Who needs a guidebook?On the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, writer Thomas Beller and actress Parker Posey find that, in good company, your own discoveries are far more seductive than the best-laid plans.
Get The Facts.
TOM When we stepped onto the tarmac at the Pôle Caraïbes airport on Guadeloupe, I realized I had forgotten what a shock it is to get on a plane in freezing weather, nose stuffed, eyes cast downward at gray pavement, and emerge into the soft, balmy air of summer. I had forgotten what it's like to leave the realm of the familiar, with its myriad suffocating associations and responsibilities, and arrive on a strange tropical island where everything feels light and new.
Once inside the airport, I realized I had forgotten other things as well.I had forgotten my guidebook. I had forgotten the various magazine articles and clippings I'd accumulated—but barely glanced at—that suggested interesting things to do and places to stay on the island. I had forgotten the name of my hotel. I had forgotten to bring a number for my travel agent other than an 800 number—which is to say, a number I could call from Guadeloupe.
Most important, I had forgotten that I don't speak French. This last matter was foremost in my mind during those dismaying moments of remembering what I had forgotten, because I was in a predicament and needed to communicate, and French is not English, which is not French, and in such moments of need these facts become maddeningly concrete and inescapable. Being able to say Hello, What time is it?, Good evening, My name is Tom, and a few other phrases in French might from the comfy distance of New York seem like enough to get by, but this presumes some basic amenities, such as a hotel reservation.I did know we had a reservation at Avis, so I went over to its counter. And in the end Avis really did try harder: the woman there, who spoke some English, recommended a hotel and booked us for a night. Shell-shocked but happy, Parker and I were shuttled to a nifty blue Suzuki, a four-wheel-drive, mini-SUV-type number. We found an appropriately islandy radio station and whizzed out into the sunny paradise of an afternoon traffic jam.
"Well, at least we're stuck in traffic and it's hot," I offered weakly. But a few minutes later we were on our way to the Créole Beach Hotel and the start, albeit delayed, of our vacation.
PARKER Being without a guidebook and not knowing where we were staying for the night generated feelings of abandonment. I didn't get angry; I just felt orphaned. And not knowing French, I felt stupid and unsophisticated and uneducated.
But I could mime. I laughed to myself about how often I would have to mime on this trip, and how much I enjoy doing it, actually. To the nice, helpful Frenchwoman at Avis: a smirk, an arched eyebrow, eyes rolled and crossed—which is mime for "Tsk, men." Or the Face of Horror to the immigration officer when he noticed the loose first page of my passport and mimed to me, "What's this rip?!?"
"That just, like, happened!" was my mimed response, followed by emphatic nodding when he looked at me scoldingly, miming that I had better behave and get a new passport first thing back in New York, or else. In the shuttle, I held Tom's hand, because he was feeling like an idiot and because it's important to go with the flow and the whole journey-is-the-destination thing.
"Look at the bulls tied to the trees off the highway," I said.
"I wonder if people steal them," he answered absentmindedly. I wondered how long it would take for the expanse of sky to register in our brains and push out all the activity that had been filling our eyes and ears all year in Manhattan.
TOM The Créole Beach Hotel was a slightly cheesy and laid-back complex of three buildings, each with its own distinctive style of architecture. Our room was in a low-slung, three-story structure called Hôtel Mahogany. We checked in and were out on the beach in no time. It was late afternoon, and people were starting to pack up. Into the blue-green water we went.
We swam, we sat on the beach, and we unveiled what was to be a source of pleasure and exasperation for the rest of our stay: the JoyCam. I took some comfort in knowing that Polaroid, though bankrupt, had not yet gone completely down the tubes. A hot start-up in its day, the company was hanging in there with this space-age bit of plastic, which has a kind of rip cord on the side, anchored by a ring, like a parachute. You press the little red button, and rrrip! A picture is born.
We watched the sunset, and I took in the mountains in the distance. Guadeloupe is shaped like a slightly irregular butterfly. One wing, called Grande-Terre, is flat, sun-drenched, mostly covered in sugarcane. Its southern rim is dotted with beach-frolic spots: St.-François, toward the far tip; Ste.-Anne; and—the big-daddy frolic spot of the whole island—Gosier, where we were. The mountains are on the other wing, called Basse-Terre.
At dusk we made our way back to our room, pausing at a booth manned by a handsome blond Frenchman who spoke a little English. He showed us photographs of where his catamaran would take us the next day, the lunch we would have, and the sights we would see, should we sign up for the trip. He was in his late forties, still with that smoky beach-bum look about him. I said we'd think about it, and he replied, "You will think about it, but you haven't asked the price!" He told me the price, and I nodded enthusiastically. Then I cadged some dinner advice. He suggested the Zoo Rock Café at the Marina.
We headed out of the hotel complex, past a long road full of slightly disheveled shops and an oppressively glitzy casino, and then turned back in the direction of Pointe-à-Pitre, which navigationally functions as the body of the butterfly, the heart at which all arteries begin. On the way we passed a dining establishment with smoke billowing out the back. In front were outdoor tables crammed with people, black and white.
"Ribs!" cried Parker, the Louisiana girl. "Let's go there!"
I sped on, determined to honor the beach bum's recommendation.
The Marina turned out to be a kind of outdoor restaurant mall filled with desultory couples strolling from menu to menu, eyeing each one up and down. The Zoo Rock Café had a zoo theme. Its menu had gorillas, zebras, and giraffes printed on it. This was not appetizing. We set off back the way we'd come, back toward the smell of those ribs.
The place, L'Agouba, was wild with activity. The bustle reminded me a tiny bit of a busy restaurant in Chinatown—the barely controlled chaos, the inviting smells, the officious yet solicitous manner of the guy seating you. Except the guy seating you here was a large, handsome black man in sweatpants and a tight white T-shirt who spoke only French.
What followed was one of the best meals I've ever eaten. Though there were other options, the specialty was clearly the grill. Parker had ribs; I had lobster. Both orders arrived charred and blackened and tasting of something unworldly. Some Creole culinary magic had been applied to this food. We ordered more ribs. For dessert we ate ice cream. It was called Paradise.
PARKER Should you always trust your instincts when traveling?Yes. Should you listen to a man who's been at sea his whole life when he tells an American couple they should go to the Zoo Rock Café?No. I tend to trust women more when it comes to food, anyway, and I'm glad I trusted myself. But let the man drive his car and eventually he'll come around.
The Créole Beach Hotel had good sheets on the bed, a great bathtub, an outdoor Ping-Pong table, an aerobics instructor leading a 5 p.m. class outside our window, and, of course, the beach. French people sat on wicker furniture sipping sweet rum drinks or espresso and staring as through a haze. I was nervous I wouldn't be able to relax, but when we finally got out on the beach and sat on those plastic lounge chairs and said "Isn't it beautiful?" over and over again, we entered our relaxed mode, and took pictures of each other relaxing.
And then it crept up again.
"I don't really like the beach," I said. I like venturing out, and I wondered if Tom was one of those people who like to get sun-dumbed in the company of other tourists.
"Well, I figure we'll wake up in the morning, spend a couple of hours lying on the beach and reading, go into the water and swim, and then head out to the other side of the island for the afternoon," he said.
I was so relieved that I had a thunderbolt memory of reading the Guadeloupe guidebook a couple of days before. "There are all these tropical flowers here, and parrots and butterflies, and a rainforest, I think, and, um, a volcano or something. Did I just make that up?And we should go to that coffee plantation-restaurant we read about in American Way magazine. . ."
Tom asked if I still had the article, and I did.
At breakfast the next morning we met a woman in her fifties who smiled at us and spoke English. Her name was Gabby. She was German, but lived in France. She gave us the lowdown on the island: it takes only an hour to drive around to the other side; you can cut through the rain forest in 45 minutes; the other side of the island, Basse-Terre, has a more wild landscape, and some of the best diving in the world.
Tom asked if there were any other places to stay and she said she preferred the Créole Beach because it's not "lonely," and because it's a good place to come back to.
TOM The awful truth is that I was enormously relieved to hear from an impartial source that the place we were was a good place to be. With Gabby The German's benediction, the Créole Beach Hotel was no longer a fallback option; it became lovely, and I stopped thinking about wherever else we should have been.
On the beach, French surrounded us. We were impervious to its meaning and only heard the melody, which was quite nice. Gertrude Stein once wrote of the pleasures of being alone with her English when living in Paris, and I felt that way now. When you sit on the beach in Gosier, your eyes can't help but be drawn to the mountain range in the not-so-far-away distance, shrouded in clouds. The sight of these mountains lends an odd and even ominous atmosphere to the otherwise restful beach scene. The mountains are mysterious. They beckoned us.
And we obliged. Sunned up, we embarked in the Suzuki, flying over the roads, listening to peculiar programming that combined old Santana, Caribbean zouk, and, out of nowhere, Billy Joel's "Honesty."
PARKER On the highway, we spotted a sign for a tropical garden and swerved off the main road, past houses and sugarcane fields. We stopped at a small grocery store on the right.
Tom (still unable to fully relax) was convinced we were lost, but I reminded him that we were on vacation and if we were lost it would have to be fun. A little boy sat in front of the store hiding his smile with an apple.
Tom reminded me of the ad for Cartier he'd seen in the airplane magazine; missing from the list of Caribbean islands with Cartier boutiques was Guadeloupe. I had the positive thought that Guadeloupe must be supporting itself through its own tourism and farming, with some help from France.
We bought some water and apples, waved good-bye to the people in the store, and drove 15 minutes to the tropical garden, where we walked the winding paths enclosed by huge trees and ferns and tropical flowers. We took in the birds and monkeys.
We sat on a bench as hummingbirds whizzed past, stopping just long enough for us to catch sight of their hot-pink, iridescent necks. Hardly anyone was around and we could have stayed there the whole day, but we wanted to see the other part of Guadeloupe—and we needed lunch.
TOM There is no distinct sign that marks the moment when you cross from one of Guadeloupe's two main islands to the other. There's just a long, fast road with the mountains coming up ahead, the greenery a shade darker, and in the air a hint of cool. Our plan was to make a tour of Basse-Terre by heading south and east, ending up at the lunch spot we'd read about, the coffee plantation-restaurant Caféière Beauséjour.
The landscape was dramatic, although as we drove I was becoming a little obsessed with this spectacular lunch we were headed toward. Along the far coast, the road became winding, the light more angular, our stomachs more empty. By the side of the road, men and boys stood holding out freshly caught lobsters for sale.
We sped through the town of Basse-Terre, along narrow streets and past old colonial buildings. Cars with speakers on them patrolled the place, agitated French spilling out in noisy amplified waves. Evidently there was an election coming up.
We drove on for a long time, saw signs for Caféière Beauséjour, didn't find it, and eventually asked directions. Everyone was very nice. We were pointed to an extremely steep road, which we headed up for several miles.
Finally, there it was: the sea majestic and vast to our left, the lush mountains rising sharply to our right, and the restaurant in between, some coffee sacks stretched out over poles for a roof, above which was a lemon tree and under which were tables and sofas. Out came a man, young, French. "Hello!" I called. "Bonjour! Je voudrais manger: poisson, vin. Quoi?Finis?Mais you said you were open until . . . but . . . but . . ."
TOM It was sad leaving that place, and the apples we'd bought didn't fill me up, but Tom got a tip from the Frenchman that there was a place in Deshaies to grab a bite—a restaurant called L'Amer.
As we barreled down the roads, catching glimpses of water and the setting sun, we saw a little town, and when we arrived we parked near a church. We'd been in the car all day and it felt good to walk this strip of land in this sleepy town.Up the block we saw a man standing outside L'Amer, smoking a cigarette. He informed us that there was no food, because of a blackout. I mimed breaking bread, and he shook his head. I pointed next door, and he shrugged and went inside.
Next door was a bar-restaurant lit by lanterns, where the waitress gave us a table on the porch overlooking the water and brought us bread and beer. The lights on the boats came on as the stars came out, and we sat there until the surrounding cliffs were black shadows under a tiny moon. Then we raced back to civilization in the car, through dark, blackened Guadeloupe to the Créole Beach Hotel and its generators, in time for an hour of dancing to live music.
TOM Undaunted, we set off the next day for our second try at Caféière Beauséjour. We took a shortcut that wound up into the mountains and then descended dramatically toward the coast. We knew our way, we were focused, we were hungry, and we had a reservation.
Again the steep hill, the narrow road, the screaming car engine. Yesterday we had arrived to find the remnants of a party; today the party was in full swing.
The tables were all filled, and the sofas and chairs nearby were occupied with people in various states of lunch—before and after. The maître d' welcomed us, led us to our complimentary drink (a delicious rum punch), and pointed us to one of the couches, where we struck up a conversation with Jean-Luc and Marie. They were very French, but between Parker's mime/empathy/telepathy skills and my tiny amount of French, we managed to infer that Jean-Luc was a craftsman whose bowls were on display over at the plantation house. Marie had a bow in her black curly hair. I couldn't tell if these two were married, had just met, were lovers—or all of the above.
The café, in addition to being a place to eat, seemed to serve as a kind of bohemian gathering place where the island's expatriates congregated for long boozy lunches. Our table was under the canopy of coffee sacks. We watched children gambol on the lawn while their parents sat at long tables, drinking wine and eating. The afternoon wound its way lazily, timelessly. There was no menu; at Caféière Beauséjour you eat the meal of the day. Ours began with onion-papaya quiche, followed by a rather spectacular smoked duck with ginger-honey-soy sauce and a side of pumpkin purée.
Then we gamboled on the grass, and perused the gift shop, with its coffeemakers, arts and crafts, and hats made of bamboo. The light slowly softened and the sun began to hover over the sea. We'd arrived at around one o'clock and hadn't finished lunch until nearly four. We wandered over to the house and sat in rocking chairs on the back porch. It was like The Magic Mountain, a divine sanitarium where you could rid yourself of everything but the pleasure of the scenery. I took a picture of Parker with the JoyCam. Rrrrip! No picture. Out of film. But it was all right; the pictures you lose are the ones you remember most vividly.
On the drive back we saw another stunning landscape under an increasingly Technicolor sky, and stopped to watch cows grazing on hills that sloped down to the sea on one side and were covered with vast, verdant fields of sugarcane on the other, behind which rose the mountains.
That night we headed to L'Agouba, but it was closed. So we ate across the street at a similar establishment (though not quite in the same league), and encountered an American couple. They called out with relief: English! They hadn't heard a word of it. It was their second night. As it was our third, we were hardy veterans. The metabolism of these trips, for all their languor, is so fast. We gave the couple some tips, but when the conversation ended I was glad to be back in our French world, with just the two of us speaking English.
The Basse-Terre coast has a rougher and more interesting landscape, so the next day we decided to ditch Gosier for Deshaies. We checked into the Habitation Grande Anse, a series of semi-private bungalows with small patios in front and kitchenettes. It was quiet—in other circumstances, I would say boring. Perhaps it's what Gabby the German meant when she said the rest of the island was lonely?It was delicious loneliness.
There was a pier at Deshaies, and Parker and I watched the sunset from it. We breathed in the lost feeling. It's a feeling you can't get at a resort. To be lost, you have to be out in the world, prey to blackouts and closures and confusing directions. But the reward was out here on the pier, with the sky darkening.
Strolling down Deshaies's main street, we passed a small political rally. A woman spoke in measured tones to an audience of about 10. For some reason this required gigantic speakers, and when we walked in front of her it was like passing before the Marshall amps at a Guns N' Roses concert—deafening. The three words I understood were poverty, tourism, and France.
PARKER A group of six sweet English people got off their boats for a night of dining as we sat on the pier. They recommended that we go diving and most definitely eat at L'Amer, so we booked a table for the following evening. They had spent weeks on their boats traveling to different islands and said that Jacques Cousteau's favorite diving spot was on Guadeloupe's western coast.
That night at the Grande Anse, Tom and I talked about diving the next day. The last time I was on a boat in a big body of water, I got seasick and my father held me over the side by my ankles so I could throw up. Would I be able to even sit in a boat without getting sick, much less go deep-sea diving?
The following day, Tom convinced me to go with him, and I became a diver in 15 minutes, taught by a man named Yuri who spoke in broken English. "The most important thing is to not breathe through your nose," he said, pointing to his nose and shaking his head no.
Yuri escorted me so far down that I could touch the coral if I wanted to. He pointed to different fish—rainbow fish, blowfish, fish swimming in schools of fish. I felt as if I were intruding in someone's house and touching anything would be rude, so I just held on to Yuri's hand and paid my respects to the underwater world. I stayed down for 20 minutes, and when I came up I was moved to tears at all the life I'd seen.
Sitting on a wicker couch at L'Amer that night, we drank piña coladas, read diving books, admired the décor of handcrafted boats, big and small, adorning the walls, and then sat down to what was, in fact, a delicious dinner.
TOM The next day we visited Ste.-Rose, 20 minutes away. The landscape that had so taken our breath away at sunset was just as beautiful in the daytime, and I felt a weirdly competitive sense of satisfaction—the game is to go to an island and find the most beautiful place, and I felt that this little stretch of coast, from Pointe-Noire to Ste.-Rose, with the tiny town of Deshaies right in the middle, was the prize. It wasn't clear whom I had defeated. Maybe my other self, the one with the guidebook who would never have found all this.
On our last afternoon we ambled to the beach, a five-minute walk. And what a beach! It was about 100 degrees out and we sunned and read and it was paradise until I thought I'd lost our car keys and went into a swoon of panic.
The trip seemed to be ending on the same note it had begun on. I actually went so far as to dive into the ocean, thinking I had gone swimming with the keys in my pocket, a terrible anxious reprise of the previous day's dive, the anxiety replacing the serenity. I had sent Parker back to the hotel to call Avis and see if they could get keys to us in time to rescue our stuff and make our flight. I was doubtful. I spent minutes underwater, turning over seashells in the sand, eyes burning.
PARKER Walking to the hotel to call Avis, muttering that I'm the one who has to take care of everything, I put my hands in my pockets and found the keys. I decided to hide in the car so that when Tom walked up I would scare him. I waited for 15 long minutes, and when he finally approached (head down, talking to himself) I sat still in the car, imagining that when he saw me he would think he had seen a ghost. He missed me completely, so I banged on the window and he saw me.
On our drive back to the airport we talked about how it's all right not to know where you're going, that it's more natural to travel without plans, that plans can get in the way of where you're supposed to be. And anyway, when we got back to New York, Tom called his travel agent and discovered we'd been booked at the Créole Beach Hotel all along.
Guadeloupe is part of the French West Indies, which means you'll need to pack your passport. Roads are good, so rent a car to explore freely—you'll save on expensive taxi fares.
Créole Beach Hotel 97—190 Pointe de la Verdure, Gosier; 800/755-9313 or 590/904-646, fax 590/904-666; doubles from $175; Hôtel Mahogany, $163. A 384-room resort on the beach.
Habitation Grande Anse Localité Ziotte, Deshaies; 590/284-536, fax 590/285-117; doubles from $48. Quiet bungalows with great views.
Restaurant L'Agouba 590/846-497; dinner for two $28. Barbecue shack near Gosier.
La Caféière Beauséjour Acomat, Pointe-Noire; 590/981-009; dinner for two $50. Creative cooking on an old coffee plantation.
L'Amer Rue de la Vague Bleue, Deshaies; 590/285-043; dinner for two $44. Inventive cuisine based on local products.
Parc Zoologique et Botanique de la Guadeloupe Rte. de la Traversée; 590/988-352. Botanical garden and zoo showcases mongooses, iguanas, and crab-eating birds.
Nautilus 97 Rte. de la Glacière, Bouillante; 590/988-908. Conducts dives in an underwater reserve that Cousteau considered one of the best in the world.
Distillerie Reimonenq Bellevue, Ste.-Rose; 590/288-278. Watch Guadeloupe's greatest export, rhum agricole, go from sugarcane to pure rum, which locals say you can drink without fear of a hangover.
Parc National de la Guadeloupe Basse-Terre; 590/808-606; call for trail map. An ecotourist's dream: 42,750 acres of lush rain forests, waterfalls, wildlife, and a volcano, La Soufrière.
—T.B. and P.P. with Hillary Geronemus