Martinique – The “Français” Island and its Loads of History

Photo by Damien VERRIER from Shutterstock

I had no idea that yet another island could capture a piece of my soul, but here I am – in love with a destination whose heart is exquisitely French and whose veins pulsate with rich Afro-Caribbean traditions.

It’s not a land of contradiction, but one of a unique melding of the best of both worlds.
From the cuisine and cocktails to the je ne sais quoi air of Gallic sophistication, this island offers unique, effortless unpretentious chic.

No high-rise resorts or time-shares for let, but hotels like Le Bakoua where you are checked into your oceanfront rooms by someone who seems more like a local storyteller than a front desk man.

His dexterity at multi-tasking lets you know you are in good hands… but there’s something compelling about him that makes you want to ask him a few questions that will lead to the reminiscence of days of old.

I found him so intriguing that I think I deliberately kept visiting the desk that first evening, hoping he would simply start chatting like an older gentleman sitting on a verandah in a rocking chair, whiling away the hours by recounting stories (with a very heavy accent) on the way things used to be.

Alas, he was not my treasure trove of tales of Martinique, but I loved where my imagination took me… must have been his greying beard and kind eyes.

Martinique embodies some of the loveliest aspects of the French countryside but in tropical form. It feels far removed from the sensibilities of other Caribbean islands in that it is a very grounding place, with so much great food.

Wishing the term French-fusion wasn’t scorched earth at this stage of the game because that’s exactly the term I would use to describe some of the dishes – very French, infused with a strong Caribbean touch. Island life is nothing if you don’t have a great local beach spot to hang out and amazing views, in my opinion, and when I travel, I love to visit like a native.

So I wound up at a beachfront, toes-in-the-sand restaurant owned and operated by Guy Ferdinand, also known as Chef Hot Pants!

Chef Guy Ferdinand – Martinique

Yep, he wears his chef’s coat and hot pants… that is all. His shock of wavy grey and black hair, brilliant smile, and hospitable demeanor do not distract you from the fact that he is wearing the shortest shorts and a chef’s coat: They simply add to the flair! What may take your eyes upward and perhaps give a light flutter is the fresh food he prepares.

You name it, Guy can prepare it, but the trick is to be at his mercy. I opened my mind, eyes ever so slightly squinting so as to not appear rude, as I stared at nothing but his banging shorts. I mean, they’re right at eye-level when you’re seated and he starts to excitedly describe what he’s about to bring to the table… it’s, right, there – but I digress.

Take a day and head over to Le Petibonum, it’s on the beach on the island’s west coast called Carbet. Swim, eat, drink ti’ punch (the local rum “cocktail”…you’ll have it everywhere you stop and it’s potent). Some say drink it warm, others with an ice cube, some say watch out, others slam it back… try it and you decide. I’ll say it again, with the feeling: It’s potent!

Martinique’s west coast called Le Carbet

Rhum has a rich tradition in Martinique and boasts the Champagne of Rhums in its AOC distinction, but for me, it’s about the people and the place. Don’t get me wrong, I did the Rhum Clément tour and walked away carrying a bottle, but sharing it while staying at my second hotel on the island, Cap Est, was not to be outdone.

Bottles of Rhum from Martinique

There’s nothing like your own plunge pool outside your sliding glass door and the sound of the waves just beneath your suite to erase the word “tour” and replace it with heaven.

This property is sprawling and I had the privilege of staying in a junior suite, as well as savoring a scrumptious four-course dinner just outside the wine cellar after pre-dinner cocktails overlooking the expansive lawn just off the bar’s breezy sitting area.

To me, my bottle of Rhum may never be opened this trip but rather taken home to share with family and friends. With everything I was enjoying at the resort, I had no immediate desire to dull my senses. I wanted to take it all in and enjoy every moment… et voilá, so I did.

Until I decided that there was more to be seen and my inquisitive side was nudging me to at least poke around the capital of Fort-de-France. As I always say, “An island has two angles you can view it from, and I love to see it from all sides, so let’s get there by boat!”

Always take a boat trip if you can – you’ll see what I mean. Glad I took this route as we anchored in the middle of the Caribbean Sea when the captain says, “Here’s a rum punch (or was it a Rhum punch), now hop in.

You’re at Josephine’s Bathtub.” Had it not been for the other boat pulling up near us and a couple hopping off, I’d have thought he was nuts. A bathtub? This is the Caribbean Sea, and it’s deep, and why are we stopping?

He knew precisely what he was saying and doing. Moments later, Rhum (I’ve decided it’s Rhum), punch in hand, I was up to my belly button in clear Caribbean saltwater.

It was a submerged sandbar, named for Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine, who was born and raised in Martinique – fun fact! I am almost certain she had a claw-foot tub or something ostentatious to bathe in back at her place but nothing could be grander than the soothing sea against your body as you sip on a delicious cocktail… in the middle of the open waters of the Caribbean.

After a couple of hours, not against my will, we made our way to Fort-de-France and one of my all-time favorite things to do was open.

Fort-de-France, The Capital of Martinique

The local market. Yes, the place where vendors shill everything from fresh fruit to hats and brooms. It’s a glorious spot for me. The sights, scents, boisterous people, laughter, and energy all make this place come alive.

It’s vibrant and eclectic, and I gravitate to a stand selling passion fruit, plums and soursop… one of each please! As I made my way around the market, I managed to consume all that I had purchased; the Euro is in full effect here but US dollars are slowly gaining acceptance. Fruit in my belly, I was off to see the sights.

Historic buildings, statues in the park, a library that dates back to the Eiffel Tower’s construction that was moved directly from France to Martinique. This place has so much to share with guests. It’s not one of those “just beneath the surface” sort of places.

The island wears her story proudly on her sleeve for all to see. Such a wonderful island, home to genuinely friendly people, loads of history… and aching to be explored. Everything has a foothold in the Europe of a bygone era blended with a current hip French vibe, yet distinctly Caribbean in only the way Martinique can be.

The Schoelcher Library – Fort-de-France, Martinique

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