I woke up on Sunday morning to the sound of church choirs singing. There are a great number of church-going folk in Martinique, and as I had my breakfast on the front steps with Cali the cat, I could hear their hymns echoing up the valley. Sunday was my day in Trois Îslets, a piece of the island rich with history and museums.
My first stop was to the sugar museum. I wasn’t sure how it would be different from any of the other sugar plantations or rum distilleries I’d seen, and I was never to find out. A hastily scrawled sign on the outermost gate informed me it was closed for the day, no reason given.
Windy country roads then led me to La Savane des Esclaves, a reproduction slave village up in the hills. Like most every touristy museum in Martinique, it was tucked away. I accidentally bought tickets for the tour in French, but the guide was friendly and didn’t have the tendency to speak French at lightening speed that literally everyone else on the island had (at least, that’s what it felt like). The village huts were small, with straw roofs and rudimentary furnishings and tools. There was a working Creole garden with herbs and vegetables, and goats and chickens roamed on the outskirts. There was a host of cats napping under the broad leaves of the tropical flora, no cares in the world.
The exhibit itself was sobering. Slaves were so mistreated in Martinique, as I imagine they were everywhere, and in any time. Torture tools filled one hut, illustrations showing how they were used. I will never be able to understand or even begin to imagine how any human can treat another human like that. If the islanders truly believe that Josephine brought back slavery to the island, then I cannot blame them for hating her. The majority of the current population of Martinique is made up of descendants of the slaves brought over from Africa hundreds of years ago – ancestral memory runs deep.
My next stop was the birthplace of Josephine herself. The first wife of Napoleon and empress of France was born on Martinique, and in such relatively humble beginnings, compared to where she ended up. Le Musée de la Pagerie has tours, but I asked if I could just wander about since I was the only one there, and after a French tour at the slave village, my head was about to explode. A man who I believe was a security guard walked me about so I could look at what was left of the foundation of the great house and the sugar mill. The old kitchen was still standing, and the inside was made into what looked more like a museum. Porcelain dishes, furniture, and even a lock of Josephine’s hair rested inside. I tried to make conversation with the gentleman, but his English was non-existent and he never got louder than a whisper, though he was friendly enough. He did express his surprise that I was alone touring Martinique, as most people I encountered did. I didn’t know what to think of that surprise, but maybe I was shattering stereotypes, and I’ll run with that thought.
For lunch I drove to Anse Mitan, a popular beach in the area. I had an early lunch at a beachfront cafe. The bartender tried to convince me to come back that night for the music and dancing, and if I had an ounce of courage with handsome men, I would have. I downed my tropical fruit cocktail and headed across the pitons to Diamant. The beaches of Diamant offered views of the Diamond Rock, an enormous boulder-like island that jutted out of the sea, that evidently used to house the forts of the English. It is abandoned by all but birds now. After about five U-turns, I found Anse Caffard, a somber memorial to slaves of Martinique and all over the world. They are great white statues in a triangle formation, pointing out to 110 degrees. The formation symbolizes the triangular trade, and the direction is where a ship carrying slaves came from one fateful night, crashing on the rocks just out a few hundred yards. No one knows where the ship actually came from, or where it was going, but all died, including the slaves all chained together.
I wandered into a few shops in Diamant, but the town was pretty empty. I bought a French book on hiking in Martinique, figuring I may be able to fit in a few more hikes the next day since I’d had so much fun the day before. I bought some coconut ice cream and laid out on the beach with the book to do some planning and tanning. I was in the Caribbean – beach time had to happen at some point.
The beach was sparsely populated. I was near a pier that went out into the waves, a fisherman sitting out on the tip. I watched to young boys leap off the pier into the waves below, right next to the sign that said “danger: absolutely no jumping or swimming”. My heart spent a good amount of time in my stomach as I waited for one of them to be thrown into the pillars of the pier by the strong waves, or to lose energy in the frantic swim back to shore. And yet, neither scenario happened. Miraculously.
Thoroughly cooked through by the sun, I saw that I had a good amount of time before sunset and nothing left to do, so I decided to drive to Habitation Clement, a rum distillery and plantation in the center of the island. I hadn’t planned on going since it was so out of the way of all my other activities, and I’d seen a rum distillery or two at this point. But I had time, and I’m glad I did.
Habitation Clement is inland a bit, surrounded by fields of banana trees and sugarcane. Like the other distilleries, the air is fresh and smells slightly sweet as the rum evaporates from the barrels in the warehouses. I bought a ticket for the tour. After a jaunt through some botanical gardens, I walked through the distillery itself, with all the giant and complicated machinery. You can walk up in the rafters and really feel like you are just another cog in the wheel, so to speak. The vats were huge – I’d love to see them in action. Continuing on, you can see the storage houses with barrels upon barrels of rum stacked all the way to the ceiling, each stamped with the Clement symbol. The smell is stronger the closer you get to the barrels, and makes you thirsty. The second part of the tour is the plantation houses themselves, restored to in their Creole glory. The stables, kitchens, outer houses, and main house itself. I just love how the Creole style houses are so open to the outdoors – just shutters on the windows, and large, open, airy rooms so the sea breezes can sneak in carrying whispers of rum. The bedrooms on the upper floor are my favorite. The linens on the bed look fresh-pressed and so white. With the windows open and the sugared landscape visible, I felt transported to a different era and life.
The tour concludes with a tasting room and gift shop. My favorite rums were dark and tasted like liquid gold running over my tongue, but unfortunately they did not come in airplane bottle size. I got a few tiny bottles just for the sake of it, then hopped in the car home.
For dinner, I bought a pizza from the restaurant down the road. I wasn’t brave enough to go farther than that in the dark, and besides, I never knew what would be open. I ended the evening with drinks on the balcony with my hosts.
Sara and Yanis are filmmakers. They both have family ties in Martinique that go back years and years, though also spent time in France itself. They seemed delighted to be able to practice their English, and when they did speak French, they forgot how green I was and slowly sped up until I asked them to slow down again. They were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and mixed me several rum drinks to try (very small drinks, of course! Just a few sips each). It was then that I found out why the gas lines were so long and scary looking. There was a gas strike going on, and people were getting what gas they could before it ran out. Yikes. The last thing I wanted was to be stranded somewhere without gas, so I made a promise to myself to get gas at the next opportunity. We said our good nights, and they promised that should I return to Martinique, I was always welcome to stay with them. A promise I certainly may take them up on!