Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Martinique: A Tropical Taste of France in the Caribbean

I’m spending nine weeks on Martinique—and this is my third long visit. Am I lucky, or what? (The top picture is the view from our porch.)

Yes I am, unequivocally. Although that sense did waver a bit yesterday when I was stung by a jellyfish at one of the legendary white-sand-and-palm-tree beaches. The effects passed within an hour or two, though, and I’m ready for another swim.

A smallish island, not more than 60 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide, Martinique’s intricately winding coastline and hairpin roads seem to cover much more ground than its actual area of about 1100 square kilometers. Ranging from dense and somewhat arid chaparral with spiny acacia and cactus to impassable rain forest, it’s known in French as “lîle aux fleurs” – isle of flowers. It lives up to the moniker. Its volcanic origins are expressed in the dramatic landscape, heaving with steep hills and deep valleys.


Martinique is a department of France, analogous to Hawaii’s status as a state and resulting in a vibrant blend of colorful Caribbean culture and French civility.

Boulangeries supply baguettes and pastries (filled with guava or salt cod, as well as dark chocolate—no, not in the same pastry!), and any corner store will offer brie and red wine, as well as locally produced juices like corossol and maracudja (soursop and passion fruit).

The radio stations play lively local zouk interspersed with French pop. All the social services available in métropole (as locals refer to mainland France) are available here, so health care, education and infrastructure all meet the European standard. 


It has its rustic aspects as well. Brightly painted snack shops built of scrap wood dot the roads, and there’s an old house just down the road from ours with walls made traditionally of woven sticks, alternating with corrugated sheet metal. Free-roaming flocks of sheep and goats roam the countryside where late-model BMW’s whip along curving roads. Men still go out in small boats to catch tuna and swordfish, which they slice up and sell along the highway, and villagers cast out fishing nets from shore as they’ve done for generations.