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Reaching out for Paradise

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

It's a small island, maybe six square miles. The clean night air envelops you as you wind down past the main harbor.

Five minutes into the ride, you pull up in front of a small grocery store. No stop lights or metered parking spaces outside, no lines inside. You leave with a nice bottle of French table wine for about $4. The 2{-foot loaf of bread costs less than $1 and smells so good that you tear off a chunk on the way home.

Welcome to Terre de Haut (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).

Several Americans we met on our latest trip say that for them, Terre de Haut has replaced St. Bart's, the well-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 from northern France. Now, Terre de Haut's population of 1,500 is a happy mix 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{-mile long island, you'll see brightly painted wooden boats tugging at their moorings, and blue nets with orange buoys 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. But we have enjoyed the island in the off-season, paying lower rates for apartments and having whole beaches to ourselves.

Many of the island's devoted fans _ mostly from France, Switzerland, and Belgium _ come for more than just a week and choose to stay in studio apartments. These rentals cost less than the hotels and put you in the mainstream of island life, which is centered around Bourg, a sort of "downtown" that has stores, sidewalk cafes, and an open-air produce market.

Bourg also has been protected as a historic district by the French government. The result looks like New Orleans probably did 100 years 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.

Being off the beaten path means Terre de Haut has kept more of its beauty. Unlike on St. John and St. Bart's, where hundreds of rental cars criss-cross the roads daily, you will find there are no cars for rent here. The island's small size makes cars unnecessary. Walking downtown from most of the rentals might take 10 or 15 minutes.

You can rent a scooter, but a law designed to cut down on traffic 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, let alone stoplights. People just walk down the middle of the streets.

The island's main disadvantages, for Americans, are the language gap and the relative difficulty in getting here. Almost nobody speaks English, so you better bring a phrase book and brush up on that high-school francais.

As for getting here, most North American visitors arrive by plane in Pointe a Pitre too late to get to Terre de Haut the same day. The choices in the morning: a ferry boat ride or a more expensive hop squeezed into one of the little airplanes of Air Guadeloupe.

Most visitors to the Caribbean want a good beach and great restaurants, and this place has both. However, just as with the language situation, Terre de Haut makes you work a little for your fun.

Except for one hotel, none are right on a beach. Often, you have to hike down a dirt path. But it's worth it.

Fain de Sucre and the clothing-optional Anse de Crawen are both perfect half-moon-shaped beaches, with snorkeling possibilities at the outside edges. There are others to choose from, too. For those who want a deeper involvement with the crystal clear waters that surround Terre de Haut and the other "saints," there are small boats for rent and there is a dive shop that takes both divers and snorkelers out to the Les Saintes' untrammeled reefs.

For us, great restaurant meals may become another major reason for going back. There are at least two dozen serving Creole food, plus a pizzeria, a fancy French restaurant, and even a burger-and-fries place.

You might start the evening with a "ti punch." This potent drink, a standard on the island, is made with a shot of rum, some sugar, and fresh lime juice.

A great place to imbibe is at La Jardin Creole, a second-story restaurant with a narrow balcony overlooking a waterfront park next to the docks where your boat arrived.

It's a three minute walk from there to one the island's best-known Creole restaurants, Chez Line (shay-LEEN). Wooden shutters swing open at each window, allowing breezes to float freely through the old bungalow that Terre de Haut native Line Dourrifourt has converted into a restaurant. For 60 francs, equal to about $12.50, she will serve you appetizer, main course with side dish, that great french bread, and dessert. For the main course, you will probably be offered a choice of fresh fish or chicken, prepared with wonderful Creole sauces.

If your trip to Terre de Haut has boosted your pioneer spirit, try spending a day or even a night on Terre de Bas. A new boat with a canvas awning overhead will take you on the 15-minute journey to the even less-developed sister island. You can take a rental bike with you for free, but taking a scooter costs extra.

Bigger than Terre de Haut, Terre de Bas is wild and overgrown, except for two settlements, Grande Anse (big beach) near the boat dock, and on the other side of the island, where there is a fishing village named for the Petite Anse (little beach).

If you want, you can be the only overnight guest on Grande Anse. Just give Madame Josephe Fineau a call at La Belle Etoile, a combination bar, restaurant, and lodge.

Her apartment is a romantic contraption of open rafters with sunlight peeking in over the walls and under the metal roof. Its real selling feature is the wide, shuttered window facing the sea. It is there in panorama _ curving out in a broad semi-circle far to the left and to the right. The studio rents for about $42. For about $65, Madame Pineau will include dinner for two, served on the beachfront veranda.

Stay in Les Saintes for at least a week. Instead of feeling like you are "on vacation," you may feel more like you have been allowed to drop in on a relaxed circle of friends. Like us, you may find you are more comfortable riding your scooter "home" with a loaf of French bread than you ever felt driving home on the freeway. There, you've been warned. This place is addictive.

Michael Pollick, a former reporter for newspapers in Orlando and Baltimore, recently moved to Terre de Haut after spending several vacations there.

IF YOU GO

As you might expect, lining up a trip to an "undiscovered island" like Terre de Haut is a harder than, say, buying a package plan to Antigua.

From many U.S. cities, you can take American Airlines to its Caribbean hub in San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there, you fly to Raizet Airport, located on the outskirts of Guadeloupe's largest city, Pointe a Pitre.

Unfortunately, the American Airlines flight doesn't arrive in Guadeloupe Pitre until 11 p.m., so you'll have to spend the night, then take a boat or plane the next day.

The best place for overnighting is the shiny new Hotel Saint John, (phone 82-51-57) which overlooks La Darse, the pier where the boats leave for Les Saintes each morning. The cab ride from the airport should cost about 50 francs, or around $11 U.S.

(To directly dial any Guadeloupe or Les Saintes telephone number from the U.S., start by dialing 011-590, then the six-digit phone number.)

The two main ferry boat companies are Brudey Freres (90-04-48) and ATE/Trans Antilles Express (95-13-43). The price is the same for either company, and both leave Guadeloupe at 8 a.m. and leave Terre de Haut at 4 p.m. But Brudey operates the faster craft, which make the trip in around 45 minutes, vs. 75 minutes for Trans Antilles. You'll pay about 150 francs, or about $31, for an aller-retour, or round-trip ticket. You can use the return portion any time. There is no need to make reservations with either ferry boat company. Just show up at least 15 or 20 minutes prior to departure.

For $30 one-way, Air Guadeloupe runs two round-trips to Terre de Haut _ starting at 8 a.m. and again at 5 p.m., except on Sunday, when there is no morning trip.

American Airlines or a good travel agent should be able to book Air Guadeloupe flights. If you speak French and need to call the airline directly: Air Guadeloupe (82-28-35 Pointe a Pitre; 99-51-23 on Terre de Haut).

Whether you are going by air or sea, let your hotelkeeper know in advance so he can arrange to meet you and your baggage. There is no charge for this service. The owners of both Village Creole (99-53-83) and Auberge Les Petits Saints (99-50-99) speak English.

If you want to explore Terre de Bas, Brudey Freres again is your ferryboat operator, with five roundtrips most days, four on Sundays and holidays. The crew will collect about 25 francs ($5) after the boat shoves off.

While most lodgings and restaurants accept VISA and MasterCard, you will need French francs and franc travelers checks for cabs and groceries, incidentals, and some restaurant meals.

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

While pizza and beer for three might cost $90 on pricey St. Bart's, at Terre de Haut's charming waterfront Le Pizzeria Genois, the bill might be a third as much.

Lodging, too, is reasonable by Caribbean standards. You can rent a harborfront two-bedroom apartment at Le Village Creole for about $85 a night off season, or $140 a night in season. A well-furnished studio apartment rented from a local might cost $50 to $65 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 about $110 off season, $130 in season.

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