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I could forever float in the crystalline waters of Josephine’s Bathtub, savoring the turquoise hues that surround me. With picture-perfect beaches and coves, Martinique is a playground for blue water adventures, including swimming in the legendary shallows (La Baignoire de Josephine) where Napoleon’s empress reputedly liked to bathe as a young girl.
Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, the tropical island boasts equally alluring “green” environs, having recently been named “Best Eco Island” by Caribbean World magazine. Two thirds of the island is protected parkland, where visitors can experience the diverse natural habitat through rainforest and mangrove tours, botanic garden walks or climbing Mont Pelée, a dormant volcano.
Our foursome set out to explore the verdant central and northern areas of the island and to experience a day on the water. With a bona fide foodie among us, our ventures included a quest for Creole cuisine and the best tasting accras, an island specialty of codfish fritters. Little did I know we’d find the crispy fritters at every turn – from resort to roadside menus, at a lively market and even on a sailboat.
From the Atlantic coast marina at Le François, we embarked on a daylong catamaran cruise with Ballades du Delphis. A crew of three catered to 20 passengers as we navigated among many offshore islets. We anchored at Martinique’s biggest islet, Chancel, to see iguanas, giant fig and pear trees and the ruins of an 18th-century brickworks. After snorkeling near a shallow reef, we swam back to the boat to find rum punch and accras being served before a lunch of curried octopus, Creole mahi-mahi, fried plantain and pineapple.
Martinique covers an area of 425 square miles and offers 31 marked hiking trails along coastal paths and tropical forests. For those who prefer not to venture on their own, professional guides can be hired through Martinique’s tourism office. Our guide, who also leads jeep tours through the rainforest, shared his knowledge of the ecosystem and explained the importance of the mountainous, tropical terrain that serves as a wind stopper and protects against hurricanes.
Auberge Mont Pelée is the best place to stay for climbing the volcanic mountain and exploring the nearby rainforest. Trails for various levels of hiking expertise lead to the caldera or the 4500 ft. summit, where hikers are rewarded with coast-to-coast views on a clear day. Mont Pelée is often in the clouds, however, and rain can make the path too slippery to hike.
Martinique offers a score of small museums depicting its traditions and history, including the Volcano Museum in Saint-Pierre that tells the story of the eruption of Pelée in 1902, when the town was destroyed and only one man survived. On the south shore, the Anse Cafard Memorial sculpture near the famous Diamond Rock is one of the most visited cultural sites, a poignant tribute to victims of the slave trade.
Through a network of entrepreneurs called Tak-Tak Martinique, visitors can tour farms and artisan producers and see how various products ranging from chocolates to herbal medicine have been made on the island for many generations.
Since “all roads lead to Rhum” in Martinique, we included a tour of the Depaz Distillery, one of several rum producers on the island. Martinique’s distinctive rums are made in the agricole method, from sugar cane juice instead of molasses. Sugar cane, grown primarily for rum production today, has been the island’s most important crop, but much of it has been replaced with banana plantations.
The world’s most popular fruit is featured in a unique Banana Museum in a former plantation home. Exhibits on banana production are creatively presented and include a garden pathway through many species of banana trees. The museum offers products such as banana liqueurs, chips, soaps and even a piquant banana ketchup made on neighboring St. Lucia.
The Best Eats, Made with Love
The colorful Fort de France Market hums with ladies in bright madras selling an array of fruits, vegetables, spices, flowers and jewelry made of coconut shells. Our best discovery: passion fruit with the top cut off, a little cane sugar stirred in, eaten with a spoon – seeds and all. It pays to arrive hungry because authentic home-style cooking can be found at Chez Carole, a restaurant at the back of the market. I washed down a spicy lambi fricassée (a dish made with conch) with a refreshing coconut and guava fruit shake, and did I mention accras? Carole’s recipe has an extra kick, perhaps the best on the island.
For a memorable dining experience, Chef Guy Ferdinand cooks over coals in his newly built beach kitchen at Le Petibonum in Carbet. The restaurant’s laid-back atmosphere – with beach canopy and mist from les bromisteurs, lounge-chair wifi and island music – defies the artisanal, gourmet cuisine and impressive chalkboard list of French wines. Guy creates recipes such as his signature crayfish flambéed in rum and simmered in creamy vanilla sauce.
I first tasted Colombo – the Creole equivalent of Indian curry – in a rich shrimp and vegetable stew at Le Belem in Martinique’s prestigious five-star resort, Cap Est. Typically made with meat, Colombo dishes vary widely, but the waiter here described it simply as a blend of “the generosity of Africa, French savoir-faire, Indian spice and Caribbean love.” The metaphor sums up nicely the spirit of Martinique.
Along with a taste for Creole cuisine, the view from my hilltop cottage at Hotel Plein Soleil stays with me. I look out on the lush, hilly plantations nestled beside an inlet bay and see the nature of this vibrant island, shaped by its colorful landscape and rich heritage.
Getting there: American Airlines flies to Martinique from U.S. cities via Puerto Rico; Air France flies from Paris. For travel planning, visit http://www.martinique.org/.
Ann Yungmeyer is a freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected].
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