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A Creole Tour of Martinique

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

Photo: Jessica Antola

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.

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