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A Creole Tour of Martinique

Swimming in Les Anses d’Arlet, on the southwestern coast of Martinique.

Photo: Jessica Antola

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.

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