greatest sea battles.
Some visitors travel to the Iles des Saintes for the day just to go scuba diving. The island's two leading dive outfitters are Dive-Bouteille (tel. 590/99-54-25; www.dive-bouteille.com) and Pisquettes (tel. 590/99-88-80). Both charge competitive rates and have staffs well versed in the esoterica of the region's many dive sites. Rates are 53€ for the first dive, with a three-dive package costing from 130€.