Martiniquais consider Grand-Rivière, which overlooks the turbulent Dominica Channel, the end of the world. It was certainly the end of the road. After a white-knuckle drive on hairpin turns skirting Mount Pelée and passing through a rain forest where streams tumbled under one-lane suspension bridges, I arrived in this isolated village on Martinique’s northernmost shore. The streets were empty late on Sunday afternoon, as the sun beat down on pastel cottages with closed wooden shutters. Not even a dog barked. But I finally found the scene: Chez Tante Arlette, an informal restaurant with potted croton plants at its entrance. Inside, it was pleasantly crowded with noisy, hungry patrons taking their day of rest seriously over crab farci and chilled Provençal rosé. Everyone was wearing bibs over their churchgoing best. When owner Carine Charpentier presented the marmite du pêcheur—a seafood platter of lobster, crab, and other local fish smothered in spicy Creole sauce—it became evident why the most fastidious residents of this French Antilles island put on the plastic. Cracking open a succulent lobster claw, I sent sauce splattering onto my napkin, the tablecloth, my sunglasses, and the wall behind me. “Ça a été?” Charpentier asked, wanting to know if I enjoyed my messy meal. This instantly became my favorite local expression: spoken quickly, it sounded like satiate.
While Columbus first sighted this 436-square-mile island in 1493, Martinique has belonged to France since sugarcane planters settled here in the 17th century. Despite this Gallic allegiance, the predominant culture is one of the purest expressions of Creole in the Caribbean. Geographically, Martinique is sandwiched between St. Lucia and Dominica, but it has far more in common with Haiti and Trinidad, also both rich Creole melting pots. Local traditions and a patois have evolved as diverse ethnic groups made this volcanic island their home: Carib Amerindians, British and French colonists, African slaves, Chinese field laborers, and even Tamils, who introduced a curry-like gravy that Martiniquais call colombo. (It’s similar to the sauce that wound up all over my blouse.) Creole manifests itself not only in the cuisine but also in the flair with which residents conduct their daily affairs. Market vendors pair Chanel accessories with their corsage en broderie anglaise blouses and madras skirts; zouk dance music blares from Mercedes taxis idling next to mango-juice stalls; dapper postmen delivering letters adopt the woven-palm bakoua hats once worn by cane-cutting slaves. For those who crave a bona fide taste of life in the Antilles, Martinique is superior to more-resort-focused islands such as St. Bart’s or St. Martin. I bought my first bottle of real French perfume in Fort-de-France as a teenager; since then, I’ve returned every few years to this underdeveloped island of mountain peaks and banana plantations and black-sand beaches to haggle for cinnamon bark in the market and chat with ladies who sell codfish fritters on village squares.
The morning after Chez Tante Arlette, I woke up in Béké Land. This sardonic expression refers to the manicured region between Le Robert and Le Vauclin where wealthy Martiniquais have built gated estates on sheltered Atlantic bays. Béké is local slang for white person. Depending on the occasion, Martiniquais switch from speaking formal French to more familiar Creole. Consider the word beguine: It’s Old French for a woman, a nun, and flirtation. It also refers to a sexy style of music and dance steps, similar to the rumba, that is indigenous to Martinique. In 1935 Cole Porter composed “Begin the Beguine,” a nostalgic love song about the island, at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris. But here in true beguine territory, it’s more or less only performed for tourists, as a newer, perkier Antillean genre called zouk now dominates the airwaves. The eastern coastline is also where three of my favorite hotels—Plein Soleil, Cap Est, and L’Ilet Oscar—happen to be clustered. On a balcony overlooking a tidal inlet at Plein Soleil, I was served a perfect continental breakfast of flaky pain au chocolat and Palais des Thés Darjeeling. Then, walking under poinciana trees loaded with flame-colored blossoms, I followed a steep path winding down from the hotel to the shore, where Alain Mongin, a robust man with a graying goatee, waited for me in his boat on a rickety dock. He shoved off and motored into the Baie du François. We navigated through turquoise shallows into deeper water on the way to the Baignoire de Josephine, a white-sand shoal named for Martinique’s best-known beauty queen.
Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie grew up on a sugarcane plantation, but it wasn’t until arriving in Europe in 1779 that she caused a stir: after the flighty, spendthrift brunette caught the amorous eye of Napoleon Bonaparte, she was crowned Empress Josephine. Back home, however, Martiniquais blamed her for a Napoleonic edict reinstating slavery. Grudges die hard here. A statue of her in Fort-de-France has been repeatedly defaced. The last time her head disappeared, in 1991, the authorities gave up trying to replace it. As Mongin and I passed between two islets and approached Josephine’s namesake sandbar, he mentioned this was where the future empress reportedly bathed as a young girl. (I found this ironic given Napoleon’s famous love letter begging his wife not to spoil her natural body odor with soap and water.) Other boats had already dropped anchor and a rowdy crowd of young men with short haircuts was splashing about in the salt water. Mongin turned up his stereo. To the pumping beat of zouk, the party animals cheered and waved their cocktails. I jumped overboard and paddled around looking for angelfish on the sandy bottom. Waves washed over the outer reef. Eventually the crowd departed and I had the ocean to myself. Climbing back on board his boat, I asked Mongin who the men were. “Les militaires,” he laughed. Josephine would have been tickled pink.
France has had a military presence here for centuries: The garrison at Fort-de-France was built in 1640 to protect the port from pirates and foreign navies. But now the city’s historic center is characterized by town houses with intricately forged iron balconies and fabric shops selling the checked madras still favored by women of a certain age. Introduced from India in the 18th century, the light cotton fabric was ideal for the tropical climate, and Martinique’s own colorful fashion is loosely patterned along the same lines as the Empire style of Josephine’s era: off-the-shoulder blouses, flounced skirts, shawls, and a distinctive Creole cap tied into a jaunty knot with multiple tips coyly signifying romantic availability. (One point means the wearer is single, four points means the woman is married but anything goes.) I haven’t worn a stitch of madras since ripping a pair of Bermuda shorts while sliding into home base during Little League tryouts. But here in Martinique, especially as demonstrated by the vegetable ladies at the covered market in Fort-de-France, it had a certain flamboyance that an inveterate tomboy might secretly envy.
“Allez, allez,” shooed one of the exasperated vendors as I attempted to photograph her bouquets garnis. I fibbed a little, saying that I’m a chef, and handed her a five-euro note. At that she turned sweet, even adding an extra chunk of pumpkin to the bundle of cooking herbs. All the tropical produce, flowers, and spices sold in the market on Rue Isambert are grown on the island. A truck loaded with freshly picked pineapples was parked at the entrance; the driver passed out juicy slices to tempt shoppers. I wandered from stall to stall hunting for unshelled nutmeg, pure cacao, vanilla beans, breadfruit, soursop, colombo powder, and searing sauces made with Scotch bonnet chiles. I could have happily stood there the entire day tasting ripe fruit, but it would have meant missing lunch.
Keeping the jagged Le Carbet peaks to my left, I drove into the hills and got lost looking for the turnoff to Le Brédas, one of the island’s haute Creole restaurants, run by chef Jean-Charles Brédas. Luckily, a gang of machete-toting construction workers, sweating under their bakouas, cheerfully pointed me in the right direction, so I arrived only slightly flustered. Brédas’s wife, Marie-Julie, greeted me and showed me to a shaded dining patio where I plopped down in a teak folding chair as the waiter brought a plate of crisp bite-size cod fritters and a planter’s punch. This welcoming cocktail—rum, cinnamon, guava, orange, and pineapple juices, and a sugarcane swizzle stick—definitely restored my equilibrium. Brédas, a solemn man with serious ambitions, peeked out of the kitchen. “My maxim,” he explained, waving at a drape painted with the words à la recherche des saveurs perdues. Actually, Brédas’s cooking is less a Proustian search for lost flavors than an updating of ingredients familiar to the Creole palate. A gratin of conch with spring onions, nutmeg, and garlic was smothered in bubbling Emmental cheese. His fillet of pork, smoked over coconut shells for two hours, was paired with mashed dasheen, a humble tuber used in home kitchens throughout the Caribbean.
Despite the temptation to linger, I wanted to spend a little time under a palm tree. On Martinique, the best beaches are beyond the village of Ste.-Anne in the far south, but they’re generally more crowded (especially with boisterous Club Med guests) than the calm, smaller ones favored by locals in the west. The color of the sand is another distinct difference, thanks to volcanic Mount Pelée, which last erupted at the turn of the 20th century, smothering the town of St.-Pierre and dusting the beaches on the Caribbean side with pumice and ash. Reaching hidden Anse Couleuvre required intrepid driving on rough roads edged by untrimmed vegetation and past wild pig–crossing signs, and then a sweaty hike under a rain-forest canopy. It was worth the effort to see the blue Caribbean kiss black sand. The narrow bay was occupied by two snorkelers and a family with young children eagerly digging into an ample picnic basket. I loved the sense of isolation and stillness, away even from the minimal bustle of coastal towns in this area. Le Carbet, St.-Pierre, and Le Prêcheur were considered elegant in past centuries by visitors such as Paul Gauguin and author Lafcadio Hearn, but they are now slightly faded with the sun and passage of time.
Having forgotten to pack sunblock or bottled water, I left to seek refreshment at the row of barbecue shacks that lines the shore back in Le Carbet, about 30 minutes south. At Le Petibonum, tables are arranged under canvas tarps on the sand. The owner, Guy Ferdinand, is a wizard with seafood: his grilled local albacore was paired with a creamy sesame aioli that I wanted to smear on with a paddle. Accompanied by a ti’ punch, made with lime juice, sugarcane syrup, and white rum, it hit the spot as an early evening snack.
Passing through neighboring Bellefontaine, I noticed a crowd on the shore. Fishermen in wooden rowboats were hauling in a catch. Some bystanders waded in the surf to help them drag the heavy netting, as others ran to collect strays flopping about on the sand. As the sun dropped low over the coconut palms, tiny coqui frogs started to chirp in the grass, sounding like crickets crossed with nightingales. I bought a scoop of coconut sorbet from a lady who had set up her old-fashioned ice cream churn on the roadside. Ça a été.
Shane Mitchell is T+L’s special correspondent.
American Airlines has daily connecting service through San Juan, Puerto Rico, from most U.S. gateways. The flight takes about two hours.
Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa Martinique’s most sophisticated resort has a secluded beach and bungalow suites. Le François; 596-596/548-080; capest.com; doubles from $500.
Great Value Maison d’Hôte de L’Ilet Oscar An antiques-filled plantation house on a private island. Le François; 596-696/453-330; ilet-oscar.com; doubles from $190.
Great Value Plein Soleil Sixteen chic, pretty rooms overlooking a tidal inlet. Le François; 596-596/380-777; hotelpleinsoleil.fr; doubles from $216.
Chez Carole At the back of Fort-de-France’s market pavilion, this unpretentious Creole café serves superb chicken colombo and codfish fritters. Grand Marché, Fort-de-France; no phone; lunch for two $30.
Chez Tante Arlette Try the seafood platter. Grand-Rivière; 596-596/557-575; lunch for two $114.
Le Brédas The chef’s signature dish is a mille-feuille of foie gras and plantains. St.-Joseph; 596-596/576-552; dinner for two $140.
Le Petibonum Don’t miss the grilled tuna with Creole sauce and the marlin ceviche. Le Carbet; 596-596/780-434; lunch for two $80.
Boutique Ozier-Lafontaine A fabric shop with a broad selection of cotton madras prints. 37 Rue Osman Duquesnay, Le Marin; 596-596/749-559.
Frères Lauzéa Chocolatiers Sweets made with high-quality cacao, cane sugar, and other tropical ingredients. 23 Route de Didier, Fort-de-France; 596-596/569-883.
Neisson Distillery One of the island’s top rhum agricole distilleries has a tasting room. Le Carbet; 596-596/780-370.