An Unexpected Cultural Turn Along the Beaten Path

Martinique is the perfect destination for those who love the islands—the sunny beaches, azure sea, and laid-back atmosphere—but it’s also perfect for those who don’t.


An Unexpected Cultural Turn Along the Beaten Path

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MoDean on August 10, 2005

No matter how much of the Caribbean you’ve traveled, Martinique will be a whole new experience. You can still go sailing or swimming and then get a massage in an open-air cabana overlooking the ocean, but—let’s be honest—you can do that anywhere. Beyond the beach, Martinique takes on a richer form—a personality that's colorful not because of brightly painted houses or reggae motifs, but because of the island’s fascinating history and unique brand of Créole culture.

Martinique lies in the Windward chain of Caribbean islands, just south of Dominica and north of St. Lucia. The "Island of Flowers" exhibits a lush volcanic landscape, capped by the iconic Mount Pelée. Though it has changed hands multiple times—from France to Britain and back again—its culture is unmistakably French. In fact, if it weren’t for the glimpses of ocean and emerald pitons in the distance, you might forget you’re not in France. Old-fashioned boulangeries and ice-cream shops dot the streets of fishing villages, French is the predominant language, and France’s social welfare system lends the island a functional, self-assured feeling—quite a departure from the stark poverty and aggressive pursuit of tourist dollars found on many Caribbean islands.

Perhaps most notable, however, is Martinique’s omnipresent history. Anse Latouche, a historic site-cum-botanical garden, was cultivated among the ruins of perhaps the oldest dwelling in Martinique, destroyed in the catastrophic 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée. The Musée de la Pagerie is housed in the restored kitchen quarters of the plantation where Empress Josephine (Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife) was born. Popular traditional Créole restaurant Le Ghetto, in Marigot, is housed in what was at various points a slave-run factory, a school, and a jail. Even the exquisitely landscaped Trois Ilet golf course occupies the grounds of an old sugarcane mill, and Josephine is rumored to have had her first kiss by the nearby river.

I’m certainly no stranger to the pleasures of beach vacationing, but it’s not often that you find those gorgeous beaches juxtaposed with a multifaceted culture, fabulous food that would hold its own in any cosmopolitan city, and the kind of biography that imparts hard-earned charisma. Martinique is a juicy slice of France in the Caribbean, where history is inescapable and vibrant local culture is deeply ingrained. ${QuickSuggestions} Though most hotel and tourism staff speak English, it’s helpful to know a few key French phrases in order to break free of the tourist bubble and find Martinique’s true riches. Even a friendly "Bonjour" or "Bonsoir" in greeting will go a long way in enriching your interactions with locals.

Do some quick reading on the island’s history before you go; it will help you decide which historical elements pique your interest (and trust me, there are so many, you’ll need to narrow it down) and get you primed and excited for your visit to Martinique.

Visit Martinique's tourism website for general information about the island.

Find out more about the history of slavery in Martinique.

Read up on Martinique’s political history.

Consult Lonely Planet for the short-and-sweet version.

Learn more about the Mount Pelée eruption. ${BestWay} Unfortunately, getting to Martinique from the U.S. is no picnic. From New York, I had to transfer twice—once in San Juan and once in Guadeloupe (just north of Dominica)—and fly two different airlines in the process. The trip is a day-long ordeal, and with precious little vacation time, it can be hard to give up two full days to travel. However, after a five-year absence, American Airlines will be making a return to Martinique with American Eagle on December 15, 2005, which will make travel there significantly quicker and easier.

On the island, it’s best to either rent a car—roads are excellent—or hire a taxi. With a knowledgeable driver and guide, your trip will come alive with countless historical points of interest you might miss otherwise. I was fortunate to see the island with an excellent driver and guide, Bernadette Ducteil, a native Martinican who speaks fluent English, knows the island like the back of her hand, and brightens every experience with her infectious laugh. Call her at 0596 51 31 87 or 0696 25 64 14, or email her at roma.dedette@wanadoo.fr, to book your time in her cheery turquoise van.


Habitation Legrange: Maison de Planteur

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MoDean on August 11, 2005

Traveling up the unassuming drive to Habitation Lagrange, surrounded by a thick canopy of greenery and scattered plantation machinery relics, doesn’t quite prepare you for the stunning panorama you’ll find at the end. Suddenly the mountains rise up around the grounds of a stately historic plantation home. A lovely hush seems to fall over the area, broken only by the song of birds and the trickle of a hidden mountain stream running behind the property. The whole scene is utterly seductive, and for the history enthusiast, it will surely be love at first sight.


Habitation Lagrange is situated outside the northern Atlantic village of Marigot, a town built in the shape of an amphitheater surrounding the sea. The 18th-century sugar plantation’s 7 acres have flourished into a lush tropical garden, and the buildings have been carefully restored to preserve their period integrity. The main planter’s house includes a small restaurant and bar, but were it not for the multiple-table setup in the great room, you’d think you’ve just walked into someone’s home. There are comfortable sitting areas both behind the bar and in a reading room just off the front door, and a vintage pool table sits in the back room; throughout, the high ceilings, period furniture, and woodwork fashioned with beautiful native mahogany preserve the feeling of a colonial plantation home. All this, along with the serene quiet and seclusion, makes you feel like you’ve left the 21st century far behind.


Upstairs in the main house are four guest rooms—one suite and three deluxe rooms—that share a shaded wrap-around porch (there are no partitions on the porch, but with its length around all four sides of the house, I can’t imagine you’d ever have trouble finding a private spot). Six more basic rooms are found in the Créole pavilion just steps from the main house, and the old stables have been converted into two additional deluxe rooms. All rooms are spacious, with wood floors, dramatic canopied and toile-covered beds, and cozy seating areas. Even the bathrooms don’t skimp on room to move—many had large clawfoot tubs and huge dressing areas. Telephones and hair dryers are provided, but be thankful for the lack of any electronic conveniences. Rates range from €86 to €247 per person, per night, depending on the time of year, with continental breakfast, taxes, and service charges included. Ask for one of the deluxe stable rooms for the best combination of privacy and space.


While it’s clear that the lack of tourism in recent years has prevented a few fix-ups here and there—paint is chipping on the buildings’ exteriors, a fourth building is closed due to maintenance needs—it’s unlikely that it will affect your stay. The hospitality of the staff, along with the excellent attention to detail in the hotel’s spotless guest rooms and beautifully restored grounds, make this the perfect choice for travelers lusting after a quintessentially Martinican experience steeped in history.


Anse Cafard Slave Memorial

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MoDean on August 10, 2005

The Anse Cafard Slave Memorial, situated on a hillside in the southwestern area of Le Diamant, is one of the most striking, memorable points of interest on the island. In a way, it epitomizes Martinique: a stunning ocean-side setting with a unique historical context. To me, it also epitomizes exactly what a memorial should be—simple and moving, both in and of itself and in the context of its surroundings. It’s an absolute must-see for any visitor to the island, history buff or not.

The memorial is comprised of 20 white stone statues, situated in a triangle sloping down toward the sea. The massive, eight-foot-tall statues are carved into boxy, impressionistic human shapes, shoulders hunched, heads bowed to the ocean. They stand stoically in wild grass grown up to their knees, facing an expanse of blue Caribbean and the hills of Martinique’s southern coast beyond. To the west is the famed Rocher du Diamant (Diamant Rock), a craggy mountain peak jutting out of the ocean, once used as a British armed fort and now a popular destination for scuba divers and hikers. At the entrance to the memorial, just off the road, is a series of signs that explain the story behind it.

In short, the story dates back to Martinique’s long and horrific history of slavery, when the native Carib Indians were wiped out in favor of French indentured servants and slaves imported from Africa’s west coast. Though the Congress of Vienna in 1815 had abolished the slave trade (outlawing the importation of new slaves to Martinique, but not slavery itself), illegal slave ships continued to operate. On the night of April 7, 1830, a stormy sea sent a ship carrying slaves crashing into the rocks along the Diamant coast. Slaves chained together in the cargo holds were bashed against the rocks and drowned, along with most of the ship’s crew. Slavery was officially abolished in 1848, and for the 150th anniversary of the abolition, Martinican sculptor Laurent Valére was commissioned to conceptualize and create a memorial for the hillside overlooking the site of the crash. It was unveiled at its current location in 1998.

Today, walking among the statues is a singular experience. It’s not just the sculptures; it’s the green hillside, dotted with flourishes of red bougainvillea, on which it stands. It’s the vast expanse of sea beyond it and the steady rhythm of waves that sets its surface alive. It’s the silence, the balmy air, and the sheer contrast of brilliant greens, blues, reds, and, the weather-worn white of the stone. Unlike a roped-off sculpture in an air-conditioned museum, this is a living, three-dimensional sculpture that you can touch, move around, and through, experiencing it as part of its landscape. It’s one of the most affecting works of art I’ve ever come across.

Anse Cafard Slave Memorial

Martinique, Caribbean

Musée de la Pagerie

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MoDean on August 11, 2005

Few people know that Josephine, Empress of France from 1804-1809, was Martinican by birth. The daughter of a high-society family, she was born on a sugarcane plantation called La Pagerie, in the Trois Ilets district of southwestern Martinique. In 1766, a hurricane destroyed the main house, forcing the family to move to the upper floor of the sugar factory, where they lived for the next 20 years amidst the heat, fumes, and noise. She eventually moved to France and married, but her husband was beheaded during the Reign of Terror. Two years later, she married a pint-size general named Napoleon Bonaparte. The rest, of course, is history.


Today, the former kitchen building of La Pagerie houses a tiny museum devoted to the Empress, and the plantation grounds can be toured freely. The ruins of the sugar factory loom as you make your way up the drive; in fact, the parking area is little more than a small clearing just on the other side of them. It’s difficult to imagine the lives that once played out inside the walls, now hollowed and crawling with greenery. The ruins look just like any you’ll see on the island, so it’s especially striking that a historical figure once dwelled within them.


The open-air (covered) reception area is arranged simply, with what looks to be antique furniture and a simple table set-up at the entrance to collect admission (adult admission is €5; children to age 13 are €2) and sell a small assortment of cards and mementos. At the back is a small bar serving coffee, bottled drinks, and light refreshments. Down a tidy walkway through a manicured lawn, complete with a small stream running through it, the site of the old plantation home (marked simply by a low stone border) came into view. To the left was the museum; at the far end of the lawn, a huge Jacaranda tree bloomed brilliant purple. With the light rain falling and a noticeable hush over the grounds, it was beautiful.


The museum is tiny, and though it has some interesting pieces—Josephine’s childhood bed, locks of her hair, love letters from Napoleon—it didn’t have quite the impact I’d hoped. Pieces were arranged in shooting-alley style, all lined up along the wall, with little in the way of visual aids or explanations. Museum employees were friendly and helpful, but it was difficult to fully appreciate it without understanding French. I soon found myself returning outdoors to enjoy walking around the grounds. You’ll see pieces of old machinery displayed on the grass, as well as an artfully mounted stone bust of Josephine and the weather-worn marker of the slaves’ meeting point outside the kitchen.


For the serious French history buff or Josephine enthusiast, a visit to the museum would be fascinating. For the rest of us, it’s worth the trip to La Pagerie to wander the grounds and explore the ruins—just do a little reading on Josephine beforehand.


La Savane des Esclaves

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MoDean on August 11, 2005

On first sight, La Savane des Esclaves doesn’t look like much—a few open-air huts scattered among ponds, benches, and what look to be small patches of garden, all hidden away up a narrow, winding road from the village of Trois Ilets. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find one of Martinique’s most notable cultural projects. Its name translates to The Plain, or Savannah, of the Slaves, and it’s one man’s mission to nurture it into a full-fledged replica of a slave village, meant to educate tourists and provide a hands-on resource for schools and educational groups on Martinique. And the most impressive part? Because he’s been unable to secure government funding, he’s built it from the ground up with his own money, planning, and labor.


Gilbert Larose built La Savane des Esclaves in 2000, and since then it has developed, little by little, into a fascinating and incredibly detail-oriented reproduction of a circa-1900 slave village. He has cultivated crops of bananas, dasheen, sweet potato, and cassava, and he hopes to add cotton, sugarcane, coffee, and cocoa in the future. The open-air huts in which he does demonstrations, showcases local art, and holds traditional music performances (including belé, a traditional Martinican dance) have been painstakingly reconstructed for authenticity. The huts’ roofs are made with rows of dried sugarcane leaf bundles—each with exactly 35 dried leaves—methodically tied and woven together to form a tightly knit shelter. The walls inside the enclosed huts are insulated with a mixture of manure and sand packed onto the frame and dried; the walls last 100 years, while the roofs must be replaced a little more often.


Inside the central open-air hut, Larose has restored old plantation equipment (with more equipment still under reconstruction) to demonstrate the way sugarcane is processed and distilled into rum, as well as how cassava root (which slaves grew for their own nourishment) was cooked, ground to remove a naturally occurring poison, and made into a tapioca-like substance. School groups and tour groups can call ahead to reserve a visit, and Larose can do a variety of demonstrations, tours of the property, and get visitors involved in constructing slave huts and preparing traditional meals. Tours take place from 10am to 12pm and from 2pm to 5:30pm; admission for adults is €5, and for children under 12, €3. The best part is that it’s going toward a worthy cause, not some huge tourism machine.


For the time being (as of June 2005), visitors will have to either speak French or visit with a translator; however, Larose mentioned that he plans to hire an English-speaking guide soon. Even if you don’t speak French, make an effort to visit this extraordinary place. Simply hire a driver/guide who speaks French (see my Overview for a fantastic recommendation) and experience a real-life example of what one person’s drive and passion can create, all while learning more about Martinican history and culture.


Habitation de Rhum Clément

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MoDean on August 12, 2005

Only in Martinique would an old rum distillery, complete with a gift shop hawking several varieties of the strong stuff, be a must-see historical attraction. And it’s not just for Habitation Clément’s array of original machinery—though they do have that—but also for the plantation’s exquisitely preserved 18th-century Créole house and even a small building that served as the setting of a political summit. As with everything else on this island, you go for one thing (here, the rum) and come away with so much more.


Habitation Clément (French only) was acquired in the late 19th century by Homére Clément, but the sugar plantation and rum distillery didn’t see its glory days until after his death in 1923, when his sons took over. They oversaw the implementation of updated machinery and perfected the distillation process, creating a rum still renowned—and now sold in the U.S.—for its excellent flavor and use of pure Martinican sugarcane in lieu of molasses. The distillery was moved in the early 1990s, but the rum is still aged in massive oak barrels in on-site warehouses, and the plantation house has been painstakingly preserved and restored for viewing, complete with antique furnishings and authentic details.


What’s more, a tiny one-room building on the property hosted the 1991 Presidential Summit between George Bush, Sr., and François Mitterrand of France. This building has been filled with white benches—it resembles an old-fashioned schoolhouse—with a large screen at the front, showing looped news coverage of the summit. Around the walls are photos from the historic day. It’s worth taking a quick look, but unless you have a special interest in politics or presidents, you won’t miss anything by passing up a full viewing. Spend your time at Habitation Clément exploring the plantation house—you can see every room, upstairs and down, and admire the exquisite period architectural details—tasting the rums in the gift shop and ambling through the botanical gardens on the grounds, which are surprisingly serene for a place that once bustled with so much activity.


Alas, since Clément is no longer a working distillery, you can’t actually take tours of the factory and see the distillation in process (though you can bask in the oaky smell of aging rum in the storage warehouses). There are placards to guide you through the original machinery, describing the distillation process, but if you’re looking to see it in action, try the Rhum St. James distillery at Sainte-Marie, near Marigot.


Be sure to hire a driver so you may fully partake in the rum tastings—and don’t leave without a bottle of your own. They just don’t make it like this back home.


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