In Search of the Perfect Hat on a Small Island in Guadeloupe

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Above: Terre-de-Haut (All photos by CJ)

By Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon
CJ Travel Editor

TERRE-DE-HAUT — If I see another madras plaid scrunchie, I might scream!

It’s my first visit to the French-Caribbean nation of Guadeloupe and I’m on a mission to find a “salako,” a broad-brimmed hat traditionally made and worn by fishermen on Les Saintes (two of the islands in the archipelago).

I read about them before I arrived, learning how the art of weaving the handmade hats is dying as the fishermen age, their eyesight fails, and their dexterity wanes. And I knew I had to buy one as a memento.

I have only a few hours on the beachy outpost of Terre de Haut (one of the two islands that comprise Les Saintes) to find my prize before catching the ferry back to my hotel in Grande Terre.

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Bolting off the deck I make a beeline for the main street, where one souvenir shop after another promises the jackpot. But so far, “rien”. All I can find is madras this and madras that, everything from maxi skirts to pot holders made in the colorful plaid fabric that’s characteristic of this (and many other) Caribbean islands. There’s a glut of T-shirts and harem pants (the French call them “sarouel”), fridge magnets and chunky necklaces, but no sign of the traditional topper.

Until …

Just over the hill, near the quaint and colorfully painted mayor’s residence, I come across yet another store, its window display an odd mix of utilitarian items and dust-coated souvenirs. It looks like the type of place most tourists would bypass. The type of place where the stock turns over as slowly as the seasons.

The type of place where they just might sell an old-school salako.

I walk in, and after my eyes adjust to the darkened interior, I see it: There, on the wall, almost at ceiling height, is a collection of salakos. Some are “naked,” with unadorned split-bamboo frames. Others are covered in the ubiquitous madras material, in vibrant primary color schemes. All of them are calling my name.

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I ask the madame to let me see one, a jaunty little number in red, green and yellow (you guessed it) madras. It’s love at first sight. And after some friendly haggling in my high-school French, it’s mine. My precious! I tie the chin strings around my neck, sling the hat over my back, and couldn’t be any more proud of myself as I hustle back up the hill to the dock.

Today my Santoise souvenir has pride of place on the wall in my Miami apartment. It’s a fitting memento of my first visit to “Gwada’s” shores. And a colorful reminder of yet another of my globetrotting adventures in retail.

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