After a smooth sixty-mile sail from Dominica, we arrived in a modern-day Pompeii of the Caribbean, Saint-Pierre, Martinique. The Saint-Pierre harbor is extremely deep, except right along the shoreline, so we had to get unusually close to the beach to anchor. The harbor is also littered with wrecked ships that burned and sank during the 1902 volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée that killed 28,000 people, and left only two survivors.
Before the eruption, Saint-Pierre was known as “the Paris of the Caribbean,” but the volcanic devastation of 1902 will forever remind people of that other, less fortunate European city. The town of Saint-Pierre is much smaller today, with less than 5,000 inhabitants. It is a hauntingly beautiful mixture of stone ruins and modern buildings nestled on a hillside overlooking the sea.
After officially clearing in to France (Martinique is a French Overseas Region) we strolled the streets admiring the history and architecture while the scent of freshly baked baguettes wafted in the air. You have to love the French islands, not only is it amazingly simple and inexpensive to clear in, but you are never far from a bakery, café, or wine shop – often all in the same establishment.
For SCUBA divers, a visit to Saint-Pierre is not complete without exploring the many sunken ships, especially the wreck of the 103-meter, iron ship Roraima. Because the wreck is in 165 feet of water, only the top of the ship can be seen within recreational dive limits. The ship is so large, however, that just the top structure is an amazing dive with plenty to see, including massive amounts of coral and other sea life that have made this 115-year-old underwater graveyard their home.
Back on land, we hiked the long, hot uphill path to the DePaz Rhum Distillery. The property is stunning, with manicured grounds, a beautiful main house, and all the old artifacts used for making rhum agricole (rum distilled from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice rather than molasses). The self-guided tour lets you explore, up-close, all the grounds, and ends with a tasting of their many rhums. They are quite generous, and will let you sample everything from their basic light rhum agricole to their well-aged, dark rhums and vintage reserves.
After a few days in Saint-Pierre, we sailed south planning to stop in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique. As we rounded the cape to enter the bay, we saw the outline of the city. It looked very modern, busy, and crowded; so we turned ¡Pura Vida! and headed a few more miles to the quiet bay of Grande Anse d’Arlet. We were pleased with our choice when we dropped anchor in clear water in front of a white sand beach with a postcard-perfect fishing village. We had lush, green hills in three directions, and the azure Caribbean at our backs. Way better than city life!
After a couple of days, we moved just a couple of miles south to another bay called Anse-d’Arlet. Despite the names, Anse-d’Arlet is much bigger than Grande Anse-d’Arlet; perhaps it’s a French inside joke. We had heard from fellow cruisers that this was a picturesque small town, but words do not do it justice. Even before you walk off the town dock, you are greeted by the stunning view of the local church surrounded by quaint and colorful shops and houses.
We needed to do some major re-provisioning – the French wines just don’t last long aboard – so we motored upwind for a short distance to the town of Sainte-Anne on the southernmost part of Martinique.
Sainte-Anne is not a large town, but the anchorage is quiet, spacious, and a relatively short dinghy ride away from the port city of Le Marin. We could have anchored in Le Marin, but the murky harbor is jam-packed with boats, and has high-speed traffic all day.
Le Marin has what cruisers call a “luxury”: a huge, modern grocery store with a dinghy dock. Yes, this is the kind of thing that gets cruisers really excited. The thought of truly restocking on food and wine without having to lug heavy bags through the streets, or ride in crowded buses makes us giddy as children on Christmas morning. The store did not disappoint!
The Sainte-Anne anchorage is also near an excellent reef for diving or snorkeling. Since it was close to ¡Pura Vida!, we went diving twice, and loved the convenience of diving so close to our “house.” On our next visit to Martinique, we will definitely spend more time underwater.
On our last night in Martinique, when we were doing our ritual sunset cocktails on our bow, two kids from the catamaran forward of us paddled by in a kayak and invited us over for drinks. We jumped in Lagniappe and motored over to meet our neighbors. As the night passed and the drinks flowed, it finally dawned on us why their boat name, Flip-Flops, sounded so familiar; we had been told by other friends to keep an eye out for this fun-loving couple from South Africa, Haig & Nicci, and their two children, Michael & Erin. Their reputation for gregarious hospitality was definitely well-earned as they insisted we stay over for dinner, and plied us with drinks. Way later than expected, we stumbled into our dinghy and headed back to ¡Pura Vida!
Over dinner, we learned that we had failed in our culinary exploration of the large French grocery store. The crew of Flip-Flops introduced us to the wonders of canned duck confit. We were first taken aback at all the praise for canned duck, after all, how good can meat that comes out of a can be, right? We were wrong to be so skeptical!
The morsels of duck, slow-cooked for days in their own fat tasted as if they had just been served at a five-star restaurant, and Haig’s Thai green curry preparation was out of this world. Although we had already officially checked out of the country, we changed our plans for the next day to include an early morning run to the grocery store before weighing anchor.
Now we were ready to depart! With ¡Pura Vida! loaded with French wines and other earthly delights, we pointed the bow south and set sail for Saint Lucia. Our time in Martinique was short, but we are seriously considering spending at least two months there next year to immerse ourselves in the culture, and hopefully improve our French. We hope our waistlines expand less than our vocabulary.