Guadeloupe: an island in the French sway

As the man leaned over the poolside bar and ordered a fruit punch, I heard the familiar sounds of Eastern Seaboard English. I thought nothing of it until, with a start, I realized that on my last afternoon in Guadeloupe I was hearing an American voice for one of the few times all week -- not counting, of course, the island's two Club Meds, those Yankee-favored sporting spas.

George Schecter of Manhattan's East Side would have seemed at home in Acapulco, Palm Beach, or maybe even Cannes, but now as he spoke above the happy French cries of some ball-playing teen-agers in the hotel pool, he was wondering if he had picked the right island. "Nobody speaks English," he said, "and I haven't tried French since I was overseas during the war. I was thinking when I woke up this morning maybe I should get a plane to Mexico." I urged him to give it another day or two and then went off to pack for the trip home, puzzling over one of the darker mysteries of Caribbean travel: why Americans continue to stay away from Guadeloupe in such convincing numbers.

Money is not the reason, not as the dollar improves against the franc and as the low tourist season approaches, dropping hotel rates 25 to 40 percent from April 15 until July 1 and bringing down fares on American Airlines, which has the only nonstop flights from the US (Friday, Saturday, Sunday out of JFK). Be warned, though, that in July and August, when France goes on vacation, the prices are just as high as in the midwinter months; then they dip again in September.

Although Guadeloupe is four hours closer to New York than it is to Paris it's well to remember that the island is a departmentm of France and very much in the French sway. That is why the tourist season is pegged on French habits. And while French visitors are occasionally heard to dismiss the local language as an impossible creole patois, it's much closer to French than to Eastern Seaboard English, which evidently cows the George Schecters of the world.

"People are afraid to come because of the language, and we would like to change that," said Theodore Compper, a Guadeloupean who manages the Holiday Inn at Gosier, probably the smartest motel in the entire chain."We, and all the other hotels, are trying to hire more people who speak English. We send our employees for English lessons at a hotel-training school, and sometimes the teachers come to the hotel."

Language need not be a snag if you come with a pocket dictionary and a smile, as my sister Miriam did. She was on Guadeloupe for half of that week in mid-March with her traveling friend Hilary, and they liked the same things about the island I did: the beaches both wild and tame, the French and Creole food, the saucy spirit of the Guadeloupeans, who seemed eternally patient in the face of fractured college French.

Now and then the islanders we met struggled for the right word in English, a gesture one doesn't often encounter in mother France. This was the case at L'Arlequin, a restaurant of quiet charm and good taste we discovered on a hillside above the main road in St. Felix, near Gosier. L'Arlequin is but a year old, which may explain why it is seldom full, why a table on the balcony beneath the soft West Indian sky is always available. For some reason Guadeloupe restaurants are seldom booked solid, and that includes the popular roadside places such as Chaubette and La Fourchette. One evening at L'Arlequin, as she bent to collect the dishes from the main course, the young Guadeloupean waitress shyly asked how to conduct the maneuver in English, and when she returned to pick up the dessert dishes she tried a new phrase: "Are you finished?" She was backed up by a second waitress (who was on extended tour from France), and if neither had the answer to our myriad queries, the hovering proprietress usually did. Her husband stayed nearer the kitchen but emerged one night to wind up an ancient Victrola we were admiring and play some Harry James 78s.

All Guadeloupe is divided into two parts, and they are as distinct as two separate islands. Grande Terre has Pointe-a-Pitre with its open markets, buzzing cafes, and gendarmes in khaki, stiff-hatted uniform; the dry south shore that winds past most of the hotels from Gosier to Ste. Anne (excellent town beach; Miriam's favorite) to St. Franois and on to the wave-rocked land's end at Pointe des Chateaux. Basse-Terre, across the isthmus from Pointe-a-Pitre, is green and mountainous, rural, remote, and even a little menacing in the south where the volcano Soufriere continues to puff.

We crossed Basse-Terre at the center of the island where a smooth road cuts through the Natural Park. We passed ferns that grow larger as the road rises and pools and waterfalls which we shared with two passing French women on holiday and a thousand hidden birds.You leave the park near the west coast of Basse-Terre and, heading north, wind through tranquil fishing villages where the tricolor was over tiny gendarmeries or mairies.

Little Deshaies is perhaps the most picturesque ("pittoresque,"m my sister corrected me) village on the northwest coast. Nearby is the Plage de la Grande Anse, one of the grandest beaches I've explored in the Caribbean. The mile and a half of beige sand is pounded by an assertive surf, and if there are half a dozen bathers about, it is a crowded day. The Fort Royal Club Med, where I stayed for four sportive days, just around the bend, takes its guests for picnics to the Grande Anse beach once a week. Even then, there are acres of empt y sand. I hope George Schecter got to Grande Anse.

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