Halfway around the world in Martinique: A taste of Europe in the Caribbean
Boulangeries and beaches. Carrefour and carnivals. To experience French joie de vivre in a tropical setting, head to the country’s Caribbean outpost of Martinique.
The GPS told us to go inland to cross Martinique’s mountains if we wanted to reach the northern coast town of St Pierre and its black sand beaches by noon. So off we went, heading out from our rented villa with beach chairs and a cooler in the trunk and the children strapped into the car seats in the back.
About an hour later, the road narrowed, the tree cover grew super thick and we had to slow our SUV down to ford three separate streams that spilled precariously across the mountain road. Then, finally we came to a full stop. We had hit a dead end at a place the sign told us is called the Foret de Rabuchon. The road had turned into a hiking trail.
Before us stood a riot of nature: Century-old mahogany trees, towering ferns, bamboo and a crazy array of wildflowers – ixora, heliconia and porcelain rose. So we left behind our beach chairs and headed out for an unplanned hike, first crossing a small river on a kid-friendly rope and wire suspension footbridge and heading out toward the five volcanic peaks called Pitons du Carbet.
This was not the black sand beach the family had expected. But I found myself introducing a new word to our elementary-school-age daughters. “Serendipity,” I said, repeating the word a few times slowly. “It means a surprise, but one that turns out really well.”
Martinique, the rugged French island at the southern end of the Caribbean, is just that kind of place. Again and again, during the week we spent there in February, we were struck by such sweet surprises.
These included the pristine Caravelle Peninsula, on the island’s east coast, which sticks seven miles (11.2 km) out into the Atlantic Ocean and features not only a series of a laid-back beaches with oceanside snack shacks and tasty lunch spots, but also miles worth of rolling sugar cane fields and tall grass prairies as well as a place called Chateau Dubuc, an 18th-century sugar and coffee plantation, before you finally hit a hipster surfing school, Bliss.
There is also Les Trois-Ilets, on the other side of the island, a collection of chic, but more crowded towns on the Caribbean coast, where the waters are somewhat calmer. Les Trois-Ilets also offers enough wine bars, high-end restaurants and boulangeries for any Francophile.
We were also impressed by the capital city of Fort de France, which has a bustling Grand Marche, a covered market that dates to 1885 where you can buy a dizzying array of fruits and vegetables, as well as Creole spices, locally produced rum and other island products, as well as a few people-watching spots, like the street-front bar at the Hotel L’Imperatrice, which faces the city’s central park. It is also where the island hosts its annual carnival celebration, which depending on the year is in February or March.
Martinique, like nearby Guadeloupe, is an overseas “department” of France, meaning it is a formal part of the country, a status that helps create a higher standard of living here than in many other area islands. Martinique also has a big enough population that you find yourself feeling at times like you are in mainland France – nudged on by the Carrefour supermarkets, Renault and Citroen dealerships and even a Galleries Lafayette department store in downtown Fort de France.
Fort de France is a very unusual place for the Caribbean. There sitting in the middle of the city is the stunning Bibliotheque Schoelcher, a 19th-century wrought iron, wood and glass library built originally in Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair. It was then broken down into pieces and sent to Martinique, where it was reopened across from the city’s central park, called La Savane.
The streets are jammed during the day (it gets pretty quiet at night) with a mixture of islanders and day trippers who offload from the cruise ships. The city, with a population of about 100,000, is large enough that it has a professional class that can support (with help from the French government) a place like Tropiques Atrium, a music, dance and visual arts centre.
But Martinique, which is 50 miles long and 22 miles across at its widest point, is also an island where nearly 40 per cent of the landmass is forest. The island is also almost entirely free of all-inclusive resorts (there is just one, Club Med Buccaneer’s Creek) meaning you really need to get out and see Martinique on your own when you visit.
And while Martinique is very much a part of France – most of the tourists are French, meaning you can go days without running into any Americans – it also has its own rich history and culture. These traditions actually are becoming more prominent on the island in recent years, as younger islanders look for ways to try to reconnect with their culture. That includes Renaud Bonard, a one-time highway surveyor who after a motorcycle injury decided to open up a small dance centre he calls Lakou A in Gros Morne, the sparsely populated, rural section of the island.
We drove up to visit the centre one afternoon, as Bonard was hosting a group of high school students visiting Martinique from upstate New York, and he offered a demonstration of Bele, the Afro-Creole dance and drum routine dating to the 18th century, when it was performed while the soil was plowed by slaves, and which is still popular today in certain social clubs on the island.
“This is what defines me as a person – the connection to this land,” Bonard explained, as he walked through a field where he is also growing oranges and passion fruit. “This is the heritage of Martinique.”
Traveling to Martinique is not without complications.
The island is not fully prepared for all of the visitors it now gets every winter, as it has seen a surge in visitors in recent years: There were 540,000 overnight travelers to the island last year. Daily traffic jams are common in the island centre near Fort de France, and there are other small but annoying inconveniences, like long waits at the tiny airport rental car offices.
This all means a key decision when visiting Martinique is picking the right base to use as your launching spot for day trips around the island. Les Trois-Ilets, a collection of small towns that sit on a bay directly across the harbour from Fort de France, is probably the most convenient choice, as you can take a quick ferry across the bay to visit Fort de France – where most of the top attractions are within walking distance of the port. There are also a lot of vacation homes that can be rented in this area.
Les Trois-Ilets features some of our favourite beach spots. Anse d’Arlet, a tiny fishing village, has a promenade along the Grand Anse d’Arlet beach with a cluster of locally owned shops and seafood restaurants. At L’Amandier des Iles, we had an outstanding Mahi-mahi with capers, lemon and onions. We also tried the Fricassee de Lambis, which is a kind of conch with lemon juice salt and garlic along with chili paste and tomatoes, a Creole specialty, and a couple of daiquiris with locally produced rum. The Caribbean Sea is just a few feet from the restaurant, so we sat eating a lazy lunch while our girls played in the sand and gentle waves, along with other families from nearby Fort de France who come to this beach on the weekends.
At night, visit the cafes in Les Trois-Ilets, like La Pause, which is set up in a large courtyard under a giant umbrella. At Le Bistrot d’en Face, with club music playing low, dozens of conversations almost exclusively in French unfolded across the crowd, as waiters sprinted around with dishes like calamari and moules gratinee. The food at Le Pause was not particularly good – generally, we preferred the local Creole restaurants than the French-styled bistros. But again, what was most striking the evening we visited was how much it felt like we were in mainland France itself.
“It is a piece of France, right here on this island,” said Alain Vallaud, from Normandy, who was traveling across Martinique on a rented motorcycle with his girlfriend, Isabelle Patry. “But if you dig down, it is a very distinct place that really captures you.”
Jump across the island to La Caravelle and you leave behind the bistro scene, as this peninsula itself is a nature reserve. As you enter the peninsula, you pass through a few miles of sugar cane fields, and then rolling green countryside, with trees and grass as far as you can see, until your eyes hit the Atlantic. La Caravelle is perhaps best defined by the surfer crowd that has adopted its outermost point, as this is the rougher ocean side of the island, where there are fewer hotels, and people, but still a lot of beautiful spots to admire and idly pass a few days. There are at least two hiking trails on the peninsula, with some tremendous views of the ocean and island landscape.
We met Fabian Engel, a fit surfer there. He was visiting from Portugal with his wife and whose only complaint was that the wind was blowing in a fashion that day that was knocking down the waves. Like many others, his own summary of the place: “The Caribbean, with a taste of Europe.”
We stopped that day to visit Chateau Dubuc, which was once home to a sprawling sugar and coffee plantation. Today the ruins of the estate’s manor house, as well as a carousel cattle mill and sugar house, former slave dwellings and other structures, have been restored (or at least the ruins have been stabilised) with funding from the European Union. You can walk down from the ruins of the chateau to a mangrove swamp and continue into the nearly empty hillsides on a hiking path that offers tremendous views of the vast landscape and choppy waters of the Atlantic.
We ended up at a quiet beach on the Caravelle peninsula called L’Anse L’Etang, where there are few picnic benches, and a couple of beachside restaurants and a few villas that can be rented. The Caravelle peninsula is also home to a new high-end boutique hotel called French Coco, which reminded me of the exclusive small hotels you more often find in St Barts.
In Les Trois-Ilets, another luxury boutique hotel, La Suite Villa, has a French-trained chef, Florent Boucher. We had an outstanding meal there, including seared bluefin tuna, with eggplant caviar, grilled onions and passion fruit.
But it was the simple foods on the island – the grilled fish, the chicken rotisserie and other Creole specialties that really stood out. There is nothing pretentious about Martinique. And that is just what I liked about it.
We did ultimately make it into St Pierre, the small, sleepy seaside town in the north of Martinique, that was destroyed in 1902 when the Mount Pelee volcano erupted. Today, the black sand beaches are an unmistakable reminder of that violent day, which took an estimated 30,000 lives.
We ignored the GPS on the way home and stuck to the coastal road.