If you’ve dropped the hook off a village called Trois Islets in the southern reaches of one of the Windwards’ most picturesque islands, you’re not even overnighting in Martinique’s best anchorage. That one you have to find on your own.
While Chris Doyle extols the delights of sailing the Windward Islands – and he’s right on the money, there’s a caveat: the allure of the belle island is such that you might even forget about the sailing.
For there is a certain je ne sais quoi about this island’s appeal, something I can’t quite put my finger on.
It might be the beach I discover at Anse Mitan, perfect waters ruffled like a blue lace collar, a fleet of sailboats anchored just offshore, swaying in a stately sarabande.
Maybe it’s the accent of a pretty girl at Bistrot d’en Face who lets me sample a couple of rum agricoles before I finally decide on one that, served up in a brandy snifter, sends a warm glow through my body.
Or maybe it’s just the views – the setting sun gilding the buildings hugging the hills of Fort de France, seemingly tossed helter-skelter on the indigo slopes of a mountain whose peak is swathed in (how could it be otherwise?) a diaphanous negligee of cumulous clouds.
Maybe it’s a certain savoire-faire – or laissez-faire – or just that rum agricole I sip in a bar that could hold its own on the Champs Elysees, replete with the island’s best selection of wines and a stainless steel bar imported from France. “I wanted a bit of home here,” explains Fabrice, the proprietor, as he pours me another rum, HSE by name, as golden and shimmering as the riches the Spanish once sought here, though they promptly deserted the island when they came up empty-handed. The British had the right idea but the French were the smartest of all.
A seminal Caribbean sea battle – the Battle of the Saintes – began in this very bay fronting Fort de France in 1782. The French lost, but they kept Martinique: their tri-color flies over the colonial fort that gives its name to the capital, French colonial architecture dots the landscape, French and Creole are the prevailing languages, bistros and fine dining abound. “Three hundred sixty restaurants here,” says Martinique Tourism’s Christel Coita.
But this is only part of the allure that beckons you here with the wiles of a Paris courtesan.
Lush valleys in the middle undulate in the trade winds, emerald waves of sugar cane fields stand together with pineapple and banana groves.
Tree-decorated mountains rise up in the north; here you traverse switchback roads that offer jaw-dropping views of valleys festooned with waterfalls and sea vistas that make you wish, for a while, you were back out there on the waters of one of the Caribbean’s bare-boating capitals. But then you stop at a place called the Emerald Estate across the valley from the peak of Mt. Pelee, where you discover the island’s biodiversity and hike the rainforest, inhaling scents as aromatic as a Left Bank parfumerie. So you continue your tour ashore.
You sample rum at Depaz Distillery – cognizant of the fact that your blossoming tête-à-tête with Martinique may be alcohol-inspired.
Or maybe not. It might be the aromas wafting from the baguette shop down the street. Perhaps it’s that designer shirt you picked up at a shopping center boasting admittedly ersatz architecture, though it seems real enough – buildings boasting wrought iron balconies, gingerbread trim, and storm shutters painted teal and tangerine that shelter more boutiques per square foot than Rodeo Drive.
And that’s before you even venture down Rue de la Republique in Fort de France, “the only place in the Windwards for Paris fashions and stylish clothing shops,” writes Doyle in his Cruising Guide to the Windwards.
At this point in my mental peregrinations, ensconced in that bar just down Rue du Chacha from the tip of Pointe du Bout, I raise my glass in a toast. “Je t’aime, Martinique,” I say. “Je t’aime.”
I am, in short, smitten by an island that’s a bit of Europe in the Caribbean – a place that reminds you that the French invented ambiance, though here they’ve decorated it with Gauguin landscapes.
But this explanation doesn’t go far enough.
In a cultural Gestalt where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, or more appropriately, in the way a Creole pepper pot is so much spicier than mere haute cuisine, Martinique is a mélange. Consider zouk music, a blend of Caribbean and American that had its birth here, or belya dancing, a celebration heavily influenced by African roots.
And that’s when it hits me. Martinique is all these things and more.
The Caribs called it ‘Madiana’ – the ‘Island of Flowers’.
I call it ‘Belle Island’.