Marie Galante is a small, relatively flat island to the south of Guadeloupe and lying 15 miles due east of Iles des Saintes. Just when it seemed that our easting for this voyage had been accomplished, Cutter Loose is motoring east into the wind and waves once again. Marie Galante is off the beaten path of cruisers. There is nothing even remotely touristy about this island. As the British would say, it is unspoiled. Yet there are a dozen or more cruising sailboats anchored in the harbor at St. Louis when we arrive. Ferry service connects Marie Galante to the mainland of Guadeloupe.
Marie Galante was discovered by Chris Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. He named the island in honor of his Caravel, one of the smaller, lighter, faster and more maneuverable vessels designed and built by the Portuguese for long distance exploration. Today, 12,000 people inhabit Marie Galante. Politically, it is part of Guadeloupe.
St. Louis is the most protected harbor on the island for visiting boats. All of the essentials are covered in St. Louis inasmuch as a patisserie/boulangerie is conveniently located at the end of the ferry dock. There are a handful of restaurants on the beach. No English is spoken here. In fact, the local residents seem downright curious about suntanned Caucasians strolling about town in floppy hats.
In a chance encounter, we strike up a conversation with a group of bilingual French cruisers whom we meet at the dinghy dock. Apparently, U.S. flagged vessels are a rarity at Marie Galante and they are curious about why we are here. They are a group of brothers with spouses here on a charter boat to celebrate the 70th birthday of a sibling. Some live in Guadeloupe, some are from Martinique while others reside in the Bordeaux area of France. One is a dentist, another is a medical doctor and another is an agronomist. As it turns out, their mother was Creole and a teacher of English. They enjoy visiting Marie Galante because of the absence of tourism and because of the friendliness of local residents.
Our first visual impression of St. Louis, however, is less than positive. The streets, sidewalks and buildings in the port area are in disrepair. We decide to withhold final judgment until we have the opportunity to explore other parts of the island. One of our reasons to sail to Marie Galante is to bicycle its rural network of roads. Thus far, narrow roads with heavy traffic have been the rule rather than the exception in the Caribbean. The French, however, put money into their roads, which are in good condition.
On Friday morning, the Bike Fridays are assembled bright and early for a ride to Grand Bourg, the largest settlement on the island. The Customs office in Grand Bourg closes for the weekend at noon on Friday. We are told by others to arrive before 11:30 AM if we intend to clear customs out of Guadeloupe before Monday. Since it is only five miles from St. Louis to Grand Bourg, the logistics should not be a problem. En route, a broken spoke on my rear wheel impedes our progress. Arriving in Grand Bourg at 11 AM, the challenge now is to find the Customs office post haste. Fortunately, an English-speaking woman of Dominican birth comes to our aid, personally accompanying us to the Customs office. It is hidden on the second floor of a non-descript building on a back alley. There is no sign or any official-looking indication of a Customs office. She rings the buzzer and speaks in French to the Customs officers. The door lock clicks open. We ascend the stairs, entering the office at precisely 11:30 AM. Ten minutes later, we exit the office with clearance papers in hand. Without the help of this English-speaking Good Samaritan, we would still be searching for the Customs office in Grand Bourg.
Similar to St. Louis but on a larger scale, Grand Bourg also has its share of derelict buildings. Several examples of Creole architecture remain, but most have fallen into disrepair. After a sandwich at the patisserie and a stroll around town, we begin our return to St. Louis. Much of the land here is used for the cultivation and processing of sugar cane, so traffic is light. The French also seem to respect cyclists. They honk politely, wave and give us a thumbs up when they pass by.
Along the way, we pause for a visit to Habitation Murat. This is the site of a sugar cane plantation, now in ruins. With its 207 slaves, it was considered in 1839 to be the largest sugar cane plantation in Guadeloupe. The windmill (minus the sails) is the dominant architectural element of the site. A few miles further is the Plage de Trois Ilets, a magnificent beach. Today it is deserted.
On Saturday, we pay an early morning visit to the patisserie before our departure for Dominica. Several of the French brothers that we met the day before on the dinghy dock are stocking up on pain and baguettes for their sail to Guadeloupe. They are as enthusiastic as ever, greeting us with smiles and firm handshakes. We exchange boat cards and promise to stay in touch. We find ourselves beginning to understand and perhaps even share in their perspective on Marie Galante. It is certainly not a glamorous place that would fulfill the expectations of those seeking a glitzy Caribbean resort vacation. It is a working class island with towns that reflect working class values and struggles. As such, our visit to Marie Galante has provided an insight into every day life on an authentic, tourist-free Caribbean island…the essence of travel.