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  • Writer's picturedianerhodes

What's so cool about Martinique?

Updated: Jun 3


Everything.

After Dominica, we set sail for the next island down the chain, Martinique, known for its diverse culture, rich history, and stunning natural beauty, Martinique offers a unique blend of French and Caribbean influences.


Ka Boom!

Mt. Pelee looming over St. Pierre

One of the most fascinating aspects of Martinique is the historical volcano Mt. Pelée. We sailed our boat to St. Pierre to see it firsthand.


The city has installed numerous new mooring balls, but there's still space to anchor north of the mooring field. We dropped the hook and went ashore to immerse ourselves in the rich history.

Lagerhead on anchor
Memorial de la Catastrophe de 1902

Our first stop was the Memorial de la Catastrophe de 1902. The museum commemorates the devastating eruption of Mt. Pelée on May 8, 1902. This catastrophic event destroyed the city of St. Pierre and killed nearly 30,000 residents in a matter of minutes, making it one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in history.


The memorial serves as a poignant reminder of the tragedy and is dedicated to preserving the memory of those who perished. It includes various exhibits that detail the events leading up to the eruption, the impact of the disaster, and the subsequent efforts to rebuild the city.


The impact of the volcano fused these scissors, nails, and plates together and melted the bell.


The Sole Survivor

A mural at a local restaurant.

The story of Ludger Sylbaris is extraordinary.


Ludger, born in 1875 on Martinique, was a convicted felon who loved drinking and fighting. On May 7, 1902, he was arrested for yet another brawl.


Police threw him into solitary confinement, a small, half-underground cell with no windows and only a narrow slit in the door.


Dave tries out the cell.


Unbeknownst to them, they had just saved his life.


Mt. Pelée had been showing signs of an impending eruption for over a week, but without modern vulcanology, no one knew what the signs meant. Ironically, people had been visiting the newly formed lake at the top of the mountain and picnicking up there.


On May 8, Mt. Pelée erupted, sending a cloud of smoke that darkened the sky for fifty miles. A pyroclastic flow of superheated gas and ash swept down the volcano at hundreds of miles per hour, annihilating everything within an eight-mile radius. In just one minute, a 1,075-degree wave flattened every building in St. Pierre. Those in its path were instantly incinerated, and even those in shelters suffocated as the superheated gas consumed the oxygen and replaced it with deadly fumes. Nearly all 30,000 residents perished instantly, and the city burned for days.


Almost every single building was destroyed.

Ludger was incredibly lucky. Rescuers found him four days after the eruption, guided by his cries. Despite being in the safest place on the island, he suffered severe burns as the air in his cell had flash-heated to over 1,000 degrees.


He described seeing the light through the slit grow dark and superheated ash flying in. He urinated on his clothes and stuffed them in the slit to block the heat, but it was largely ineffective.

The jail cell

After the eruption, Ludger was pardoned for his crimes and hired to tour with Barnum & Bailey, recounting his harrowing experience.


He became a celebrity, known as "The Man who Lived through Doomsday" and "The Most Marvelous Man in the World."


At the time, St. Pierre was known as the Paris of the Caribbean and served as Martinique's capital city. Clues about the city's former grandeur remain. Adjacent to the jail are the ruins of the once elaborate theater. The town never recovered. Today only about 4,000 people live in St, Pierre. The buildings are a mix of ruins and renovations.

The theater before Mt. Pelee exploded.
The remailns we saw of the theater.

Zoo de Martinique

While in St. Pierre, Dave and I walked to the zoo, just outside of town. The zoo is situated in the beautiful surroundings of the Anse Latouche estate, a historical site that includes the ruins of an old sugar plantation and distillery, adding a unique historical context to the zoo.


The zoo is nestled within lush tropical gardens, offering a scenic and immersive experience. The pathways are well-designed to blend with the natural landscape, creating a pleasant environment for both the animals and visitors.


The zoo is home to a wide variety of animals from different parts of the world. We saw lots of species of monkeys, jaguars, raccoons, parrots, flamingos, bats, capybaras, and iguanas.



Hero Dave

Dave saved an iguana's life. He noticed the poor guy's head was stuck between two bamboo shoots and couldn't escape. Dave tracked down a zookeeper. He didn't speak English but Dave was able to convince him to follow him and showed him the stuck animal. The zookeeper pulled the bamboo apart and freed the iguana, who recovered quickly and ran away.

The iguana Dave saved.

Fort de France

After Mt. Pelee erupted, the capital was moved south to the city of Fort de France. Dave and I made our home in the anchorage here for a month. We really loved this metropolitan hub in the Caribbean. It is the biggest city we've visited since San Juan.

Most convenient anchorage ever!

There are plenty of authentic French patisseries for French bread and croissants. Fort-de-France hosts vibrant markets such as the Grand Marché, where visitors can buy local produce, spices, crafts, and experience the lively atmosphere of Caribbean commerce.

The city boasts a blend of traditional shops, modern boutiques, and an array of restaurants serving both local Creole cuisine and international dishes. If you’re in need of a bikini or a skimpy outfit, this is the place to be—every other store sells clothing. You can also enjoy a good French beer here. Additionally, the city features a massive mall and several large grocery stores, almost rivaling Wegmans in size and selection (though nothing can truly compare to Wegmans!).

The anchorage was pleasantly uncrowded, enabling us to live just a few hundred feet from the shore, right in the heart of the city. This prime location offers exceptional convenience for getting around, grocery shopping, and catching the bus.

Fort de France has one of the longest dinghy docks we've seen anywhere. The dock is part of La Savane Park. It has a very pleasant atmosphere, especially at night when many young families gather. There is a playground here which is always full of laughing children in the evenings and on the weekends.


The park also has a spigot of free drinking water that cruisers use to fill up jugs and free outdoor showers too!


There is lots of music here as well, from people playing instruments on the boardwalk to DJs blasting out tunes on their sound systems. It can be tough to sleep on the weekends before 2am.

We enjoyed walking around the park, although we noticed that all the statues had been removed from their pedestals.


We learned that during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the statues were decapitated, including one of Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte's first wife. Josephine was born and raised in Martinique, where her family owned a sugar cane plantation.


Schoelcher Library

This architectural gem is located near the waterfront adjacent to the park. Named after Victor Schoelcher, the French abolitionist. Schoelcher's statue was also decapitated in the park. Although he fought to end slavery in France, he worked to compensate the slave owners and not the slaves themselves.


The library boasts a striking design and houses an extensive collection of books and historical documents.

Designed by French architect Henri Picq, it was constructed in Paris for the 1889 World Exposition before being dismantled and shipped to Martinique.


Public Transportation

Fort-de-France is well-connected by public transportation, including buses and ferries, making it easy to explore the rest of the island.

The A and B buses are free to use and we caught them directly in front of our anchorage. They are three bus lengths long and feel more like a train than a bus. These two buses took us all over Fort de France.


The A bus also stops at the airport and Carrere, a bus depot, shown above, where we made connections for other bus routes across the island.


I used the A bus to get to and from the airport when I went back to NY for my son's college graduation.


Jardins de Baleta

We took a different bus that lead us up into the mountains and to the beautiful botanical garden Jardins de Baleta. We visited the Jardins with Leo, a solo sailor we met in Dominica.


Finding the right bus was a bit of a challenge. Google directed us to the wrong bus station, and we couldn't find anyone who spoke English well enough to help us. However, everyone we asked pointed in the same direction, so we headed that way. Eventually, we reached the bus stations near La Levee Cemetery, where our bus was clearly marked and waiting for us. The garden tour was worth the hunt for the correct bus stop.

Bus Stop by La Levee Cemetery

Jardins de Baleta opened in 1986 and showcases a diverse collection of over 3,000 varieties of tropical plants from around the world, including 300 types of palm trees, as well as anthuriums, begonias, bromeliads, cycads, heliconias, mahogany, and various bamboos​. 


The garden features beautifully crafted landscapes that blend the natural terrain with artistic elements, creating a visually stunning and tranquil environment. We wandered along the paths, descended staircases, and crossed swing bridges.



Habitation Clément

We had to keep our tradition of visiting a rum distillery on every Caribbean island, so we chose Habitation Clément. It turned out to be much more than just a rum distillery, offering a truly spectacular experience.


Habitation Clément is a historic estate located in Le François, Martinique on the Atlantic coast side. We had to take three buses to get there, which took a little over an hour.

This estate is renowned for its production of rhum agricole, a type of rum made from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, as opposed to molasses.

Established in the 18th century, the estate was initially a sugar plantation. Over time, it transitioned to rum production, which became its mainstay.


Factory

The estate is best known for producing Rhum Clément. The brand was officially founded by Homère Clément in the late 19th century, who bought the estate in 1887. He is often credited with modernizing the rum-making process in Martinique.


Estate

The estate's self-guided tour includes the old distillery, the aging cellars, and the beautiful Creole mansion, which has been preserved to showcase its historic architecture and furnishings.

Galleries

The estate has many art galleries throughout the grounds which we enjoyed touring.


Art Walk

The grounds feature lush botanical gardens and contemporary art installations along an Art Walk, which was my favorite part.


Historical Site

George H.W. Bush (US President) and François Mitterrand (France President) met at Habitation Clément in March 1991, shortly after the end of the first Gulf War. The meeting symbolized the strong diplomatic ties between the United States and France. It underscored the collaboration between the two nations on key international issues.


Bush and Mitterrand took a tour of the property together, ate lunch at the estate, then both flew off separately in their own helicopters.


There is a room full of memorabilia and movie clips playing, highlighting the estate's part in this pivotal diplomatic event.


Oopsy

We entered through the wrong entrance and didn’t find the ticket booth until the end of our visit. Having already seen everything, we decided to use the ticket money to buy a variety pack of Rhum Clément products instead.


Cruisers

Fellow cruisers are what really make all this travel fun! We met some wonderful people in Martinique and met up with some old friends too!


When we first arrived, we hosted a party with our "old" friends from Dominica- Leo from Maine and Ash and Tarn from Australia. We also invited Neil, a solo sailor from British Columbia, who we had just met at the dinghy dock.


Later, Neil hosted a Cinco de Mayo party on his friend Henry's catamaran. Henry is a solo sailor from Namibia and Gabriella from Brazil came too. She made some wonderfully delicious treats for Cinco de Mayo.


We had Gabby over on our boat to pick her brain on places to sail to in Brazil. She was a wealth of information and we are excited to visit her home country.


Before Ash and Tarn took off for places south, they hosted Neil, Gabby and us on their beautiful catamaran for sundowners.


Our old buddies from the BVIs, Mario and Nathalie, were hauling their boat out in a different part of Martinique. We couldn't let them go back to Montreal for the season without seeing them one more time.


We took a couple of buses down to Le Marin and met up with them for lunch. They also gave us a ride in their very fast dinghy over to St. Anne, a charming beachside town that we plan to visit on our way back up the island chain next winter. It was wonderful to catch up with them again, and we are looking forward to more buddy boating together next season.


We weren't sure where to catch the bus to get back to Fort de France but Nathalie flagged down a bus driving past. The driver was off duty, returning the bus to the depot. He agreed to take us to Carrare where we could catch a bus back to our boat.


It pays to be with someone who speaks fluent French and is super outgoing! Thanks, Nathalie! We got back so much faster with our "Private" bus and the driver refused to take money for the ride.


And I didn't take any pictures of any of it. I need to do better.


Anchors Away

Martinique is one of those places where it would be very easy to stay for a long time. However, with hurricane season approaching, we needed to get moving again. We pulled up anchor and sailed to St. Lucia, which was a very sporty sail!

On our journey down the coast, we spent the night at Les Anses d'Arlet. This tranquil anchorage offered incredible snorkeling right around our boat. The seabed was teeming with hundreds of starfish in various sizes, colors, and patterns.


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