How far could we be from Paris?
The waiter, towel folded neatly over his left forearm, cleared our table, leaving the wildflowers and wine. The white linen was telltale of beurre rouge and St. Jacques. Smoke from Gitanes curled above a nearby couple leaning close over two glasses of cirrose Pernod.
Paris, in fact, was an ocean away -- more than 4,300 miles from Guadeloupe, this Caribbean fragment of France where cordon bleu is seasoned with Creole and the presence of the mainland culture is swept by leeward breezes. From cuisine to culture, in every measure other than its terrain and location in the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe is French.
And that is reason enough for many U.S. travelers to avoid Guadeloupe. But it alone was reason enough for us to go.
We were in search of no less than the Promised Sand. The Great Escape. A place bold, beachy and hot. Anyone who has eagerly spread a towel in the sun of a secluded and exotic Caribbean hideaway, only to trip over a Bethesda salesman or a Republican convention from Iowa City, knows too well the elusiveness of escape.
Guadeloupe sounded delightfully forbidding.
South of St. Martin and Antigua and north of Dominica and Martinique, it is among the largest of a rosary of islands in the south Caribbean that answer many a midwinter prayer. A department of the Republic of France, it is a traditional winter holiday spot for Europeans who appreciate the multiple personalities of this 530-square-mile butterfly-shaped island: soft sand beaches along the shoreline, flat and folksy sugar-cane landscape on the smaller of its two distinct islands, and rugged, mountainous and perpetually green jungle ideal for hiking on the larger island.
But unlike many bustling Caribbean resorts that plaster the Sunday travel pages, there were no charter-and-hotel packages to Guadeloupe out of Washington. Only two were advertised from New York. Local travel agents came up empty-handed when asked for Guadeloupe brochures. And few friends could have pointed to the island on a map: Some asked if we'd been to Mexico before and others advised that South America would give us a good look at Halley's Comet.
While its laws enable a U.S. citizen to visit with an expired passport (it can be up to 5 years old and is used only for identification), the real passport to this island is linguistic. The official language is French, although most Guadeloupeans commonly speak an inpenetrable patois that mixes the mother tongue with sounds and syllables of Africa and the Americas. Still, basic French opens doors and conversations. English is rarely accommodated -- even at the front desks of some hotels and on restaurant menus. If the medium isn't clear, the message is: Guadeloupe may not be for you if you don't parlez franc,ais.
But even if your French is, at best, a remnant of high school, Guadeloupe does offer the universal language of the Caribbean -- the body language of its beaches. Hundreds of them, all differing in character -- from hidden and rocky inlets to long, broad and busy shorelines -- and varying in color from white to golden to black, they are the carrot on the stick that lures visitors around the island from the idyllic settings of resort hotel beachfronts.
The beaches are Tropic of Cancer versions of the Riviera. Sunbathers everywhere show little modesty in Guadeloupe's warm trade winds: Bikini tops are an unthinkable fuss, and in a few isolated coves naturalists strip away all other reminders of the material world.
The beaches can be your only road map to the island.
* Surrender is the key to Guadeloupe. To rum-and-sun-drenched limbo under the low palms. To the rhythm of French West Indies steel bands that becomes as natural and steady as a heartbeat. To the contagious motion of native dancers who gave the beguine its beginning.
Guadeloupe's most convenient beach is at Bas du Fort. Halfway between (a 15-minute drive in either direction) the commercial center of Point-a -Pitre and the nightlife in Gosier, it is a 30-second stroll for guests at the hotels Novotel and Frantel Guadeloupe, both constructed in 1974 with subsidies from the French government as part of a program to shore up tourism. (The then-overgrown seaside property was developed into choice and secluded beachfront that outshines many of the island's best beaches.)
Showing two faces to the Caribbean, the Bas-du-Fort beach's natural side, with its choppy surf and coral footing, is suitable for twilight romance but treacherous for swimming. On its man-made side, the white powder beach tucks comfortably into a protected cove ideal for water sports and doing nothing.
Stretching out from Bas-du-Fort in both directions are post-card beach after beach, each with its own slice of local life, forming a shoreline that would take a couple of days of nonstop driving to navigate. But stopping to explore is the only point -- though one that is dictated more by whim than design. No sense sitting in the hotel room planning anything here. You know paradise when you see it.
Driving east from Gosier along the southern coast of Guadeloupe's flat eastern wing, Grande-Terre, we pulled off the road after 15 minutes into Sainte-Anne. The charming hamlet hugged a broad, white-sand beach that touched deeper and darker blue waters. Besides three fishermen who couldn't get their boat motor started, one sunbather and a skilled windsurfer, it was deserted -- at 11 a.m. A young woman behind the counter of a small and empty cafe' selling jambon et fromage sandwiches didn't seem to mind the empty tables.
Thirty minutes beyond was little St. Francois, where you can catch incoming fishing boats unloading lobster, snapper, tuna and squid. It is the last town along the narrow road continuing east to the must-see Pointe des Cha teaux, the easternmost tip of Guadeloupe.
Typical of the understated and smaller Grande-Terre, where a hundred windmills peek out of inland sugar-cane fields and dozens of spectacular but small beaches hide behind thick shoreline shrubs, Pointe des Cha teaux offers no fanfare yet it attracts, sooner or later, almost every visitor to Guadeloupe.
A single lunch and beer stand at the road's end marked where to park. The 20-minute footpath winding to a peak was unspectacular, but the climb proved worth the energy it required. Topping the peak was a huge carved-stone cross that overlooked where Atlantic and Caribbean waters meet in collisions that have pounded titan-size boulders into surreal deformities. Another six or seven miles out to sea is the pretty island La De'sirade. Named "The Desired Island" by Columbus, it was his first sighting in 1493 before he landed on Marie-Galante, another island to the south. A day later he named and claimed Guadeloupe on the beach at Sainte-Marie de la Capesterre on Basse-Terre.
Although Guadeloupean tourism brochures and maps unabashedly boast several naturalist beaches, the beach at Pointe Tararec -- the best-known one on Grande-Terre and only a mile or so on the way back from Pointe des Cha teaux -- is discreetly marked with a spray-painted arrow and "Tararec" on the road's surface and no official wooden sign like those that identify other beaches.
The path through tormenting overgrowth and potholes heightened our anticipation of a shoreline where nothing comes between enthusiasm and sunshine. The beach itself was totally secluded and as bare as its clientele, sporting soft white sand and reefy waters.
If it weren't for the dazzling variety of beaches on Guadeloupe's larger western wing, Basse-Terre, they would be overshadowed by the mountains and rain-forest jungle that dominate that landscape. But these quiet beaches, rarely intruded on by hotels, attract visitors with sand that varies in color, beach by beach.
On the western coastal route driving north of Pigeon, for instance, we swerved off the road to escape another maniac Guadeloupean tailgater, only to find Plage de la Malendure. Typical of dozens of the delightful discoveries waiting on Basse-Terre's coast, the village was insignificant but the soft black-sand beach, the color of licorice Necco wafers, proved to be a haven for serious scuba divers who mentioned Cousteau often and explored a nearby coral reef. The roadside Chez Loulouse, a pop-stand restaurant and bar, was their prime hangout and uncomparable for collecting local color with a beer in hand under a thatched roof.
Should beach life wear thin, or sunburn make it painful, Guadeloupe provides other pastimes.
By far the most popular is eating. Where to dine each evening became the only pressing decision we made each day. French Caribbean cuisine ranks with the world's best. There were no fast-food joints on this island. Only open-sided Creole and seafood restaurants and some classic French culinary arts learned in Paris.
Another diversion is a trip into Point-a -Pitre, the island's largest city, mandatory only because it is there -- not because much is there. Located on a small inlet on the southwest coast of Grande-Terre, the city does offer samples of 18th-century British and French architecture in its facades and wrought-iron balconies. Not a spree town for tourists, it is primarily a port for resident shopping and business, and the address of a couple notable restaurants. Otherwise, visiting its few points of interest takes only a couple of hours.
The open-air market on the docks is one of them. Wrinkled old Creole women, who cover their faces with both hands at the sight of a camera, peddle medicinal herbs harvested from Guadeloupe's rich flora. Endless baskets of okra, carrots, avocados, chayote, breadfruit, bananas and yams line blocks of sidewalk, and some fishermen haul in buckets of fresh fish and crabs. Gourmets who travel to Guadeloupe drive into Point-a -Pitre at least to stock up on the locally grown pepper -- better, they insist, than that of Hong Kong and Cambodia.
And the tourism office, a block away from the market, is another stop. When we were there, the colonial building was heaped with string-tied bundles of brochures unavailable in Washington. Although the tourism clerks, who spoke almost no English, appeared perplexed when we asked about the Weed Women who supposedly practice herbal voodoo in the jungle back acres of Basse-Terre, they did provide us with two invaluable publications that together justified the trip to town -- "Guadeloupe Bonjour" and an excursion map that detailed timed routes throughout the island.
Our day-long sojourn into Basse-Terre's 300 square miles of emerald rain forests started from Point-a -Pitre and cruised west along a coastal road that dodged shanty towns and picturesque beaches on one side and banana plantations on the other.
Within an hour we turned off the coastal route and up the gear-grinding Habitue'e Road toward our first destination, Chutes de Carbets -- Guadeloupe's magnificent three-tiered waterfall. Bordered on both sides by banana and palm trees and accented by brightly flowering hibiscus, anthurium and ixora, this unnerving drive doubled back on itself curve after slope.
At the parking area midway up the mountain, two women sold beer, Creole chicken and acras (cod fritters) -- a last stop before we entered the rain forest that immediately separated sunlight from darkness, warm air from cool. Jungle ferns and palms dripped with moisture as buntings and hummingbirds flitted from huge mahogany and gum trees to vines as thick as a wrist.
No poisonous snakes and no dangerous animals, according to Guadeloupean park authorities, make the island's natural forests prime territory for serious hikers. Paths throughout the jungle are well-kept, with distances to sites marked periodically. From the parking area, the Second Fall, about 360 feet high, is most accessible at 30 minutes one way. We found a fine mist permeating the air, fogging camera lenses. The towering tassle of white water free-fell into an eerily calm pond that we reached by crossing the cascading stream headed to its final fall, a three-hour hike below.
Back on the road, we navigated around homebound schoolchildren and grazing goats to a still more harrowing drive up the side of Guadeloupe's sulfur-belching volcano, La Soufriere. Standing near the lip of this 4,813-foot relic was one of those moments when nature seems amiss.
Clouds swept in and out to erase and restore sprawling green valleys. A raton laveur, weasel-like creatures Guadeloupeans call raccoons, scurried nearby as we stabbed the volcano with a stick to sniff the yellow smoke that bled from the wound.
Suddenly, the Champs Elyse'es seemed distant. We hurried back to Bas-du-Fort before dark to plot the next day on the beach over filet de boeuf grille and a bottle of a dry Cote de Rhone Bordeaux -- like so much in Guadeloupe, a moveable feast.