Paradise Found

Experience a taste of France with a tropical twist on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Carolyn Boyd discovers that a rich history and idyllic beaches make it the perfect holiday destination

Experience a taste of France with a tropical twist on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Carolyn Boyd discovers that a rich history and idyllic beaches make it the perfect holiday destination

There’s a place in the Caribbean Sea where you can visit the Sacr�-Coeur cathedral, eat Breton galettes, drive on excellent roads and spend euros. Yet it’s also a place where the tipple of choice is rum, the main fruit harvest is bananas and the golden beaches are fringed with palm trees. Little wonder, then, that the island of Martinique is a favourite holiday destination amongst French people in search of some winter sun. Located in the Lesser Antilles islands in the Caribbean archipelago, with Saint Lucia to the south and Guadeloupe and Antigua to the north, Martinique is closer to New York than mainland France. Being just 425 square miles in area, its length can be covered in a day, yet with stunning beaches, charming fishing villages and a fascinating capital city, there is plenty to explore in a holiday lasting a week or two. Leaving a grey and cold climate behind us, my husband and I landed in the capital Fort-de-France in early March to be welcomed by blue skies, a temperature of 27�C and a warm breeze. Basing ourselves in the south of the island at the popular resort of Les Trois-Ilets, we were close to the wonderful beaches along the south coast. Yet the history of a town in the northern half of the island drew us first towards the volcano in Martinique’s northwest corner.

 

A forceful reminder

Saint-Pierre was once the Little Paris of the West Indies’ and, as the former capital, was the island’s principal economic and cultural centre. It was founded in 1635 when adventurer Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc landed on Martinique, and for two and a half centuries it enjoyed great prosperity thanks to the trade in sugar cane. However, its heyday was to end in May 1902 when the nearby volcano Montagne Pel�e erupted and devastated the town. The entire population of 30,000 people was killed – with the exception of two men, a shoemaker named L�on Comp�re-L�andre, and a prisoner called Louis Cyparis who was saved by the thick walls of his prison cell. The town – with its characteristically colourful houses, shuttered windows and a beautiful colonial Exchange House on the open beach front – is now a sleepy centre with a population of just 5,000, and little is left of the original architecture. The once-magnificent theatre is now no more than a few ruined walls that look out towards the now dormant volcano, and other ruins line the street below the Franck Perret Volcano Museum. This tiny museum was the pet project of American volcanologist Franck Perret who spent ten years in Martinique, and bears testament to the story of the eruption. It shows photographs of the aftermath – which is reminiscent of an atomic bomb – as well as artefacts found in the ruins. The volcano itself makes for an adventurous hiking excursion, best attempted in the cooler months of the year. But even if you’re not making such a trip, a drive from Saint-Pierre to the viewpoints near the town of Le Morne Rouge will reveal the 1,397-metre peak in all its imposing glory. The drive back down south (on the N3) is a windy route that goes via the Balata botanic gardens. These wonderfully exotic gardens, with hummingbirds, butterflies and fascinating tropical plants, look down on a valley of dense forest characteristic of the northern part of the island. Not far from the gardens is the Cath�drale Sacr�-Coeur de Balata. With its large white dome and stained glass windows, you’d be forgiven for thinking it looks familiar – it is a replica of the Sacr�-Coeur de Montmartre in Paris, only a fifth of the size. Inside, however, it is much simpler in its design, and its frescoes are more reminiscent of an African church than a French one. Following the 1902 disaster at Saint-Pierre, Martinique’s capital was moved to Fort-de-France, on the west coast of the island. Today, the city is a vibrant and fascinating mix of Caribbean and French culture, with elegant colonial buildings standing alongside a brightly coloured mish-mash of architecture. Relaxing reggae tunes can be heard from the many shops that line the streets and as we strolled along soaking up the atmosphere, we came across the city’s most impressive building, the Schoelcher Library. It was constructed as the Canada pavilion of the 1898 World Exhibition in Paris and then taken apart to be shipped to Martinique. Named after Victor Schoelcher, the abolitionist who brought an end to slavery in the French colonies in 1848, the unusually decorated building boasts Romano-Byzantine influences, a colourful dome and intricate fa�ades. A statue of Victor Schoelcher stands in a nearby square in front of the Palais de Justice, and he is considered such a hero of the French West Indies that there are many other monuments dedicated to him throughout Martinique and the other islands. Another figure who is associated with Martinique, but whose memory isn’t exactly treasured by its people is Jos�phine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napol�on Bonaparte. She was born in Les Trois-Ilets in 1763, where her family owned a profitable sugar plantation that relied on slave labour. It is said that it was Jos�phine who persuaded Napol�on, her second husband, to reintroduce slavery to the French colonies in 1802 in order to protect her family’s business. 

 

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Creole history

It is perhaps for this reason that the statue of her, which stands in the La Savane park in Fort-de-France, was beheaded and doused in red paint in 1992 and has remained unrepaired since. Her memory is given more respect at her birthplace, which is now a museum. The Domaine de la Pagerie is the site of her family home; although the original house was destroyed by a hurricane in 1766, a stone house was rebuilt on the site and now displays several items that once belonged to the family, including her bed, paintings and other antiques. Tours in both English and French are available and, as well as revealing more about Jos�phine’s early years on the island (she sailed to France aged 16), they also help to build a picture of the island’s Creole history and the other white families who settled there.While much is known about the Domaine de la Pagerie, on the other side of the island there is a site that is somewhat more mysterious. The Ch�teau Dubuc is a series of ruins out on the Presqu’�le de la Caravelle, a wonderfully wild peninsula out into the Atlantic Ocean that offers some great hiking trails through its nature reserve. We followed a steep path for about a kilometre to reach the entrance to the site and found ourselves alone as we strolled around the different buildings that perch above magnificent views of the sea. The ch�teau is said to have belonged to the family of Pierre Dubuc, a Norman who settled on the island in 1657. The ch�teau first appeared on maps in 1773 and was apparently built as a sugar cane plantation, similar to others on the island. There are ruins of the cane stores, slaves’ dwellings and the ch�teau itself. Its history also suggests the remote site was used by pirates as a store for their illegal hauls. Aside from the hiking trails, the Presqu’�le de la Caravelle also offers some lovely coves and beaches, reached on foot or by car, and the views from many parts of the peninsula are simply spectacular and it makes for a popular holiday destination. The south coast, too, is a key attraction for those in search of sun, and with resorts such as Le Diamant, Sainte-Anne and Sainte-Luce offering plenty of apartments and hotels, it’s little wonder most French visitors head south for their holiday. In the sleepy town of Saint-Luce, the colourful houses and restaurants line up along the beachfront and, after a tasty lunch at a restaurant called Calin Cr�ole, we walked along the beach where we couldn’t help but chuckle at a snack bar that had clearly recently been renamed – La Baraqu’ Obama. As we walked out on to the jetty, we saw where our lunch had come from; a huge marlin fish – measuring about a metre and a half – was laid out on the concrete, having just been landed.

 

Community spirit

The village of Anse d’Arlet captured our hearts. No other tourists were in sight as we enjoyed a glimpse into a charming Martiniquais community. There’s an elegant white church on the seafront and a jetty leading out from its front door into turquoise water. We wandered around the quiet community past a tiny cinema and through the lanes lined with colourful wooden houses, adorned with magenta bougainvillea. As we approached the local school, we heard the voices of children in class and around the corner we saw a tiny market in full swing. Though its name suggests a larger town, Grande Anse, the next village along the coast, is little more than a few coloured shacks along the beach. But, after a day exploring the southwest corner of the island, it was the perfect place to stop for a sunset ap�ritif followed by dinner. Sitting outside the Restaurant Bidjoul, with our feet in the sand and the water lapping gently next to us, we tucked into a huge plate of fish and rice, washed down with ti-punch and a guava and passionfruit juice. We vowed to return in the daytime to sit on the beach, but there was also the promise that another beach in the south of the island was really the one we had to visit. A couple of days later we drove down to the most southern point of the island, Pointe des Salines and walked through the palm trees and out on to the soft yellow sand of the Grande Anse des Salines beach. We were not disappointed. The sight of the huge curved bay overlooked by thousands of palm trees fluttering in the breeze was amazing. The most famous beach on the island gave us the picture-postcard view of the Caribbean we’d secretly been hoping for.What was perhaps equally impressive is that, although there were plenty of visitors (it was certainly hard to find a space to park the car), we felt as though we had the place almost to ourselves. As other holiday-makers enjoyed the shade of the trees, we took a walk along the beach in the mid-afternoon sun, dipping our toes in the warm waves as they rippled against the shore. It was the kind of setting we’d imagined, but having explored some of the island’s historical sites, villages and landscapes, we were confident that Martinique was more than just a pretty face. No wonder, then, that the French like to keep the secret of this d�partement in the Caribbean to themselves.

FRANCOFILECarolyn Boyd travelled with Air France from London City Airport via Paris Orly, to Fort-de-France. Prices start from �526 return per adult and a flight takes around 14 hours, including connections.To book, tel: 0871 6633 777For more information, visit www.airfrance.co.uk

 

Where to stay Hotel BakouaLa Pointe du Bout97229 Les Trois-IletsTel: (Mart) 5 96 66 02 02         www.accorhotels.comLarge hotel with pool, its own beach, restaurant and bar. Some rooms in need of renovation, but all have a sea view.

 

Where to eatLa VagueRue Gabriel P�ri 97250 Saint-Pierre   Tel: (Mart) 5 96 78 19 54   Simple but very popular beach-front restaurant serving traditional Creole cuisine.

 

What to see and do Volcano Museum Franck Perret Rue Victor Hugo 97250 Saint-Pierre Tel: (Mart) 5 96 78 15 16 Balata Botanical Garden Route de Balata 97234 Fort-de-France Tel: (Mart) 5 96 64 48 73 www.jardindebalata.com

Domaine de la Pagerie97229 Les Trois-IletsTel: (Mart) 5 96 68 38 34 Former home of Jos�phine de Beauharnais.

 

Tourist officesOffice de Tourisme de Fort-de-France76 Rue Lazare Carnot97200 Fort-de-France Tel: (Mart) 5 96 60 27 73www.martiniquetourisme.comOffice du Tourisme de la Martinique � Paris 2 Rue des Moulins 75001 Paris Tel: (Fr) 1 44 77 86 00

Martinique Promotion Bureau/CMT USA825 Third Avenue, 29th floor New York, NY 10022 Tel: (US) 212 838 6887                Tour operatorIf you need help planning a trip from the UK, contact Onyx Travel. Tel: 0118 947 2830  www.onyxtravel.co.uk