FORT-DE-FRANCE, MARTINIQUE // Strolling down the narrow, cobblestone streets of Fort-de-France, the nearly 400-year-old capital of the Caribbean island of Martinique, I wipe my brow in the midday heat and wonder whether I should interrupt my sightseeing for a cold, creamy glace -- French ice cream.
As I make my way down rue Victor-Hugo, passing boutiques, cafes and shops in the lively shopping district, I spot two Martinican women in business suits, holding colorful parasols to shield the beaming sun.
The ladies look cool, composed and tres chic, despite the soaring temperatures. And it occurs to me that these modern-day belles conjure French women I've seen in Impressionist paintings of a different era, promenading along the Champs Elysees in Paris.
There's a reason why Martinique is sometimes called "Paris in the Tropics." From fashion to politics, language and culture, the imprint of France is all over this 30-by-60-mile island.
Since the 1940s, the 400,000 citizens of Martinique have enjoyed full rights and privileges as citoyens of France.
"Many assume that Martinique is a colony, but we are a 'department' of France," says Monique Macaire, a spokeswoman with the Martinique Promotion Bureau. "We speak French as our official language, and we vote in national elections."
Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, with St. Lucia to the south and Dominica to the north, Martinique has miles of beaches, crystal waters, rolling hills and majestic mountains.
The island's earliest inhabitants were indigenous Indians; the Caribs were fearsome warriors who drove out the gentle Arawaks, who legend says named this lush land of fruit trees, hibiscus, bougainvillea and orchids, "Madinina" or "Isle of Flowers."
Though Columbus is credited with discovering Martinique in 1502, it was the French, not the Spanish, who staked their claim here more than a century later. The French settlers wiped out the remaining Caribs, and along the way, engaged in a decades-long power struggle with the British for control of the island.
The French, say historians, introduced two things to Martinique that shaped the course of its history: African slaves and sugarcane. Slaves labored on sugarcane, banana and cocoa plantations, fueling the economy and spawning a privileged class of French-born planters.
Meanwhile, les negres (blacks) suffered. In the book, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804, author Laurent Dubois explores the growing discontent among the esclaves (slaves) throughout the French West Indies, including Martinique.
He writes of an incident in August 1789, where a large group of slaves gathered on the waterfront of the northern city of St. Pierre. There had been a rumor that the king of France, Louis XVI, had abolished slavery.
"The rebellious blacks," writes Laurent, citing government accounts, "armed with the instruments they use to cut sugarcane, refused to work, saying loudly that they were free."
The French Revolution spurred the abolition of slavery in 1794, although it was re-established in 1802. Slavery throughout the French Empire finally ended in 1848.
Fort-de-France is an aged but likable port town where most islanders -- more than 100,000 people -- reside. Many of the structures in the capital date back centuries, and the architecture, iron lattice-work and balconies are reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter.
The city bustles with residents, cruise-ship passengers and international tourists, many of who meander through the shopping district.
Spanning about six blocks, the area is a hodgepodge of commerce: luxury boutiques selling Hermes scarves and French perfume; handmade local crafts; specialty shops with bolts of madras fabric (made locally and widely exported); 18-carat gold jewelry and the island's famous white and golden rums.
Near the center of town is La Savane, a popular public square and garden filled with leafy palm and fruit trees and stalks of bamboo. The day I visited, a group of young men were bobbing to the beat of a drum.
Prominently displayed in the park is a white marble statue, which at first appears to be a Greek goddess. Moving closer, I see the figure is Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and empress of France from 1804 until 1809.
Born in the Martinique village of Trois-Ilets, Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie is a complex figure on the island, both revered and reviled.
Case in point: vandals have made off with Josephine's head.
"Some blame Josephine for the continuation of slavery," says local tour guide Bernadette Ducteil. "They say she influenced her husband [Napoleon] to reinstate slavery because her family owned a plantation, and they would suffer financially if slavery ended."
Just off La Savane, on rue de la Liberte, I come upon a grand building known as Bibliotheque Schoelcher. The library bears the name of Victor Schoelcher, a historic figure and abolitionist whose efforts to end slavery made him a national hero.
The Byzantine-Romanesque structure -- unveiled at the Paris Exposition in 1889, then dismantled and reassembled piece by piece in Martinique -- boasts Egyptian columns, mosaic tiles and sweeping shelves lined with hundreds of volumes, (which I discover are mostly written in French).
A short walk from the library is another landmark, Cathedrale St-Louis, whose lofty steeple towers over Fort-de-France. Stepping inside, I get a closer look at the stained-glass windows, featuring scenes from Martinique's history. Catholicism is the island's principal religion, although many other religions are also present.
I kneel to say a brief prayer before going back outside. It's time for lunch, so I decide to sample the local flavors of the Fort-de-France market.
Crammed with stalls and vendors, the covered market boasts a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and spices: plump mangos, bananas, stalks of sugarcane, coconuts, cinnamon and curry. There are souvenirs, such as carved wooden figures and handwoven straw hats.
Nearby is Chez Carole, a small restaurant that serves simple, yet delicious Creole-inspired fare.
In Martinique, where meals can be multi-course affairs, local cuisine is a fusion of African and French cooking, with Caribbean influences.
Certain staples -- including starchy tubers such as malanga, white yams and sweet potatoes -- often appear in the form of a mousse or gratin; while many items, from seafood to filet mignon, may be topped with creamy sauces. As in France, fine wines and bottled waters are ubiquitous.
Chef-owner Carole Michel, who also graciously waits tables, serves a luncheon feast of crisp accras (codfish fritters), plantains, savory chicken and rice, and a cucumber and tomato salad with a vinaigrette.
For diners who can manage dessert, there's coconut flan, and beverages include ginger beer, or Michel's freshly blended tropical fruit smoothies. The cost of the entire meal is about six euros, less than $8.
After my long day, I head back to the hotel and grabbed my swimsuit for a quick dip before dinner. Martinique's numerous beaches are public, though some hotels charge fees to use their facilities.
While the water is crystal clear across the island, the sand's color and texture vary by location. In the north, for instance, the sand is inky and coarse from the volcanic ash of Mount Pelee, the deadly volcano that erupted in 1902. South of Fort-de-France, the sand is silky and oyster-colored.
I visit several beaches, but one of my favorites is in the town of Les Anses d'Arlet, a cozy fishing village where the lapping ocean waves feel like bathwater.
The next morning, I take a ferry ride to the little village of Trois-Ilets, whose translated name means "Three Islands," which are nearby. About 3,000 people reside in the village, whose quaint cottages are known for their unique tile roofs.
The first stop is Chateau Gaillard, site of the Cocoa and Coffee Museum, which has artifacts and a collection of early chocolate advertisements. At Mangofil, an eco-adventure park, fearless visitors can be hitched to a cable line that glides through the treetops.
Then it's on to La Savane des Esclaves, where visionary Gilbert Larose spent years building a reenactment of a slave village, complete with traditional huts and gardens.
The museum offers demonstrations (such as the making of a cocoa bar) and ancient dance rituals.
"My ancestors were slaves, and my grandparents were peasant farmers," says Larose, speaking in French through an interpreter. "I wanted to honor them, and create a place where the young people in Martinique and around the world could come and learn our history."
The final stop for the day is La Pagerie, the countryside birthplace of Josephine, first wife of Napoleon.
Madame Montjoly, the curator of the Musee de la Pagerie, leads guests on a tour of the former plantation, which has beautifully manicured grounds and ruins of the family's one-time sugar factory. The exhibition's mementos include jewelry, clothing, furniture and other personal effects.
"These are the love letters that Napoleon wrote to Josephine," says Montjoly, smiling and pointing to a finely scripted missive in an enclosed glass case. "They are very passionate."
Despite their ardor, Napoleon eventually divorced Josephine, who was unable to bear him an heir. She kept her titles, castles and riches.
The next morning, after a breakfast of croissants and pineapple juice, I head to the northwest coastal city of Saint-Pierre, site of a deadly volcanic eruption in 1902 that's been likened to Pompeii.
Once a thriving bastion of art, culture and society (it was nicknamed the "Paris of the West Indies"), tragedy struck when Mount Pelee -- a still-active volcano that rises a whopping 4,656 feet -- erupted. Historians say the heat and flowing lava killed 30,000 people in two minutes.
Nearly the entire town was calcified, except for a prisoner named Cyparis, who had been put in the town's underground jail cell for public intoxication.
"He later toured as a side show attraction with the Barnum & Bailey Circus," says our guide, Dominique Pierre-Charles.
Back to nature
Although car rentals aren't cheap in Martinique, driving (or hiring someone skilled at handling the curving roads) is an excellent way to see the picturesque island.
While the southern side of Martinique is all undulating hills and sugarcane fields, the north is more rugged, with steep cliffs and untamed vegetation.
I do some hiking in the dense, green rain forests, splashing in cool streams and seeing beautiful fauna and flora, including the exotic hot pink bird-of-paradise. (Up close, the flower really does resemble the profile of a bird.)
If you drive, be sure to tour some of the distilleries that produce Martinique's rum, which along with bananas, pineapples, sugarcane, fishing and tourism, helps drive the island's economy.
St. James Distillery, Depaz Distillery and Habitation Clement are among the 11 distilleries that remain; eight still actively produce. Martinique takes great pride in its world-class rums, created by a process that uses sugarcane juice, instead of the typical molasses base.
The island even has a signature drink -- ti' punch (the residents pronounce it "tea-paunch"), made with white rum, limes and sugarcane syrup. It's tasty, but potent.
Toward the end of my stay, I take a day trip to the town of Le Carbet on the northern coast. I spend a few hours in a most lovely garden, Jardin de l'Anse Latouche and when the sun goes down, I hit a beachside spot called Chez les Pecheurs.
This simple bar and restaurant is unpretentious -- envision a large tent with sand floors and outdoor restrooms -- yet its reputation for good food and live music draw residents and people from all over the world.
The sound of laughter and conversations in French, Creole and English sprinkle the air, while tantalizing aromas waft from a tiny open kitchen, where cooks in white aprons are frying batches of the day's fresh catch.
Seated on a low wooden bench at a long communal table, I am squeezed between some Canadians to my left, and across from me, couples from France. We all exchange friendly banter (in English) while awaiting our meal.
As the waitress brings out platters heaped with fried red snapper, lentil beans and rice and other local favorites, I practically eat my plastic plate, it's so scrumptious.
Later in the evening, a popular local band called Caraibe Percussion takes the stage, singing in French and playing indigenous instruments such as the tambour (a large drum); the chacha (a tin can filled with stones); and t-bois (thin bamboo sticks).
Music is part of everyday life in Martinique, heard at street festivals, traditional folkloric performances and beyond. Mazurka and biguine are dance rhythms characterized by guitars and banjos, and there's the drum-based chouval bwa and bel-air. Zouk, which originated in Martinique and neighboring Guadeloupe in the '80s, comes from a Creole slang word for "party" and blends indigenous rhythms with guitars, horns and electronic synthesizers.
"Zouk is really popular, it's inspired by traditional biguine music," says Christel Coita of the Martinique Promotion Bureau. "And everybody dances zouk," she adds, referring to the sensual dance style of the same name.
Indeed. As the crowd inside Chez Les Pecheurs toe taps to the band's upbeat tunes, couples begin to fill the makeshift dance floor. Men and women of all races and nationalities clasp hands, moving their hips in from side to side and whirling around, kicking up the dark sand beneath their feet. The band plays on until the wee hours of the morning.
IF YOU GO
Direct flights from the United States to Martinique are limited to Air France, which flies out of Miami International Airport. American Airlines offers connecting flights from Baltimore through Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and on to Martinique's Lamentin Airport, about a 15-minute drive from the capital of Fort-de-France. A passport is required.
Airfares vary, but are more expensive around high season, from mid-November through May.
Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa
-- Le Francois (596-596-54- 80-80 or www.capest.com). Luxury resort hotel with views of a stunning lagoon. Fifty suites/villas, two gourmet restaurants, open-air bar and spa. Rates from $500, double.
-- Le Diamant (596-596-76-40-14). Charming family-owned hotel with bungalows and a main lodge, overlooking a pristine beach. The restaurant serves nouvelle Caribbean-French-Creole cuisine. Rates $88-$138, double.
-- Buccaneer's Creek (800-258-2633 or clubmed.us). Recently renovated, the sprawling resort offers everything from snorkeling to windsurfing. There's a large buffet with Creole fare and, at night, karaoke and live music.
-- Avenue des Arawaks, Fort-de-France (596-596-56-36-09). French cuisine in a beautiful setting, complete with a pool (lit at night), garden and palm trees.
Au Soup Bar
-- 120 rue Lamartine, Fort-de-France (596-596-60-48-96). Casual bar/restaurant specializing in freshly prepared soups. The bartender makes a great ti' punch.
-- Vegetables and Spices Market, Antoine Siger and Isambert streets, Fort-de-France (596-0696-44-12-31). Creole fare and tropical fruit smoothies. The market is open 6 a.m.-4 p.m.
Chez les Pecheurs
-- Le Bord de Mer, Carbet (596-0696-23- 95-59). Beachside eatery with live music, dancing and local/international crowds.
-- 19 rue Garnier Pag?s, Fort-de-France (596-596-63-58-97). Locally owned boutique features designer and custom clothing.
-- rue Perrionon, Fort-de-France (596-596-73-77-27). Martinique native Mounia, a former Yves St. Laurent model who was often seen in Vogue, owns this designer boutique with women and men's wear.
La Savane des Esclaves
-- Quartier La Ferme, les Trois-Ilets (596-596-68-33-91). Re-created slave village built by Martinican Gilbert Larose.
-- Domaine de Chateau Gaillard, les Trois-Ilets (596-596-68-08-08). "Canopy" tours enable the adventurous to glide through the treetops.
Musee de la Pagerie
-- les Trois-Ilets (596-596-68-38-34). Birthplace of Josephine.
Earth and Sciences Discovery Center
-- Quartier La Galere, 97250 Schoelcher (596-596-52-82-42). Learn more about the deadly 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee.
Habitation Clement Distillery
-- Le Francois (596-596-54-62-07 or www.rhum-clement.com). Visitors can tour the 18th-century plantation and museum; sample the product and learn about the history of Martinique rum.
-- Saint-Pierre (596-596-78-74-23). Besides the rum distillery, there are manicured grounds, a great gift shop and a fine onsite restaurant overlooking the sea.
-- rue Ernest Deproge, Fort-de-France (596-596-70-65-25).
Martinique Tourism Bureau
-- New York (800-391-4909 or www.martinique.org).