This would be Kim's and my first vacation alone since Finn was born 15 months before. We couldn't quite swing a trip to Europe, and I was REALLY in need of a break from the long winter, so we settled on Martinique, which has been called the Paris of the Caribbean. We could do some sailing, some relaxing, I could get a tan, and I could practice my French all in one place!
Some friends told us Martinique was awesome, and other friends told us it was the worst place in the Caribbean. We found both extremes in Martinique.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Kim and I left Finn with the grandparents and flew Madison-Detroit-San Juan on Northwest flights. We checked into the Intercontinental Hotel. We changed into shorts, hurried to the beach bar, and sat on the beach drinking margaritas. We had missed sunset, but a distant dark cloud gave us a pretty lightning show. The change of scenery (and the drinks) made it hard for me to get to sleep, so I tossed and turned until 2:30 AM.
San Juan, Martinique
Here's what really drives me crazy about my wife. I got up at 7 AM to use the bathroom as quietly as I could. Kim woke up anyway and jumped out of bed, instantly ready for the day. I had missed out on a lot of sleep, and I was jonesing for another few hours...
We flew out at 12:15 PM on one of those twin engine prop planes that American uses throughout the Caribbean. Luckily the planes weren't MD-80's, which were repeatedly being grounded by American for maintenance problems. We landed in Martinique a few hours later.
The guidebooks warned me that the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel would be 30 Euros or so. ours was 39, and let's just say the dollar isn't doing so well these days. If you're going to Martinique, save up some cash first!!
We checked into the Sofitel Bakoua in Trois Ilets, where the Empress Josephine (Napoleon's wife) was born. We dressed down a little bit, then went to the bar at the end of the dock. Because I love the ocean, I sat facing it while Kim faced the beach. Kim jokingly kept me posted on all the topless sunbathers. There is a woman on the beach who sells bikinis and wraps. She changes into them and models them in front of everyone, and that was all right with me.
As we explored the immediate vicinity we found a tourism office full of brochures and with two smiling staff - who spoke extremely broken English. Between my French and their English I learned that Thursday was the best day to rent a car because (something) was bad on Friday and Saturday and everything would be closed on Sunday. I couldn't figure out what that (something) was. I couldn't recognize the word, and I couldn't find it in the dictionary. But we decided against renting a car until we had settled in more.
The tourism office surprised me. I had been counting on it because the guidebooks said it was nearby. But I was picturing a continental France-style tourism office, where everyone spoke at least three languages fluently. In Martinique they spoke broken English and the brochures were all only in French.
The advertised wireless internet at Sofitel Bakoua wasn't working. They kept saying it would be working soon, but it never did.
Fort De France
I woke up at 7 feeling energetic and ready to go for a quick run. My handy dandy GPS watch gave me heart rate, distance run, and run time. I decided to maintain a moderate heart rate, but as my body started drying out in the heat I ran slower and slower while my pulse stayed the same. Finally I was walking slowly up the hills and gently shuffling back down when it hit me that I should probably head back to the room and drink some water. Kim went for her own walk while I ran and she covered almost as much distance as I did.
After a shower we walked over to La Marine, a nearby restaurant, and called Kim's parents to check on Finn. We sat waiting for the ferry to Fort De France. Fort De France is touted as a shopping mecca and has been compared to a little bit of Europe in the Caribbean. So we were excited to check it out.
When the ferry cleared the breakwall the humid, stagnant air of the marina gave way to the fresh trade winds. The ferry wasn't very crowded, and the passengers were all French-speaking families with children. The city grew as we got closer, and when we arrived the captain executed an impressive landing in the 25 kt cross wind.
The city was extremely crowded and noisy, and for a while I thought about the passage in the guidebook saying Fort De France was safe to walk in, but that pick-pocketing and petty theft were sometimes a problem. Suddenly the MacBook Air in my messenger bag felt really conspicuous. In reality it wasn't an issue, as there were tourists all over the place, and we didn't stick out much from the other tourists (unless we opened our mouths). That said, the city ultimately had a disappointing, wierd vibe. The dirty, crowded, touristy areas we walked through were clearly there for the cruise ships' benefit. The Shoelcher library was closed because of Aime Cesare's death, and the large green-space called La Savanne was torn up with construction equipment everywhere. We decided to take refuge in a Tex Mex restaurant, and that's where we found the other six Americans that were visiting Fort De France. We had some lunch and two margaritas then decided to head back to the ferry dock.
On the way back, Kim pulled me into a crowded grocery store. We grabbed a few things to put in our hotel refrigerator and then waited a half hour in line to check out. Just like the whole city, the store was crowded, noisy, and generally not relaxing. Kim likes to go to stores to soak in the local vibe, whereas I see grocery stores as part of the tiresome drudgery of day-to-day life I try to escape on vacation. But I didn't complain...much.
One positive of our trip to Fort De France was that it was a great departure from our comfort zone. Less than 10% of the people were white, and NO ONE spoke English! It was a great reminder that the world is extremely large and complex.
We took the ferry back and took a long nap. Then it was back to the beach bar for 'Ti punch and topless sunbathers (one completely nude). When the sun got low on the horizon, we walked up to the hotel bar and sat by the infinity pool. Over more rum drinks (Vieux Punch) we watched the sun set as the lights of Fort De France slowly winked on. The view was absolutely beautiful.
For dinner we walked next door to Le Ponton, a very cool restaurant on stilts over the water. A few large yachts were parked at the dock, and the whole place had a nautical feel. It felt like the typical Caribbean waterfront bar with patrons from off the yachts. We walked to La Marine for more drinks and went to bed a little tipsy.
We woke up at 8:30, and I successfully justified not running by saying it was already too warm. I looked out the window across the bay to Fort De France. There were two large cruise ships at the dock.
We had a breakfast of ham and cheese sandwiches and quiche at a nearby deli, and we discussed our plan to rent a car. But that plan quickly fizzled because I got a little cranky about the constant language gap. I still wasn't sure if that was the best idea, and it seemed a lot of the tourists just hung out at or near the hotel. I would have killed for a concierge or a tourism office employee who spoke English and who cared about whether we enjoyed our vacation. We decided that if we rented a car it would be on Monday.
One of the most popular beaches on the island was just a short trip away (as the crow flies) at Le Diamant. We decided to take a cab, but anyone going there should RENT A CAR! It's too embarrassing to write how much the cab ride cost, but trust me. Renting a car is cheaper.
That said, the cabbie was very helpful and friendly. He made sure we were able to get a cab home by flagging down two other cabs and collecting their phone numbers. He also gave us his number in case those two didn't work out. But there was still a language gap, and I couldn't figure out what time the cabs stopped running. A lot of the shops and restaurants closed shortly after noon for the whole weekend, so I was a little nervous about having to hitch-hike home.
Diamond Rock is a dramatic and beautiful formation just off the coast. It was beautiful, the beach was beautiful, and the water was beautiful. We could see the island of St. Lucia in the distance.
We wandered past a restaurant, and a surfer dude poked his head out and tried to speak English with us. He said he could call a cab for us when we were done eating. Sold! It was a hole in the wall beach bar, but it was my best meal of the trip. Swordfish ceviche, fries, and 'ti punch. After a few 'ti punches Kim and I were laughing. I felt like poor Marcus from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH3Oim9dYyQ. The waiter gave us each a free shot of rum..
When we got back to Trois Ilets we sat on the beach, read, and had a few more drinks. Then we took a long nap and watched Mr and Mrs Smith in French. There was a local news story about Fort De France being completely closed up because of Aimee Cesare even though there were two cruise ships at the dock!!
Went for a walk and spoke with the crew of Cata Mambo and La Creole, two excursion catamarans. we made plans for the next day.
We got to the excursion dock at 8:15. Cata Mambo was full, and I was a little disappointed because they were going north to the volcano. Cata Creole had room, and they were going south to Le Diamant.
The trip started uncomfortably. We couldn't understand the narration (a little here and there), but the weather was beautiful and it was fun to get up close to Diamond Rock. And, of course, there was plenty of 'ti punch to drink. No one but us spoke fluent English. We anchored to go snorkeling, and the captain looked at us and fired off some fast French. It was too fast for me.
Suddenly the whole boat's attention was on us as he explained why we had to move and I didn't understand a thing. He asked if we were Swiss. We answered "Nous venons des Etats Unis." "Oh," he replied, "You're American. I'm sorry."
That started off a brief misunderstanding. I groaned and Kim laughed because we thought he was jabbing us for being Americans. We were mistaken, but it bummed me out because it really hit home. After reelecting Bush, Americans certainly deserve to be made fun of. But he wasn't making fun of us! He immediately started speaking in broken English, and I didn't hear him clarify that he was apologizing for speaking in French the whole time!
For the next hour or so I felt like we were pariahs until Kim, my much more socially-skilled spouse, explained what had happened. Immediately my fog lifted. We all sat down to dinner after snorkelling.
In another language it's one thing to order food and ask where the train station is, but it's quite another to sit at a table in uncomfortable silence despite the fact that everyone around us was chatting happily. They could feel our discomfort, and one young man kept meeting my gaze as if inviting me to talk. One smiling woman kept passing the bread and the wine to us. After three quick glasses of wine I finally broke the silence and said, "Je parle Francais seulement quand je boit." That got a laugh, and it was all fine after that. The young man was the only one who spoke a little English, and between the two of us we were able to have a conversation. He told me that when he first went to England he was very confident with his English, but he had a rude awakening when he arrived. I pointed at myself and nodded my head.
Finally, the question was asked. A man across the table asked, "Vous votez pour qui?" People laughed, but not at our expense. It was more of a I can't believe he's bringing this up kind of thing. So a brief political discussion followed. They were shocked that I thought McCain was going to win the White House. I was able to convey that it's because Clinton and Obama are hurting each other too much for the Democrats to win. But my master stroke of alcohol-induced linguistic genius was when the dude asked why every American he's met hates Bush but he's still in the White House. The whole table was paying attention. I answered "C'est parce que des persons qui a vote pour Bush, ils ne voyagent pas. Ils restent aux Etats Unis. Bush a ete fiert qu'il n'a pas de passeport. Alors, tout des Americains que vous voir n'aiment pas Bush." That's about how I murdered it, but I think I got the point across. A woman said, "C'est logique"
After lunch we continued back. The Captain pulled out a conch shell and blew on it for some reason. As a former Euphonium player in the UW Marching Band, and as a conch-blowing champion one drunken night at Marina Cay in the BVI's, I felt obligated to give it a shot. He handed me the conch and I gave it my all. Not my best performance, but pretty solid nonetheless. Then one of the crew walked up, a huge linebacker of a man. He put me in my place...
We stopped at a cave full of bats. I rode the dinghy in, and he went up close to the bats. ugh.
The final sail back to the marina was a blast. We yelled back and forth with another catamaran, blasted Bob Marley, danced, and drank 'ti punch. The Captain's 8-year-old daughter danced. We noted the transformation in everyone from the reserved beginning of the trip to the raucous end. But we already know that's what rum and a day of sailing does to people, regardless of nationality.
We slept in, then rented a car from Budget, a block from the hotel. For less money than Saturday's cab ride we were able to rent the car for the day and return it at the airport the following day. We drove over the well-maintained roads past beautiful views and stopped when the traffic backed up in Le Marin. We sat in traffic for a while before giving up and parking at a grocery store.
While walking into town in the HOT sun it occurred to me we should have just sat in traffic with the air conditioning going. The walk was longer than we originally thought. We finally came to a bigger marina with some newer-looking boats and several sailboat charter companies. We ate at a bar on stilts right by the marina. It was the classic "charterers" restaurant with Sunsail Charters nearby. After knocking around the marina for a while we took a long, hot, and sunny walk back to the car.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped by the La Mauny rum distillery. After some tasting we bought a bottle of rum and a bottle of sugar cane syrup. We got a little lost driving back on some very steep roads.
After a shower and a nap we hit the Coco bar just off the beach. How can I best put this? If you're offended by topless sunbathers, then you shouldn't go to the Coco Beach Bar on a sunny day. If you're offended by unattractive people, then you'll be safe going to the Coco Beach Bar on a sunny day.
We went out and had a delicious pizza and good drinks. Some children chased a cockroach across the floor (!?) and no one seemed to notice.
We ate again at our favorite bakery, packed, showered, and sat in the room. It was cooler and dark in the room, and we didn't want to end up flying sweaty. I got bored so I filled out the hotel's service survey.
The Sofitel Bakoua in Trois Ilets has the Sofitel name going for it, but it is REALLY overpriced. We paid a four-star rate for what was basically a two-star hotel. Although the view from the infinity pool across the bay to Fort De France is amazing, the rooms are getting pretty old.
We finally left for the airport an hour before we had to. We read a lot in the airport. We got on the plane, it taxied, and came to an abrupt stop. The flight attendant came on the PA saying there was a "nonresponsive passenger" and asking if there was a doctor on the plane.
Kim got up and went to the crowd of flight attendants. A man in his early 20's was leaning against the window. The flight attendant shook him, held up his arm, and let it drop limply. Nothing. Kim thought it was odd because "He didn't look sick or dead." Finally the man in the seat next to him slapped him across the face. That woke him up. He looked around at everyone and said, "What? I'm really tired!"
Our hotel in San Juan, La Concha, was brand new and beautiful. When we got to the room the phone rang. It was a member of the staff welcoming us to the hotel and saying if we needed anything at all we could call him. What a change from Martinique! We swam in the beautiful pool, worked out in the beautiful gym, and ate Tapas in the beautiful outdoor seating area. Not bad.
On a walk up the beach we noticed 3 high-rise buildings that were completely abandoned and covered in graffiti. It looked like our hotel was first of many to be completely redone.
We finally had wireless internet, so we called up my parents on Skype. We were able to interact by video with Finn! He wasn't sure what to think of it, but he kept smiling when he heard our voices.
We got up at 5:30, already tired before meeting our son again and being thrown back into permanent tiredness. After a 4.5 hour flight to Detroit, a 3-hour layover, and hour flight to Madison, we met both sets of grandparents at the airport. We were reunited with Finn, and we all went out for dinner. We are extremely lucky to have both sets of Finn's grandparents in a city with a large airport so close to home.
Martinique is a big island, and it is capable of containing some of the best and some of the worst of the Caribbean. We saw some friendly people and some indifferent people. We experienced noise, crowds, and dinginess, and we sipped 'ti punch, felt the trade winds, and listened to the surf. Kim and I concluded it would be nice to go back knowing what we know now (rent a car! stay in a different hotel!), but with so many places to go in the world we probably won't return unless it is part of a more general long-term Caribbean sailing cruise. Now THAT would be something...