December 2017

Antique map of Martinica island published by Thomas Jefferys in 1755. © Nikolay Staykov

Bonjour, Martinique!

Fort-de-France, Martinique — They’re popping corks of Bordeaux at Le Domaine St. Aubin, an elegant hotel on a gentle bay in the north of the country.

And a few days later, the lady behind the counter greets me with “Bonjour, monsieur” and fills a box with dainty royal pralines and tropical mints in a boutique chocolate shop that feels like Paris.

Mon Dieu, could this be France?

Technically speaking, yes.

When you arrive at Martinique’s Aime Cesaire International Airport, the flag you see is the French tricolor, the language spoken is French, and the shops you visit carry the latest French fashions and perfumes.

But as they say in French, vive la difference!

This is Martinique, a far-flung French outpost in the Caribbean archipelago with an eternal summer and an infectious African-Creole culture.

Your first exposure to this local culture may come at the Grand Marche Couvert, the big covered market on rue Antoine Siger in Fort-de-France, where hawkers in colorful costumes sell everything from fresh vegetables and spices to herbal remedies to help you sleep.

You may also be lucky enough to hear the sounds of zouk, an island music that mixes a Latin beat with rhythms that reach back to Africa.

Touched in the west by the Caribbean Sea and in the east by the Atlantic Ocean, Martinique was discovered in 1502 by Columbus, who called it “the island of flowers.”

With ties to France since 1635, it’s a fascinating blend of island and continental cultures.

And when it comes to the “French Connection,” there is one filled with fun “Martinique-style” that you must experience on the island’s Atlantic coast at “Josephine’s Bathtub,” the sandbar where, according to legend, Napoleon’s Creole wife, Josephine, came to bathe.

Don’t take the bathing story seriously, it is all myth!

But the setting is ideal for a party, so we all climb aboard Captain Jean-Marc’s small boat, appropriately named “Evasion,” and sail to where the warm water is shallow enough to walk on the soft sand.

We’re in it up to our chests, laughing and shouting to our hearts’ delight, as a deckhand gets into the water with a boat-shaped tray of Buccaneer Chicken, typically sold at simple roadside barbecues, and a reservoir of “Planteur,” which is made with rum, the national drink, plus guava juice and vanilla.

The tasty chicken is marinated for several hours in salt, onions, and garlic and then cooked in a closed oven over smoking wood, with sugar cane added for sweetness. Most meals here come with rum, spelled “rhum” in French, either as an appetizer or an aperitif.

Martinique has 10 rum distilleries, and as our guide Andre joked: “Don’t drink a lot, but drink often.”

Unlike rums made with cheaper fermented molasses, Martinique’s rums, known in French as “Rhum Agricole,” are distilled from pure sugar cane juice. These rums also bear an official French classification – like the classification given to French wines – known as Appellation d’Origine Controlee. No other rum in the world carries this government standard.

Barrels of Rhum Agricole at Martinique's historic Clement Distillery. Photos © George Medovoy.

White rum is the youngest, aged for as little as three months in wooden casks.

The longer the rum is aged in oak barrels, the darker its color – from amber to dark- and the more complex its taste. Old rum, sometimes aged for more than six years, can be as wonderful as an excellent cognac.

Rum is so tied to Martinique’s history that it has even been used to win military battles.

In 1804, the British captured a landmark rock off Martinique’s southern coast and named it as a ship, HMS Diamond Rock.

After many unsuccessful attempts to re-take the rock, the French dropped barrels of rum in the water and finally took it back from drunken British soldiers!

Today, things are more peaceful, as sailboats often dot the waters off Diamond Rock.

Visits to Martinique distilleries, like the Saint James Distillery and its rum museum or Clement Distillery’s lovely Domaine Acajou provide not only tasting, but a sense of 18th-century plantation homes on sprawling, palm-lined estates, a reminder of rum’s ties to the slave trade, introduced by the Dutch in the 17th century and officially abolished in 1848 by the French.

Dr. Claudine Neisson-Vernant and her son Gregory operate the Neisson Distillery.

But family-owned Neisson Distillery in Le Carbet, a little town on the northwest coast near Columbus’ landing, was started well after slavery in 1931 and is run by physician Claudine Neisson-Vernant and her son, Gregory.

On a fascinating tour, we watched workers dump freshly-picked sugar cane into a crushing machine to extract the magical juice for transformation into rum.

Afterward, Neisson-Vernant served samples of “Ti Punch,” ‘Ti’ being Creole for the French word, ‘Petit,’ or little.

Made with white rum, sugar cane syrup, and a piece of lime, the white rum’s power can send shock waves through your sinuses. No wonder the English called rum Kill-Devil! As you travel the island, you realize that good rum goes hand in hand with outstanding cuisine.

This is the case at Le Creux des Vagues, a seaside restaurant on the northeastern Atlantic Coast, where waves lapping up against the rocks added a pleasant ambiance to our fresh lobster, which was followed by a Blanc Manger dessert – white pudding made with guava, gelatin, coconut milk and cinnamon.

For a really “off-the-beaten-track” lunch, we visited Madame Andre’s flower farm near a rainforest in the northeastern highlands, where escaped slaves once found refuge and were able to preserve some of their African culture.

Protected from a sudden rainstorm by a patio overhang, we feasted on yam bread, thick pumpkin-and-breadfruit soup, and roasted fish au gratin, along with French wine.

It took skill for our driver to navigate the hilly roads up here, but it was well worth it not only for the home cooking, but for a chance to learn local dances like bele, so obviously African in origin, with a regional troupe.

The afternoon was arranged by Patrick Duchel, who rents eight simple cottages at Les Zamandines in the remote hills of Morne des Esses, where you can hike and commune with nature – or as Duchel says, “you can find yourself.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Martinique has lodging of the luxurious sort.

For example, Club Med Buccaneer’s Creek at Pointe Marin provides an all-inclusive plan on a sandy-white southern beach dotted with coconut trees.

Here we could swim under the stars in a 5,000-square-foot infinity-edge pool next to the sea, enjoy wide-ranging buffet meals, and listen to a French entertainer do his rendition of Ray Charles!

Martinique’s Atlantic Coast is the setting for some lovely resorts, too, like Cap-est Lagoon Resort & Spa, a 4-star Relais & Chateau with luxurious suites and villas in a landscape of sugar cane, bougainvillea and palm groves, and Hotel Plein Soleil, a 16-room country inn with French tapestries, objects d’art from Thailand, and original Martinique bamboo brooms.

Le Domaine Saint Aubin is a former Creole plantation house converted into a boutique hotel.

Joelle and Laurent Rosemain.

Still further up the Atlantic coast in La Trinite, we discovered Le Domaine St. Aubin, a colonial manor house with Napoleon III mahogany furniture that you simply can fall in love with.

The house is ringed by a wide veranda of Italianate tiles, where drinks are served before dinner, unless, of course, you prefer a dip in the pool beforehand.

The study, sitting room-library, and elegant dining room all have Napoleon 3rd mahogany furnishings, but views of the bay are never far from the big open doors and windows. A large measure of the hotel’s charm is due to its hosts, Laurent and Joelle Rosemain, an ex-Parisian couple.

Laurent, a former jazz drummer, ran one of the largest drum and percussion schools in France and played in jazz trios and quartets there for 20 years. His wife was a costume designer for La Comedie Francaise, the French national theatre company.

But, said Laurent, they “planned for some years to leave Paris to find something we could do together.”

So now the couple is living their dream through the plantation, adding their personal touch to everything, like Joelle’s own crafted designs for the inn’s drapes and chair coverings and the opera names she has given to each of the 11 rooms of the plantation house – with colors taken from opera posters.

Joelle also does double duty as chef, and though not formally trained, her kitchen skills have earned the inn’s restaurant praise as one of Martinique’s top five. Her dishes are simple yet elegant, with a nod to fresh ingredients, like the superb sea bass with lettuce salad a la roasted pepper mousse, and a heavenly chocolate souffle with sorbet for dessert.

In the mornings, Laurent sets out breakfast on the veranda: freshly-baked croissants with jellies, butter, coffee and juices – plus his own musical touch, CD’s of jazz artists like Paul Desmond and Chet Baker.

“It was very sophisticated and still very acoustical, soft and harmonically rich,” he said of the music.

And what of his own jazz, does he miss playing?

“Of course,” he said, “I miss playing a lot, but I have good hopes, when less busy, to play again some type of Caribbean jazz in a small combo format.”

For now, though, he and his wife are busy introducing guests to “their” Martinique.

“Our guests are like us,” he said. “They’re interested in old books, jazz, in old rum, in authenticity.

“From this part of the island, you may discover the green part, rainforests and the old distilleries. I think it’s a good opportunity for people to find rest and peace and discover real life.”

George Medovoy

February 5, 2010 by admin · Leave a Comment 

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