The main island of Guadeloupe is shaped like a big butterfly. Basse Terre, on the Western side, is full of tall, volcanic mountains covered in lush green forests and beautiful waterfalls (which we have yet to go explore, alas). Grande Terre, to the East, is more flat and dry, and largely developed with towns and villages. At the narrow middle of the butterfly, the Rivière Salée divides the two islands and forms a large natural harbour on the south side. On the east side of this harbour lies the city and suburbs of Pointe-à-Pitre.
Like most of the Caribbean Islands, Guadeloupe was colonized by Western Europeans and developed into an agricultural centre with the help of many thousands of imported slaves. Modern Pointe-à-Pitre started life as farmland, and was developed into a town in the mid-1760’s, when English – and later French – colonists began building the town and draining the surrounding tidal flats. The new city was destroyed by a fire in the 1780’s, and then struck by a massive earthquake in 1843. Despite these disasters – and other fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes in later years, the city has developed into the commercial capital of Guadeloupe.
We went to Pointe-à-Pitre in search of a new gas outboard motor. Our first night in town, we anchored not far inside the entrance to the Pointe-à-Pitre harbour, in amongst a number of local live-aboard sailboats. There are several anchoring areas in the river, but we needed to be within rowing distance of the very large Marina Bas-du-Fort and the chandleries and other boat supply shops that surround it. As expected, we were able to find an outboard on the first afternoon, which left us several days to properly explore the city, both by dingy and on foot.
The easiest way to reach the downtown area is to dinghy into the main harbour and tie up next to The Yacht Club restaurant (not a club, just a restaurant with that name!). You are then only a few steps from the historic downtown area, home to a Spice Market, a number of museums, and lots of retail stores featuring clothing, housewares, and tourist attractions. We visited the downtown on a Saturday afternoon and were able to visit a few of the shops before they closed. We were mostly looking for one of the fabled Digicel SIM cards (amazing data prices, especially compared to Canada!), but I also managed to find several very busy fabric stores with small yarn sections in the back. We had arrived in January, only a few weeks before Carnival, and the fabric stores were hopping with people making costumes for the event – I didn’t end up buying much, but it was wonderful being surrounded by all that creative energy again!
We visited two excellent museums in Pointe-à-Pitre. The Musée Saint-John Perse is located in the historic ‘Maison Souques’, a beautiful colonial house that was built in 1880 for the owner of the Darboussier Sugar Factory. Saint-John Perse, who’s real name was Alex Sainte-Léger, was a diplomat and poet born in Pointe-à-Pitre in 1887. He grew up just down the street from the museum (he never lived in this house), until his family moved out of the Caribbean after a major earthquake in 1897. In 1960, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.
The museum features some personal objects from the author, as well as clothing and household items that represent life in a land-owner’s house at the end of the 18th century. For me, the main attraction was the building itself, with it’s ornate iron balconies and intricate details around the windows and doorways. We happened to visit this museum during the Journées du Patrimoine Pointois (Pointois Heritage Days) – the day’s activities had already ended, but the house was still filled with people dressed in period costume, and a musical group was finishing up in the garden as we walked around inside.
Later that day, we visited the Mémorial ACTe, the Caribbean Centre for Expressions and Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Slavery. Built as part of UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, the memorial houses to the largest museum of the history of Slavery and Human trafficking in the world. The 250m long building is situated on the former grounds of the Darboussier Sugar Factory and was designed to be the first thing you see as you enter Pointe-a-Pitre from the sea. The Darboussier Factory was the largest sugar factory in all the Antilles, and was operated by more than 1000 enslaved workers at any given time. It remained in operation under various ownership structures until it finally closed in 1980. The interior structure of the Mémorial is a black box covered over in silver mesh that “…evokes the overground roots of damned fig trees taking over ruined walls, insinuating themselves between the cracks but also helping them to stay standing. The mesh contains a black box, representing the black peoples. The shards of quartz within represent the souls of victims of slavery and the slave trade.”1 At night, the building is lit up with a beautiful light show – we were anchored next to the museum for a few nights, so got to experience the show up close.
As you enter the museum portion of ACTe, you are provided with a headset that automatically syncs as you walk through each exhibit. The tour takes you through the history of slavery and the slave trade from the beginning of the 17th century up to modern times, all brought to life through audio dramatizations and soundscapes. Items on display include tools and weapons used by and on the slaves, pieces of clothing and household items, historic documents like the Code Noir, and large art installations; this is a very impactful museum, and I would highly recommend a visit. After leaving the museum, we stumbled across a great little bistro tucked in on the side of a parking lot – you can find it on Google maps as Joline le Soleil, but the marker is in the wrong place! Joline served us some delicious lamb curry and a couple of beers – the perfect end to an afternoon touring the city!
If you are in search of boat parts (and what sailor isn’t!), take your dingy up the west side of the harbour and tie up at the little dock that’s about a mile past the industrial docks. Walk up the adjoining road, and you will find Captain’ Nautic, one of the largest chandleries that we’ve seen on our travels! We took advantage of the selection, and stocked up on accessories for our new outboard as well as the many other boat projects that were on our list – Guadeloupe doesn’t have high import duties like Antigua, so the prices were really reasonable!
One of the highlights of our visit to Pointe-à-Pitre was a preview of the upcoming Carnival celebrations. Although the main event takes place in the few days before Shrove Tuesday (which was February 21st this year), smaller events and celebrations begin in early January. On the advice of some fellow Salty Dawg sailors, we ventured into downtown Pointe-à-Pitre on a Sunday night, not long before sunset. Although there were no official signs or indications, you could tell that something was expected to happen that night – food stalls were being set up beside the main square, Place de la Victoire, and there were lots of families and children gathering together. Turns out that Sunday night is the time for the various groups to practice their routines for the big parades – but instead of marching altogether, the different groups go around on their own, in different directions and at different times. Half the fun of the evening was running through the downtown streets, listening for the next group, and running over in time to get a good look! We had gone to town with the idea that we’d leave around 9:30 or so, but didn’t make it back until almost midnight. Even the late-night downpour wasn’t enough to send us home early!
We spent about 5 days in Pointe-à-Pitre, then headed back to Les Saintes as a stopover point before crossing to Dominica. Looking back, it feels like we saw a lot, yet it was really just a fleeting visit. Good thing we’ll have another chance to visit again this winter!
1: Jacques Martiel, Chairman of the ACTe, as quoted in Memorial ACTe – BlacklistedCulture.com. (2020, January 1). BlacklistedCulture.com. https://blacklistedculture.com/memorial-acte/