Most islands are visited by cruisers and charter guests for a list of amenities – full service marinas; beach bars oozing charm with signature drinks, and marine stores with shelves bending from new, must-have gear. But Marie-Galante – located approximately 24 miles east of the southern tip of Guadeloupe – lacks it all, which might be the very reason to pay the Big Pancake a visit.
We made our inaugural sail there recently after a stop at Ile de Saintes which turned into a rock & roll marathon while precariously anchored in 70 feet of water. The wind, forecast to freshen, left us with few options: Stay put and rock on; return to Guadeloupe from whence we came, or venture toward the unknown.
It took a full day of beating to reach Marie-Galante, a low-lying island of 61 square miles, and after a day of deck washing seas, the long deserted beach in the middle of the lee looked just right. Once the hook was down, we checked the scene only to find a pier to the north, the sugar factory to the south and nothing in between. No bars on the beach; no business; no neighbors.
Heavy wind and seas kept us there for days but the beauty of the spot held us even longer. The beach, nesting grounds for sea turtles, is bordered by a thin strip of national forest. Within it, a squat, stick fence prevents them from crossing the road.
Eventually, we anchored off Saint Louis where a long pier stretches from the center for the catch and release of ferry passengers several times a day. The town – that boomed in the 1940s when the island’s population tipped 30,000 – stands like a sentry from the past. Ornate wood buildings, many covered by sheets of tin, line sleepy streets. A few wear eye-popping paint but most bear only the wrinkles of time. The village is bordered by concrete, government controlled apartments and schools; all of it flanked by endless fields of sugar cane.
At the head of the pier is the town’s hotspot, Delices de Saint Louis, baking up a storm. Nearby is the lone tourist shop, a handful of beachside restaurants, and Chez Henri … the hippest of the lot. The locals hang out in cafes serving creole faire and rhum agricole, the economic driver of the island. Two well-hidden grocery stores offer interesting French selections but don’t bother with a list, just make it as you roam the entertaining isles. For those who don’t like a scavenger hunt, head to the modern wonder, U Express, at the edge of town.
Thinking that the real metropolis I was after might be found in the town of Grand Bourg, I boarded a mini-bus and set off. On perfectly paved roads we toured past fields of waving cane, some complete with wooden ox carts and their attending horned bovine. We sped past Distillerie Poisson, one of the island’s three spirit producers. The remains of Habitation Roussel-Trianon – a sugar plantation from centuries ago – flashed past like a chapter from a history.
Grand Bourg’s epicenter is an impressive yellow church facing the sea where a jettied port offers protection for small craft. Along the quay, fishermen sell their catch; ladies offer fresh picked produce, and food trucks cook up local dishes such as agoulou, bokit, saucisse and poulet. A covered market holds tables of straw hats, madras clothing, local made chutney and piquant sauce along with the usual assortment of magnets, mugs and mementos.
There was one more town to discover, Capesterre, so we opted to find it on a rented scooter. Like the other two island hubs, rows of sleepy streets held neglected buildings still wearing bits of gingerbread, filigree and iron fretwork. Located on the southwest coast, Capesterre catches the trades, turning them into a wind machine mecca for hordes of kite surfers.
Although we are dangerously lacking in French, it didn’t cause a problem as we roamed. The residents of Marie-Galante were kind and helpful; hard working souls with pride for their simple island life. Untouched by cruise ships, hotels and mega-yachts, they haven’t met the masses and if local politics hold, they never will.