So, I’m in the final days of a 2.5 week trip through some beautiful and laid-back Caribbean islands. My partner Justin and I backpacked from Martinique to Dominica to Guadeloupe, and are just about to head back to Martinique again to catch our flight. Travel in this region is like nowhere else in the world. I have learned a ton. So, below are some tips for anyone who’d like to visit this beautiful area. In other words, I learned these lessons so you don’t have to!
Don’t Come on a Cruise
Now, I’ve always been open-minded when it comes to cruises. I’ve never done one. But it sounds like it could be fun, in theory. My mom is someone who is scared of traveling and sometimes I think a cruise might be a good way to entice her. However, when I was looking for tips on where to go and what to do in Dominica, I stumbled upon this blogpost about a couple who love doing cruises. They visited the island for a day and were disappointed that “the island didn’t have the infrastructure to handle mass tourism” because everyone on their cruise ship wanted to experience the same three activities in the course of a single day, and it sucked. For example, they posted a photo of them trying to swim into a beautiful, brooding gorge that was used in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies along with a ton of other people, resulting in a big traffic jam of tourists. They therefore didn’t enjoy the island as much as they wanted.
Well, I take issue with that assessment. We went over the holidays, when the number of tourists was pretty low. In effect, we got to not only take our time and spread out all of the major sites over a few days, we were literally the ONLY people at some of these sites. I got to swim into that same gorge all by myself and enjoy it all to myself. The thought of doing so with even a few other people would have definitely diminished that experience.
Unfortunately, I was unable to snap a good pic because it was almost dark out. Here is the best pic I could take of the entrance to the gorge. I obviously could not get a pic of the waterfall deep within the gorge because I had to swim there. But if you Google “Titou Gorge” (or even “Titou Gorge Pirates of the Caribbean”) you’ll see how awesome it is.
Anyway, I was literally thinking, “this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” That was true, until the next day, when my BF and I hiked to the hidden Spanny Waterfalls. We got to swim in its pool and falls COMPLETELY alone, way out in the middle of the jungle (actually, not way out, it was really only a 15 minute walk from the street. BUT as we were the only people within a few shouting distances, we felt totally isolated). I’ve never experienced anything like that before.
It was not only romantic, it was thrilling and unforgettable. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to experience anything quite like that again, and I honestly think it may be the coolest thing I’ve ever done. It would have in NO WAY been as cool had I come with a cruise group. Actually, it probably wouldn’t even have been possible, because this was an activity off the beaten path that coming on a cruise ship would not have facilitated. Most people who come on cruises head to the Emerald Falls, which we went to as well. It was cool, but there were other people there. Even if it was only four other people, I much prefer having a waterfall to myself.
So, if you are headed to the Caribbean, do yourself a favor. Book a flight, and rent a car. Do it on your own. Speaking of which…
Rent Your Car Locally
We made three car rental reservations – one for each island. Details of the islands and companies are below:
- Martinique: Enterprise, through Expedia.com
- Dominica: A local company, through rentalcars.com
- Guadeloupe: Budget, through rentalcars.com
The only reservation that actually came to fruition was the locally owned car rental company in Dominica, called RoadRunner. Our reservations with Enterprise and Budget were a complete disaster that in some ways severely diminished our vacation. With both, we tried to rent automatic cars, and neither were able to give us one, even though we had confirmed reservations.
In Martinique, Enterprise at first told us they no longer had any automatic cars and only had manuals. When we pointed out that our reservation was for a specific automatic car and explained that we couldn’t drive manual, they said they couldn’t find our reservation anyway. I don’t believe this. I believe they gave our car to someone else who likely paid a lot more than we agreed to pay for our reservation. We had a similar experience in Guadeloupe. Budget gave us a manual car, even though we had paid for a reserved a specific automatic car. When we returned to the office saying that we had paid for an automatic, they said that an automatic car would cost an additional ~$130. Also, if we wanted to have another driver, it would be an additional $110. This was all terribly expensive for a three and a half-day rental, so we turned it down in favor of taking public transit. Also, we were unable to get anyone to pick up the phone when we called beforehand with questions. We likely could have avoided taking taxis to get to them had they picked up and responded.
I believe what happened is that our car was incorrectly priced on rentalcars.com. I’m not sure if this was Budget’s or RentalCars’ fault, but we had an agreed contract, and we’ve never had this experience before with a rental car. Mixups happen, but it’s how a company handles it that makes you loyal to them. In other countries, rental car companies have realized, well, you did pay for this, and if you don’t take it, it will likely just sit here. That did not happen in Guadeloupe. Budget would rather just have their cars sit there. Because of this, we will be very weary of renting with large companies like this in the region in the future.
This is in stark transit to our experience in Dominica. We were actually FOUR HOURS LATE to pick up our car, because our ferry that was supposed to leave at 9 AM didn’t leave until 1 PM. Despite that, our car company was reachable by phone, came and met us across town and drove us to their office, and when we asked “this is an automatic, right?” they responded “Of course!!” They also specified that they were available 24/7 if we had any problems, and gave us a ride to our ferry after dropping off our car 4 days later. Adding on a second driver was only something like $40. If you are renting in Dominica, I highly recommend Road Runner, a family-run business that will go above and beyond for you, for a very affordable price.
Travel in the Caribbean can be really, really rough. We learned this the hard way when we took a ferry from Martinique to Dominica and I vomited up my breakfast halfway there due to the choppiness of the waters. Now, this is important for you to know, because I have never in my life been seasick. I haven’t even so much as thrown up since college. This was the first time my boyfriend of almost three and a half years has seen me get sick. I have one of the strongest stomachs you’ll find. The waters (or the ferry/crew) were that bad. I was sweating bullets and I almost passed out. I could feel my hands going numb before I vomited my brains out. The lesson here? Do not underestimate the importance of anti-seasickness medication when you pack. If you’re prone to seasickness, consider booking a flight instead or pop a few Xanax.
Similarly, driving is a huge adventure. I drove all over Dominica, where driving is on the left, and the narrow, often one-lane roads are barely in tact. It is so easy to get lost and end up on a dirt road in the middle of the jungle. It is, in a word, a terrifying experience. If you drive too far to the right, you will trade rearview mirrors with oncoming traffic. If you drive too far to the left, you will be absolutely fucked, because there are no shoulders. Just gutters with at least a foot-high drop off. There are also people walking along the roads at all hours of the day and night. So, if you are going to drive, brace yourself. Be patient. Keep it slow. SLOW. Like 20 miles per hour slow. You’ll thank me when you don’t completely wreck your car over a 6-foot wide, 6-inch deep pothole three minutes into your drive. Honk around every single corner to let people know you’re coming. I got through it, but looking back on it, it gives me anxiety.
Find the Amazing Food
It’s hard to find good food on the islands, for a few reasons. For one, in many French islands, restaurants only open for lunch and dinner. In Martinique, dinner doesn’t start ‘til 7:00 PM. If you’re hungry at 5:00, you may be S.O.L. We learned this the hard way. There are also a ton of tourist traps. We learned that the best thing to do is to follow simple common sense. First of all, avoid white people. Also, avoid big menus. The best food we found on Guadeloupe was at restaurants that basically looked like little shacks. The chef made one thing, and you could either take it or leave it (you won’t want to leave it). This normally included a scrumptious creole creation of fish or chicken and rice. This food was always hands down better than the overpriced European fare you found at the air-conditioned places filled with white people. But CAUTION: You will need to look out for bones. They really don’t mind leaving the bones in.
Dominica = America-lite
Martinique and Guadeloupe, as French territories, are as French as an island in the Caribbean can be. Dominica, on the other hand, is very American in many ways. Though they use British outlets and drive on the left, they also use miles in some places, and even basic hotels have every American channel out there. Everywhere you go English. And, unlike in the French islands, you can find filtered coffee anywhere (this was my favorite part). In the evening, we were able to watch Miami’s local news as well as The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Yeah, we didn’t even have to wait til we returned to the U.S. to catch up!
The Caribbean is Wild
I think this is worth pointing out because we’ve also been to Costa Rica. Now, we loved Costa Rica, don’t get me wrong. I plan to return as soon as possible. I could even live there. But, my boyfriend is a bird watcher and all-around animal enthusiast. Though we hit up some of the most buzzed about national parks, we saw few rare creatures.
On the other hand, the French Caribbean has given us countless opportunities to view gorgeous birds and intimidating lizards, as well as fish, snails, and caterpillars up close and personal, sometimes even just outside our hotel room. Protected forest areas with endangered species are often just a 10 minute walk from the main highway.
These Islands are a Hiker’s Dream
I’m serious. If you like to hike, book a flight to one of these places ASAP. You could literally spend a month on Dominica and another in Guadeloupe, and never get bored. There are hikes for all skill levels, so if your mom or you kid wants to come as well, you’ll find something for them. For this purpose, I would recommend the Bradt guidebook for Dominica. It has tons and tons of information about every single hike you can think of. I’m not normally into Bradt. Their guidebooks can be really hard to navigate. But their Dominica book is top-notch, especially because Dominica has no road signs, but Bradt says “turn left at the big white rock, then veer right after the first switchback. Then, drive and drive and drive. You haven’t gone far enough. Keep going…” You get the picture. Also, if you are choosing between Lonely Planet and Rough Guides for this region, go with LP.
Guadeloupe is Martinique’s Hipper Cousin
These two islands are in many ways very similar. They’re very French. They both have gorgeous beaches with clear, warm water. They both have all the crepes and baguettes you can handle. But, Guadeloupe has more for the active traveler. You’re much more likely to find good food at 5:00 in Guadeloupe. You’re also much more likely to find a trendy gelato spot and free wifi (FYI – Martinique has NO wifi. It’s super annoying, actually). There are also countless mountain hikes and waterfalls to explore. Martinique does not have anything like this. In this way, if the French Caribbean is Florida, then Guadeloupe is Miami and Martinique is Palm Beach. Both are beautiful and can pamper you. But take your parents to Martinique. Take your friends to Guadeloupe. OH and pro-tip: everyone in Martinique speaks English, no one in Guadeloupe does. Or at least they don’t want to.
AirBnB It Up
There are hardly any youth hostels in these islands. Actually, there may exactly zero. Unfortunately, there are all the resorts you can handle. The best way to find good value here is AirBnb. We were able to find huge, beautiful, convenient places for an average price of $60 a night (for two people, a really good deal). With only one exception, they all had great wifi, a great deck, and even a washing machine. An exception to the rule is Residence Corail in St. Rose, Guadeloupe, a guest house we strongly recommend if you’re staying on the northwest side of the island. We found it through Booking.com, and it’s basically an AirBnb. The host is very responsive, helpful, and the property is absolutely gorgeous.
Prepare for Pests
This was a very surprising lesson to learn. Even in areas of Martinique where our books had no specific warnings about bugs, we found we were eaten alive. This was so surprising to us because we never saw any bugs, per se. We never felt any bites. But by the end of a day on the beach, we were covered in painful red blemishes. We’re not sure if it was sand fleas or mosquitos or what. But they hurt like hell. Also, I got stung by some baby jellyfish. These are apparently invisible, so there’s no way to avoid them. But you’ll feel it when they bite you. And you’ll see it when your skin freaks out in raised, red bumps, begging for ointment. If that happens, go to a pharmacy and ask for Onctose. It’s also good for sea urchin stings.
In conclusion, I hope you make it one of these islands in your life. They’re truly unforgettable. And now, thanks to Norwegian Air’s nonstop flights from Boston and NYC to the region for $400, you have no reason not to. I just saw Martinique and Guadeloupe listed on Conde Nast Traveller‘s 16 places to visit in 2016, and I wholeheartedly agree. I’m so thankful that I got to start my new year this way.