Most people sailing through the Caribbean stick to the leeward side of the islands and most make a stop or two along Guadeloupe’s sheltered west coast. Many cruisers also spend time in the Îles des Saintes, a pleasant, popular and picturesque group of small islands south of the ‘mainland’. Few sailors, however, venture the extra 15 miles east to Marie-Galante, which is well worth the detour and, with the right weather window, not that hard or uncomfortable to reach.
My husband Mark and I decided to rent a scooter for the occasion of our visit and set out for our island tour on a rickety two-wheeler with helmets that had been dropped one too many times and that were at least one size too big. Never mind, the traffic is light and the roads are decent. Add to that some smaller dirt roads to get to certain sights, plus the scooter’s maneuverability, and you have the perfect means to get around at your own pace. Our starting point was the small fishing village of St. Louis, where we picked up a valuable map of the island in the small tourist office.
North we drove, along the west coast, to the attractive beaches of Anse Canot and Vieux-Fort, where one could spend all day lounging around in the shade of a palm tree and enjoy the peace. But we stuck to ‘the program’ and moved on. Marie-Galante is relatively flat and as round as a pancake, so it’s no surprise that her nickname is ‘La Grande Galette’ – the Big Crêpe. The island is rural in character and all day long we were surrounded by sugar cane, manioc fields and cows. Here and there, we drove by a simple house or stumbled upon a tethered goat, a dilapidated windmill or a stray oxcart made of wood. Whenever we passed someone, on foot or in a car, a friendly wave would follow.
Most signposts across the island are faded, but if you see a black sign with washed out white lettering, chances are there is something to see nearby. After a couple of tries, we managed to find Gueule Grand Gouffre, an enormous sinkhole that created a natural arch. Water crashes into the hole through the big gap in the rocks and, from the safety of your spot on the outcrop 200 feet above, it’s impressive to see nature’s forces at work. A couple of miles further down the paved road, a path leads to Caye Plate, where steep cliffs rise majestically out of the sea.
We continued our tour past yet another of the remaining seventy or so ruined windmills, spouting plants and greenery in all directions. Heading south, we arrived at Moulin de Bézard, a beautifully restored and photogenic windmill.
Many signs point to Distillerie Bellevue and road D202 takes you there. Domaine Bellevue is the oldest one of the three rum distilleries on the island and you can visit the grounds from 9am to 1pm. Tours are offered during the harvest season, which runs from February to July. Other times, the distillery is worth a visit for its historic setting. Not only are you are allowed to look around, the gift shop offers free rum tastings. Their famous white ‘rhum agricole’ contains an alcohol volume of either 50 or 59 per cent. Careful getting back on that scooter!
Capesterre was the next point on our itinerary and coincided with lunch time. We devoured our sandwiches in a beautiful setting. The highlight of this area is Plage de la Feuillère, a gorgeous stretch of white sand dotted with palm trees and bordered by the turquoise ocean. Offshore reefs temper the waves to allow safe swimming and a steady breeze attracts hordes of kite surfers who provide a colorful spectacle.
Habitation Murat, located in the southern part of Marie-Galante, is an old slave plantation with well-maintained lawns, a walled garden, peaceful pond, small museum, ramshackle slave quarters and a derelict windmill. It is a joy to wander around the property and take in the expansive views of the countryside and infinite blue of the ocean. The island’s capital, Grand Bourg, is a port of entry and the biggest town. A drive up to Saint Marie Hospital, the highest point on the island, offers a lovely view in the morning.
Before darkness set in, we passed more nice beaches (from where a spectacular sunset over The Saintes can be enjoyed) and crossed paths with a slow moving oxcart. We completed our circle in St. Louis, feeling pleasantly surprised with the interesting sights we came across. So, next time you are going up or down the island chain, stray from the beaten path, harden up the sails and beat further east and enjoy remarkable, rural and round Marie-Galante!
Liesbet Collaert is a former teacher and freelance writer who lives and cruises on S/V Irie with her partner, Mark, and their dog, Darwin. For more stories and pictures, check out their website www.itsirie.com.