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Summer on the Sophisticated Island of Guadeloupe

The first time we went to Guadeloupe a hurricane was blowing in off the coast of Africa.

We didn't know it, though.

We flew in Sunday morning, got our car, and drove in the general direction of the hotel on another part of the island. I couldn't figure out why there were such long lines at all the gas stations. Did everybody buy gas on Sunday here, I wondered. It's remarkable how isolated your are in a foreign country.

We were lost and aggravated, and couldn't get understandable directions to the hotel. Finally, after we had asked the same policeman twice, he took us to the turn we had been missing, and we checked in. We'd asked for a double bed; the room had two twins. I went to the desk and complained. But the room has double beds, I was told. I brought the clerk to the room. "AHA," she said, "See -- two beds. That is double, yes?" So I learned to ask for a king size bed when I go to the French West Indies.

Our hotel had two buildings. We were in the part with rooms for adults (and we did get our king size bed, overlooking the pool and beach). The kitchen and dining area were outside by the pool. And across the pool was the family building with suites and kitchenettes. August is the official vacation time in most of Europe, and the hotel we stayed at was full not only of French vacationers, but Swiss, Italians, and Germans.

Every morning I would get up, open the sliding glass door onto the balcony, and watch the kids raising havoc around the pool, yelling, running, jumping in, while their fathers sat slouched over in the beach chairs, with a cigarette dangling from their lips, struggling to stay awake (and often not succeeding).

August in Guadeloupe is remarkably pleasant. Some days may be humid, but air conditioning is rampant, and even on a humid day, the weather's very bearable. The temperature in the summers is only five to ten degrees warmer than in the winters. (That is, it may hit 90 on a hot day.) And if you're lying on the beach and feel uncomfortably hot, take a dip. The water's great in the summer -- blissfully cool without being cold to your frying skin.

Oh, yes. The hurricane. We found out about it by accident when we stopped for lunch on Monday after snorkeling. We brought our gear in with us. The owner spoke no English, and a very helpful woman at the next table came over to help us with the menu. We said the water was not very clear in the ocean, and she said it was the ouragan. It's amazing how easy it is to recognize the word in writing and in context. It took her a while to find the right word in English -- gale.

We were worried. Hugo had hit Guadeloupe, and hit it hard. The devastation was several years before our visit, but it was still visible. Our new friend assured us the hurricane was not going to hit, that Sunday everyone was worried, no one knew then where it would go, but that the current predictions were for it to go north rather than west. Later at the hotel, we asked at the desk and were reassured. They had put out a note for their guests -- in French, of course, and on the same board as daily activities which we couldn't read.

The key for hurricanes is the Weather Channel. It turns out that hurricanes are spawned in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa. As the lows cross the ocean, they pick up warm water and turn to tropical storms and sometimes hurricanes. There is plenty of notice of possible storms thanks to our weather satellites. So just watch the Weather Channel before you go. You can make your decision whether to go based on reasonably accurate weather predictions. Remember that hurricanes are rare, and it's unlikely you'll have one hit during your vacation.

But back to the good things --

On the flat side of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre), the weather is likely to be unsettled in August. It's likely you'll have a brief shower or two every day. Don't worry about them. You can see the storms coming from miles away over the ocean and find shelter (if you want to). It was very pleasant one evening to watch an approaching shower from the safety of our restaurant. It hit us and poured for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then the stars and moon came out. It was bright enough to read a newspaper. The night felt clean and fresh, and walking the beach was a pleasure.

On the volcanic side (Basse Terre), it gets very humid, however. Climbing in the mountains and the national park can be less pleasant than walking the beach, but it's certainly not unbearable. Wear clothes that breathe, natural fabrics. My shirt was cotton, but it was so humid that the shirt would not dry even a little. I finally just took it off and let the sweat run. It always rains a lot on Basse Terre, but it rains even more in August. With the heat and humidity, there's no use in trying to keep dry -- if you aren't soaked in rain, you'll be soaked in sweat.

So is it worth it? Yes. We've been to Guadeloupe in August twice and enjoyed it both times. Because Guadeloupe does not have a tourist- driven economy (like St. Barth), there is no slowing of things to do and see, no closing of restaurants or stores. You may have slower service because they take their vacations in August, too, but it's definitely worth the trip.

Two women enjoying the beach on Grande Terre, Guadeloupe, French West Indies.

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