Words and Photos by Adama Delphine Fawundu
It’s a festive time to be in the Caribbean. While Trinidad & Tobago might grab all the headlines, T&T doesn’t have a lock on bacchanal at this time of year. Carnival celebrations are currently underway or set to commence in Aruba, Carriacou, Curacao, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique and St. Maarten, and probably a few others we’re forgetting, too. As we head into the biggest party weekend of the year, region-wide, we’re making a few stops at some of the Caribbean’s other February Carnival destinations, starting with stately, picturesque Fort-de-France in Martinique.
When my best friend called me up one evening and asked if I wanted to go to Martinique for a weekend, I couldn’t resist. Our trip did not coincide with Le Carnaval, the huge annual celebration which takes place just before Lent in Fort-de-France. However, the weekend turned out to be quite festive, full of pre-Carnival activities worth attending. In fact, the weekends in January and February leading up to the main event are filled with exciting warm ups the true flavor of this French island in the Lesser Antilles.
On our first night, as we walked through the dimly lit narrow streets of Fort-de-France, the pastel-colored small buildings accented with intricately-designed porches made me reminisce on the French Quarter of New Orleans. In spite of the overtly Parisian flavor of this French-speaking city, its African roots bloom vibrantly through the people. This became clear as we were drawn by the sounds of tambour drums pulling us towards a huge building, Espace Camille Darsière, which was surrounded by a floral courtyard. As we made our way through the grand doorway, we found ourselves within another courtyard, where we were encircled by members of the organization, Mi Mes Manmay Matinik. Here we found several groups of bélé singers and dancers, celebrating their heritage through a performance of dance and music. Bélé is a creole form of dance, stemming from West Africa. Besides Martinique, it’s also practiced in Dominica, Saint Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago. Historically, this folk dance and music has been connected to mating and fertility during a full moon. On this eve, the form stayed true to its origins, as various sets of bélé dance groups performed under a beautiful full moon. This was certainly an unexpected treat.
The next morning our Airbnb host invited us to Marina du Marin, which was just about a 45-minute drive right out of the city. Her company sponsored one of the boats in an annual sailing competition, Course de Bébé Yoles. Martinique is known for its sailing culture, specifically the Yole boats, an activity rooted in tradition. Every summer, usually in late July, Martinique plays host to one of the Caribbean’s most colorful sailboat races, Tour des Yoles Rondes. The long and narrow Yole boat was inspired by the hollow-out gommier tree trunks that the Arawak used to sail thousands of years ago. The racing began with fisherman, and evolved to become Martinique’s number one sport. Course de Bébé Yoles attracted a diverse range of onlookers who sipped on fresh juices, and snacked on Creole treats and pastries from the local restaurants and nearby market. It was interesting to watch the sailors mantle their boats. While the sailors were all males dressed in uniformed nylon shorts and shirts, teams of men and women worked together to assure that their boats were ready for sailing. The process takes about an hour, adding anticipation and excitement to the race.
Afterwards, we drove to Les Trois-Îlets, a more touristy in the southern part of the island, where we enjoyed the most delectable table-top grilled duck from an outdoor restaurant, L’Annexe. After a ferry back to Centre Ville, we were greeted by the striking colors of the pre-Carnival Foyal Parade. Every year there are key several events including the Foyal Parade, that lead up to the Grand Carnival. Approximately thirty sets of carnival participants represent in colorful attire and an elaborate range of masks. The streets are filled with the sounds of drums and horns, and thousands of dancing bodies. I could only imagine what the Grand Carnival is like.
On our final day in Fort-de-France, we walked around Centre Ville, met a few cool people and browsed through several small shops and the huge covered market known as Le Grande Marché Couvert. This market is a great place to find local goods such as curry powder, jams (the guava jam is the best), medicinal herbs, hand-crafted souvenirs, and a variety of coconut rum punches. The savory aroma of Madam Frances’s spice market drew me to her instantly; I couldn’t resist purchasing some curry and a creole season mixture. The lovely, Madam Sylvia dressed in yellow, surrounded by a myriad of rum punches, invited me to sample her homemade coconut rum which tasted like fresh sweet coconut milk — with a super strong punch, of course.
Norwegian Air recently launched direct flights to Martinique from Boston, Baltimore and JFK, making Martinique more accessible than ever for travelers from the U.S. What’s more, they’ve been offering some pretty great introductory fares. If you luck out with a reasonably priced and comfortable Airbnb like mine — at forty-five bucks a night — a trip to Martinique makes a great weekend treat, during Carnival season or any time of year.