Thanks to the rich combination of cultural influences that were imprinted on the islands centuries ago, we have an incredible amount of beauty and excitement to experience in the French Caribbean today. However, despite their similar roots, Saint Martin is the more famous one, thanks to its quirky cultural landscape with the Dutch, and Guadeloupe is the underrated gem, but equally beautiful nonetheless.
Where are Saint Martin and Guadeloupe?
Locating Saint Martin isn’t really that hard. All you have to do is to follow the Caribbean tourist buzz, and you’ll find yourself in a trove of information on where it is and how to get there. You can say the same for Guadeloupe, although criminally underrated compared to Saint Martin, this butterfly-shaped island is the stuff of many travel dreams, with a side of French.
Saint Martin is situated at the northern side of the Lesser Antilles, right along the area where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. The island is located straddling in the northeastern Caribbean, neighboring other big Caribbean names, despite their tiny sizes such as St. Barts, St. Kitts, and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, and Anguilla to the north.
One of Saint Martin’s classic charms is that it is divided into two separate administrations controlled by two European states. Saint Martin, which occupies about 60% of the entire island of the same name, is French, often written as “Saint-Martin”. Sint Maarten, the southern side, occupying the remaining 40% of the island is controlled by the Netherlands, and is the entire island’s main economic hub, despite its smaller population.
Guadeloupe straddles across a bit south of Saint Martin, at the eastern reaches of the Caribbean, where it meets the Atlantic. You can find the butterfly-shaped island northeast of the Lesser Antilles. The island, or properly called an island group neighbors territories of other European states such as Montserrat of the UK, French Martinique, and Dominica, a sovereign island.
The island group’s geographical location, sandwiched between the Caribbean and the Atlantic has given it interesting characteristics like the contrast of the two bodies of water on each side. With the Caribbean to the west and the Atlantic to the east, Guadeloupe has an interesting set of beaches and land features that are just some of the island group’s best draws.
One thing that makes Guadeloupe even more interesting is that it is primarily made up of the two main islands that seem to kiss each other in the center making a butterfly-like shape from above. The two islands are; Basse-Terre, which faces the Caribbean, and Grand-Terre faces the Atlantic Ocean. Other smaller islands are the Marie-Galante, La Desirade, and Iles des Sainte often called Les Saints.
Is Saint Martin Part of Guadeloupe?
The French territory of Saint Martin was originally a part of the French overseas department of Guadeloupe. Back in the colonial era, decades after the discovery of the island by the famous Christopher Columbus for the Spanish crown, Saint Martin was used to housing plantations of sugar, tobacco, and cotton, and eventually imported and used slaves from Africa, which was later abolished in 1848. In the 20th century, Saint Martin was controlled by Guadeloupe as an arrondissement, along with Saint Barthelemy, which has established the island’s tourism. In 2007, Saint Martin detached from Guadeloupe and became a territorial collectivity.
The French side of Saint Martin is home to most of the islands’ best beaches. On the other hand, Dutch Sint Maarten embodies the cosmopolitan vibe, with a splash of multiculturalism that is surprisingly anglophone. The French side offers a chill, more laid-back, easy-going, slow-living flavor reminiscent of mainland France, this particular vibe is one of its biggest draws if not the biggest. With that said, you have a complete equation of gorgeous beaches, classic French attitudes, fashion, style, and a ton of shopping, and the best food on the island, you have the perfect solution for your Caribbean wanderlust.
Other than the rich cultural highlights, and ridiculously gorgeous beaches, some are even clothing-optional. Saint Martin still has a lot up its sleeves. Special places and iconic landmarks such as the Old Street of Marigot for a quick history lesson or two, or the entire area of Grand Case always invites tourists for a special stroll, and the ever-prominent Pic Paradis, for overlooking views of the Orient Bay, the French Quarter of Orleans, and Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side to the south.
The shared cultural and political landscape of the island is probably one of the most unique features of the island. It’s a territory split by two former colonial powers, the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the south, and France to the north. It’s like a tourist destination supercharge by a hybrid of cultures. With a relatively non-existent border, getting across either side of the island is easy and fun. Think of hitting two birds with one stone. Twice the fun, double the places to check out and experience.
Saint Tropez of the Caribbean
It’s not wise to ask how beautiful Saint Martin is, because it’s non-negotiable, the right question to ask, however, is where to start? Because of how many places and things worth falling in love with the island has. Thanks to its plethora of gorgeous beaches on each side, historical towns each with a charm of their own, a diverse, multicultural population, and an interesting socio-political landscape, thanks to the French, and Dutch, Saint Martin is one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean.
For starters, it’s a rite of passage to check out the island’s iconic places such as the Orient Bay, often lovingly nicknamed the “Saint Tropez of the Caribbean”, it is one of the island’s most famous beaches. Another one is the iconic Fort Louis which overlooks the French side of Saint Martin, and of course, just a little trek below, is the city of Marigot, the French capital, is a treasure trove of curious and beautiful finds as well.
The Butterfly-shaped Island
The famous butterfly-shaped island is one of France’s overseas territories and regions in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe historically was one of colonial France’s possessions, housing plantations, and eventually a center for trade and commerce in the region. The island group fought for independence in the 1970s which led to Guadeloupe’s declaration as a French region.
After the colonial era, and the emancipation of the African slaves, the island group became an interesting melting pot of cultures that fused together; from the European refinement to the Caribbean and Creole roots. Guadeloupe, like many of France’s territories across the Caribbean, is home to various people groups that have accumulated and integrated over the years.
You can see various cultural influences from the Afro-Caribbean and Creole people that have descended from the emancipated slaves, the Hindu immigrants from South Asia, the Muslims from Lebanon and other parts of the middle east, up to the modern-day nomadic expats from Europe and the US. You will eventually realize that the people are ultimately one of Guadeloupe’s biggest charms.
Its thanks to the people that they are given more color to Guadeloupe’s already bountiful land. These various people groups brought with them their culture that eventually fused itself into Guadeloupe’s identity. The rich mix of various religions, gastronomic styles, and language, all played a part in forming Guadeloupe’s interesting culture today. Together with French undertones, and the island’s climate and setting, Guadeloupe is undoubtedly rich and worthy of the visit.
The French Tropical Escape
Guadeloupe is famous among French travelers looking for that fabled sunny getaway that isn’t Cannes, or Nice, like somewhere tropical. In the archipelago, you can simply lounge around the beach with no fuss, thanks to a very liberal attitude, and the best thing you can do is explore around all the island, or two, and let its cultural flavor, and gorgeous landscape surprise you.
One thing that is difficult to miss when stepping into the archipelago for the first time is how French it all feels, from the architecture you can see in the streets, culinary style, and the spoken language. And you know the French, respecting their culture, especially with their language, you can get a plus from the locals, so brush up on that high school French.
When speaking broken French, or simple English, locals may warm up to you and if that happens, ask them to show you around, or ask questions and recommendations about the region. You can ask the locals about the beaches, the food, and how the islands differ from each other.
The archipelago can offer plenty of things to experiences, and with distinct charms. Guadeloupe has a total of 12 islands each having its own draws and claims to fame. You will surely have a ton to look forward to, so wandering on one island may not be enough.
And just like any island in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe, in this case, has a slew of gorgeous beaches. Some of the notable beaches on the archipelago are the black sand of Plage des Bananiers in Basse-Terre; the white sand beaches of Plage Vieux Port and Plage Feuillère in Marie-Galante; and the golden sand of Plage Grande Anse, that boasts a beautiful crescent stretch on the other side of Basse-Terre. And those are just some of the beautiful beaches, every island has its contenders.
If you’re big on seafood, you will love the many seafood restaurants that dot the islands. In Guadeloupe, you can expect to sample a rich fusion of flavors on your palates as the islands’ gastronomy is a genius mixture of various cultural influences with attention to the ingredients, such as spices and fresh vegetables and fruits.
When it comes to safety and security you won’t have to worry, Guadeloupe is among some of the low to medium-risk level islands in the region. So expect a lower level of crime, but caution is still encouraged, there is no perfectly safe place in the world.
The archipelago was first discovered by the famous Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, in 1943 for the Spanish crown. However, the Spanish have repeatedly failed to colonize the island due to the natives. The French came and expelled the Spanish settlers and decimated the indigenous people.
Through violence and disease, the native inhabitants were eventually extinguished making way for the French settlers to establish a colony. Starting with a trading company, the French settlers developed the lands, and later used slaves, in the name of the French crown, as Guadeloupe serves an essential purpose in France’s conquest and expansion.
However, Guadeloupe experience various exchanges of control by the French and the British from the mid-18th century and well onto the early 19th century.
It was retaken by the French revolutionists at the beginning of the 19th century after the height of the French Revolution, under the headship of Napoleon I. It was again, taken by the British for the last time in 1810 and was later restored to France in 1816.
Under the rule of the French Republic, slavery was finally abolished in 1848, under Napoleon III, which was considered to be Guadeloupe’s most important event that eventually defined the archipelago in the future. However, relative peace and development were hindered due to Napoleon III’s abolishment of Universal Suffrage.
However, later in the 20th century, the threat of an all-out global war has threatened the sway of the French Republic, and all its key territories in the Caribbean. After the Second World War, in 1946, Guadeloupe officially became one of France’s overseas departments and territories.
What makes Guadeloupe even more interesting than other islands in the region is that it’s not just an island, it’s an archipelago. This French overseas region is composed of a few islands each having equally charms that just makes the whole Guadeloupe experience even more interesting.
Guadeloupe, nestled between the famous Caribbean Sea, and the expansive Atlantic Ocean is incredibly gifted by nature every necessary beauty you can find, fit for a travel magazine-worthy destination. Along with all the hype that comes with it. Think immaculate beaches that come in various charms of their own, especially with over 200 to choose from. Beach bums and Instagrammers would love every twist and flavor each of these beaches can offer. Caribbean islands are characterized by the richness of their respective cultures best represented by the many historical towns speckled all over, and Guadeloupe has its own set.
With a landmass much larger than most of its neighbors, and Saint Martin, you can expect to see thriving flora and fauna in the interiors of the island. Many outdoorsy travelers will find this to be a perfect setting for their natural outdoor adventures. Even if you’re not into outdoor adventures, a nice trip to the forest can diversify your experience, as the island offers just that. Plus, hiking around lets you see even more of the island’s most celebrated views.
If you’re into culture and history as a real culture buff, you can head down to Guadeloupe’s many historical towns and capital city to have your curious dose of its culture and history lessons. Post-colonial locales like Guadeloupe tend to have their histories sitting sits side-by-side with the present, and Guadeloupe isn’t any different.
Which is better – Saint Martin or Guadeloupe?
Saint Martin is best reserved for those wanting to have a chill, laid-back, and easy-going experience, all while having a twist that is just a border-crossing away. The island is home to two countries so if you want to spice up on the cultural bit, Saint Martin is the place to be.
Guadeloupe has 12 islands and over 200 beaches for you to wander on. And that is just a part of it. While relatively having the same vibe as Saint Martin, Guadeloupe is purely French-Creole-Caribbean and offering an experience that is rich in both culture and nature.
These two famous locales in the Caribbean may have the same cultural undertones and landscape but what sets them apart from each other is the bits and pieces that make up the sum of its beauty. When you’re traveling in a tourist mecca, despite the hype, you can easily experience the culture, society, and its revel in the natural wonders, even just mere research can give you a solid overview.
Upon acquainting yourself with a destination, the best things to do next is to ask yourself the things you want from a destination, the experience you want to have, the energy you’re going for. These are important as it helps you decide which one is better, or rather, which one you should choose to frequent because let’s face it, the Caribbean will keep you wanting to come back.