From on board the ferry to Marie-Galante we wave goodbye to the colourful and somewhat crowded harbour of Terre-de-Haut. A quick 45 minutes at sea brings all passengers to the large neighbouring island of Marie-Galante. Our third island hopping stop is located 30 kilometres south of the main island, Guadeloupe, and almost the same distance from Les Saintes.
Marie-Galante is often called the Island of the 100 Mills, and one can still see quite a few when touring the island. Sugar mills were used in the 17th century for crushing sugarcane. They were originally powered by oxen but from 1780 onwards were replaced by windmills. Those were certainly effective as another nickname for the island is La Galette (the big biscuit), due to its round shape and flat surface.
Life seems to have stopped here at some point in the 1950s or 1960s. Streets and beaches are surprisingly quiet and empty and the speed is even slower than the usual Caribbean easy-going-motion. However, don’t let yourself be tricked by this tranquillity. There is a ton to discover and savour while on Marie-Galante and the best way to get around is to rent a car for a few days.
The island also has several sugarcane-derived products to offer. In addition to good-quality brown sugar, a more exotic and unique to Marie-Galante product is sirop de batterie. This shiny brown, thick and smooth liquid is produced on the island and sold in bottles all over Marie-Galante. Fresh sugarcane juice is cooked until only one-fifth of the original volume remains and a rich caramel flavour develops. It’s perfect to sweeten cocktails, desserts, or your healthy breakfast of local fruits.
Yes, you did read correctly: cocktails! Here on Marie-Galante there are three rum distilleries: Bellevue, Pierre-Labat, and Bielle. All three produce the famous French West Indies rhum agricole. What is unique about this type of rum, contrary to the traditional rum or so-called industrial rum, is that it is produced exclusively from sugar cane juice.
This production process allows the final product to retain a greater amount of the sugar cane’s original flavour. For this reason les rhums agricoles are generally more expensive than molasses-based rums from Cuba and the Spanish speaking islands. Through fermentation the fresh sugarcane juice ensures a wider variety of aromas. One can already smell the sugarcane sweetness when removing the cap from the bottle!
In the kingdom of rhum agricole there are several different ways to enjoy it. There is rhum blanc (between 50% and 59% alc./vol), rhum ambré (around 45% alc./vol and usually 18 months old), rhum vieux (around 40% alc./vol and aged at least three years in oak barrels), and les punches (rum mixed with local fruit juice and spices). Distillerie Bellevue has without a doubt the best selection of punches.
Each of the distilleries is open to visitors and offers tastings every morning from 9am until lunch time. After a visit like this and a good lunch with local seafood, a nice siesta on one of the beautiful coconut tree beaches is simply a must! However, do make sure that you watch out for falling coconuts, as the signs warn you, on the beautiful beach of Capesterre.
There are also copious amounts of curious land crabs in the sand, so spot them and follow for a bit their funny sand works. Do not miss going for a swim (or even better, a dive) with turtles, crabs, and fish – all part of the abundant underwater sea life, best enjoyed from the beach of Saint-Louis.
You can also choose a cultural discovery and visit the eco-museum of Habitation Murat, next to Grand-Bourg. The ruins of the old buildings, together with the garden of medicinal plants, tell a story and will transport you back to a time when sugarcane was the queen of the island.