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Martinique

An article by Chris Doyle reprinted from Southern Boating

When you think of Martinique, think French, for Martinique, one of the largest of the Eastern Caribbean islands, has been part of France since it was colonized, bar a few short spells under the British. To visit Martinique is to visit France - complete with the French language, fine French food and wine, and well scrubbed towns where that typically French smell – a blend of Gitane smoke, pastis and well-percolated coffee – wafts from bars and cafes.

Big throughways and bypasses make getting around the island by car easy, unless you get snarled during rush hours in the traffic jams around the capital, Fort-de-France. Other improvements include a beautifully constructed dock for almost every bay. Ferries and fishing boats use these, but the inner parts are handy for tying up the dinghy.

As with most Caribbean islands, Martinique’s leeward coast provides several good anchorages. In addition, its convoluted topography has created some excellent harbors in the southeast part of the island. Even the east coast is deeply indented and protected by barrier reefs, making navigation not only possible but interesting and rewarding, although somewhat challenging and hazardous. In all Martinique has a wealth and variety of anchorages enough to provide at least two weeks interesting cruising.

The northern half of Martinique rises steeply from the sea. Mt Pelée, Martinique’s volcano, dominates the very northern shore of the island and rises nearly 5000 feet. South of Mt Pelée, a mountain range extends south almost to Fort-de-France. The high elevations are covered in dense rain forest.

Southern Martinique is much less mountainous, with smaller hills to 1300 feet. While most of the beaches in the north are black sand, the south is blessed with the white sand beaches backed by palms and seagrapes that feature in tourist brochures.

Many of the roads in the south are lined with pink flowering gliricidia trees. These are favored for fences, as you only have to stick a branch in the ground and it takes root.

North or south, the government has made and maintained trails that offer spectacular hiking. One of my favorites is the Canal de Beauregard, near Carbet.

Built by slaves in 1760, this canal brought water around a steep mountain to supply the distilleries of St. Pierre and you can walk to the water source. The canal is fairly level, often shady, and easy, though it is only for those with a head for heights, for you walk along the outer canal wall, which is about 18 inches wide, and the panoramic views are often dizzyingly precipitous and unobstructed by rails. Maps and books of these trails can be found in most souvenir shops.

Almost any boatwork can be done in Martinique – from galvanizing to having stainless steel tanks made. Sailmakers are first rate, chandleries are magnificently stocked, and technicians can fix any kind of problem, from reshaping and balancing your propeller to mending a broken aluminum mast.

Two major centers contain many of these services. In Fort de France, Baie de Tourelles has a haul-out facility surrounded by independent contractors’ shops that handle all kinds of work. Marin, on the eastern end of the south coast is the center of Martinique’s very active charter industry, and here you find an even bigger haul-out yard where the largest private yachts can be hauled either by travel lift or in a dry dock. Here too, is Martinique’s only large marina surrounded by chandleries, mechanics and other support services.

Provisioning in Martinique is superb. Giant supermarkets (called hypermarchés) offer a dazzling array of produce, both local and European. Fresh green apples, avocados, pineapples, wonderful cheeses, pates, meat and seafood are enough of an attraction that many charter yachts provision here. Ports of entry are Fort de France, Marin and St. Pierre.

Martinique has a very strong tourist industry, 75 per cent from mainland France or French-speaking Canada. The island is plenty large enough to handle this influx without making it seem like one large resort, and as a benefit, good restaurants abound throughout the island.

From a cruising perspective, the variety of anchorages is unbeatable. On the northern half of the west coast, lying at the foot of Mt Pelée, lies St. Pierre, perhaps historically the most interesting anchorage in the Eastern Caribbean. Before 1902, St. Pierre, with a population of 30,000, was known as the Paris of the Caribbean and was the commercial, cultural and social center of Martinique. The wealth of the island lay in the plantations and the richest of these surrounded St. Pierre. Ships would take on rum, sugar, coffee and cocoa and enough was sold to make several of the plantation owners multi-millionaires. There were also cheap bars, brothels and dancing girls to satisfy the sailors.

In April 1902, Mt Pelée volcano became active. Eruptions grew worse every few days and before dawn on the 2nd of May, a major eruption covered the city with enough ash to kill some birds and animals. On the fifth of May, a torrent of volcanic effluent, including mud, lava, boiling gasses and rocks, estimated to be a quarter of a mile wide and a hundred feet high, completely buried the Guerin Estate just a couple of miles north of St. Pierre. It had been one of the richest plantations in the area. Yet people still did not leave. Governor Mouttet, on the island for less than a year, couldn’t cope with the responsibility of evacuating Martinique’s most important city. He desperately wanted the problem to go away and was encouraged to sit tight by most of the planters and business leaders who would have suffered financial losses if the city were evacuated. People were approaching from Fort de France for the Ascension Day church service when they saw heavy, red smoke from the volcano descend on St. Pierre. Rather than continue, they climbed the surrounding hills to see what would happen next. The end came at two minutes past eight in the morning. The side of the volcano facing St. Pierre glowed red, burst and released a giant fireball of superheated gas that flowed down over the city, releasing more energy than an atomic bomb. All that remained were smoking ruins. An estimated 29,933 people burned to death, leaving only two survivors, Leon Leandre, a cobbler who was in his cellar, and the famous Cyparis, imprisoned for murder in a stone cell.

Today many ruins remain. Post-disaster buildings have been built on to old structures, so nearly every new building shares at least one wall with the past. Ruins also form garden walls, and many have been tidied up as historical icons. A museum in a modern building up a small hill, depicts that era and the tragedy. It stands on top of old walls that are artistically lit up at night, making an enchanting backdrop for those anchored below.

Shoppers will love Fort de France, where many small boutiques sell the latest French fashions. Two open-air craft markets will satisfy the souvenir hunter. History buffs should visit the pre-Columbian museum; architecture enthusiasts should admire the ornate Schoelcher library. Both are on Rue la Liberte which runs alongside La Savanne, a park which comes almost to the waterfront. One of the more amusing places to take lunch is in the large covered produce market. Lots of small restaurateurs have concessions and a few seats. They serve good Créole food at a very reasonable price. Nearly constant ferry traffic during the day makes the anchorage rolly but it usually calms down at night. Still if the roll worries you, you can always anchor on the other side of Fort de France Bay and take a ferry over. Three anchorages are well served by these ferries.

Trois Ilets is a charming peaceful town of typical old buildings that has not yet been invaded by tourists. The anchorage is so protected that some yachts come here during hurricane warnings. It makes a perfect base for exploring the island by car. Ferries to Fort de France are less frequent than in the other two bays.

Just a few miles to the west, a peninsula juts out into the bay. The peninsula terminates in Point du Bout, and a popular public beach called Anse Mitan lies along the southwestern shore. This is Martinique’s most important tourist drag and the whole area is bustling and wall to wall with hotels, apartments, trendy boutiques and restaurants. It is easy to spend an hour or two sitting in one of the small outdoor cafes people watching. Ferries run at least every half over to Fort de France, continuing even late at night though less often. Dockage is sometimes available at a tiny marina tucked in the point and another large fuel dock and mini marina north of the beach.

Anse a l’Ane, a couple of miles to the west, marks the outer limits of the regular ferries. It is a popular beach around which hotels, apartments and restaurants have grown. It lacks the sophisticated chic of Anse Mitan, but is quieter and more natural and popular with families.

As you leave the Baie de Fort de France and head south, several delightful bays open up. Anse Noir, true to its name, has a black sand beach. Pretty cliffs fall to the sea, and snorkeling is delightful. A perfect hidey-hole, which you may well have to yourself, especially at night. Grand Anse D’Arlet and Petit Anse D’artlet are pretty fishing villages whose gorgeous white sand beaches have recently attracted tourists. These big bays are very popular with the yachting community especially on the weekend.

From here it takes beating to windward for 15 miles to reach Martinique’s southeast corner for the next protected anchorage; often an exhilarating sail with a stiff breeze in relatively protected water. Your destination, Ste. Anne, can be seen from afar with its whitewashed buildings. This delightful seaside town is small and peaceful, yet big enough to have a town square, good bakeries and adequate supermarkets. Beaches follow the coastline from here around to the south. Not too many are calm enough for an overnight anchorage, but you can follow a pretty trail that tracks the shore right out to Pte. Saline, close to the Martinique’s southern tip.

North of St Anne lies Cul de Sac Marin, a vast protected bay, much of it lined with mangroves, and considered to be Martinique’s best hurricane hole. The entrance, which passes right by Club Med, has many well-buoyed reefs. The town of Marin, at the head of the bay, is a busy yachting port which has become the main base of Martinique’s charter industry. From afar, a forest of boat masts indicates the marina. The bay is huge and if you are not ready to go alongside a dock, there is a choice of peaceful little mangrove lined bays.

From here, if you have the courage, you can cruise Martinique’s east coast. For about 20 miles this deeply indented shore offers numerous bays and islands. Le Robert and Le Francois are two pleasant towns with large harbors. But the attraction is numerous smaller and often deserted little anchorages, where you can have a bay all to yourself. Some of the main channels have now been buoyed which makes navigation easier, and much of the coast is protected by outer reefs. Numerous fish traps are placed in the open approaches, making it necessary to play packman with your yacht to avoid them all. Eyeball navigation is necessary and not all that easy, as the water is somewhat. But if you make it, you reward will be a peaceful stay in one of the Caribbean’s most private spots.

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