La Martinique

 

Martinique is for (beach) lovers. And foodies. And divers. And hikers. And, especially, Franco philes. A marriage of Gallic culture and Caribbean customs, this overseas department of France is a sunnier, slightly less crowded version of the motherland. People looking for the more sophisticated pleasures, whether they be the kind you put on your plate or the kind you put on a credit card, will be happy to know that good food and the latest fashions aren’t optional here, but a mandatory fixture wherever visitors congregate - especially in its harbourside capital, Fort-de-France.

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Volcanic in origin, the island is crowned by the still-smoldering Mont Pelée, which wiped out Martinique’s former capital of St-Pierre in 1902. There’s plenty of hiking and nature-watching on the slopes of the volcano. And since this is often called the ‘Isle of Flowers’ there are botanical gardens tucked into the rugged landscape.

Long luscious beaches and loads of diving are the main attractions in the south. Fishing villages dot the coasts; most of them have managed to hang on their seafaring soul while offering plenty for visitors to see and do.

There’s a lot going on here, but it all happens on Caribbean time. Except for the mountainous north, it’s an exceptionally easy island to drive around. One can surf at Presqu’île de Caravelle in the morning and make it back to Fort-de-France in time (avoiding rush hour) to sample the city’s budding nightlife.

 

Facts

Visa None required for residents of the US, UK, Canada, the EU, Australia and New Zealand.
Money euro (€); €1 = US$1.56 = UK£0.79
Official name La Martinique
Departure tax None
Area 1080 sq km
Population 400, 000
Famous for Flowers, including hibiscus, frangipani and bougainvillea
Country code 596
Language French, Creole
Capital Fort-de-France
Phrase Un ti-punch s’il vous plait (One ti-punch, please); excusez-moi, savez-vous ou est…? (excuse me, do you know where… is?)

 

History

Between 5000 years before J.-C. and the beginning of our era, several waves of migrations of Arawaks Indians coming from the Basin of Orénoque migrated to the West-Indian archipelago. In Martinique, about sixty Arawaks sites were inventoried showing the existence of true villages inhabited since the II nd century of our era.
The Indians lived mainly of agriculture. They had the art of pottery. They did not write, but left " messages " on engraved rocks. The intrusion of the Caribbean Indians, coming from the area of Guyanes, involves in the Xth century the collapse of the arawak reign in all the Lesser Antilles.


June 15 1502, Christopher Colombus landed in Martinique, and discovered these people that he called " Indians " or " red skins " because of a red dyeing (the rocou) used by Arawaks to paint their body against the mosquitos. The Spaniards did not leave colonists on the island. The Spaniards, who feared the Caribbean Indians neglected this island.

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The island was colonized by France in 1635 by Pierre Belain d' Esnambuc, who died in 1658. In 1664, repurchased by the Company of the Western Indies in 1664, the island becomes a colony of the kingdom in 1674 and Colbert institutes the blacks trade.
Colony of the Crown in 1783, it was very coveted by the English who settled there in 1794, after the first convention of the abolition of slavery.
The first European colonists arrived about the middle of XVIIth century and quickly developed the sugar cane culture resorting to the African labour. The economic system of the Habitations, founded on the exploitation of the slaves work in the sugar plantations, will remain until the official abolition of slavery, April 27, 1848, by the Republic.

In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte restores slavery giving rise to ceaseless wars between English and French.
France wins and the abolition of slavery is proclaimed on the initiative of Victor SCHOELCHER, more than 70.000 slaves are released, it was followed by an arrival of Asian labour which contributed to mix the races.
Since 1946, Martinique belongs to the French overseas departments, like Guadeloupe and Guyana.

Climate

Martinique enjoys a year-round tropical climate though its busiest tourist period is during the dry season, from December to May, when temperatures average about 26°C (85°F). The rainy season begins in June and continues until the end of November, with heavy showers most days (September is the rainiest month and, along with August, is most prone to hurricanes). Martinique’s average humidity is high, ranging from 80% in March and April to 87% in October and November. The mountainous northern interior is both cooler and rainier than the coast.

 

Places to See

La Savane

This large central park sports grassy lawns, tall trees, clumps of bamboo and lots of benches. The harborside of La Savane has souvenir stalls, a newsstand and statues dedicated to early settlers and fallen soldiers. The park is the center of the action during Carnival and other major events.

At the park's north side, near bustling Rue de la Liberté, is a statue of the Empress Josephine holding a locket with a portrait of Napoleon. You can't miss it - years ago the statue's head was lopped off and red paint splashed over it. No real efforts have been made to repair the damage. Evidently the empress is not highly regarded by islanders. Many believe she was directly responsible for persuading Napoleon to continue slavery in the French West Indies so that her family plantation would not suffer.

sava

Musée de la Pagerie

This former sugar estate was the birthplace of Marie Joseph Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, the future Empress Josephine. A picturesque stone building, formerly the family kitchen, has been turned into a museum containing Josephine's childhood bed and other memorabilia. Other buildings contain such things as the Bonaparte family chart, old sugarcane equipment and love letters to Josephine from Napoleon.

Multilingual interpreters relate anecdotal tidbits about Josephine's life, such as the doctoring of the marriage certificate to make Josephine, six years Napoleon's elder, appear to be the same age as her spouse. You can poke around in the ruins of the old mill directly opposite the museum for free.

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Les Ombrages

Les Ombrages is a botanical garden situated at the site of what was once a rum distillery. Stopping here a short while makes for a refreshing break. A trail passes by stands of bamboo, tall trees with buttressed roots, torch gingers and the ruins of an old mill. It's a lush jungle walk.

ombr

St-Pierre: see the devastation of Mont Pelée first-hand while the volcano broods in the distance

Pointe du Bout: take a sailboat tour in the redoubt of the sailing set – food and drink abound

Les Salines: stretch out on this beautiful long beach

sali

Ste-Luce: drink and dive in this lively fishing village

Presqu’île de Caravelle: soak up the sun and sand by day, and gourmet flavours at night

cara

 

Festivals and Traditional Events

Cultural Events
Almost everything shuts down for Vaval, the biggest bash of the year. With its four days of parades, masquerades, music, and more, it's truly an unforgettable experience. The fun ends on the first day of Lent, when people can atone for everything they did during Vaval. Halfway through Lent, the mini-carnival Mi-Carême provides a one-day respite from the serious business of repentance. This event, known as Carnaval elsewhere in the Caribbean, was recognized on National Geographic's 2011 Top 10 Pre-Lenten Celebrations list.

carn

A number of other festivals pay homage to aspects of Martinique's heritage. Sainte-Marie, Le Marin, and Fort-de-France all hold lively cultural festivals. They include activities like concerts, art exhibits, films, theater, dance, and food tasting. Then there's the annual event Le Maide Saint-Pierre, commemorating the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée, which destroyed the city and killed virtually all its inhabitants. And, due to a population that is largely Catholic, several towns celebrate patron saints days.

Martinique's status as an overseas départment of France means that French holidays, such as Bastille Day, are also observed on the island. Wine lovers may want to visit in late November to partake in the Beaujolais nouveau celebrations. At midnight on the third Thursday of the month, the new Beaujolais is released to the cries of "Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" ("The new Beaujolais has arrived!") Various restaurants and cafés across the island participate, some featuring live entertainment.

Music plays a huge role in Martinique's culture, so musical events are enjoyed regularly. Two of the biggest are Jazz à la Martinique and Carrefour Mondial de Guitare, which alternate years in early December. Both of them draw international musicians and host events in several locations over a week-long period. There's also an international gospel festival and plenty of smaller events.

jazz

Boating Events
With the popularity of Martinique's ports, there's no shortage of boating events. Annual events include the Yole Boat Race, held in August. This five-day event uses traditional fishermen's boats. Many smaller yole races take place over the year, as well.

yole

In February, Shoelcher holds its Nautical Week.

April brings the sailing shows and parades of the Aqua Festival around the Bay of Le Robert.

Yachters flock to the four-day June Regattas in Le Marin, which also hosts a fishing tournament in October.

In addition to strictly local events, Martinique participates in several international races. Each March, competitors in the Transcaraibe des Passionnés race from Le Marin to Cuba. A much longer race is the biannual Transat des Passionnés, which starts in Europe and ends in the Caribbean. Every three years, there's another Europe to Caribbean race, the Transquadra.

Other Events
An annual agricultural fair in Rivière-Pilote exhibits and celebrates the best of the farming life.

The yearly Martinique International Half-Marathon draws more than 2500 runners from all over the world to run its 21.1 km course. It includes several special races, such as the senior citizens race and high school mini-marathon. A few other running competitions take place also.

Travelers in search of festivals and events can get up-to-date information through the Martinique Tourist Office (Comite Martiniquais du Tourisme), located in Schoelcher at Immeuble Beaupré - Pointe de Jaham. The airport also maintains a tourist desk staffed with English speakers. Whatever time of year you visit, there's always a fun event going on in Martinique.

More events: http://www.martinique.org/activities/calendar.php

 

Market Days


The Big Market : open from 6am to 3pm. Rue Antoine Siger 97200 Fort de France.

In the heart of the downtown area, the Big Market, or Spices Market, is the largest market of the island. Under its large market of metal and glass, you will find an accumulation of bags and various containers to attracting contents: Vanilla, spices in any kind, peppers, arranged rums, ... Outside, the stalls are full of fruits and vegetables.

The Fish Market : open from 6am to 3pm. Canal Levassor, bd Allègre, 97200 Fort de France.

In the early morning, the fishermen go up the river Madam to unload their fishing. Environment is animated, and offers it out of fish and shellfish often varied: thazars, vivaneaux, espadons, crabs, lobsters...

The Vegetables Market : open from 6am to 3pm. Parc Floral, Canal Levassor, 97200 Fort de France.

Just beside the Fish market, the Vegetables Market is held between the River Madam and the floral garden. A whole set of fruits and vegetables resulting from local agriculture are available.

mark

 

 

The Gastronomy of Martinique

A Marriage of Two Cuisines, French and Creole

Many Caribbean islands are synonymous with “magic,” but the kind of magic found in Martinique is, quite simply, culinary. Cooking here is an art practiced by wizardly chefs who can take something very ordinary, like spiny sea urchins, do secret things to them, and -- with just a whisper of “open sesame” to the oven door -- bring forth a soufflé that is positively spellbinding. Food sets Martinique apart from the other Caribbean islands. Here, chefs are seasoned sorcerers; elsewhere, they are just apprentices. To classic French dishes, for example, might be added such exotic local fruits and vegetables as guava, sour sop, cassava, christophine, breadfruit, okra and plantain.

Magic aside, Martinique also happens to be French and shows its Frenchness very noticeably through its love affair with good food. Many shops close from noon to 2:30 for the sacrosanct tradition of a copious and leisurely lunch and dinner often is a gastronomic adventure lasting all evening. Since local people dine out as a matter of fact, visitors to Martinique have one of the widest choices of restaurants in the Caribbean -- more than 150.

Scents of spicy grilled chicken in aromatic coconut sauce and refreshing Vanilla-Scented Melon Soup will revive you after a day of sunbathing and exploring Martinique’s many gardens and parks.

melo

If you’re craving a formal version of island fare, sample prawns with Pumpkin Mousse or braised hen stuffed with a sublime apple and pineapple dressing. A hearty appetite will appreciate a thick steak smothered with Balsamic Peppers, an island blend of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sweet peppers.

End any meal with rich Banana Tarte Tatin drenched in French Rum Sauce or a dish of light Watermelon Sorbet (see recipe below). The creative ministrations of French chefs with big ideas and sun-drenched, fresh ingredients are sure to weave a magic spell on anyone lucky enough to dine on Martinique.

tati

Exotic cooking terms: http://www.caribbean-direct.com/Martinique-Direct/Restaurants/MQElocalcuisine.html

Rum

As rich as the island's history is Martinique's earth, which nurtures the growth of sugar cane that gives birth to rums considered among the best in the world. These excellent rums have been awarded the prestigious French label "appellation d'origine contrôlée," previously reserved only for French cheeses and wines.

Rum distilleries abound throughout Martinique and all of them welcome visitors for sampling their product.

Distilleries to visit: http://www.martinique.org/discovery/martinique-rums.php

 

 

Watermelon Sorbet

Ingredients

for 8 servings

 

 

½ cup plus 4 cups seeded and pureed watermelon
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon lime zest

 

Preparation

35 min

sorb

In a small saucepan, bring ½ cup watermelon puree and the sugar to a simmer and remove it from the heat.

Add the lime juice and zest and allow the mixture to cool for 20 minutes.

Add the 4 cups fresh watermelon puree to the melon-lime mixture, and then freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

 

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Catherine Castelain
c.castelain@lepinparasol.com
Date Last Modified: 4/3/15
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