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.