Guadeloupe’s Grande Terre
by Christine Gooch
What’s that they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? One of our reasons for sailing our Prout 38 catamaran, Sweet Sensation, to Pointe-à-Pitre on Guadeloupe was to motor through the Riviere Salée, which divides the island in two, and from there, to explore the northern anchorages. But when my husband, Kevin, and I asked at the marina office in Pointe-à-Pitre about the opening times for the bridges we were told that the bridges were closed for repair and wouldn’t be opened at all this year! Well, changes of plan are all part of the fun of cruising, so we decided to explore this part of Guadeloupe — Grande Terre — instead.
The anchorage at Ilet du Gosier, about three miles southeast of Pointe-à-Pitre’s Marina Bas du Fort, is tucked behind a tiny island with a large lighthouse and protected on nearly all sides by reef. From the anchorage we could see that the island had a palm-fringed sandy beach and a beach bar. There was an almost constant stream of people swimming or snorkelling to and from the beach on the mainland over to the island, a distance of probably half a mile. We dinghied across to find the beach bar had just closed for the day and the lighthouse and nearby buildings were covered in graffiti. But we did have a nice stroll along the beach, paddling in the clear turquoise water. Gosier gets its name from le grand gozier — a breed of large pelican native to the area.
Once night fell the wind died away and there was just the roar of the surf breaking on the reef ahead of us. The anchorage was nice and calm though. In the distance behind us we could see the lights of towns and villages strung along the coast of Basse Terre.
The next morning was sunny and calm so we went snorkelling and then dinghied across to the little town of Gosier, pulling the dinghy up the beach and tying it to a convenient palm tree. The town is a pretty mixture of old wooden houses with balconies and shutters, and modern holiday apartments. The modern church tower reminded me of the kind of open tower you sometimes see on fire stations; high up you could see bells hanging upside down and the bottom third of the tower was painted with a striking mural featuring local ladies and children. The town hall was a very impressive modern building and there was a paved terrace with tiny water-jet fountains that had a fantastic view over the anchorage to Ilet du Gosier. In the sunshine the sea was all shades of blue, from cobalt in the deeper water behind the island to pale blue and then greeny-turquoise patches in the shallows of the anchorage. We could clearly see Basse Terre, Les Saintes, Marie Galante and even Dominica.
Later that afternoon we came ashore again to take some photos and go to the Friday afternoon street market. This was full of colourful stalls selling handicrafts (woven baskets and lots of things made from the colourful checked Madras cloth that is typical of the French islands), local produce (honey, cakes, sweets and what looked like bottles of homemade rum punch), and plenty of fruit and vegetables (what we had come to stock up on). The fruit and veg looked lovely and fresh, were reasonably priced and there was plenty to choose from. Unfortunately while we were shopping there was a sudden heavy downpour; Kevin said he felt sorry for the stallholders who had obviously worked so hard in their gardens and smallholdings and now on the day of the market the rain had come to dampen their sales.
Le Moule on the northeast coast of Grande Terre sounded interesting, but rather than fight our way back into the wind and swell we decided to go by bus. The driver of the first one we caught said we needed to change buses at Ste-Anne. This is a small seaside town east of Gosier with a lively handicraft/spice market set out on the promenade and a nice sandy beach with plenty of watersports available. A couple of the local yoles (sailing boats) were trying to tack out through the reef pass against the wind. We had plenty of time to admire the tree-shaded town square from the bus stop while we waited about two and a half hours for a bus to Le Moule. I had asked a couple of people waiting at the bus stop when the bus was likely to arrive; one said in five minutes, and half an hour later the other said around midday. By quarter past twelve it still hadn’t arrived so I asked another lady, who told us we could get a bus to Le Moule from St. François, further along the coast. Buses to St. François went about every 20 minutes! So we hopped on the next one and when we got to the bus station there the kindly bus driver told us to stay on the bus and he would take us round to where the buses for Le Moule left. I’m glad he did, as I don’t think I could have followed directions in French to walk there from the bus station. It was a shame we hadn’t found out about the buses earlier, as the bus for Le Moule was waiting and we had no time to explore St. François, apart from glimpsing the little fishing boat/ferry harbour and a marina from the bus.
The journey from St. François to Le Moule took us through fields of sugar cane and pasture, with cows and goats tethered by the roadside. When we arrived at Le Moule the first thing we did was check how often buses went back to Pointe-à-Pitre via the inland route, which turned out to be every ten minutes. Then we bought filled baguettes and sat in a little park overlooking the seafront to eat them. Long curves of surf were rolling in, and this was a relatively calm day. Then we set off to explore the pretty little town. There were narrow side streets of faded wooden buildings leading back to the sea and the remnants of old grey stone walls partly hidden by trees and creepers. One or two of the houses had been done up and looked as though they might be holiday homes or houses where French people, rather than Guadeloupians, lived.
After wandering around for a bit we came out into the large town square. It had lines of shady trees up two sides and at one end was an enormous Town Hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paris. The façade had octagonal towers at each end with pointed grey slate roofs with a round mansard window in each one. Linking the towers across the first floor was an impressive stone balustrade balcony with a row of French windows behind it and an enormous French flag. The ground floor had a sweeping set of stone steps flanked by curving stone balustrades leading up to the enormous wooden front door. The building was painted a creamy pale yellow, the colour of Cornish ice cream, and the balustrades and shutters were white. It reminded me a bit of fairy-tale illustrations of Sleeping Beauty’s castle but without the thicket of thorns. Kevin noticed that rather than have the windows closed and air conditioning on, the doors here, and in the little bar we went into, stood open so that the buildings were cooled by the breeze.
Across the road from the Town Hall is a huge church with a small bell tower and an enormous grey stone façade with columns and a triangular pediment like a Greek or Roman temple. I wondered where the money came from to build these two imposing public buildings that were in such contrast to the small wooden fishermen’s houses and old warehouses in the back streets.
Wandering down another back street we came across a small grassy square overlooking the pass through the reef into the fishing harbour. Weathered old cannons pointed out over the sea wall and palm trees waved in the breeze while white surf broke on the reef. Old ships’ anchors, once used for boats to tie up to, jutted out from the reef. On the other side of the harbour was a white sandy beach and what appeared to be a holiday village. At the head of the harbour were the ruins of an old fort, built in honey coloured stone; personally I would have thought the reef entrance would have been enough protection in most conditions.
Back on the boat we reflected that visiting these towns by road made a pleasant change — and next year there’s still the Riviere Salée to look forward to…
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