When a new discount airline offered flights to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe for less than $150, I jumped at the chance to spend five days on the French island during the dead of winter. Having studied French for a couple of years, I was enticed by the notion of visiting a French-speaking island nation, still a part of France. In my head were images of expansive resorts on white-sand beaches as fashionable tourists bedecked in white linen and oversized hats sipped on champagne as they watched the sun set. A Saint Tropez in the Caribbean.
Arriving in Guadeloupe
Stepping off the flight in the evening hours meant I didn’t get a vision of what the island looked like from the air. It was dark and I recall stars. I made my way to the car rental facility, hopping on a shuttle bus to be deposited to a small Hertz location. Inside, when greeted by the desk clerk, I remembered an important lesson: the French spoken in France is not the same as the French spoken in the islands. I couldn’t understand a word spoken to me. Stuttering and reverting to English, I asked the clerk to speak English and she helped me with my car. I threw my bag into the trunk, hopped in, turned on the GPS to set my course to Club Med (40 minutes away), turned the ignition and attempted to put the car into drive.
It was stick shift.
Last time I have drive a stick shift was in 1994.
It was 9 p.m. on an unfamiliar island. I needed an automatic. “Automatic” is not a word that translates well to the clerks in the rental car agency, but somehow she managed to understand my pantomime. And I was able to understand “no” just as well as I would in the U.S. There were no automatics.
I was stuck.
I hopped the shuttle back to the airport to find a taxi to take me to my resort. Silly me. Thinking I was in France and not in the islands, I figured I could find a taxi that accepted credit cards. I couldn’t. I thought I could find an ATM at the airport to get local currency, as I would do when I fly to France. I couldn’t.
As I sat on a bench, wondering what in the world I was going to do — attempt to speak or pantomime to a driver that I needed a bank and then a ride to the resort — a shuttle marked Club Med arrived. They noticed I hadn’t arrived and came to find me. Thank goodness! I was off to Club Med!
At the resort, English-speaking desk clerks were able to check me in, and my room was lovely enough, but I was in need of a drink, so I immediately set off to the bar. Where I discovered I was the only person speaking English. Often, traveling to a Caribbean island means a number of different cultures. As Guadeloupe is a French island, residents of France escape their cold winters and visit the resort. I ordered a glass of champagne, to get back to my glitz and glamour notion. Club Med is an all-inclusive resort, but the bartender explained champagne was not included. And not available by the glass.
Which is why I walked back to my room with an ice bucket and a bottle of very expensive champagne. I was sure after a night of bubbly, I would awake to Caribbean sunshine and ocean breezes and all would be well.
My First Club Med Resort
Club Med La Caravelle was surprisingly small compared to the resorts I’ve visited across Mexico and the Caribbean. Built in 1970s, the resort seemed dated. One pool serviced the entire resort, with a DJ spinning tunes all day and well into the night for themed danced parties. In French. The beach was covered in palm trees, which provided a natural canopy of shade when needing a break from the sun. I started my morning with a massage. The resort doesn’t have a spa, services were available in an over-the-water cabana with three walls and one very open view out into the sea. It was gorgeous until the resort’s catamaran sailed closely by. And a father and son kayaked by. And another boat motored by. I was on full display.
After the massage, I decided I work on my tan. I don’t burn too often, so a few hours in the Caribbean sun seemed a good idea. Once the afternoon sun got too hot, I decided I would explore the resort, which consisted of exactly two restaurants, two cabanas, one pool, one bar and one lobby. I wanted to watch the Arsenal football (soccer) game, but couldn’t find a TV in the bar. I asked the lobby clerk where I could go to watch the match.
“You have a TV in your room,” she said.
“Yes, I know, but where can I watch the match with other people?”
“You can have other people watch TV in your room,” she said.
“Yes, I know, but I was looking for a bar or a place to join strangers watch the match.”
“There is a gas station not too far away from here where some men watch TV,” she offered.
Fine. I would walk to the nearby gas station and look for men watching TV and see if it happened to be soccer. I set off, wondering just how crazy I was to leave the resort. I set off to neighboring Sainte Anne, walking along the road until I could find activity. I stumbled upon a beach bar where plastic seats in the sand were filled with men watching the match. I pulled up a chair to join them.
My waiter, not able to speak much English, proceeded to flirt with me the entire match. While unwanted, he was giving me great pours of wine and snacks to enjoy while I noticed the men all kept glancing at me, wondering what this woman was doing in their space. One finally asked me, “do you like soccer?”
“Yes. I follow Arensal.”
“Where are you from?”
His eyes grew wide. “Americans watch football?”
And then I was thrust back into the silence that comes from being in a country where you cannot understand the conversations surrounding you because they are in a language you do not know. The match came to an end (Arsenal won), and in order to get my check from my waiter, I had to accept his phone number and promise to call him about getting together.
As I made my way back to the resort, the sun began to set and I realized I needed to hurry before I found myself in the dark and lost. I was a little tipsy from the wine. A car went by with some locals hooting out the window and honking. Yes, it was time to get back to the resort. I hadn’t been smart.
My Last Night
When I returned the resort, I washed up and headed to dinner. The resort offered a buffet or a secluded restaurant, the Biguine. I felt a restaurant was in order, to keep up with my notion of grandeur. Sitting on the outdoor deck, overlooking the water, I have high hopes. Instead, as I was traveling solo, I was watched closely by the other diners, no doubt wondering if I was ditched at the altar. I spent my time between courses feeding the feral cats roaming between the tables. And had more wine.
Now, the good part. Take a massage, ignore the advice to drink lots of water following it, drink while sunning for three hours in near-Equator sun, drink more, then drink more. What do you get?
I awoke the next morning, sure I was going to die. Perhaps it was dehydration. Perhaps it was sun poisoning. Maybe a combination? Definitely misery.
Curled into a ball on my bed, the thumping techno music at the beach dance party pulsating through the walls and pounding in my head, I Googled a cure: drink a capful of water every 15 minutes, which I did in between sweaty bouts of sleep. All the while, I wondered how to say “I need a doctor” or “take me to the hospital” in French.
This went on for 36 hours.
And then it was time to fly home.
I didn’t see much of Guadeloupe. I’ve read it looks like a butterfly from above (or on a map), with two large islands dissected by a river. I have heard there is a beautiful national park with waterfalls and a volcano. I’ve read about sugarcane fields and expansive beaches. I imagine the turquoise waters I saw in pictures is amazing to swim in and explore by boat.
I suppose I should go back and explore the island instead of writing it off as a place I don’t want to return. But, it’s a good reminder to 1.) not idealize a place before visiting and 2.) remember not all travel adventures go well.