Friday, May 18, 2018

Martinique!

Before we bought a house in Naples FL in 2009, for many years my wife and I would take a vacation the week of Valentine's day to Grand Case, French St. Martin in the Caribbean. We loved it there. Boulevard de Grand Case was billed as "the gourmet capital of the Caribbean" - and indeed, many fine French restaurants, some Italian, some California, some bar food - but with the occasional "house with chicken coops" thrown in. A real place, not a f#cking Disneyworld. Plus, in the peak of season, you could walk the 1 mile Grand Case beach and see maybe 30 people.

So last year we decided to go back to St. Martin, to see what had changed, and what had not. I booked rooms for the 2nd week of Feb last summer, and even so we were going to have to change rooms in the middle of the week. The Google said to wait until 6 weeks before flying (Thanksgiving) to buy the plane tickets.

Then, October 6, after trashing Dominica, Hurricane Irma completely trashed St. Martin. The Grand Case Beach Club, where we were booked to stay, lost 43 of 62 rooms and all it's common facilities. Wow, they just announced they will reopen October 1, 2018.

So, I asked my wife, "Well, maybe stay in the states, go to San Diego?" She's like "No, I want to go to the Caribbean."

So I ask The Google, "Where in the Caribbean is like Grand Case, St. Martin?" And I get 2 posts back basically saying, "Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique".

So I check it out. French St. Martin has a population of 40,000, 90% of whom speak English. Martinique has a population of 425,000, 25% of whom speak English. Martinique tourism is 80% French (All the French Caribbean islands are states of France, like Hawaii is to the US), 15% other European, 4% American. Basically from almost anywhere in the US it is a 2 day trip. But, if you're in SW or S Florida, it is a 1 day trip - direct flight from Miami to Fort-de-France (capital of Martinique) - and $252 for a round trip ticket!!! Flying to St. Martin was going to involve my wife and I meeting up in Charlotte, and the tickets were ~$1000.

So I looked around at hotels, and finally decided on the Hotel Bakoua. The rooms were $270/night, vs $430 in St. Martin. Martinique is about 40 miles long by 25 miles wide, and the books recommended renting a car, so we did that.

February 9, my wife flew from Lexington into Punta Gorda. I picked her up at the airport around dinner time, so we drove to Fisherman's Village and had dinner before driving back to Naples.

The next morning, Feb 10, we left Naples at ~ 6:30am and drove to Miami International Airport, around a 2 hour drive. We left the car there in the airport parking lot, probably many cheaper options. We had plenty of time for our 10:50 flight.

We arrived in Fort-de-France at ~3:30 pm - plenty of time to get our rental car - a Romanian Dacia (now owned by Renault) Sandero, with a stick shift, of course. Fort-de-France is on the north side of the Baie de Fort-de-France, the airport is at the east end of the bay, and Les Trois-Îlets is on the south side of the bay. Here is a Google Earth screen capture of Martinique with the places we visited labeled.

Here's Martinique as we approached its west coast.

You fly right up the Baie de Fort-de-France. There was usually a cruise ship or 2 docked at Fort-de-France.

We were incredibly lucky in our choice of travel dates. As we used to do when we went to St. Martin, we went during the week of Valentine's Day - which in 2018 was also Ash Wednesday (and Easter Sunday was April Fool's Day ?!?!?) - so we were there for Carnaval! The airport was decorated for Carnaval.

Les Trois-Îlets seems to refer to the region on the south side of the bay, but there is also a town with that name slightly to the east of where we were staying. We stayed on Pointe du Bout (the end of the end), a peninsula projecting north into the bay. Here's what Pointe du Bout looks like from Google Earth.

We really liked the Hotel Bakoua - a bakoua is a conical straw hat, as shown in their sign.

I would estimate it was 40-60 years old, but very well maintained and very clean. Here's the lobby.

The entire sprawling 1st floor, which included their main bar and 2 dining areas, was open air.

In what was maybe the only snafu of the whole trip, there was no bellman available to show us to our room, and I think we got told to take a right when we should have been told to take a left. Then we were asking for our room, #41, as "quatorze et un" (14 and 1) instead of "quarante et un" (41). But we did finally find our room. The room wasn't large, but the bathroom had a big tub, and there was a very nice covered front porch area.

Here was view from the door to the room - 10' to the beach and 40' from the water!

We went up and down these stairs from our room at the beach level to the bar and dining areas many times. We later found we could follow the beach and get into town with no stairs. Breakfast was included in the room price, and they had pretty much every kind of breakfast food you could imagine (in French), including custom made omelets and crepes.

Here's a night view of Fort-de-France across the bay.

Sunday, February 11, was Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), the 1st day of the 4 day Carnaval celebration. They even celebrated on Ash Wednesday?!?!? The patron saint/sacrificial lamb of Carnaval is named Vaval. He changes every year, usually modeled after a public figure. On Wednesday, the celebration concludes with him being burned! So, a Fisher King / Wicker Man meme. Here's the Carnaval schedule. Every day had a different color theme.

The Grand Parade was Sunday from 3 until 5:30. In the morning we explored out to the tip of Pointe du Bout. There were fortifications at the end.

The old fort appeared to have been used as a amphitheater / performance space, and had some nice tagging and local art.

We took the ferry over to Fort-de-France just after lunch. Waiting for the ferry, we talked to a couple of US citizens. Both were retired and lived on sailboats they sailed around the Caribbean. They are very much at the mercy of the trade winds and sometimes have to stay on an island for weeks waiting for the winds from the east to die down to where they could sail east.

We wandered around Fort-de-France sightseeing for a couple of hours before he parade started. Here's the main churcn.

Here's the library, named for a a famous French abolitionist Victor Schœlcher. The town just to the west of Fort-de-France is named Schœlcher.

This civic center had programs helping people get ready for the parade.

A Valentine's Day ad.

An old friend.

A memorial to war dead.

There were lots of cars with murals painted on them. We saw a lot of them in the Carnaval Parade, I'm not sure if they stay that way all year round. I like the 1 showing our Dear Leader some well-deserved love.

The parade started with a lot of these cars, a lot of them being ridden by buff young men, shirtless and in stockings and tutus. Dressing in drag is apparently a Carnaval tradition. We both liked the "Disney Princesses".

Then the 1st band came through. The music was incredible. I have already posted all the videos I took of these bands. Here's some of the rest of the stuff in the parade.

Butterfly ladies.

Clay people?!?!?

Princesses.

The Red Devils of Martinique. These look a lot like what my sister Katie has seen in Germany.

Not sure what, but, nice!

Black and white people. I thought these were harlequins, but "harlequin" means multi-colored.

A dance troupe.

Creepy clowns.

Porcelain doll ladies.

And finally, a float whose message and meaning I have completely forgotten.

The 1st 5 days we were on Martinique, it rained 3-4 minutes every hour or so, usually hard for 20-60 seconds in the middle. It rained 3 times during the parade. My wife would duck back under one of the tents of the vendors selling Carnaval goods, I just stayed out in the rain - you would dry off in 5 minutes or so. The paraders just kept on going. Here's a couple of pix of paraders getting pelted by rain.

We headed back the 200 or so yards to catch the ferry at around 5. The ferries were very crowded. On the way back we passed by Fort Saint Louis, which has an historical part you can tour (we didn't) and an active French naval base which you cannot tour.

With all the rain, there were many rainbows, and we were treated to one on the ferry ride back to Pointe du Bout.

Walking back to Hotel Bakoua from the ferry, we saw these carvings done in some dead tree trunks. Art!

Ha ha, I have to include this "Dogs forbidden" sign. It was a standing joke on St. Martin that we never walked on Grand Case beach, which featured a great big sign "Les Chiens Sont Strictement Interdit Sur La Plage" ("Dogs are strictly forbidden on the beach"), without seeing a dog or 3.

Monday, Feb 12, we decided to drive up to Mont Pelée. This is the highest mountain on the island. On May 8, 1902, Mont Pelée erupted, killing all but 1 of the inhabitants of St. Pierre, the capital at the time - 30,000 people. It was the largest volcanic disaster of the 20th century. The capital was then moved to Fort-de-France.

We drove through St. Pierre to get there. It was the most dingy and run-down town we went through - I'm guessing capital was skittish about tempting the volcano again.

The volcano museum on the north side of St. Pierre was closed when we came through. We headed east though the town of Le Morne Rouge. Given the volcanic mountainous terrain, the roads were hilly with many hairpin turns, but they were well maintained and well marked, and my wife did a fab job as navigator using her iPhone.

There was a 3 hour trail to the summit of Mont Pelée. We thought we'd go a little ways, but it was chilly and the peak was covered in clouds, so we decided against it - wisely as it turned out, as it started pouring 10 minutes after we left.

Here's a couple of views from the trail parking lot.

Here's what the view towards the summit looked like.

On our way back south, we stopped at the Martinique Zoo in Le Carbet. It doubled as a botanical garden. It was interesting in that it was built from the ruins of a sugar cane processing plantation. A lot of the animal enclosure walls were left over from the plantation buildings - found architecture.

Some of the yuccas and other familiar looking plants were well over 6' tall.

Animal-wise, they had a jaguar, which the sign said gets bigger than leopards. The flamingos and the scarlet ibises were beautiful. We have white and glossy ibis in Florida, I did not know there was a scarlet ibis.

I think we spotted this mural in Le Carbet. I love murals.

The normal route back to Pointe du Bout involved going through Rivière-Salée, which was having its Carnaval parade that afternoon. So we detoured to the east and south and wound up going through Le Diamant on the southern coast. If featured a striking conical island offshore - I did not get a pic.

Tuesday, February 13, started out with a beautiful rainbow, as a lot of the days did.

We decided to visit Village de la Poterie, on the coast just east of the town of Les Trois-Îlets. This was apparently the sponsor of the clay people in the parade?!?!? There was a brick and tile plant there but not that much pottery. There were several small shops. My wife got some earrings that were custom modified by one of the owners of a jewelry coop. We both liked the soap shop. This prismatic display featured 53 different colors/scents of soap.

That evening, we had the best meal of the trip at Le Café De Paris, which was just south of Hotel Bakoua on Pointe du Bout. The majority of the restaurants had their menus in French only. This one had a menu board in English, but not translated by a native English speaker. The Flying Fish appetizer was delicious. The "Crosy Fish of Carbet" turned out to great big crawdads. Very tasty. We definitely had some surprises, particularly from the French only menus. Most places had 1 person who spoke English when our French failed us.

Wednesday, February 14 was Valentine's Day. We went back to Le Carbet to visit the Gauguin Museum there. He only spent a few months on Martinique before illness made him return to France, but supposedly the time influenced his work. It was not exceptionally content-rich, but worth a visit. We lunched at a beach restaurant right across the street. They had a gallery with works by a local artist whose name I have misplaced. We both liked her work. Here's a sample:

We had our Valentine's Day dinner at the hotel's restaurant, Le Chateaubriand. We had had a good meal there our 1st night in. For Valentine's Day they had a fixed menu dinner, which was paced very slowly and was OK but not great. It included sauteed pâté de foie gras - OMG, possibly the fattiest thing I have ever eaten! It must definitely be an acquired taste.

Thurday Feb 15 we decided to visit the Jardin de Balata, the best known botanical garden on Martinique. On the way there and from the garden there were striking views of the Pitons de Carbet.

The garden was very nice. Coming in there was a feeder swarming with hummingbirds of at least a couple of species.

It also featured a walkway through the canopy. There was a bit of a wait to get onto this as each segment was only supposed to have 2 people on it at a time. In the queue, we chatted with some Brits who had come in on a cruise ship. We shared their dismay at who got elected as the current president of the United States. But when I mentioned, well, you guys screwed up with Brexit too, the guy was kind of like "No, there were good reasons to vote Brexit, but it hasn't been executed well." So a Brexit backer - an old white guy, of course.

As well as the beautiful foliage, the garden also had beautiful views.

Friday, Feb 16, we decided to visit a rum distillery. The one most highly recommended was on the far northern tip of the island, so we decided on one a little further south: the St. James distillery in Sainte Marie on the Atlantic coast. It also featured the Rum Museum. Some sampling and purchasing of rum was done.

The Atlantic coast was supposed to be a lot rougher than the Caribbean coast, but it not particularly seem so.

On the way back down the east coast of the island, we encountered an apparently abandoned kiddie ride. I doubted that Disney was getting any royalties for the use of its IP, but, who knows, France is a developed country so it probably toes a pretty hard line on IP protection.

My fabulous navigator spied out a shortcut back from the east coast, which worked great, saving us maybe 10-15 minutes.

On our last evening on Martinique, there was, as usual, a beautiful sunset behind the Hotel Bakoua's Coco Bar over the water.

Saturday, Feb 17, our flight back to Miami was at ~4. We just walked around the nice shops and restaurants of Pointe du Bout and the adjacent areas. I took this last picture on the ride from the rental car company to the airport. It is of a field of sugar cane. There were a lot of those, with all their production currently going to the rum distilleries. The main other crop they grow there is bananas, which are exported to mainland France.

We wound up back in Naples I think near midnight.

It was a great vacation. We felt like we chose something a bit outside our comfort zone that turned out fabulously. The Carnaval parade in particular was a really moving experience. We did not get to the far north of the island, or to the southeast part, the main town of which is Sainte-Anne. There were several other botanical gardens we didn't visit. So I think we will be back, and probably before we try St. Martin again. And we may also try Guadeloupe, the other large French Caribbean island, 2 to the north of Martinique - which got smashed on September 19, 2017 by Hurricane Maria.

Until the next time, Hotel Bakoua! We'll be back!