Martinique: French flair, Caribbean casual

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By Victor Block

At first glance, the setting is typical of France. A young boy saunters by carrying a long loaf of bread. Patrons at an outdoor café sip wine and speak in rapid French that defies my menu-level prowess.

Yet the view also proclaims “Caribbean.” Stately palm trees fringe a wide beach. Fishermen sit on the sand mending their nets. A village of pastel-hued homes spills down a steep hillside to the sea. This combination of French flair and lush tropical surroundings is among the most inviting attractions of Martinique. Lush with tropical foliage and creased by green-clad mountains, its continental chic is evident in countless ways. For example, rather than “junk” food, convenience stores are more likely to be stocked with baguettes, pates and other gourmet treats.

The joie de vivre and laid-back outlook of the people became evident on the first day of my visit, when an island resident with whom I was having lunch received a call on his cell phone. He answered, muttered a few words in French and turned back to his meal. “It’s not important,” he explained with a shrug of his shoulders. “It’s only my office.”

The beauty of the island provides a perfect backdrop for relaxation.

In the north, waves of razorback ridges rise to Mt. Pelee, a 4,650-foot tall volcano whose peak often is shrouded in dense clouds. A rain forest stretches out below, criss-crossed by gorges cut into the earth’s surface by rushing rivers.

Central Martinique features fertile banana and pineapple plantations, vast sugar cane fields and rolling meadows where cattle graze contentedly. In the south, rounded mornes give way to level, dry lowlands and saline flats that are bordered by some of the best beaches on the island.

Adding to the magnificence of the setting are masses of flowers that paint the landscape in every direction. No wonder the Carib Indians, who were early settlers there, named the island “Madinina” (“Isle of flowers”). In this environment, man-made gardens — while rich with tropical beauty — seem almost redundant.

The Balata Gardens, nestled at the foot of towering mountains, showcase more than 1,000 species of flowers, plants and trees in a vivid display of living color. At Les Ombrages, paths lead visitors through a magnificent forest, tracing the bottom and climbing the sides of a valley laced with streams.

An area surrounding the beach where Christopher Columbus is said to have first landed in 1502 displays species from as far away as Africa and the Amazon. While Chris probably didn’t take the time to relax in the sun, today’s explorers have a choice of tanning spots. Les Salines, a sand-lined cove along the southern tip of Martinique, is a favorite with local families. Anse-Traubaud, facing the Atlantic Ocean, is a true picture-book beach.

Anse Turin, a lovely little stretch of sand on the Caribbean coast, is best known as the place where Paul Gauguin hung out for four months during 1887 before traveling on to Tahiti. Overlooking the beach is a compact museum that displays reproductions of works he painted on Martinique, letters to his wife and other memorabilia.

Especially intriguing are contemporary photographs of scenes that were immortalized on canvas by Gauguin, and which remain little changed from when he stopped by.

Equally fascinating is the smattering of tiny towns. Grand Riviere, an isolated fishing village facing the fierce Atlantic, is nestled among graceful palm and giant breadfruit trees at the foot of Mt. Pelee. Ajoupa Bouillon, a tiny mountainside community that dates back to the 17th century, is known for its colorful gardens.

Trois-Ilets is the site of the sugar plantation where, in 1763, the woman who would become Napoleon’s empress was born. Now open as a museum, the old house and sugar processing plant display mementos of Josephine, “the Creole queen.” Of special interest to me was an unabashedly passionate love letter written to her by the emperor in 1796.

But it is St. Pierre that has the most dramatic story to tell.

At the start of the 20th century, it was Martinique’s capital, and a booming cultural and economic center. That changed at 7:45 a.m. on May 8, 1902. At that moment, the southwest side of Mt. Pelee exploded and rained an avalanche of fire and molten rock onto the settlement below. Of some 30,000 inhabitants, only one survived: A convict named Auguste Cyparis, who was saved by the thick walls of the dungeon in which he was incarcerated.

This horrific event is dramatically recalled at the Musee Volcanologique. Exhibits at this small but fascinating display include wine bottles and a large cathedral bell that were melted and twisted by the heat, food that was solidified and covered with ash, and clocks whose hands remain frozen at the fateful minute of the eruption.

While Mother Nature unleashed her fury on Martinique over a century ago, she has tried to make up for the damage with the magnificence she bestowed upon the island. The appeal of a French lifestyle superimposed upon a Caribbean setting, and budget-stretching prices, combine to offer a destination rich with allure.

For more information about Martinique, log onto www.martinique.org.