|WHERE'S GEORGIE JET? MARTINIQUE|
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|The French Island Martinique
My trip to Martinique by Georgette DiScala Diamandis
When I saw the itinerary for my first press trip for my brother’s website- JohnnyJet.com, JFK to San Juan, San Juan to Guadalupe, Guadalupe to Martinique; I asked myself why do I want to take three planes to Martinique? Isn’t it just another island in the Caribbean? American Airlines left the island because of a strike 5 years ago, making it much more difficult to get to Martinique, thus leaving the island without a large portion of the American Market. For me this was great, no Americans! For the island, it has been economically debilitating. My brother, Johnny, is a natural traveler, loves planes, the longer the flight, the better. I tolerate them. For this reason, I thought the island was going to be a tough sell. I was wrong. I would swim from Guadalupe to get to this magical island!
Breaking News! American Airlines has agreed to start flying back to Martinique! As of August 15th, tickets are being sold for American Eagle flights from San Juan to Martinique, with flights starting December 15th! (Even if the airline situation stayed the same, I would still highly recommend Martinique, and a stop-over for a few days in French Guadalupe would make the trip even better. ) Travelers from American departure cities other than New York, can fly to Saint Lucia via Air Caraibes (AirCaraibes.com) or Take Air Lines (www.TakeAirlines.com) then fly to Martinique. Since now there are only two flights from most cities in the U.S., Martinique is a must for all those adventurers seeking an exotic island experience.
The French run a very smooth Island. I felt very safe the entire time we were there, the locals were gracious and the Gendarmes (French police) were noticeable, but relaxed. Mostly, I saw them doing what the French do best, enjoying leisurely meals.
Martinique is a large island, 40 miles long and 17 miles wide. Situated in the windward islands and close to Venezuela. It has something for everybody, even if you don’t love the beach. The history buff will love Martinique. It has a long history of plantations, and yes, slaves, which has its own unique culture and stories. They were first introduced in 1642 by the French who had colonized the island in the early 1600s. Slavery was abolished in 1848, when 70,000 slaves were freed. I visited La Savane des Esclaves (5 Euros for adults, 3 for children, Tel # 011-596-696-22-79-05) in the Trois Ilets section of the island. Currency in Martinique is in Euros $1 USD = .81 euro cent or 1 euro = $1.23 USD. It is one man’s vision of a slave village, an amazing undertaking, built solely by Mr. Gilbert Larose and worth the trip. And the Diamant Slave Memorial, a cluster of majestic sculptures overlooking Le Diamant, a huge diamond shaped rock, on the southwest side. These haunting, larger than life white sculptures were erected as a memorial to the slaves that were killed on board a sailing vessel that hit rocks near Le Diamant. All chained together, the way they traveled back then, ensured their death when the ship hit the rocks. Their sad story will not be forgotten thanks to this exhibit.
Our next visit was to the La Pagerie Museum, (5 Euros for adults, 2 for children, Tel# 011-596-596-55-26-00) the old family sugar plantation and birthplace of the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. The ruins of the house which came down in the hurricane of 1766 include the stone common quarters used originally as the kitchen for the plantation and now as the museum filled with Josephine memorabilia, including the death mask of Napoleon. A bizarre phallic stone also remains, which was used to separate the field slaves from the house slaves. My impression of the Islander’s feelings toward Josephine, ranged from a patriotic pride, to intense hatred. The statue of her in Fort de France has been beheaded, and painted with red paint to simulate blood dripping down her neck. (She is credited with keeping slavery on the island for an extra sixty years). However, the museum is a lovely place and the café has wonderful food and hospitality. The same day we visited The Musee de Café & Cocoa, my favorite, (Tel# 011-596-596-68-38-34, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) in Trois-Iltets, a former plantation named Domaine Chateau Gaillard. It is now a museum dedicated to the history of these important crops on Martinique. They have a wonderful shop and café to purchase and enjoy chocolate and coffee and French earthenware where it is made according to tradition at the museum. They told me that Martinique was the first place to grow coffee as an industry and remained that way for sixty years. We sampled the aromatic chocolate and strong coffee and visited their tropical plant nursery.
Lunch was at the restaurant Cap 110, right on the beach located in Diamant, on the South West tip, where we leisurely dined on local Creole specialties. (Tel# 011-596-596-76-1299, e-mail: email@example.com). Cap 110 is open all day until midnight except Tuesdays. The waiter was seriously cute! They served freshly caught fish and I had the "danger sauce", a local pepper sauce made from the hottest peppers on earth ( I had to bring some home which I found at the Spice Market in downtown Fort-de-France). The food was wonderful and I began my education on how lunch is done in French Martinique. It takes a long time! For this impatient American, it really was an acquired taste. First you have the entrée (appetizer in French, why we Americans turned it into a main course I will never know), then the main course, and of course, dessert. For me it was always ice cream. On Martinique, it is the best I ever had! I have had great ice cream in Argentina and Italy, but this was unbelievable! For one thing, Martinique grows its own cocoa, coffee, sugar, bananas, vanilla, mangoes, lemons, etc. Combine this with French cuisine, and voila!: Ice cream with intense flavors, the freshest ingredients, hence: the best ice cream ever! At Cap 110, my new friends Monique Macaire tour guide extraordinaire, from the tourist board of Martinique and highly recommended Bernadette Ducteil (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel# 011-596-696-25-6414), our wonderful minivan driver who knew the island like the back of her hand (book her in advance), made us feel like long-lost relatives!
Our wonderful lunch took several hours, so we ended up going straight to our first Hotel which was named La Bateliere. The average rates run from $245 per night. Hotel La Bateliere, 20 rue des Alizes, Schoelcher, Fort-de-France, a slightly older hotel, right on the water, with incredible views. Our rooms overlooked the ocean, but unfortunately there was a roof below us, since this hotel had four stories. Dinner that night was also on the water at Ponton du Bakoua, (Tel# 011-596-596-66-05-45) a casual, wonderful restaurant serving local seafood and French dishes like giant prawns and soft shelled crab. Mr. Mercereau, the manager, a very cool guy who had previously traveled the world on a sailboat until he settled in Martinique, treated us like old friends.
Our breakfast at La Bateliere, was a huge buffet, and I didn’t hear one person speaking English. In fact, some of the employees didn’t speak English at all. I met a new friend who shared my perfectly cooked poached egg and French yogurt. The beach was small but nice. Next morning we headed back to Trois Illets to the Empress Josephine Golf Course where I am shown with Noelle Marie-Anne, the manager. This is an 18 hole course designed by Robert Trent Jones. It caterers to children, as well as adults and also has tennis facilities. Rates are 46 euros for 18 holes. It is very picturesque; I was wishing Cam (my husband) was here to play with. (More info here: www.golfmartinique.com).
We visited the main city and capital - Fort-de-France, where it rained heavily. We went to the fruit and spice market and some French pharmacies. Our next stop: lunch at La Belle Epoque, 97 Route de Didier, Fort-de-France, (Tel# 011-596-596-64-41-19, e-mail: email@example.com) with the President of Martinique tourism, Mrs. Madeleine de Grandmaison. The food was haute cuisine and the old colonial mansion created a romantic ambience, although close to Fort-de-France, the plants in the garden were abundant like this bread fruit tree.
Speaking of plants, our next stop was the Balata Botanical Garden, (6.50 Euros for adults, 2.50 for children, Tel# 011-596-596-64-48-73). This place is not to be missed! With tree ferns, and other dinosaur era plants this is a magical slice of paradise, created by Jean-Philippe Thoze on his grandmother’s amazing property. He has landscaped something out of Jurassic Park with flowering plants from all over the world. As you can tell from all the photos, I was inspired by all the weird and wonderful botanicals. I missed Les Ombrages, the seven acre rainforest/ hiking preserve in the north. It was over an hour drive on winding roads and I was already a little car sick. My colleagues said it was very special, but if you can’t stomach the ride north, definitely see Balata Botanical Gardens which isn’t far from Fort-de-France and La Belle Epoque! One of the reasons Martinique is so special is because two-thirds of the entire island is designated as protected park land. There are over 30 hiking trails including one to the top of a volcano!
We headed north to the tip of the island to view Mount Pelee, the sleeping volcano which erupted in 1902, killing 30,000 people and decimating the once lively town of St. Pierre. It sat eerily under clouds taunting us. We visited the Earth and Science Museum (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, 5 Euros for adults, 2.50 for children) and enjoyed the view from their outdoor amphitheater. It was getting dark so we headed back and saw a make-shift fish market with the local fisherman selling their catch. Bernadette stopped at Anse La Touche (5.50 Euros for adults, 2.50 for children, Tel# 011-596-596-78-19-19) in Carbet where we walked through another creation of Mr. Thoze (from Balata Botanical Gardens). This man is truly an artist and his canvas is the earth. This time he has used the ruins of an old abandoned sugar cane mill to hang unusual orchids and plant cactus. The combination of being the only visitors and the sun setting gave the appearance of being the only people left to view the ruins of an ancient civilization! I can’t stress how safe we felt, even being in this wild and uninhabited spot. But if you don’t have Bernadette as your driver, good luck finding it! (email@example.com, Tel# 011-596-696-25-64-14).
After a long day of sightseeing, including one last stop at The Sacre Coeur Basilica, we went to our new hotel The Sofitel Bakoua (www.sofitel.com) in Trois Illets, (Tel# 011-596-596-66-02-02). Rates average at $195 per night. This hotel is built in a former family house and has 139 rooms. The hotel is right on a fabulous beach, and has a killer pool. My room was elegant and cozy and was right on the beach. That night we had dinner at the hotel in the restaurant "Le Chateaubriand", an open, elegant restaurant with views overlooking the ocean. We had dinner with the manager, Mr. Lefevre, who was warm and gracious and talked about the history of Martinique: the sugar cane and coffee and cocoa plantations, the slaves that were brought from Africa to work the farms and the French nobility that has been here since the 1700’s. Our dinner was prepared by Chef Francis Dulucq, a member of the prestigious Master Chefs of France. His specialty is preparing island food in a French fashion. For an entrée we had goose liver marinated in rum, and shrimp salad vertes. For main course it was Island lobster with pumpkin and plantain. Dessert was coconut sorbet and fruit that had been roasted, surprisingly delicious! That night I slept like a baby on the famous Sofitel feather bed which you can buy at www.soboutique.com.
Breakfast was brought to our rooms, or we dined with our colleagues. One of my favorite things to do is swim so I freestyled out to these ships in the picturesque harbor. Before I leave the Sofitel, I just want to say it was an incredible experience, from the level of service to the awesome Colonial décor, and I felt very safe staying there alone. The Roger Gallet products in the bathroom were a nice bonus!
The next day everyone was going to Les Ombrages, the rain forest, but since I was still feeling queasy from all the winding roads from yesterday’s activities, I opted to go straight to our next hotel Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa, (Tel# 011-596-596-54-80-80). Average rates $880. The drive took about forty minutes as I was going over to the South-East coast in the village of Francois. The roads were flat and straight and the cab fare of 50 euros, was well worth it. I saw many banana plantations along the way. When I saw the lobby, I knew I had made the right choice! When I saw my room and the bathroom, I jumped up and down and wished there was someone with me to hear me scream! I loved the real key, since those plastic strips don’t always work. I had my own high tech espresso maker, ice maker and two plasma screen TV’s in my amazing, two story suite. The stunning 5 star resort is a member of the elite Relais &Chateaux hotel group, and made the list for the best hotels in the world from Conde Naste Traveler in their May, 2003 issue. There are 50 suites divided into 18 Creole style villas, all with ocean views most with their own plunge pool. My R & R day including hanging out by my own plunge pool going to the sandy beach, (not great for swimming since it is on a lagoon) and hanging out at the sleek pool, (great for swimming if you don’t mind disturbing the young French honeymooning couples), and getting an amazing massage at the luxury spa. When my tired-looking colleagues arrived, I was fresh and relaxed, ready to have dinner at Le Belem restaurant at the hotel, voted one of the 70 hottest new restaurants in the world by Conde Naste Traveler. First we had drinks in the bar and my colleagues told me all about the rainforest. We had fun and admired the art done by a local artist. Dinner included rock lobster ravioli, crayfish with sea urchin, and sea bass with christophine (a local squash) and a chocolate bomb cake. The food was outrageous, just like the atmosphere.
The next day my breakfast was delicious and the French waitress who was lovely, served three different fresh juices, including the juice of the sugar cane which was very pungent, delicious and nutritious. Then we were off again, but this time instead of the van, Monique had something else planned for us. An excursion to the Empress islets and Josephine’s bathtub, where the Empress herself swam as a child. We also stopped at Ilet Chancel, islet of iguanas. When we returned to the dock, we were greeted by a waiter with refreshments.
Our next stop, lunch at La Fregate Bleue, (www.fregatebleue.com, Tel# 011-596-596-54-54-66), a small, charming boutique hotel owned by Yveline and Charles de Lucy. The hotel is part of the Relais du Silence group, boasts seven homey suites decorated with Antillian antiques, a large pool and fantastic views with an average price of $185 per night. This is the hotel for someone who likes a laid-back, yet elegant inn experience. It is centrally located near the village of Francois on the east coast, yet very quiet and private. Mr. de Lucy was very sweet, and proud of his extensive garden.
Although "nap" was on our schedule, we went for one last visit to one of the island’s twelve rum distilleries, Habitation Clement (www.rhum-clement.com), which is also famous for an International summit between two presidents and Bernadette gave us another tour. Some of us sampled the rums, and bought bottles to take home.
We went "home" to Cap Est, finally able to spend a little time in our fabulous suites, and dressed for our last tour- The Marina du Bakoua, (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel# 011-596-596-66-10-10), the best marina in the Caribbean, and had our last dinner together as a "family" at Zanzibar, a lively restaurant close to the marina. The highlight was a huge seafood platter served on top of live goldfish in a cylindrical tank that Monique and I kept lifting up to make sure the fish could breathe! And of course the fantastique ice cream for dessert. My fantasy trip was coming to an end and although I was sad, I longed for my familiar faces back home.
My trip to the magical island of Martinique was all and more than the P.R. brochures touted. If you love chocolate, strong island coffee, great ice cream, warm tropical breezes, French or spicy Creole cuisine, Island Colonial antiques and architecture, wild jungles and calm beaches, Martinique just might be for you. Thanks Johnny and Cam (animal sitter)!
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