As we make our way on foot through the highlands of Martinique, I realize that we are also entering the heartland of a distinct Caribbean culture in which the voices of many generations still resonate.
We have meandered through what are called the Creole Gardens, and the complementary and stunning physical landscape in which they thrive. These small private farms on the volcanic slopes of Martinique’s lush interior are intricately and skillfully integrated into a nutrient-rich ecosystem, which in many ways is also the essence of this culturally resource-rich island.
Biological and cultural diversity
Sometimes called les jardins de résistance (the gardens of resistance), these well-ordered plots of land today are models of sustainability and regenerative agricultural practices. They are also representative of a culture of self-determination; and of a deep sense of interconnectedness between a benevolent terrain and the people it has nurtured.
This is the soul of Martinique, fondly known as the Fleur des Caraïbes − the flower of the Caribbean.
But the Creole Gardens are also appropriate symbols for the struggles and ultimate triumphs of the heterogeneous culture of Martinique, a collective self-actualization that has been in progress for hundreds of years. It is these layers of history and culture that make up the mosaic of Martinique, evoking an historical awareness of the long-ago colonial aspirations of European powers and of empire-building. But at the core of the complex narrative that is Martinique is also the institution of slavery.
When France abolished slavery in its overseas colonies in March 1818, only 45 years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a Creole culture began to flourish which would blend French traditions, mores, and a legal and social infrastructure with that of the oral history and traditions of people of African descent.
As was the case on other Caribbean islands, Martinique was part of the plantation economies in the West Indies colonies, of France especially. As a result, many of these islands began to thrive as centres for the export of sugar. But the forced labour of the black slaves on these sugar plantations was cruel and harsh, more so even than that of the cotton plantations of the American South.
And when emancipation came, the people of Martinique, who were then very much a blend of the Old and New Worlds, became the principal source of a renaissance and cultural élan by emphasizing this prodigious and magnificent island’s natural resources, and its intrinsic beauty. As Bertrand Russell said, “extreme hopes are born from extreme misery.” This is the transcendent beauty of Martinique.
Canadians especially will identify with the island’s biodiversity as well as with its multicultural heritage; discovering layers of meaningfulness and a quiet passion that underscores the resourcefulness and insight that this rich natural environment engenders. And like the Creole Gardens, this relatively small island destination has an abundance of natural treasures as well as historical and heritage sites that both enlighten and entertain.
The hues and shades of the social fabric and natural history of Martinique are also reflected in the preservation and careful maintenance of sites such as the Parc régional de la Caravelle, an extensive 2.5-hectare nature preserve of considerable biological importance given its nutrient-rich mangroves. Nearby is the Château Dubuc, one of the island’s former sugar plantations with spectacular views and seascapes. The château dates from 1773 and today is tangible evidence of the historic and commercial importance of Martinique as a former colony of France. The Habitation Clément, a former rum distillery, today is a wonderful example of the kind of impeccably restored heritage site you will find in Martinique. The estate’s colonial-era buildings, contemporary art gallery, and luxuriant landscapes are worth a half-day visit at least.
A year-round destination, Martinique is known for its excellent infrastructure, accommodation to suit all needs and budgets, golf courses à la Robert Trent Jones, the glorious Tour des Yoles sailing race in August, horticultural travel at its best, and sustainable tourism.
The list of content-rich sites and unique experiences in Martinique is almost endless. But what also makes up the persona of Martinique is its aesthetic qualities and grassroots experiences. Here people and human culture matter, and in the classical French tradition everything is accomplished with finesse and style − especially in the culinary arts. Martinique is a gourmet destination in all respects, but it is also the beau idéal of what has come to be known as “slow food” culture. Local markets, especially the one in the capital of Fort-de-France, epitomize eating well.
The economy of Martinique is strong because of a discerning tourism industry which celebrates the island’s diversity. Agriculture is also a fundamental component of the economy; in particular in the growing of organic foods, the cultivation of bananas, and to some extent sugar cane, which today is used primarily for the production of rum. Fourteen per cent of the active population of Martinique work in the agricultural industry, compared to four per cent in what Martinicans call France Métropolitaine − “Metropolitan France”. Therefore, for those interested in agritourism − one of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry − immersing yourself in this harmonious landscape can be a purposeful and enriching travel experience.
The alluring ecosystems of Martinique create a medley of sensory experiences in a landscape that welcomes up close and personal travel. It is indeed “the flower of the Caribbean”, an eclectic, inclusive, and sensory-rich destination where beauty is in the eye of the beholder – everywhere.
And Martinique’s beauty is all-encompassing.
Personal recommendations in Martinique
La Savane des Esclaves
This superb attraction is another excellent example of how the people of Martinique preserve and create an in-depth awareness of their heritage. Conceived and managed by Gilbert Larose, a highly committed and self-taught historian, cultural anthropologist, and environmentalist, the Savane des Esclaves is a walk through Creole history and a lesson in how slavery played a key role in the Caribbean. See La Savane des Esclaves
As I have mentioned in the text above, this former sugar plantation and rum distillery is also social and cultural history at its best. It is also an art gallery and, in my view, a wonderful example of how contemporary art installations fulfill many purposes. See Habitation Clément.
Le Tour des Yoles
A yole is a unique and indigenous boat traditionally used by Martinique fishers; and was often used to travel from island to island throughout the Caribbean. It too is social history in Martinique. The famous race Le Tour des Yoles Rondes takes place in August and is an event that draws large crowds of locals as well as international visitors. It is also one of the biggest and most fun events of the year in Martinique. See Le Tour des Yoles. At this site you can see actual videos. For more photos see Images and Imagery in Martinique on my Flikr site.
E-discover and Bruno Dompierre
The Segway has become a popular means of exploring a number of destinations. You can either hike or go by Segway along what is called Sentiers des Caraïbes (The Paths of the Carib Indians) which runs along beautiful beaches on the southern coast of Martinique, through local campgrounds and picnic areas, and through important wildlife viewing and indigenous ecosystems. For more information watch the video The Coolest Way to See Martinique. See also www.e-discover.fr.
Parc naturel régional de la Martinique
On a peninsula stretching out into the Caribbean is a Martinique ecotourism destination that for lovers of all things natural and biological, should not be missed. This regional park has numerous hiking trails that take you through Mangroves all the way to the sea. If you go with a guide, you will also be engaging in one of the best life-long learning through travel experiences in the Caribbean. See Martinique Nature.
Nearby is also the Château Dubuc, another historical and heritage site that is not to be missed. The views from this property are also stupendous and despite its troubled history, one understands why the European powers saw this part of the world as a source of wealth. See Château Dubuc.
Agritourism in Martinique
This form of grassroots travel is becoming increasingly popular around the world as travellers become more and more conscious of the important (and sometimes precarious) earth-based resources. One such farm-stay experience is provided by Auberge Le Domaine de la Vallée. See www.martinique-domaine-vallee.com.
Golfing in Martinique
If you golf in Martinique, the biggest challenge will be keeping your eye on the ball, as opposed to being distracted by the landscapes and seascapes. See www.golfmartinique.com
Le Domaine de Saint-Aubin, Trinité, Martinique
This former sugar plantation is an excellent choice for those who want a quiet “home away from home” experience. It is also a a gastronomic experience. See http://ledomainesaintaubin.com.
Pierre & Vacances
For families especially, this full service and “full program” vacation stay hotel (an institution unto itself in France) will provide for all your needs. See www.pierreetvacances.com
Each individual bungalow is decorated in traditional Creole style and wins my vote for most traveller-friendly accommodation on the island of Martinique. See www.hotelbambou.fr
La Table de Mamy Nounou and Hôtel La Caravelle
Another gastronomic treasure, as well as an authentic, and low-key vacation stay, this unique accommodation on a hillside above the sea and its “bonne table” is for those especially who appreciate quality as opposed to quantity. See Hôtel La Caravelle.
The Tak Tak “network” (the word is Creole and means fireflies) may be the most grassroots and authentic travel experience I have had in recent years. It is a network of travel suppliers, rural gîtes (more or less the equivalent of bed and breakfast accommodation), and artisans, restaurants, nature/soft adventure experiences, in-depth historical travel experiences, and ecotourism travel. As a collective of service providers, Tak Tak is a low budget alternative to those who appreciate getting a genuine “up close and personal” view of this amazing Caribbean landscape. You may begin your day with a Creole breakfast and you will be hosted and enlightened by Martiniquais people who have a real commitment to the history and biodiversity of their island. And if you don’t speak, French do not worry. The principles and values of Tak Tak embody hospitality. They will manage to communicate with you in your language of choice somehow. What you will experience is an intercultural dialogue on a profound level. See www.taktak-martinique.com
Club Med Les Boucaniers
I have never considered myself a Club Med type, however the Club Med chain has diversified considerably and offers many amenities to many types of clients. This property especially is wonderfully situated, well-planned in terms of its extensive layout, types of accommodation and amenities available, and in the spirit of Club Med a travel supplier that respects your sense of privacy and personal choice. See Club Med Les Boucaniers (Buccaneer’s Creek).
This medium-size hotel directly across the bay from Fort-de-France (and accessible by ferry to the capital) is an excellent location in the laid-back town of Trois Ilets where you can walk to many local attractions and amenities, especially dining. See www.hotel-carayou.com.
Another slightly off the beaten track gem, this restaurant (and yes the house in which it is located was built in 1643) is quintessential Martinique. See www.restaurant1643.com.
(b) Air Canada has non-stop flights from Montreal to Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique.
(c) France d’outremer
Martinique is an official overseas département of France, one of four including Guadeloupe, French Guyana in South America, and the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. The island is as much a part of France as Paris or the Dordogne.
(d) Produced by Martinique Tourism, http://www.martinique-bonjour.com has an English link. There is also an English print version of the guide
(e) A link to parks and gardens in Martinique can be found in English at http://www.martinique.org/activities/parks.php. It is part of the “Official Website of the Martinique Tourism Authority”.
(f) This particular PDF site is particularly useful to both repeat visitors and first time visitors to Martinique. See Comité Martiniquais du Tourisme.
(g) For more perspective on the institution of slavery in Martinique and the Caribbean see French Slavery.
A version of this article was first published in Dreamscapes magazine.
A comment and commentary by the Martinique Tourism Board
“Il s’agit d’un article (encore en anglais) publié sur le site de Robert Fisher, un Canadien qui est à la fois journaliste voyage, éditeur, éducateur à la retraite et ancien cadre en marketing. Il fait partie de plusieurs associations autour du voyage. L’article date de novembre 2009, donc pas si vieux que ça.
Dans cet article, Bob Fisher fait le récit de son voyage à la Martinique, et il est plutôt élogieux! Qu’il parle des jardins créoles ou des paysages qu’il a découvert, ce journaliste donne envie Il salue les pratiques d’une agriculture saine et voit dans ces jardins une part de l’histoire de la Martinique. Il y voit « une culture de l’autodétermination » et « un profond sentiment d’interdépendance entre une terre généreuse et les personnes qu’elle a nourries« . C’est pour lui, « l’âme de la Martinique« .
Il retrace brièvement l’histoire coloniale de l’île et décrit les martiniquais au moment de leur émancipation comme « un mélange de l’Ancien et du Nouveau monde […] principale source d’une renaissance et d’un élan culturel en mettant l’accent sur les ressources naturelles de cette île prodigieuse et magnifique et sa beauté intrinsèque« . Il utilise une citation que j’aime particulièrement, de Bertrand Russel et qui dit que « les espoirs extrêmes naissent de la misère extrême ».
L’auteur souligne également la biodiversité de l’île, son héritage multiculturel, les trésors naturels qui y existent, les excellentes infrastructures, l’hébergement accessible à tous les budgets.
Il évoque la Caravelle à Trinité et la mangrove, le Château Dubuc, l’Habitation Clément au François, le golf des Trois-Ilets, le tour des Yoles… »la liste est presque interminable »;
Thanks Mr Fisher!”