Guadeloupe moves to its own gentle rhythms. It has no grand resorts and the shopping is certainly not as cosmopolitan as that on nearby Martinique. But the soul of Guadeloupe lies in its small inns and B&B-style gites, rustic harborfront cafes, and beachside seafood shacks. The language and laws here are Gallic, but the flavor is pure Caribbean Creole -- saucy and exuberant.
Physically, Guadeloupe is stunning. Its nickname, "The Butterfly Island," comes from the shape of its two main islands, which are separated by a narrow channel called the Rivi& ¨re Salée. Grand-Terre is largely flat and dry, with fine-sand beaches and sugar plantations. Basse-Terre is wild, lush, and mountainous, with an active volcano in Mount Soufriére, Guadeloupe's highest peak. The Guadeloupe National Park is a real wonder: a 29,987-hectare (74,100-acre) park named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with a protected tropical forest, dense stands of giant ferns, and tumbling waterfalls. The beaches are classic Caribbean: The seas surrounding the island are teal blue and shadowed by palm-fringed beaches. Some, like Grand Terre, have incredibly soft white sand; others, like the west end of Basse Terre, have strands of black volcanic sand.
Jacques Cousteau once described the waters off Guadeloupe's Pigeon Island as "one of the world's 10 best diving spots" and the whole island still offers excellent opportunities for scuba diving. The allure is the relatively calm seas and La Réserve Cousteau, a kind of French national park with a number of stellar dive sites, where the underwater environment is rigidly protected. For information, contact the Centre International de la Plongée (C.I.P. Bouillante), Lieu-Dit Poirier, Malendure Plage, Pigeon (tel. 590/98-81-72; www.cip-guadeloupe.com).
Renting a car is the best way to get around and see the island. Keep in mind that many of the roads are winding and often the thoroughfare of choice for meandering goats, cows, and stray dogs. Life on Guadeloupe moves to a languorous, lilting beat, and music and food play important roles in the day-to-day culture. For music, you won't have to listen long to hear the irresistible double beat of zouk, the popular French West Indies music (by way of West Africa). For dining, the classic French food and wine in Guadeloupe are excellent, but the local Creole cuisine is divine; try land crab sautéed in coconut and hot pepper or fat freshwater crayfish (quassous) drenched in a spicy Creole sauce. Then toast to your good fortune with the island's famous Ti-Punch, a sassy mix of rum, cane sugar juice, and lime.
Information: www.go2guadeloupe.com or www.guadeloupe-info.com.
Getting There: Pole Caraibes International Airport.
Where to Stay: Hôtel Fleur d'Épée, Le Bas du Fort (tel. 590/90-40-00; www.hotel-fleur-depee.com). Tainos Cottages, Basse-Terre (tel. 590/28-44-42; www.tainoscottages.com).