TAKE ME TO MARTINIQUE
Thank you, Nasreen, for inviting me to talk about one of my favourite topics… travel!
I have led a peripatetic life – having been born in Kenya and lived in Singapore (as well as my settled life here in Australia). I have hiked in Nepal, visited the ruins of Angkor Wat, reugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, Japanese temples, gorgeous Pacific islands such as Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia and ridden on a float in Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans. So how do I pick one single ‘exotic’ experience to write about?
If you are reading this from Europe or America, where you can hop on a direct flight, Martinique (a small island in the West Indies) probably does not sound that exotic, but believe me, getting there from Australia is no mean feat!
Firstly, WHY was I, an Australian, going to Martinique, somewhere so far off our beaten path?
Because I want to write a book (of course!) about my wicked great+ grandmother Helene de Mestre. The wife of a French Army officer, she was widowed when an English cannon ball literally took off her husband’s head at the siege of Fort de France in 1794. Left a widow with 2 children, within a year she married an English Army Officer. When he was presumed killed at the storming of St. Lucia, she married a third time – a French/American trader – and moved to Philadelphia. Unfortunately husband #2 was still very much alive… so her third marriage was bigamous. To cut a very long story short, her son by the French army officer, took to his step father’s trading business and settled in Port Jackson in 1818, having seen an opportunity for tea trading. He married the daughter of a convict… but I digress…
I was going to Martinique in search of the spirit of Helene de Mestre and maybe, just maybe, a trace of her history.
GETTING THERE (AND BACK)
This was not easy! We approached via New Orleans (where we rode in a float in a Mardi Gras Parade). Three flights from New Orleans to Fort de France (New Orleans to Miami, Miami to Puerto Rico and PR to FDF in Martinique). BEST TIP: Take only carry on luggage… we very nearly missed the connection coming back because you must clear American customs and immigration in Puerto Rico!
WHERE TO STAY
We spent a couple of nights in Fort de France itself (including Valentine’s Day). Personally, I like to stay centrally in older style hotels with character so I booked Hotel L’Imperatrice which could not have been more central – directly opposite the headless statue of the Empress Josephine in the park (La Savane).
Another interesting fact about Helene was her reputed friendship with the Empress Josephine Bonaparte. This may well date from her time in Martinique where the Tascher (Josephine was born Rose Tascher) family were sugar plantation owners.
The only drawback to this location – it became extremely noisy as the locals came out to play at all hours of the night! (And we were warned it was unsafe to venture out at night).
If atmospheric hotels opposite headless statues in notorious parks is not your thing, the south of the island is like a mini south of France with expensive yacht marinas and resorts.
From Fort de France we hired a car and decamped to a small hotel on the east coast of the island (L’Hotel Fregate Blue), an unassuming, homely place with a small pool and great food. No beaches on this side of the island.
WHAT TO SEE
I was there on a mission but sadly the old forts are not open to the public as they are still used by the French military so seeing the site where my grandfather lost his head or better still finding his grave was out of the question (he was probably dumped in a mass grave anyway) but we enjoyed exploring the old, colonial town of Fort de France and viewed Fort Louis from all angles.
We took a ferry across the harbour to Les Trois Ilets where Josephine’s family plantation still stands. The house was destroyed by a hurricane in Josephine’s lifetime (the family lived above the sugar mill – the ruins of which can still be seen). There is a small Napoleon/Josephine museum on the estate – The Pagerie Museum.
Driving in Martinique requires nerves of steel. The drivers are shocking! Once we picked up the car we visited a fascinating former sugar plantation (L’Habitation Clement). The old house was open to the public (you can see photos on my Pinterest Board click HERE) and rum tasting was available.
The next day we undertook a small circumnavigation north to the town of St. Pierre, once known as the Paris of the Antilles, it boasted an opera house and a lively social scene. All of this was destroyed in 1902 in the eruption of Mt. Pelee. 28,000 people died (the only survivor, a prisoner in the local gaol!). The old town is largely excavated and the ruins are rather Pompeii like. Driving back through the centre of the island, gave us our first real sense of the tropical nature of the island. We enjoyed a lovely stop at a garden (Jardin de Balata).
WOULD I GO BACK?
I had a specific reason for going (even if that story still has to be written!) but if you are after tropical islands with a French ambience, frankly I would go to Noumea or Vanuatu any day.
Driving was hair raising and we found things operated on ‘island time’ – restaurants that didn’t open were particularly annoying. Not much English is spoken either (it is still very much a Department of France!). Fortunately I speak enough French to get around.
I went for the history but even that was hard to find (recorded histories are scanty and so much has been destroyed by war and nature). The story of the rum trade (and its links with our recent travels in Louisiana), the connection with Josephine and the experience of St. Pierre brought it alive for me, but if you are wanting the West Indies tropical beach experience I am not sure Martinique is the place to go. (We visited one beach and it was horrible!).
Mind you I haven’t been to any other islands in the West Indies so perhaps you might like to share your thoughts on other islands to visit?
ABOUT ALISON STUART
Award winning Australian author, Alison Stuart learned her passion for history from her father. She has been writing stories since her teenage years but it was not until 2007 that her first full length novel was published. Alison has now published seven full length historical romances and a collection of her short stories. Her disposition for writing about soldier heroes may come from her varied career as a lawyer in the military and fire services. These days when she is not writing she is travelling and routinely drags her long suffering husband around battlefields and castles (AND tropical islands).
To celebrate the release of her latest book, AND THEN MINE ENEMY, Alison is giving away a $20 Amazon Gift Card. Enter here:
And Then Mine Enemy: A Romantic Saga of the English Civil War (Feathers in the Wind Book 1)
A family ripped apart in a country divided by war . . .
England 1642: Hardened mercenary, Adam Coulter returns to England sickened by violence, seeking only peace, but he finds England on the brink of civil war. He has seen first hand what that will mean for every man, woman and child and wants no part of it.
King or Parliament? Neutrality is not an option and Adam can only be true to his conscience, not the dictates of his family.
Having escaped a violent marriage, Perdita Gray has found much needed sanctuary and the love of a good man, but her fragile world begins to crumble as Adam Coulter bursts into her life. This stranger brings not only the reality of war to her doorstep but reignites an old family feud, threatening everything and everyone she holds dear.
As the war and the family tensions collide around them, Adam and Perdita are torn between old loyalties and a growing attraction that must be resisted.