We love Martinique! It is clean, safe and beautiful. It is also very French. We generally find most people are patient with us as we consult with Google translate or bumble-mumble some French words. My high school French is okay for basics but we really struggle when we get off the beaten path, which is where we have been lately.
Before I talk about where we’ve been, I thought I would share a cute story. I was about 9 years old. My British primary school taught French. We had lessons two days a week. I really struggled with the French language (some things don’t change). I have never been very good at adapting to languages. The others in the class seemed to grasp things as I constantly became more and more frustrated. It wasn’t long before the instructor gave up on me and I spent the French lessons labeled as the class clown. I honestly wasn’t trying to be disruptive or funny; I just couldn’t understand a word of what was going on. By the second year, I had some basics down but the rest of the students were having no issue forming sentences and paragraphs. England is not far from France. From Dover to Calais is only about 25 miles (40 km) by ferry. It is an easy trip to make and return on the same day. Our school arranged a field trip to Calais one day. We all piled in the school bus to Dover, took the ferry to France and walked about the town of Calais. The other students practiced their French on real French people and struck up conversations with perfect strangers. I couldn’t. There were a couple of us in the class who fell behind and we hung as a group watching the other kids. I remember feeling sorry for the poor French people of Calais as the invasion of over eager British kids fell upon the town. Later in the day we were all on the beach. I watched a man throw a stick for his dog. The energetic dog bounded through the surf in and out of the water. The man called to his dog, in French. It was ever so obedient. The dog went to the man. When commanded to sit down, asseyez-vous, the dog sat. I looked at this in awe thinking to myself, even that damn dog understands French. Crikey, that dog is smarter than me.
We moved from our anchorage site off Sainte Anne’s beach to the marina. This will be home for a couple of months while we explore Martinique. This is a pretty big island with a population of about 400,000 people. They have excellent roads and renting a car is not overly expensive. So, we rented a car. It’s a tiny car with a manual transmission and an itty bitty engine. I swear, my last lawnmower had a bigger engine than this car. The last time I drove a car was in Puerto Rico. The last time I drove a stick shift was about 4 years ago in Atlanta. We have an old VW Beetle, now in storage. It is a 1973 Super Beetle. We tried to sell it when we were downsizing but couldn’t seem to get any interest. Well, that’s not entirely true. One guy was very interested. He was an avid VW enthusiast and our Beetle is in great shape. He really wanted it. He had even gone to Germany to visit the VW museum. He showed me pictures. He showed me all the pictures for a very long time. Yes, he was a VW nut! However, it turned out he had no money. We decided to keep the car and put it in storage.
It doesn’t take me long before I am comfortable again with the stick shift. This is a good thing since the terrain of this island is either up or down. There is no flat. It is a volcanic island and roads wind and hairpin up and down the hillsides. I am patting myself on the back now for not stalling or rolling backward on the hills and negotiating a gazillion roundabouts. It doesn’t take long before I get tired of shifting gears and just red-line the car in first gear so I can shift straight into forth gear. Cindy is the navigator. She does a great of reading the map. Sometimes we use the GPS but usually Cindy has it figured out and gets us where we need to go and this way we don’t have to deal with the nav-lady telling us to make a legal u-turn whenever I screw up.
Our first venture out took us to the eastern side of Martinique, banana plantation country. Our first impression was how remarkably clean the island is. There is no trash, the grass at the roadside is trimmed and small towns have tons of flowers. We later learned Martinique is referred to as the flower island, we can see why. Much like the small towns in France, the villages here have huge pots of colorful shrubs and flowers lining the streets and sidewalks. While driving, we love to take unplanned turns and venture down side-roads or explore a village off the beaten path. We have the time. We’ll park the car and leisurely stroll about the towns. This is one of our favorite things to do. It never fails; we often find a little gem unknown to mainstream tourists.
We drove up Mount Pelée, an active volcano on the northern end of Martinique. Its last hiccup was in 1929-1932 when it rumbled for a while. This made a lot of people very nervous since in 1902 Mount Pelée erupted killing all but one of the 30,000 residents of Saint-Pierre (more on Saint-Pierre a later post). There is a road leading to an observation area and restaurant almost at the top. There are hiking trails to the very top. However, it is rare the very top is not covered by a cloud. At one point the clouds were touching our heads and then they went back up again. It was really neat to have fog just inches above our heads and perfect clear below. The views from the observation area are spectacular as you would expect. The best part was it was cool. We hung around for a while taking in the view and thinking we should have brought a light jackets. But, being chilly was a nice change.
The highlight of our first day out was crashing someone’s Christmas party. Let me explain. We arrived in the town of Rivière-Pilote. It looked like a nice place for a walkabout, so we did. We heard some music and like Young Frankenstein, I was drawn to the sound. There was a group in courtyard singing Christmas carols and we took a seat and watched for a little while. We were approached by some very nice elderly gentlemen who started to talk with us. I told them I didn’t understand. As we struggled to find French words we knew, they struggled to find English words. After a few minutes, they understood we were travelers on a boat who followed the sound of their music. And, we understood we were now invited to stay at their “private” Christmas party. They made us welcome and offered us drinks and cake. These folks were really kind and most defiantly had the spirit of Christmas.