Travel: Gone with the Windwards

Guadeloupe is a water sports paradise. Dave Harvey found it the ideal place to learn how to carve gybe
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The Independent Online
"Salut." From beneath the low trees that shade the beach, a tall, stringy character called out to the crews. Stooping, he strode out to meet them, a red bandanna at his neck and thongs on his feet: "Late again, as usual." Three hours patiently teaching novice planchistes was no excuse for being late with the lunch.

Thursday lunchtime, and a barbie on the beach. A hundred hungry windsurfers had crashed out in the shade, rasta drums thundering in our ears, memories of the morning's class ringing in our heads.

Welcome to Guadeloupe. This Caribbean island was spotted by French sailors back when a boom was something you heard from an enemy porthole. Shaped like a butterfly, the island is half rugged mountain, half flat as a crepe. Around the flat area winds are so big that the explorers called the place Grand' Terre; yet the soaring, rainforest-covered heights of the west of the island block any wind that blows, so the sailors named it Basse Terre. Today, the wind still blows, and the entrepreneurs of Grand' Terre's southern coast are cleaning up on catamaran rental, yacht cruising and, most of all, windsurfing.

The Guadeloupeans have taken to windsurfing like wind-assisted ducks to water. The Alize blows from the east pretty much all year, and at St Francois, half-way along the southern strip, a large lagoon provides a playground of flat, shallow water perfect for tubby Europeans to learn and lean locals to pose.

And windsurfing is the perfect pose. The St Franciscans have that easy, effortless grace, carving white arcs in turquoise water just yards from the gallery of sun loungers, flipping fluorescent sails to a new tack with one languid hand, then snapping the rig back into the wind and soaring off to the horizon. While we struggle like gangly schoolboys on a Surrey square and flop into the water, they lark around in baggy shorts and wraparound shades, twisting impossibly into helicopter turns as if Mr Beaufort wound his scale to their orders.

You can, of course, sail anywhere in the Caribbean. But windsurfing is rather more demanding; the wind must be strong close in, and preferably blow across the shore; the best water is flat, protected from Atlantic rollers by a friendly reef. St Francois has all these.

The first times we came we'd arrive early at the Fanatic Centre to grab a couple of Snakes - the ideal improving board. But dally over the pain au chocolat, and you'd lose them to a van full of Germans. Then one day we noticed a fleet of green-fringed sails gybing in the western end of the lagoon. We followed them back in, beached our Snakes by the hexagonal wooden lobster cages on the fishing port, and walked curiously round the rocks. A volleyball net, a sprawling pavilion surrounded by hundreds of pink, blue and green monofilm wings and racks of boards. Had I died and gone to heaven? Was the Planteur du Paradis I drank at lunch time doing its work? No, we'd stumbled upon the UCPA (Union des Centres Sportifs de Plein Air).

Wherever the tricolour flies, the UCPA has a site on the beach or piste: skiing, sailing, diving, mountain biking, paragliding. At St Francois pounds 350 a week gets you a clean, simple bungalow a deux, three meals designed for planchistes, three hours' instruction a day and all the kit you can handle. The Guadeloupe centre sleeps 120, and I counted 90 short boards for experts, as well as more than 100 for the intermediates or beginners that the UCPA's eight instructors teach each week. We found someone who looked as if they were in charge and booked a fortnight.

The reef is a dream for lessons, popping up obliging little sandbars to perch on 400 yards out. We went out with Thomas who showed us the carve gybe - the holy grail of the sport. It was as if Courtney Walsh had strolled along the beach and offered an impromptu bowling surgery. Dudes just don't give up their secrets this easy, yet there was Patrice teaching the advanced class that helicopter turn. How, I wondered, would they impress the tourists at the hotel now?

There's only so much education a red-blooded Englishman can take, though, and by Thursday it was time for a trip to Les Saintes. A great opportunity to remind the locals that these little islands had a grandstand view of English sailing might in the 1700s, when our boys beat the French and "saved" Jamaica. Nowadays cannons and grapeshot have given way to catamarans and snorkels in the bay, and they'll sell you aphrodisiac cakes as you get off the two-hour ferry. And, oh - ask for a hat. They're the most ridiculous you'll ever find.

The maximum cost of a fortnight, all in, at UCPA Guadeloupe, is pounds 1,113 including flights from Paris. You can book in the UK through Action Vacances on 0161-442 6130.

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