More than at any other beachy place I’ve been to, the locals love la plage and spend plenty of time there. I never feel like I’m in a tourist zone at the beach, isolated from the people or targeted by enterprising hair braiders or jewelry vendors. Because the beach is such a vital social hub, an afternoon there is a cultural immersion as well as a sensory delight.
The sensory pleasure begins with the water–often strikingly clear and a delicious temperature, just cool enough to refresh as you ease yourself in. There are few waves, allowing you to bob gently up and down floating on your back as you’re cradled by the salty water.
Swaying palms and dense lower trees cast welcome shade on the sand, which ranges from beige to black. Strolling vendors offer tempting snacks, especially delicious home-made sorbets. The most common flavor is sorbet coco, coconut subtly flavored with nutmeg, lime zest and (almond flavored) orgeat syrup. Sometimes they make passion fruit, mango, or peanut–all of them fantastic.
Now, during summer vacation, the beach is always packed, especially on Sundays. The water is thick with people: grandparents dandling little ones, dads towing kids on rafts or tossing them giggling into the sea, teens flirting and laughing. Athletic boys wrestle and show off, outdoing each other in running down the sand and flipping into the water. Young sweethearts embrace, stealing solitude in the hubbub. Tiny kids wearing water wings play in the sand or brave the shallows with a parent or older kid.
Extended families gather around tables laden with elaborate picnics. The tantalizing smell of poulet Colombo (creole chicken curry) drifts out of enormous pressure cookers as overflowing plates are passed. Grandparents, kids, aunts and uncles nibble on drumsticks and pour plastic cups of soda or pop open icy cans of beer. They might have come for a week, what with the awnings, clotheslines, hammocks, coolers, folding chairs and inflatable toys that surround them.
Big groups of teens and twenty-somethings cluster in the shade, giggling, wresting and roughhousing. Some of these kids come on organized excursions from other parts of the island, arriving in huge buses out of which massive sound systems are unloaded and erected on the beach for dancing and flirting in the sand.
The beach is Martinique’s summer-time living room, alive with laughter, shouting, volleyball and music–a riot of activity which turns our afternoon swim into a complete cultural experience, like visiting a baseball game in the U.S. or a bullfight in Spain.