- Saturday, January 9 – Saturday, January 16
- 50 miles long, 22 miles wide
- Language: French
- Currency: Euro
Time is elusive. A week in Martinique is of a longer, richer variety. Work passwords are forgotten, cell phones left at home, sarong-guy at the beach smiles knowingly and doesn’t offer his goods, and you know exactly where to buy your chocolate croissants.
Norwegian Air has great deals for Martinique. A Bostonian couple we met on the beach told us to keep our eyes on the airline as European steals are expected next. We booked three Airbnbs and were delighted as our holiday unfolded; each were the perfect location and measure of time.
What quickly became apparent, was that Dan and I would each need to contribute an essential skill; my French and Dan’s manual driving were the meter of growth during the week. The neural networks in my brain – where nouns and verb structure had lain relatively dormant for two years – began to light up and bustle. Dan’s learning curve may have been an ever quicker ascent as we were thrown into Saturday evening traffic in the capital Fort-de-France at the moment of arrival. Both speech and driving – initially staccato – found their fluidity and cadence as the week progressed.
DAY 1 and 2:
- Fort-De-France, the capital of Martinique
- chez Helene
Helene was born in Martinique, lived in France for seven years, and then returned for good with her husband Eric. They have three daughters; two live in Paris and one in Luxembourg.
“It’s too cold to live in France,” she explained.
I concur. The equatorial heat puts my whole system at ease. The wintry prickle subsides.
The fumes of Fort-de-France – diesel, salt, heat, and humidity – brought back Gabon. The beauty of the French language did too. Jutting out one’s lips and taking on the theatrical tones aide in its authenticity. A few Francophones said my accent sounds Canadienne. My late-in-life language ear is unsure what this sounds like.
Also renting an apartment at chez Helene was Elizabeth, a Brit who works in St. Lucia as a tourist representative on call 24/7. All she wanted to do was read, sleep, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables. C’est tout. Her parting words were, “If I don’t see you, have a beautiful life and don’t be pressured into anything”.
Shopping at the Hyper U – a French chain comparable to Price Chopper – always delights. The plain yogurt in little glass pots brings more pleasure somehow than a plastic container of Chobani. The translation required, the tasting of new items, and the French butter make the experience an adventure.
We spent an afternoon exploring Saint Pierre, a northeast coastal town with little streets reminiscent of both France and Africa. I ordered one fresh fish of the day – grilled – for us to share. Perfect shark with olive oil and green onions arrived, accompanied with beans, plantains and rice.
As we licked the plate, we heard a screech followed by the crashing of metal. A car, slowing down to park, had hit a motorcyclist who was passing unsafely. We saw the man fly off his bike – not wearing a helmet, of course – and then jump up, probably in shock. He began ranting at the man and his girlfriend in the car. The ambulance arrived surprisingly quickly. We soon departed. None of the injuries appeared life threatening.
On the way home we swam at the cove of Anse Turin, a black-sand beach with no rocks or shells. The sea was markedly salty.
As always, Dan’s timing is impeccable, and we arrived in the little town of Schoelcher just in time for sunset and dinner. It was intellectually satisfying to translate the menu for Dan and order in French. The isolated early days in Gabon, when I was unable to communicate, have been replaced with the ability to “crack the code”.
DAY 3 and 4:
- Sainte Marie and Mount Pelee
- chez Mireille
When one wants to stay at a hotel, you simply show up and give the name of your reservation. Perhaps someone will even park your car or carry your bags. To use Airbnb in Martinique is slightly more complicated. Emails are exchanged and a slightly amorphous plan is made: meet Mireille at the Rhum Saint James museum at noon.
We arrived, wandered the grounds, and bought a bottle of dark rum. I shouted our host’s name a few times, no one turned around. We turned on Dan’s precious 100 minutes of overseas talk and I called Mireille – her French was rapid, she must have understood mine. She had confused the time, by a few generous European hours, and would be there in a few minutes.
A mom – oozing warmth – arrived and we follow her back inside the Rhum museum. She bought a bottle of mango rum for her daughter. We zipped up the hill after her, arriving in a veritable Eden. Her home was surrounded by avocado, orange, banana, hot pepper, and coconut trees. Flowers of every size and shape adorned the grounds. Hummingbirds, horses, a cow, and a bull completed the ark. We landed in the perfect paradise before hiking Mount Pelee the following morning.
As the stars set over the tropical-bucolic landscape, Dan cooked steak and onions. We dipped a fresh baguette into the meaty butter and drank cold beer, listening to sounds of the hills. There was profound simplicity, ease and joy being together in that space.
- Started hike 7:30 am @ 824 meters
- Ascended to 1245 meters
- Descended to 1000 meters
- Ascended to 1388 meters
- Descended to 1155 meters
- Circled the caldera (a volcanic crater)
- Completed hike 11:30 am
- Total kilometers horizontal: 7
- Total kilometers vertical: 2
- People seen on hike: 4 topless American girls bounding down the mountain, various French folk, a mother and daughter from Flushing, Queens
Following the hike, we looked for somewhere to lunch with ocean views. What we found was a 4-star, 3-course meal prepared by a chef trained in Paris. Both the sheer surprise of it and our hunger made it the best meal of our trip.
DAY 5, 6 and 7:
- chez Mathieu
A fortuitous email exchanged revealed that the keys for our next – and last – apartment could also be exchanged at the Rhum Saint James Museum. This now-familiar spot made us feel like locals. Add the increasing fluency of our communication and our deftly operated manual car and voila, we were off to the beach for our last three days.
(We did however, continue to repeat, ‘It’s not an automatic” in unison, prior to turning the key.)
Most of the people at Sainte-Anne were older than us and this is explained by the expensive flights from Europe (at least 2x that of ours) and the different European holiday for young people. Many of the retirees I chatted with were there for at least three weeks.
While dining at Paille Coco one evening, the lights suddenly went out. This sparked a conversation with our neighbors, Vanessa (40) and Phillipe (55) who are about to open their third restaurant in Bordeaux. Three hours, the best melange of English + French, and four bottles of rosé later, we exchanged emails and promised to visit.
Another night, at the same restaurant, we sat on the dock and watched people of all sorts come in on their dingys from their yachts. I saw an older man with a younger woman and a captain. With only a little assistance, he made it onto the dock. My gerontologically-minded brain had to tell him how his striking his agility was. His response?
“I’m ninety-three. I live on the sea.”
And with that, I conclude. What more is there really? A life lived richly, with the salt blowing one’s tresses and the sun further confounding the wrinkles. A life of beauty and simplicity.
For a winter uplift, here are macro-lens photos of Martinique flora.