Guadeloupe: These tiny islands are the French Caribbean's greatest secret

CNN/ Newswire | 4/23/2018, 12:01 p.m.

By Melissa Banigan, CNN

(CNN) -- Seen from above, the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe look like the emerald wings of a butterfly.

Located within the lower crescent of the Caribbean archipelago between the islands of Montserrat and Dominica, these twin islands and a smaller cluster of satellite islets don't just offer intrepid travelers spectacular white sand beaches.

They also have waterfalls, mountainous rainforests and cultural institutions dedicated to the islands' pre-Hispanic peoples and subsequent slave trade.

From the main islands of Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre, it's just an hour's ferry ride to the tiny islands of La Désirade, Marie-Galante or the islands of Les Saintes to visit for the day trip overnight.

As an overseas department of France, Guadeloupe has long been a popular destination for French and other Western European tourists. Francophiles delight in speaking the lingua franca, French, while stopping at boulangeries and cafés to enjoy an espresso and croissant. (Visitors may hear more English since Norwegian Air started offering cheap direct flights from the United States in 2015.)

It's a rich mélange of African, European, Amerindian, pre-Hispanic and Indian cultures, however, that lends Gwada, as locals call Guadeloupe, a certain "je ne sais quoi."

Less developed than its French Caribbean cousins, St. Martin and Martinique, Guadeloupe is also more affordable than pricey St. Barths (Saint-Barthélemy).

Here are 10 things to do and see when you travel to this tiny French territory:

1. White sand beaches

Less than 30 minutes from Guadeloupe's main airport on the island of Grande-Terre are some of the island's most beautiful beaches.

Shake off the last vestiges of travel at La Caravelle, a long stretch of beach open to the public on the grounds of an all-inclusive Club Med resort with windsurfing and kitesurfing schools and rentals. Day trippers can rent lounge chairs under the palm trees for 10 euros.

English is often spoken at beaches in the Grande-Terre towns of Sainte-Anne, home to postcard-perfect Sainte-Anne Beach, and Le Gosier, where La Datcha Beach has a slower vibe.

For a more French experience, ask locals for the turn-off to Petit-Havre, a small surfing beach frequented by locals.

Sainte-Anne Beach, les Hauts de Sainte Anne, Sainte-Anne 97180, Guadeloupe

La Datcha Beach, Le Bourg, Le Gosier 97190, Guadeloupe

2. Take in spectacular views of the Atlantic and Caribbean

Stroll along the easternmost end of Grande-Terre, which leads up the cliffs of Pointe des Châteaux for spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Head to Porte d'Enfer ("Gate of Hell") to explore a trail leading to the Trou de Madame Coco ("Madame Coco's Cave"), a grotto carved by the waves. Local folklore says it's the home of a witch who made a pact with the devil.

One of the most spectacular trails on Basse-Terre is le Sentier de la Grande Pointe, located minutes from the town of Trois Rivières. Along the path, there's a series of three waterfalls that spills into the sea near the black sandy Anse Duquéry Beach. Observant hikers can find pre-Columbian petroglyphs peering out from rocks along the trail, and there are many ruins of some of the island's colonial-era sugar plantations.