Rum Travels: Guadeloupe - Part1 Marie Galante
Updated: May 11
What a dream trip. 2 weeks in Carribean rhum heaven. It would be a travesty not to share what I learned and experienced.
Getting there - We flew to Pointe-à-Pitre from Paris, with the double advantage:
a direct domestic flight - more reasonable fares & relaxed customs formalities transporting rhum ;-)
forced us to start our holiday with a wonderful night in Paris.
And, awesome news, Air Caraibes serve ti punch from the drinks trolley :-)
Part 1 - Marie Galante "The island of 100 mills. The island of the Cane"
A 1 hr ferry ride southeast of the main Guadeloupe islands lies this tiny piece of paradise where time really does stand still.
We intended to spend a few days on Marie Galante, didn't want to risk a ferry back on the morning of our return flight to Paris, but wanted the efficiency gains of just two accommodations. So, after an 8hr flight across the Atlantic, we took a taxi directly (via a mall to buy a local sim card) to the ferry port. The connections worked really well and we only had an hour to kill at the ferry port.
Top tip: Once you reach the front of the queue at the ferry boarding 'gate', your e-ticket is not acceptable! You have to head back out to the ticket booth and get them to print you a paper ticket.
Given that the barrier only opens 15 mins before departure, the queue is 10+ mins, and the ticket booth takes 10 mins to print a stupid ticket.... (and the ferry leaves bang on time!) ...we were very fortunate to be at the front of the original queue and made it by the skin of our teeth!
Although we were shattered by the time we got to Marie Galante, I highly recommend this approach of getting all the travel done in one hit.
We got off the ferry at 6 pm local time with enough life left in us to pick up our hire car, drive to our stunning Airbnb and stagger 500 meters to much-deserved dinner and drinks at the amazing O'Vivier restaurant.
Considering its beauty, history, and unique location we were amazed to find that Marie Galante is not at all geared up to tourism. That was a plus for us but does make exploring the island a little more complex. We went self-catered and initially struggled to find open supermarkets! There are not many and they don't open all day/every day (One of the best is 'Bagg Cash' in Grand Bourg.)
Predictably, as with availability on many small islands, you may also have to compromise on what you want to buy & cook.
The island is quiet and tired looking with many dilapidated and ramshackle buildings. Having very few residents, and not much going on, it's predictable that the pace of life is extremely slow. Again, something we loved but that wouldn't be for everyone.
Marie Galante is split into 3 regions, each with a significant (by MG standards) town:
Grand Bourg - SW of the island, the main city and arrival port for the ferries. A place for many to arrive, shop and leave. However, I suggest the colorful old buildings and sleepy market stalls of this historic town are well worth getting lost in for a few hours.
Capesterre - located in the SE of the island, Capesterre was once the darling of Marie Galante for tourists and beach lovers, sadly time and sargassum have dealt a hefty blow and Capesterre town is now quiet and very tired looking.
The exception being the beaches to the west of the town where work is underway to keep the palm-lined pristine sand beaches clear of this seaweed. The few beach bars & restaurants we visited here were excellent and well worth traveling to.
Saint-Louis - The small NW coast town of Saint-Louis appears to avoid the worst of the sargassum. Its miles of beautiful beaches are unspoiled and near the peer, you will find an excellent selection of beachside restaurants and bars.
The Bars & Restaurants - Marie Galante has a great selection of excellent options, but check first the days and times they are open!
I recommend - Chez Henry, Au Plaisir des Marins, O'Vivier, Sun 7 Beach, Kreyol Fish, Le Sarha, Dantana Cafe, La Playa, La Source
The Beaches - don't miss the unspoiled dreamy beaches of Saint-Louis, rustic & completely untouched Moustique Beach (just north of Saint-Louis), and those previously mentioned to the west of Capesterre.
Marie Galante is widely recognized as producing the best sugar cane on the planet. And it's clearly the main crop on the island - as you drive around it feels like every other field, or available patch, is planted with sugar cane - an amazing sight.
We saw considerable evidence of Marie Galante's sugar-producing history with many visible ruins of ancient sugar plantations. In 1830, 105 mills were in operation on the island crushing cane (half wind & half ox powered), 72 of the stone bases or mill towers are still standing and visible today.
From 105, there are now just 5 sucrières & rhumeries on the island making use of the fantastic cane:
Usine sucrières Grande-Anse - by far the largest consumer of Marie Galante's cane is the large industrial sugar factory (located in the SW of the island). The sugar they produce is something very special (Mrs SecretRumBar was quite bemused by the contents of my new suitcase when we got home). Molasses by-product from this factory is sold, for use in rhum manufacture, to Bonne Mère distillery, Basse-Terre Guadeloupe (And I believe some also goes to Bellevue on Marie Galante)
Bellevue - The largest and most commercial rum producer on the island. Worth a brief visit if only to see their superb restored windmill.
Bielle - Located in a slightly elevated area central to Marie Galante, Rhum Bielle is the distillery many rum enthusiasts dream to visit. A true rhum pilgrimage. I was extremely fortunate to be led on an in-depth tour of the distillery by the charming Jérôme Thiery (director).
Based on an ancient site for sugar processing dating back to 1726, historic Bielle maintains a century-old approach to rhum production still using the traditional methods, and working closely with the island's farmers to maintain and safeguard heirloom sugarcane varieties.
Sourcing its hand-cut cane from farmers across the island, Bielle receives daily deliveries from January to July when the sugar cane is a peak maturity. After crushing, the juice is long (2 day) fermented using baker's yeast (the fermentation tanks smell incredible). They complete a natural cycle by using the traditional technique of burning the bagasse as their heat source for the distillation.
I toured the impressively managed 1500 barrel aging facilities, soon to be extended with the opening of a huge brand new warehouse.
A fantastic visit to an iconic distillery that is efficient and professional, while keeping with traditional techniques and methods.
Pere Labat - A new location and a new distillery (the distillery is actually called Poisson, with Pere Labat or 'father Labat' being the brand name of the rhum). Located in the Western coastal settlement of Poisson, Pere Labat was established in 1916, also on the site of a historic sugar plantation. From 1990 to 2007 Poisson and Bielle actually teamed up as a company called Vieux Rhums de Marie Galante. In 2007 they split and Poisson-Pere Labat was bought by a local businessman.
A stark contrast to Bielle, Poisson is a much small setup with a clearly less structured approach to rum production. This laissez-faire attitude is particularly worrying when you see their small number of barrels being poorly managed with some seemingly half-in half-out the small warehouse partly sitting in direct sunlight.
In order to maximize production, Pere Labat buys, crushes, and processes cane throughout the year, even during the winter when low brick (sugar content of the cane) must make this of questionable cost efficiency.
Whether by luck or judgment, they end up with a very good 59% unaged rum that is as widely available on the island as Bielle or Bellvue (59% being a strength distinctive to Marie Galante, that makes a bloody good ti punch)
Rhum Rhum - After a 5-year hiatus this incredible artisan distilling team is now established in their new home. The arrangement with Bielle is concluded, aging barrels have been split between the 3 parties, and the Muller stills moved & installed in their new location on the grounds of Pere Labat.
Rhum Rhum has around 150 barrels currently aging. These are almost all now stored at their new location and seem very professionally managed.
I was fortunate to visit on the day that Master Distiller Michele was running a first test of the stills in their new home and had the opportunity to taste the delicious distillate direct from the still ... as well as some samples from a couple of beautiful old barrels :-).
Rhum Rhum has close relationships with a small number of Marie Galante farmers from whom they can guarantee the highest quality of cane. Just now (April/May) the cane is at peak maturity and the team are ready and excited to begin making rhum. Ongoing discussions enabling Rhum Rhum to buy time on Labat's cane crusher need to reach a conclusion very soon or yet another season will be missed :-(
During my visit, Michele was finally able to explain to me the mystery of the 'new', and less bold tasting, Rhum Rhum orange bottling that hit the shelves last year (several years after the previous bottlings) ... this was distillate produced in 2017 when the stills were located at Bielle, it had spent a huge 5 years in steel vats which he agreed was too long and had overly softened the rum. The remainder of this 'extra long rested' batch is now being barreled and Master Distiller Michele is confident that this distillate will, when aged, produce superb results.
Deep dive and tasting article coming soon on what makes Rhum Rhum so unique and special. Including tasting notes of cask strength 69.1% Rhum Rhum 2023 (higher abv than when barreled thanks to dry-aging at Karukera). And an absolutely breathtaking first single cask - 2013 Rhum Rhum !!
The Ti Punch - you can't visit Guadeloupe without stumbling upon their famous local cocktail. This classic, minimalist, aperitif is arguably the purest and finest way to enjoy Marie Galante's exceptional rhums.
The traditional approach to serving it (of which the islanders are very particular) is for a bottle of your selected rhum to be brought to your table, along with slices (or cheeks) of lime and your choice of sweetness (local sugar, honey, ginger syrup, passionfruit syrup, or occasionally a selection of these - reminiscent of an Indian thali tray). You then construct a ti punch to your preferred taste, strength, and size.... As the locals say "Chacun prépare sa propre mort", which translates as "each prepares his own death :-)
Next week, Rum Travels Guadeloupe Part2: Grand-Terre & Basse-Terre