by Nigel Tisdall, The Telegraph, January 6, 2020
A headless statue of a regally robed woman is causing confusion in Place de la Savane. “Is it Marie Antoinette?” wonders an Italian visitor fresh off a mega-cruise ship docked in Fort-de-France, the capital of this mighty chunk of France basking in the Caribbean sunshine.
It is a reasonable, if rather gruesome, guess. Closer inspection of the graffiti-daubed marble reveals the answer: Empress Joséphine, the creole from Martinique who rose to become the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte. Today, her memorial is provocatively draped with a gilet jaune, its decapitation a response to her support for the reintroduction of slavery to the island in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Such complexities abound in this island of tropical forests, glorious beaches and tremendous volcanoes, set between St Lucia and Dominica. Martinique’s ties to France date to 1635, and today the island is popular with tourists from La Métropole and international visitors arriving on cruise ships for a brief taste of la belle France.
Some vessels carry more than 4,000 passengers, and a sign on a waterfront souvenir stall seems to be only half-joking when it declares, “We accept dollars, euros and pounds and will do anything to take as much money as we can from you.”
La Pagerie, the sugar estate south of Fort-de-France where Joséphine was born in 1763, seems a good place to start exploring. Unfortunately, a hurricane three years later left little to contemplate beyond a stone kitchen, now housing a small exhibition with information in French only. The gardens and plantation ruins are delightful, though, and as there are no tour groups present when my wife and I visit, we relish the tranquillity.
Peace is something in short supply on Martinique – particularly around the Baie de Fort-de-France, where the coast is crammed with industrial plants, run-down housing estates, hypermarchés and Galleria, the largest shopping mall in the Lesser Antilles.
Connecting it all is an intense tangle of elderly highways with up to six lanes of speeding traffic. Tearing along them with a white Renault van up your derrière is no fun, and makes a mockery of the clichéd view that life in the Caribbean is only about kicking back on deserted sands with a luridly coloured cocktail.
Fortunately, there are plenty of historic sites and scenic spots worth tracking down. One is the Bibliothèque Schoelcher, built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris then shipped over to grace the boulevards of Fort-de-France. In any other French city, this grandiose building, with its mustard and salmon stonework, wrought iron pillars and decorative floor tiles, would now be a branché restaurant, but here it remains a studious public library.
The names of literary greats are set high on its walls, although time has unkindly removed some letters to create an entertaining puzzle for the bookworms below. J J Rouss-a-,-acine, Alexa-dre Dum-s – could this be symbolic of the French establishment losing its grip on this far-flung outpost?
As in all French overseas territories, the prevailing attitude is that Martinique is France, complete with euros, tabacs, Bastille Day and garage shops selling testicules de taureau.
Yet this magnificent island is exuberantly Caribbean, too, in the shops selling wildly coloured fabrics for Carnaval, in the home-grown rhythms of beguine and zouk, and in stalls laden with spices, breadfruit, coconuts and a small, sweet banana known as figue pomme in Marché Lafcadio Hearn.
I’m pleased to discover this square, honouring a globetrotting writer who plunged into Martinique’s vibrant culture in 1887. Hearn’s fervent prose is a reminder of how exciting it can be to travel in this flamboyant region.
“You who only know the North do not know colour, do not know light!” he enthused in Two Years in the French West Indies, and as soon as we drive into the mountainous interior we understand his admiration for its volcanic peaks (rising to 4,500ft) and dense forests like “green fire”.
We follow the highly scenic and well-maintained Route de la Trace, a link established by the Jesuits in the 17th century, as it weaves along narrow roads fringed with bamboo, ferns and heliconia. Our descent to St-Pierre, the former capital on the north-west coast, appears to be on an emerald helter-skelter.
Then the mood turns grey; in 1902, nearby Mount Pelée erupted, killing some 30,000 residents, and you can still see the macabre remains of its grand theatre and ruined buildings with walls like burnt toast.
Paul Gauguin was a traveller who relished the colour and exoticism of Martinique, and came here for four months in the same year as Hearn. “With more money, this could be Paradise on Earth,” the impecunious painter wrote home. The small Paul Gauguin Interpretation Centre in Le Carbet makes a plucky stab at telling his story.
The artist’s scenes of nearby Anse de Turin have a calm and contemplative air, unlike today’s beaches, which are bastions of the classic French seaside. Think orderly children, gourmet picnics, pétanque under the pines and men in way-too-small swimming trunks.
The best sands lie in the south, including the long sweep of Grande Anse des Salines, which we reach via a 7.5-mile (12km) electric bike ride from Le Marin. It’s a satisfying adventure, with a stop to climb the steep Piton Crève Coeur in 91F (33C) heat before we join the happy crowds for a swim and a local Lorraine beer.
As we return our bikes, the friendly boss of the hire company offers us a taste of her homemade planter’s punch. It is a fine mix, and a discussion follows on which distilleries we should visit – Martinique has nine that welcome visitors, and rhum agricole, made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses, is a cornerstone of island life. A three-litre box in a supermarket costs a mere €25 (£21), although a premium aged bottle could set you back €165.
We visit Neisson near Le Carbet, which opened in 1932 and offers free admission and tastings. Black smoke belches from a chimney, crushers gobble up cane, and information panels proudly point out that this is an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) product – don’t expect any student-party spiced rums here.
At the other end of the distillery scale, Habitation Clément in Le François is a grand heritage property with a superb sculpture garden, historic house, antique machinery and huge piles of barrels with alcoholic fumes so heady I’d be happily buried beside them.
Fields of sugar cane accompany us as we continue along the less-developed east coast to Presqu’île de la Caravelle, a relaxed finger of land where Martinicans go when they want to get away. Here we discover French Coco, a design-led boutique hotel in Tartane with charming staff, zinc-lined bathrooms and furniture fashioned from oil drums.
A short drive east, the road peters out beside the poignant shell of Château Dubuc, built on a headland in 1725. The Caribbean has plenty of ruins from the dark days of sugar and slaves, but few are as complete and evocative as this, with its Great House, coffee mill, rows of boiling cauldrons and infirmary. It is also deserted, being too far for the day-tripping croisiéristes, and the entrance fee is without doubt the best way to spend €5 on Martinique.
Walking trails lead out to an 1861 lighthouse, offering fine views over the Atlantic on a clear day. For a moment we could be in Brittany, except that even after sunset it is warm enough for a swim, and dinner promises mahimahi with mango, served under the palms.
There is little public transport, and taxis are expensive, so it is best to hire a car. Rapid Auto (rapidautolocation.com) has vehicles from €32 per day.
Where to stay
In Tartane, French Coco (slh.com/frenchcoco) has 17 suites and a restaurant with double rooms from £184, including breakfast. Families will enjoy Pierre & Vacances Villages Sainte-Luce (pierreetvacances.co.uk), a spacious beach resort on the south coast. Seven nights self-catering in a studio apartment sleeping three costs from £580. In Fort-de-France, Hotel Simon (hotel-simon.com) is a central four-star hotel ideal for a pre-or post-cruise stopover. Doubles from €102, room only.
What to do
Recommended sights include Musée de la Pagerie (00 596 596 68 38 34) in Les Trois-Îlets, the Paul Gauguin Interpretation Centre (paulgauguinmartinique.fr) in Le Carbet and Château Dubuc (pnr-martinique.com) on Presqu’île de la Caravelle. The distilleries Neisson (neisson.com) and Habitation Clément (habitation-clement.fr) are open daily. In Le Marin, Watt Up! (wattup.fr) rents e-bikes from €25 for a half-day.
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