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Martinique

December 5, 2006
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Writer Andrei Codrescu notes that the combination of French and West Indian cultures on Martinique presents odd contrasts: “People dress in bright island fabric and carry baguettes under their arms,” he says. His biggest thrill was meeting fellow poet Aimé Césaire, who put Martinique on the literary map and whom Codrescu describes as “a vigorous and charming old man.”

A native of Transylvania, Romania, Codrescu is an award-winning author whose many books include poetry and essay collections and novels (his most recent: Casanova in Bohemia). This was his first ISLANDS story.

New York City-based photographer Theo Westenberger says that her oddest experience in Martinique was the boat tour out to Josephine”s Bath, so named because Napoleon”s wife bathed there as a girl. Now, says Westenberger, “Groups of tour-ists convene at the spot to float on their backs while a Nubian-looking guy pours “ti punch into their mouths in a kind of island baptism.”

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Westenberger has been shooting professionally for 20 years. She is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and has shot for Time and other top magazines. This was her first assignment for ISLANDS.

Don”t Miss Westenberger describes the Balata Gardens, near Fort-de-France, as “an extraordinary place with weird succulents popping out of drifts of anthuriums.” During summer take in a weekend yole ronde race, featuring crews sailing the island”s signature wooden boats in warm-ups for the big weeklong round-the-island August regatta. For free fun, catch a performance of beguine dancing. “It”s the meeting of contemporary dance and former slave dances, performed to live rhythmic music,” Westenberger says. Rum connoisseurs can sample and compare the high-quality rums at 13 island distilleries; Codrescu recommends Leyritz Plantation and Clement Distillery. Year-round events, most notably the Saint-Pierre Festival held in May, will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the eruption of Mount Pelée.

Perfumed Isle For many travelers, the main reason to visit Martinique is Roger Albert (tel. 011-596-596-71-71-71). The emporium on Rue Victor Hugo in Fort-de-France offers probably the largest selection of French perfume in the Caribbean, as well as French cosmetics and luxury items like Baccarat crystal and Lalique figurines. You”ll get a 20-percent discount when you show a foreign passport and pay by credit card or travelers” check.

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Beach Time Beaches tend to have black, gray, or tan sand; the water is calmer on the Caribbean side than on the Atlantic. Grand Anse des Salines on the south coast is the most famous and most crowded beach. Westenberger”s favorite spot was L”Anse Michel on Cap Chevalier: “There were few people, and tall palm trees swaying in the breeze.” Codrescu enjoyed watching the boats and hang gliders at L”Anse Trabaud on the island”s southern tip.

On the Road You”ll need a car to get around the island (rentals average $40 to $60 per day), but the winding roads, fast drivers, and occasional downpours may have you opting for a car with a driver who will also interpret for you; call the Martinique Promotion Bureau for a reference. Taxis are expensive.

What”s to Eat The unique French/West Indian culture is best expressed through food, which you can sample at the island”s enormous number of good restaurants.

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Codrescu recommends the traditional appetizer accras, or fried codfish fritters, and “ti punch, “a terrific little buzz-maker.” His favorite restaurant was L”Assiette, in Hôtel Diamant-les-Bains; it served excellent seafood stew and French desserts in a thatched hut overlooking the beach. He also liked Chez Hector, in the outdoor Fort-de-France market, where everyone sits together.

Take the boat from Le François to Ilet Oscar for a multicourse extravaganza (reservations required). Westenberger loved the fish shish kebabs at La Grange, a cozy little bistro in Pointe du Bout. Baguettes are an island staple and are as good here as they are in Paris.

Room Key Accommodations range from grandes hôtelleries (luxury resorts) and villas to relais Créoles (small hotels) and gîtes de France (guest rooms in private homes). Codrescu recommends the peaceful Frégate Bleue in Le François, a Creole house with antique wood furniture and sea views ($150 to $225 per night; 011-596-596-54-54-66, www.fregatebleue.com). He also liked Hôtel Diamant-les-Bains in Diamant, which has bungalows on the beach and excellent food ($90; 011-596-596-76-40-14). Westenberger suggests Le Meridien Trois-Ilets in Pointe du Bout; it overlooks Fort-de-France harbor and has Thursday-night performances by a famous beguine troupe. (Rates vary by season; 800-543-4300, www.lemeridienhotels.com.) You can also stay over at Ilet Oscar after dinner ($130; 011-596-596-65-82-30).

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Read It and Leap Codrescu recommends Two Years in the French West Indies, by Lafcadio Hearn, and native Patrick Chamoiseau”s historical novel Texaco. Poet Aimé Césaire”s books include Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry. One excellent guidebook is Ulysses Travel Guide Martinique, by Claude Morneau.

Web Headings For general info, see www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/caribbean/martinique/facts.htm. For activities, go to www.tropicalislandvacation.com. For the story about Mount Pelée”s eruption in 1902, go to www.multimania.com/sp1902.

Cash Flow Get some Euros at the airport, since ATMs are hard to find and most banks close between noon and 2:30 p.m.

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