Take a look at a map, and you'll instantly see why Guadeloupe (Gwahd-loop) is called the Butterfly Island -- though its "wings" are actually two separate islands joined by bridges. Smaller surrounding islands, including Marie-Gallant, La Desirade and Iles des Saintes, are also part of this French overseas region in the Lesser Antilles.
The archipelago was originally settled by the Arawak people but later taken over by the Caribs. Christopher Columbus stopped there in 1493 and named the main landmass Santa Maria de Guadalupe de Extremadura after a statue of the Virgin Mary housed in a Spanish monastery of the same name.
While the Caribs were able to fend off Spanish settlement, the French annexed the island group in 1674. Guadeloupe was seized several times by the British for its lucrative sugar production and once even taken over by rebellious slaves. The French have held control since 1816, and in 1848, slavery was abolished. Today, the population is just over 400,000, and the majority is of African or mixed descent.
Guadeloupe's eastern "butterfly wing," Grande-Terre, is home to the largest city, Pointe-a-Pitre, where the cruise port is located. On this island, you'll also find beach towns and, at its easternmost tip, Pointe des Chateaux, where the Caribbean and Atlantic meet. The western "wing," Basse-Terre, is home to Guadeloupe National Park, home to the active La Soufriere volcano and 42,000 acres of tropical forest. Basse-Terre also has lovely beaches and, just off the coast, the waters around Pigeon Island are a designated marine park, named after Jacques Cousteau.
Guadeloupe averages about 70 inches of rainfall a year, with the least precipitation in January, February and March. Because of the varied geography, there are many micro-climates, and weather on the two main islands can be radically different. It might be brilliantly sunny on Grande-Terre's east side and raining in Pointe-a-Pitre while La Soufriere is completely shrouded in clouds. Hurricanes pass through the archipelago, with an average direct hit about every seven years. Hurricane season is late August/early September, well away from peak cruise season.
Guadeloupe's cruise terminal is located at the city of Pointe-a-Pitre. Because the port is right in town, you can easily explore the city, which may remind you a bit of New Orleans, with its lacy iron balconies gracing older buildings. Within walking distance, you'll find restaurants with Wi-Fi, shops, ATMs, pharmacies, two museums, the covered Spice Market and a supermarket (Super U, 72 Rue Jean Jaures).
Dengue and chikungunya are two mosquito-borne diseases present throughout the Caribbean, and you'll see warning signs in the cruise terminal. Avoid contact with mosquitoes, and use a repellant containing DEET.
Some businesses close during lunch and for several hours in the afternoon. Many are only open Monday through Friday or close at noon on Saturday. Few are open on Sunday.
Because this is French territory, the currency is the euro. Some vendors may accept U.S. dollars, perhaps grudgingly. Visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for currency conversion rates. Cash machines dispensing euros are easy to find in Pointe-a-Pitre. L'Agence SGBA (30 Rue Frebault), Societe Generale (Rue Saint-John Perse and Rue Frebault, across from the Spice Market), BNP Paribas (intersection of Rue Frebault and Rue Delgres), BDAF Agence de Pointe-a-Pitre (Place de la Victoire), Caisse d'Epargne (Place de la Victoire), Credit Maritime d'Outre Mer (36 Rue Achille Rene Boisneuf) and Credit Agricole (3 Rue Achille Rene Boisneuf) are within walking distance of the port.
French is the main language, although many people also speak Creole. People in tourism-related industries can usually speak English. Most of the online information is in French only. If you don't speak French, your best bet for information in English is to consult secondary resources, like guidebooks or TripAdvisor.
You'll see bright Madras-plaid fabrics everywhere -- sold by the yard or made into hats, clothing, doll outfits and household items. If you really want to go all out with Guadeloupe Creole style, stop by Dody (13 Rue Peynier, across from the Spice Market). The store features beautifully made traditional dresses, covered with ruffles and flounces, as well as more modern designs. The annex next door sells shoes in Madras fabrics.
Ti punch, island patois for "petit punch," is a blend of rum, lime and sugar. It's often drunk before meals as an aperitif. Just beware: It lives up to its name by packing quite a punch! Also, rum is produced in Guadeloupe, so you'll find all sorts of rum and fruit juice blends. But if you find an expensive aged rum, it's meant to be savored like fine cognac, alone in a snifter. Look for the Damoiseau, Severin and Reimonenq labels.