After leaving Dominica, our next stop was Martinique, a French island. The northern harbor on the island is St. Pierre, the capital of the island until 1902. In that year, the nearby volcano Mt. Pelee (which looms over the landscape just outside of town) erupted and wiped out nearly the city’s entire population of 30,000 people. To this day, it is the deadliest volcanic eruption since Krakatoa.
St. Pierre, though no longer the capital, was rebuilt into a mid-sized town. We found it to be a nice place to stay due to the many attractions in walking distance. For one, the beaches were simply packed full of seaglass of all varieties and colors, extending into unusual things such as a fair amount of sea-smoothed ceramic tiles (remnants of the former city?), and even some seaglass marbles.
A short but steep walk south of town takes one to an excellent viewpoint of the harbor. At the site is a large statue of the Virgin Mary labeled ‘Notre Dame de Bon Port’ (our lady of safe harbor).
In St. Pierre, you can still go see many ruins of the disaster, including a ruined theater, several crumbling walls along the waterfront, and the wreck of nearly a dozen ships that were in harbor when the disaster struck (we didn’t actually get to see those because you need to scuba dive). Most interesting, you can also visit the jail where one of the two eruption survivors was safely confined within a thick stone, bomb shelter-like solitary cell. It is still standing. Afterwards, he joined Barnum & Bailey’s circus.
Finally, one day we made the longer trek to the nearby Depaz Rum Distillery. On the way up the road, the town development drops away to be replaced by rolling fields of sugar cane—as it turns out, all part of the Depaz estate. On arrival, we were met with a strange, smelly mixture of alcohol and burnt sugar. The distillery provided an excellent free self-guided walking tour of their facilities, where with very little restriction you get to see the whole factory operation. After harvesting the cane, crushers extract sugar, powered using a one-hundred-year-old steam engine (see video). The crushed cane stalks are then burnt as the heat source for the engine’s boiler, and when spent as fuel, are returned back to the cane fields as ash scattered for fertilizer.
From St. Pierre we motored down the coast to the big city of Fort-de-France. After the months of small island towns, it was quite a change to be in a congested, gridded metro again. We spent a day just wandering around and seeing the sights: a big park with many food vendors, a tiny chapel on a hill, and a library designed by Gustave Eiffel.
We decided the next day to take the bus to the nearby Jardin de Balata. It had many amazing landscapes of manicured plants, including some interesting cactus-like things, and tons of hummingbirds, but what really set it apart was a pathway of rope bridges suspended between the trees. It was pretty neat to go walking above the gardens below, while the bridges rocked and swayed under our feet.
But, the main thing we had come to Fort-de-France to see was Carnival. This is the festival that occurs just prior to the start of lent. It is most well known in Brazil, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but it is also a part of Caribbean culture and is celebrated on many of the islands.
Going to the parade on the first day, we didn’t know quite what to expect. People in costumes and feathers? Big floats on slow-moving flatbeds? It turned out there were only a couple of those, with most of the “floats” being just cars covered with paintings and designs. These would usually be packed with about a dozen guys, some riding on the roof, hood, or trunk. Every once in a while, they would all start jumping up and down and shaking the car while the driver would rev the engine to make it backfire and spit. The people in the parade were in costume, though usually without feathers. For most of the crowd Carnival-dress meant crazy neon colored clothing, with lots of mismatched pieced all piled on top of each other. For men, it frequently also meant wearing women’s clothing. Back in the parade, the thing other than painted cars that there was a lot of was marching bands, which usually included coconuts and bamboo in the percussion section.
Carnival in Martinique wasn’t really anything like what we expected or had seen before. We were all glad we got to see something that seemed to be mostly a local celebration with only little tourist influence. But, after three days of backfiring cars and marching bands, we decided that was enough parades and we didn’t need to stay through the end, so we sailed off to St. Lucia.