Friendly, unfettered, Terre de Haut doesn't even have traffic lights

May 03, 1992|By Michael Pollick | Michael Pollick,Contributing Writer

See if you can relate to this vacation image: You stroll out of your affordable French West Indies apartment as the sun gives up for the day. The mission is to run into town on the Peugeot scooter to pick up some wine and bread to go with dinner.

It's a small island, maybe 6 square miles, and the unpolluted night air envelops you as you wind down past the main harbor.

Now that the hot part of the day is over, the merchants are swinging open their shuttered doors again, inviting business.

After five minutes, you pull up directly in front of a small grocery store. No stoplights, no parking spaces and no lines. You leave with a nice bottle of French table wine for the equivalent of $4 or so. The 2 1/2 -foot-long loaf of bread, baked that afternoon and good enough to make you tear off a chunk on the way home, costs less than $1.

The perfumed air, so sweet you feel like driving home more slowly just to savor it, is free.

Welcome to Terre de Haut (pronounce it tare-duh-oh), a one-hour ferry boat ride south of Pointe a Pitre, Guadeloupe. This island and its neighbor, Terre de Bas (tare-duh-bah), are the only inhabited islands of a small group called "Les Saintes" (lay-sant).

The playground of choice

Several Americans we met on our latest trip say that for them Terre de Haut has replaced St. Bart's, the better-known French playground off St. Martin. Terre de Haut, they told us, is what their old favorite was like 20 years ago -- before its own success made it too expensive and too "resorty" for them.

As on St. Bart's, mountainous terrain kept Terre de Haut from being planted with sugar cane, thus avoiding slavery. Instead, both were settled by fishermen and their families from northern France. Now, Terre de Haut's population of 1,500 is a mixture of people who are white, black and all shades in between. The locals seem to like, not resent, well-mannered foreigners, especially if they try to speak French.

While tourism is growing in importance, fishing is still the mainstay here. Clustered around the irregular shoreline of this 2 1/2 -mile long island, you'll see brightly painted wooden boats tugging at their moorings and blue nets drying in the sun.

There are only 200 hotel rooms on the island. They fill up during the winter season, which runs from Dec. 15 to April 15, and in August, a traditional vacation month in France.

Many of the island's devoted fans -- mostly from France, Switzerland and Belgium -- come for more than a week and choose to stay in studio apartments offered for rent by the locals. These cost less than the hotels and put you in the mainstream of island life, which is centered around "Bourg," the closest the island has to a downtown.

It's part of everyday life here, with stores, sidewalk cafes and an open-air produce market. But it also has been protected as a historic district by the French government. The result looks like New Orleans of a century ago. Everywhere you turn you will see colorful old buildings, their tin roofs painted red, their balconies decked out with gingerbread trim, their open windows framed by heavy wooden shutters.

The price for all this charm turns out to be very reasonable.

One American traveler told us he gave up on St. Bart's when he took two friends for pizza and beer and received a bill for $90. At Terre de Haut's charming little waterfront equivalent, Le Pizzeria Genois, the bill might have been a third as much.

Lodging, too, is reasonable by Caribbean standards. You can rent a harborfront, two-bedroom apartment at Le Village Creole for $81 a night off season, or $137 a night in season. A well-furnished studio apartment rented from a local might cost $40 to $60 a night. And a charming room with a view, plus access to one of the island's three swimming pools, can be had at the Auberge Les Petits Saints for $100 off season, $120 in season.

But the reasons why adventurous Americans are drawn to Terre de Haut go way beyond price.

Preservation a plus

Being off the beaten path means Terre de Haut has kept more of its beauty. Iguanas, an uncommon sight on most of the islands these days, are common here. Like the birds and the wild goats, they are protected by law.

Unlike on St. John and St. Bart's, where hundreds of rental cars crisscross the roads daily, you will find no cars for rent here. The island's small size makes cars unnecessary. Walking downtown from most of the rental units might take 10 or 15 minutes. You can rent a scooter, but there is a law designed to cut down on traffic. It prohibits tourists from riding scooters through town from 9 a.m. to noon and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The result: an island with no traffic and no traffic lights. People just walk down the middle of the streets, occasionally moving aside for one of the 10 vans that carry day-trippers back and forth to the beaches or a local on his scooter. You find yourself saying "Bonjour" to passers-by.

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