MARTINIQUE: Creole flavor
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Images by ©G. Gross/IBIT unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.
If everything you know about Creole heritage comes from Louisiana, prepare to have your eyes opened.
As a Caribbean travel destination, Martinique checks all the expected boxes. Sun…check. Beautiful beaches and bays…check. Lovely scenery, great restaurants, bangin’ nightlife, the world’s best rums…check, check, check and check!
It’s also the site of the Tour de Martinique, one of the major warm-up races for cyclists preparing for the Tour de France. Heat, humidity, rugged climbs and terrifying descents with hairpin turns.
The original inhabitants of this island in the Lesser Antilles named it the “isle of flowers” and it doesn’t take much to see why.
Today’s locals will proudly point out that they have the most diverse beaches in the Caribbean — white-sand, black-sand (courtesy of the majestic and occasionally malevolent Mount Pelée) and every shade in between.
It’s also the kind of place where a restaurant specializing in dishes based strictly on fresh, organic ingredients proudly sports the most intimidating name you can imagine —Atomic Food.
For the American traveler, Martinique has an added attraction: Technically, you’re in France. That’s because Martinique is one of five French overseas “departments” and an equal number of overseas “regions.”
Some English is spoken here and there, but the island’s official language is French, as are most of the tourists you’ll be rubbing elbows with as you move around Martinique.
But for the African-American traveler on the trail of heritage, especially as it relates to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Martinique offers special treasures — and special people.
You can learn about Aimé Césaire, the poet, writer and politician who became one of the fathers of modern Black consciousness in Europe.
You can hear the Creole rhythms of musician, dancer and determined cultural preservationist Sully Cally — “call–and–response” music that any Mardi Gras Indian from New Orleans would recognize in an instant.
Capoeira enthusiasts need to pay special attention to that music, for it bears connections to damyé (also known as ladja) — a Creole martial art developed in Martinique.
If you’re lucky, you might catch him in his music store/workshop in the Martinican capital, Fort–de–France, while he’s making one of his drums with wood that he cut himself in the forests outside the city.
You can meet Gilbert Larose at Savane des Esclaves, the hillside re-creation of a Martinican slave village that he spent 16 years building with his own money and his own hands.
You can visit the Cap 110 monument just outside the city of Le Diamant, 15 monoliths facing Senegal, arrayed in a triangle to represent the triangular route of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It’s erected at the spot where an unnamed slave ship carrying 110 West African captives ran aground in 1830. Locals saved many, but 40 drowned.
The spot itself is actually beautiful, but tread quietly if you visit here, for you will be walking on unmarked graves.
Or you can head up into the central mountains to experience and even take part in Lasoté, where the descendants of Martinican slaves still farm the mountain slopes in the old ways. It’s all hand tools, blood and sweat, done to the rhythm of drums and the blowing of conch shells, in the same manner as their ancestors who escaped the sugar plantations and farmed their own fields to survive.
And there’s no better time to connect with all this than late spring, especially the week of May 22, when Martinicans celebrate Emancipation Day.
If your familiarity with Creole heritage has its roots in New Orleans and Louisiana, prepare yourself for a completely different experience here. Martinique’s Creole culture is more basic, more “old school.”
It’s also older than that of its Louisiana cousins. The first captive Africans arrived in Martinique in 1639; they weren’t brought to New Orleans until 1710. By the time the trans-Atlantic triangle began delivering Africans in Louisiana servitude in 1717, the African slave population on Martinique already outnumbered the Europeans there.
You’ll learn how Martinican slaves had freedom dangled in front of them, even handed to them more than once, only to have it snatched from their grasp. You’ll learn how they fought back — rebellions, poisoning their masters, even resorting to suicide. And you’ll learn what a béké is, and the role they still play in the life of this island.
You’ll learn the role that Napoleon Bonaparte — and more infamously, his Martinican wife, Empress Josephine — played in extending slavery here for an extra half-century, and the two pointed gestures that modern Martinicans chose to respond, both of which you’ll find in La Savane, the main public park/square in Fort-de-France.
One is the annual modern dance musical held annually on the night of May 22 that vividly tells the history of slavery in Martinique. It’s attended by thousands and it’s free.
The other is the marble statue of Josephine that stands in La Savane. Césaire, as mayor of Fort-de-France, had it moved from the center of the park off to one side. That apparently didn’t satisfy everyone, because somebody cut off the statue’s head and daubed the neck with red paint to symbolize blood.
She’s still there today, regal and headless.
If you visit Martinique for the usual Caribbean charms, you’ll find them here. But if you come for the chance to immerse yourself in a Creole heritage that firmly holds onto its African roots, and meet a people who face their legacy of slavery head-on, you’ll be more than amply rewarded.
IF YOU GO
Americans visiting Martinique do not need a visa, only a valid US passport good for at least 90 days beyond your scheduled departure date.
Martinique is served by four airlines — Air France, American, Air Canada and Corsairfly — which fly into Aimé Césaire International Airport at Fort-de-France (FDF).
This summer, American Airlines is ramping up its service to Martinique with weekly nonstop flights on Saturdays between Miami and Fort-de-France. American Flight 474 leaves MIA at 11:40 a.m.,arriving at FDF at 2:35 p.m. American 589 departs FDF at 3:40 p.m. and arrives back in MIA at 7:05 p.m.
Other flights between MIA and FDF connect through the islands of St. Maarten/St.Martin and Guadeloupe.
WARNING: Taxis between the airport and your hotels can be pricey, even more so at night. You might do better to rent a car.
More than a dozen different cruise lines, from sail-driven yachts to massive liners, call on Martinique, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Celebrity, MSC, Oceania, Seabourn, Costa and Regent Seven Seas.
If at times all the tropical heat and intense history seem a little too much, you can always retreat to your cove-side hotel room at the Hotel Bakoua in Trois Îlets or order up a Planter’s Punch made from one of Martinique’s signature rhums. If the first French word you learn in Martinique is “planteur,” you’ll be fine.
If you really want to go local, ask for a Ti’Punch instead. If beer is more your thing, Lorraine is the national favorite.
A good place to have any of these is the downstairs bar at the Hotel L’Imperatrice in Fort-de-France, a classic Creole-style hotel in a historic building directly across from the Savane. Whether from the street-level bar or the balcony of one of its charming upstairs rooms, it’s also is a great place to people-watch.
At the opposite end of the style spectrum is Fort Savane, a block up from L’Imperatrice, with ultra-modern studios and kitchen-equipped suites designed to cater to business travelers as well as tourists.
When you’re ready to chill a bit away from Fort-de-France, the seaside restaurant Ti Sable is a good bet. I mean, how many restos do you find with both their own beach and a hot tub?
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.