The Outer Islands
On Les Saintes, a string of small islands named 'Los Santos' by Columbus, only Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas are inhabited. The people are mostly descendants of poor Breton colonists who until recently intermarried little with other West Indian races. Sugar cane was never introduced here as a plantation crop and so large numbers of black slaves never came either. The population is predominantly light-skinned and many people have blue eyes. Some still wear the round bamboo and linen hat, the salako, which the locals call a chapeau annamite. A Saintois sailor brought one back from Indo-China (Annan) over a century ago, and everybody took to it. Fishing is still the main occupation, but tourism is increasingly important. The islands are a popular excursion from Guadeloupe and with a good, natural harbour, many small cruise ships spend the day here. Nevertheless, an overnight stay is recommended so that you can appreciate the islanders' traditional way of life, once the day trippers leave at 1600. Public holidays are particularly heavy days with hundreds of day trippers.
Marie Galante and La Désirade are much quieter, with few visitors. Their traditional way of life is preserved and they have an old-fashioned feel, with glorious, empty beaches and delicious home-made food.
An easy trail, Trace des Crêtes, starts at Terre-de-Haut (goats can be a nuisance if you decide to picnic). Turn right at the pier, follow the main street about 100 m, turn left at the chapel and follow the road up to Le Marigot (look out for the sentier du morne morel sign behind the restaurant on the south side of the bay) and on to the beach of Pont Pierre, a lovely golden beach with rocks, Roches Percées, in the bay. Boats and diving equipment can be rented at the landing stage. At the end of the beach the trail leads up the hill where you have a good view of the islands, if you keep left, one branch of the trail leads to Grand'Anse beach. The pretty 'white' cemetery, La Cimétière Rose, with paths bordered by shells, is worth visiting is close to the beach and from here you can walk back to Terre-de-Haut, about 1½ hours in total. Alternatively, you can walk along Grand'Anse and on to Pointe Rodriguez and the small cove Anse Rodriguez below it.
Fort Napoléon, is high up on Pointe à l'Eau, and the museum in the fort gives the French view of the decisive sea battle of Les Saintes (1782 - the English Admiral Rodney defeated and scattered the fleet of France's commander the Comte de Grasse, who was sailing to attack Jamaica). The fort itself dates only from the 1840s. The exhibitions are good with interesting models of the ships and battles. A guide will give you a 30-minute tour (in French) of the main building. There are exhibits also of local fishing (including a saintois, a boat, originally with a sail, but now diesel-powered) and crafts, a bookshop and drinks on sale. Around the ramparts is the Jardin Exotique which specializes in growing succulents and includes a wild area where plants native to Les Saintes are grown.Terre-de-Bas
If you want an authentic (and proud of it) island, friendly, but determined to preserve its own way of life, this is it. Information is available from Office de Tourisme de Marie Galante, www.ot-mariegalante.com. There is only one medium-sized hotel. The islanders are resisting further hotel developments preferring gîtes and guesthouses. It's a traditional rural way of life, based on sugar cane. Peasant proprietors still take canes to the mill by ox-cart. This makes a good photo, which they don't mind a bit. The beaches, so far almost completely untouched by the tourist flood, are superb. By Capesterre, the Plage de la Feuillère has fine sand beaches and is protected by the coral reef offshore. Follow the path north to Les Galeries, which are large cliffs eroded by the sea to make a covered walkway over 15 m above sea level. There is a pleasant beach at Anse de Vieux Fort, the site of the first settlement on the island in 1648 and of a series of fierce skirmishes between the French and the Amerindians.
In the 19th century the island boasted over 100 sugar mills; a few have been restored and may be visited: Basses, Grand-Pierre, Agapy and Murat. Only at Bézard, (around 7 km due north of Capesterre), can you appreciate the glory of a great windmill in full sail. The former plantation houses of Château Murat and Brîlle are interesting. Murat gives a good impression of the great 18th-century plantations; below the sweeping lawn lies the old sugar mill with cane-crushing machinery still intact. Behind the house is a walled herb garden. The Bellevue rum distillery on the D202 is a cottage industry. The rum (agricole, made from sugar cane) is very powerful and you will be invited to taste and buy. You may also be offered bags of brown sugar and dessicated coconut, a surprisingly nice combination. At the Distillerie Bielle you can taste and buy rum as well as ceramic rum flasks made at the pottery atelier. The Distillerie Poisson in the west on the N9 makes the Père Labat rum and is open for visits (also small museum) with tastings of rum and liqueurs. Fascinating old 19th-century machinery, still in use. On the road to Duclos, going north, is the mare au Punch (the 'sea of Punch'). The story is that when the revolution came, the slaves, to celebrate, gathered together all the rum they could find and, in this pond, made the biggest bowl of punch the Caribbean had ever seen. Alas, as the display boards indicate, this attractive tale is unlikely, but it's a good story, with underlying truth of the fight against oppression.La Désirade
Columbus named the island as it was the first land he saw on his second voyage in 1493. Archaeological research has shown evidence of Amerindian settlement but it was uninhabited when Columbus passed by. La Désirade was occupied by the French for the first time in 1725, when all the lepers on Guadeloupe were sent there during an epidemic. In 1930 a leper hospital was built, but was closed in 1954.
Rainfall is very low here and the dry season lasts from January to August. The lack of fresh water has always hampered economic activity. In 1991, however, La Désirade was linked to Grande-Terre underwater with a fresh water supply. A plaque at l'Anse des Galets commemorates this. The dryness and few people have helped wildlife to survive: rare birds, the agouti (a very edible rodent, the size of a small rabbit), and the iguana (also edible).