France in the Caribbean
Published in the Fall 2009 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Michael Morcos
A vibrant Caribbean culture and a small part of France – this is Martinique, the best of both worlds. Located in the western hemisphere, the former French colony is now a “Départment français” (District of France).
A one-week trip to this lush tropical paradise would open up two worlds, the better-known one being the ideal place for a beach holiday and the other an exciting adventure destination.
The latter is what was in store for me. This aspect of the “Flower of the Islands”, as it is called, combined with Martinique’s wonderful gastronomy and its lively, well-educated population would prove be the perfect recipe for a memorable trip.
Journey From High to Low
Our weeklong journey would start in the mountainous north and slowly lead us south to the capital of Fort-de-France.
Along the way, we would climb to the edge of the crater of the island’s now dormant volcano called Mount Pelée, trek along the Canal des Esclaves, scuba dive in the warm blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and join in a warm-up to the island’s annual Carnival.
Of course, we would also savour the excellent locally produced rum and dine on fresh fish from the sea.
Ti-punch and Other Delights
During my first moments of the plane, I met a gentleman who gave me a crash course on how best to celebrate the week.
He said, “Wherever you go, ask for a Ti-punch.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what that was but I later learned that it contains rum and sugar and is indeed great!
Not long after arriving at the hotel, I also learned another big lesson on being in Martinique as we headed to a small local beachfront restaurant for a first of many delicious meals.
During that evening, I discovered that Martiniquans are extremely social people as well being very patriotic about their beloved island. So, along with the great adventurous days ahead came lots of food, drink and lively conversation.
Fishermen Coming Ashore
Waking up to laughter was not something I was accustomed to, but that was exactly what occurred on my first morning in Martinique.
In the early hours of the morning I heard noises coming from the beach. I thought it came from people still partying it up from the night before.
In fact, the laughter was from fisherman bringing in their catch from the beach in front of our hotel. It was quite the scene. I would later learn that there are no private shorelines in Martinique and that it all belonged to the people.
At one time, Ville St-Pierre was the most important city in the French West Indies. It was known as the Paris of the Caribbean. So much so that pictures from that era show local buildings that were quite similar to Parisian ones.
It was an important French commercial hub that had a brisk export business until the day Mount Pelée literally blew its top. The city was flattened within hours.
Even the many large commercial ships moored in the harbour caught on fire and sank while the volcano’s hot ashes covered most of the surrounding area.
The eruption devastated the city and today it is but a quaint town with a few streets, shops and a museum dedicated to the memory of that faithful day.
Jardin Créole Nature Walk
What a day this would be! Our lift would drop us off high up on the mountain and leave us to trek downhill through the Jardin Créole, along the Canal des Esclaves, through farmland and finally reach the beach.
Our very animated and experienced guide would draw our attention to just about every small detail of the exotic local plants and trees one finds in this lush tropical forest.
We would also stop and talk to locals who lived solely off the land in the Jardin Créole (Creole Garden) by growing crops 12 months a year while harvesting fruits and nuts from the area’s trees and bushes.
Canal des Esclaves
Our walk would soon lead us along the Canal des Esclaves (Canal of the Slaves), which was built by slaves in the rainforest, way back in 1770. This was a real irrigation canal carrying fresh mountain water downhill to the croplands.
The footpath ran right along the historic man-made canal that hugged the mountainside with a sheer drop on the other side.
The view was magnificent; to one side was the evergreen virgin rainforest while straight ahead laid the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. The canal soon twisted off our path and we found ourselves walking along a farm dirt road past cow pastures and banana plantations.
There was no better ending to this day-trip then arriving at the beach to enjoy a cool refreshing swim in the sea and a glass of delicious homemade rum produced from recently fermented cane juice.
Climbing the Big One
Martinique would not exist were it not for Mount Pelée. That then-active volcano trusted up out of the sea thousands of years ago.
This day, we would hike up its side to the edge of the crater of the now-dormant volcano, not a small feat, as this trek would be all uphill. Add to this the dense fog, high winds and rain showers and we would find out that it is a slightly dangerous trek.
It took quite a bit of energy and a few short breaks but we finally made it to the top and it was worth every burnt calorie. The view was breathtaking!
Whenever there was a break in the clouds that billowed past, we would get a view of all four corners of the island.
Getting down was no easy task. In the excitement of reaching the peak, we had forgotten about the many rocks and obstacles that we earlier cleared on the way up.
But now the rain showers had wrecked havoc to the path and we were dealing with slippery surfaces and very muddy terrain on our descent. Happily, everyone made it down with relatively few mishaps and absolutely no regrets.
Dive! Dive! Dive!
Besides taking several dips in the warm beach waters of Martinique, I could not resist a scuba diving adventure. My first and only dive would be an adventure into another world that I had only seen on TV.
Our guides suited us up with tanks, fins and goggles and brought us by boat to an island a couple of kilometres from shore.
The more experienced divers went in individually while first timers were led by the arm and taken into the waters one-by-one by a professional diver.
My earlier experience of snorkelling was nothing compared to being a few meters below the surface.
Almost weightless, we easily cruised around the rugged underwater coral formations, exploring the many colourful fish and marine plants that surrounded us.
Now I know why so many people rave about scuba diving and the crystal-clear waters off Martinique was the ideal place to have my first experience!
It was not even close to the yearly Carnival date that marks this annual festive event around the world. But by a stroke of luck, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
This was not the real Carnival, nor was it a rehearsal, but it was the judging day that would decide which was the best group. This event is one of the few days that brings the whole island together.
The many colourfully costumed groups were from different communities and today they were in top form. For me, this was as real as the “real” Carnival and it did not take long before I started to “jump-up” along with the locals.
Beyond Sun and Sand
Travellers to the Caribbean islands generally have three things on their agenda: sun, sand and surf. These are very good reasons to visit Martinique.
However, far too often visitors neglect to venture away from their beachfront hotels or resorts to see and experience the rest of this vibrant island-nation that is just waiting to be discovered by them.
My trip did include time spent on private beaches with a drink in hand watching the sun set.
But this would have been only half a trip if I had not taken the opportunity to trek through the rainforest, dance with the locals in the streets and socialize with them for hours over Ti-punches in small out-of-the-way places while discussing that great little corner of France they so proudly call home.
For More Info on Martinique: