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Destination: Guadeloupe : On these Leeward isles, the culture has touch of Europe, but the experience is hotly tropical

June 25, 1995|BARBARA SHORTT | Shortt is a free-lance writer who lives in New York City.

POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe — One hot Caribbean afternoon in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, I walked by an elderly dressmaker's modest open workshop, where some delicious madras-and-eyelet children's clothes were displayed. I asked if she had a dress for me, and she rummaged in a bag and came out with a beautiful madras sun dress in pink and turquoise. I held it up against myself, and it looked fine. She said, "No, no, try it on," so I did. I was satisfied, but she said, "No, no, the neckline is too wide; I can fix it right now without taking it apart," and she did, and she was right. She wasn't interested in a quick sale, but in the quality of her creation. That's Guadeloupe.

One Sunday, also this spring, I was about to take a wrong turn in rather deserted countryside, passing through a tiny hamlet. A teen-age boy sitting on a porch gestured frantically to me that I was taking the wrong turn and that it was farther on. (He knew where tourists would want to go, and he was right.) His friend hopped on his motorbike and led me to the correct turn, smiled, waved and buzzed off. I hadn't asked for help--they just gave it. That's Guadeloupe.

The first thing that hits you at the airport is the heat--an overwhelming, penetrating heat that insists upon relaxation. The combination of heat and social harmony make Guadeloupe a very relaxed place. A long planter's punch, or a short ti-punch (rum, sugar and pungently fresh lime juice, water on the side) and a dip in the sea or pool are essential to regain your equilibrium. By the seashore there is always a cooling breeze or a wind. Inland, during the day it is very hot, except when you go into the mountains of Basse-Terre. But inland you can cool off with the world's best ice cream in intense tropical flavors: coconut, guava, lime, papaya.

Let me explain: Part of the French West Indies, about halfway between Venezuela and Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe is not a colony of France but an overseas departement whose residents are French citizens. It includes a scattering of tiny offshore dependencies, such as Les Saintes, but Guadeloupe is primarily Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre--two islands that are joined tenuously by a narrow channel, the Riviere Saleee.

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The easternmost of the two islands, Grande-Terre is flatter with small, bumpy, steep hills inland and gently rolling fields of sugar cane and green pastureland grazed by cows and goats, causing parts of it to resemble England. Grande-Terre's heights are dotted with ruined stone windmills used to grind sugar cane. It has several picturesque towns and fishing ports, including Moule, which was settled in the 1600s and largely destroyed in 1929 by a hurricane. Guadeloupe's largest commercial center, Pointe-a-Pitre (referred to by locals as PaP) is on a southwest bay. Beaches are everywhere, but the south shore, which caters to most of the tourists, is almost one continuous white sand beach.

Grande-Terre has some spectacular points reaching out into the sea, with dramatic coral cliffs and wind-eroded rock formations. Pointe des Cha^teaux, near where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean, offers a view evocative of France's Brittany coast. Also here, on the eastern tip, is an array of white sandy beaches.

In contrast, the downwind island of Basse-Terre's massive interior contains a mountainous national park, a rain forest including the almost mile-high active volcano La Soufriere (known locally as Mademoiselle or Miss). Its coasts have scattered villages, towns and beaches.

The town of Basse-Terre is the administrative capital of the French departement of Guadeloupe, including St.-Barthelemy, St. Martin, and the just-offshore, sleepy islands of Marie-Galante, Desirade and the craggy little Saintes, which can be visited by boat.

Basse-Terre town has never suffered major hurricane damage, so it has many old stone and wooden buildings and cobblestone streets. It has an aristocratic air and more elegance than PaP. It also has pleasant shops and the best and largest outdoor market.

The west coast of Basse-Terre is filled with unspoiled fishing villages and empty beaches. The sloping fields on the western flank are sprinkled with black volcanic boulders from Soufriere's last eruption in 1976. The south of Basse-Terre is filled with undulating banana plantations, while the northeast is a rich red-earthed alluvial plain, nourished by many rivers, planted with cane, vanilla, cocoa and other crops.

The supply of pure mountain-water rivers and springs on Basse-Terre led it to be called Karukera (or beautiful waters) by the Arawaks, the local Native American population. So it is fitting that Columbus named the island for Guadalupe, the shrine in southern Spain, because the Spanish Guadalupe is derived from its Arabic name, Oued-el-Houb (or river of love) which sounds similar when pronounced. Delicious and cheap bottled water on Guadeloupe is from several Basse-Terre sources: Matouba, Dole, Capes.

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