March 19, 2010
We had a wonderful time in the French island of Martinique. We found the people to be friendly
and helpful, and especially patient with Mary’s attempt to practice her limited French. In all, we
spent 13 days in Martinique and enjoyed 5 different anchorages as we traveled north along its
leeward coast. Last year we had to skip Martinique and Guadeloupe due to the strikes.
Our first anchorage was Le Marin, a large protected bay on Martinique’s southern coast. We
spent 4 days here, and on Saturday afternoon we enjoyed watching a yoles race. These light
wooden canoe-like boats, the traditional boats of the island’s fishermen, had neither a keel or
centerboard. Instead, the boat’s crew members kept the vessel sailing through the water by
leveraging their weight, either by sitting on the gunwale or by hiking out on the boat’s long
wooden poles. It was a fun race to observe, especially watching the crew members maneuver
into their different positions.
Monday, February 8, we headed to Grande Anse d’Arlet, 16 nautical miles away. The water in
this bay was so clear that we could see our anchor in 30 feet, and the snorkeling was quite
good. The small tourist village of Grand Anse d’Arlet with its white sand beach fronted the
Two days later we headed 9 miles further to Trois Ilets, located at the head of the large Fort-de-
France Bay. Trois Ilets was a rural Martinique village, best known as the birthplace of
Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. During our stay we anchored by the island’s
only golf course and visited the nearby Maison de la Canne (House of Sugar) which gave an
excellent overview of the history and development of the sugar industry in Martinique. In
colonial days, Martinique was a rich aristocratic island and the administrative, social, and
cultural center of the French West Indies. The sugar trade in the Caribbean was so lucrative,
especially on Martinique, that it was known as “white gold.” Unfortunately, as sugar was a
labor-intensive industry, slaves were brought over to work the plantations, thus forever altering
the ethnic make-up of the present day Caribbean islands.
Church where Empress Josephine was
baptized in 1763
Thursday afternoon we headed 4 nautical miles across the bay to Fort-de-France, the capital of
France’s overseas department of Martinique and home to almost one-third of the island’s
400,000+ population. Anchored next to the 17th century Fort Saint Louis, we had a lovely view
from our boat of the waterfront of Fort-de-France with the Pitons du Carbet in the background.
Two notable buildings near the waterfront were the Cathedral Saint Louis and the public
library, Bibliotheque Schoelcher. Both buildings were designed in the late 1800’s by Paris
architect, Henri Picq. Interestingly, the Bibliotheque Schoelcher was actually built for the 1889
Paris Exposition and then dismantled and brought to Martinique.
Fort-de-France at Sunset
On Friday we rented a car to explore the north side of the island. We traveled through the
beautiful Pitons du Carbet rainforest to the northern coast. There we visited the JM Distillery,
one of the last traditional distilleries in Martinique and one of ten distilleries on the island. In
Martinique sugarcane was still cultivated for rum production, whereas both in Trinidad and
Grenada sugarcane was no longer grown. Instead, in those two countries molasses was now
brought in from Guyana for rum production. As two of Martinique’s largest exports were rum
and bananas, we saw lots of sugarcane and banana plantations along our drive.
Pitons du Carbet
Before heading back to Port-de-France, we visited the small town of St. Pierre on the northwest
coast of the island. Nearby, Mount Pelee was peeking through the clouds, so majestic at 4583
feet. The Caribbean islands from Saba in the north to Grenada in the south lay along the Lesser
Antilles Volcanic Arc. At present there were seventeen active volcanoes lying along this arc,
and three of the most notable were Mount Pelee on Martinique, La Soufriere on Saint Vincent
(which we hiked), and Soufriere Hills on Montserrat. Just the evening before, on February 11th,
the Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat had erupted. Even though we were 150 miles away
and not directly downwind, we still received a light dusting of ash onboard our boat. The ash
was like fine cement.
Today St. Pierre is a small town of 6000 residents, but at the beginning of the 20th century it
was a thriving port city of 30,000 inhabitants. At that time, Fort-de-France was the
administrative capital and St. Pierre was the commercial and cultural center of Martinique, the
“Paris of the Caribbean.” At 8 am on May 8, 1902, all that changed when Mt. Pelee erupted.
At that moment an avalanche of superheated gas and burning ash traveling at 250 mph and at
temperatures of 3600 degrees Fahrenheit instantly vaporized everything in its path, annihilating
the entire population in just a few minutes. Only one man survived the volcano’s eruption, the
prisoner Cyparis. He had been locked up in an underground solitary-confinement cell at the
local jail. Amazingly, he had only minor burns. Afterwards, he joined the Barnum and Bailey
Circus as a sideshow attraction, being publicized as the “Lone Survivor of St. Pierre.”
During our stop we visited the town’s museum and explored two of the ruins that remained
from that fateful day, the theater and Cyparis’ cell. Now only the partial walls of the lower
story of the theater remained; in its heyday the theater had hosted many a theater group from
France. Looking down into the bay where cruising boats were presently anchored, on the day
of the eruption there were 12 ships anchored in the bay. Most all were destroyed.
With the many warning signs that the volcano had given prior to its eruption, it was amazing to
learn that all the signs were dismissed by authorities as part of the normal cycle of the volcano.
Mt. Pelee had experienced periods of activity before without any dire consequences, and so to
many, the thought of Martinique’s most important city being destroyed was unimaginable. With
an important upcoming election on May 11th, the governor had been encouraged by business
leaders and plantation owners not to evacuate, and the governor even enlisted the local paper to
persuade people that there was no imminent danger. Even today, when given warnings of
possible danger, how often do we disregard the signs, hoping that it won’t happen. And in
current events, how often do we accept as fact what is really propaganda from the media.
One of the most popular holidays in Martinique was Carnival, and we were lucky to be in
Martinique during this time. We enjoyed Carnival in three different venues, with the two
smaller towns lending a much different feel to the celebration compared to Port-de-France.
While in Trois Ilets on Thursday we saw a portion of the children’s parade.
Saturday, Sunday, and Monday we enjoyed festivities in Port-de-France. On Saturday we could
definitely feel the excitement in the air. In the nearby mall, Carnival decorations were
prevalent, and people were busy getting their faces painted. People were also buying last
minute costumes or accessories from vendors along the street. Most stores closed at 1 pm and
planned to remain close until after Carnival ended Wednesday evening. Late Saturday afternoon
in Port-de-France, the queen’s court was presented in a small parade.
Part of Queens Court
Sunday afternoon the big parade in Port-de-France took place with lots of beautiful costumes
and local bands, but without any steel pans like in Grenada or Trinidad. Everyone enjoyed
themselves, and the people loved the drum beat of the bands. We decided, though, that with a
little rhythm, most anyone could be in a band in Martinique. We also noticed pleasantly that no
one was drunk, probably due to no alcohol being sold.
It was interesting to find that Carnival traditions in Martinique were different from those on
other French islands. In Martinique, the creation of ‘Vaval’, a satirical character, was an
important tradition. Many towns had their own ‘Vaval’, which in turn became their own
Carnival king. These same towns usually had their own parades on Monday, Tuesday, and
Wednesday. Monday was a burlesque wedding, Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) was red devil day,
and Ash Wednesday was black-and-white day (black symbolized mourning over Carnival’s
end). Wednesday night all festivities climaxed with the burning of ‘Vaval’. In Port-de-France,
Monday’s burlesque wedding parade was much, much smaller than Sunday’s main parade.