Life happens when you’re making other plans – like when I became an accidental tourist and ended up in Martinique, a little piece of France in the Caribbean.
As a frequent traveler, I have a couple of rules I observe closely, one is to pack lightly and the other is to fly the most direct route. The first rule I’ve pretty much mastered, in fact, after every trip I conduct an audit to determine which items in my suitcase were useful and which were simply dead weight. The second rule is a bit more challenging but with enough research, I’ve been able to figure out how to get from point A to point B without spending a night in some intermediate city. Last year I flew around the globe flawlessly, gliding in and out of airports like a hawk swooping down for the prey.
For my last trip of 2015 I decided I wanted to celebrate the New Year in Guadeloupe, a French island in the Caribbean. I chose Guadeloupe because it had many of the elements I enjoy: kitesurfing, an active tango community and yoga. Plus I liked the idea of being immersed in a French culture without going to Europe.
What I wasn’t ready for was the circuitous route from Los Angeles to Guadeloupe. My initial Internet search on various travel sites had me going from L.A. to Paris to Guadeloupe … what? I soon realized it was easier to fly to the moon than Guadeloupe, despite Guadeloupe being just a three and a half hour flight from Miami. Another option was connecting in Montreal, but I would need to fly northeast to eventually make my way south — against my rule of efficient flying.
I eventually pieced together a route from Los Angeles, with connections in Miami and Martinique. It would require a night in Miami — not efficient — but it was the shortest distance between two points. So I broke my rule, arrived in Miami, had a wonderful meal at a vegetarian restaurant near the beach, slept to the sound of Cuban music coming from the club next door and looked forward to my arrival in Guadeloupe.
At the airport the next morning, I was informed that my flight to Martinique was late — the beginning of what we in the airline business call a “creeping delay.” The first excuse was weather, then a mechanical problem, then a crew staffing issue then… silence. After a five-hour wait, the stars magically aligned and I was airborne. Upon landing in Martinique, it became obvious that I had missed my connection to Guadeloupe. Why is it that the only flight that ever leaves on time is your outbound connection — when your inbound plane is late?
That’s when I decided to forget about Guadeloupe and stay in Martinique. I was tired of airplanes, airports and the blank stares from gate agents. Martinique is, after all, a “department of France” which means a region of France located outside of its European borders. The currency is the Euro and the people speak French. All I had to do was find kitesurfing, yoga and tango — how hard could that be?
I made my way to Fort-de-France, the capital, in my rented car and checked into a small family-owned, three-story hotel overlooking a park. Ford De France is a port city of narrow streets with a sleepy Caribbean ambiance. Cramped, colorful, low-rise wooden buildings are interspersed with a few modern glass and steel edifices that would better fit in Paris rather than a tropical island. Partaking in the New Year’s celebrations was easy, it all happened in the park just below my hotel window: fireworks, a stage with music, an inflatable children’s funhouse… plus a throng of happy Martinicans.
One thing I didn’t see was tourists. It didn’t feel like a typical vacation destination, the lack of T-shirt vendors and hucksters pushing glass-bottom sunset dinner cruises was refreshing. I needed to do some quick research as my knowledge of Martinique was limited. My first stop was TripAdvisor, Yelp and other travel websites. I was shocked at the difference between reviews posted by Americans and those posted by Europeans. Nearly all of the Americans left negative reviews while the Europeans said they had excellent experiences on the island.
The primary beef from Americans went like this: “I walked into a store and no one spoke American.” I wondered what those reviewers would think if Chinese reviewers wrote: “I tried eating at Hard Rock Cafe in L.A. and none of the waiters spoke Mandarin! I’m never going back!” Spoiler alert for American travelers: people speak different languages outside of the United States! (Don’t worry; they’re not talking behind your back about your Bermuda shorts, black knee high socks and street shoes. They just want your money!) In fact, during my 10 days exploring Martinique, I didn’t encounter even one other U.S. citizens nor hear one word of “American.”
I identified kitesurfing beaches and headed out to find the perfect offshore wind and blue lagoon. First stop was Le Vauclin, a stretch of beach on the southeast side adjacent a sleepy little fishing village. After stopping in at several kitesurfing schools, it became apparent that I was facing a serious obstacle: it was the New Year’s holiday season. I learned that Martinique is a vacation destination for over-stressed French people. Everything was booked to capacity, including hotels.
My next stop was Les Trois-Ilets. I learned about it from the hitchhikers I picked up along the way. Les Trois-Ilets is a small town with a main street, wonderful restaurants, a marina and hotels dotting the surrounding area. It caters to European tourists and is quite charming. I was able to locate an interesting hotel (L’Imperatrice Village) on the beach, about a 20-minute walk from the center of town. It comprises of single-story bungalows under a canopy of tropical trees. At night I could hear the surf and a cacophony of animal sounds. The rooms were basic and a bit worn but I was happy, the location was great and I had a place to rest my head.
I signed up for kitesurfing lessons at a nearby beach hut but was put on standby; the school was booked and couldn’t promise anything. Somehow, everyday a spot opened up. I ended up kitesurfing the entire time. Finding tango, however, was a futile effort. None of my email inquiries were answered. Yoga was also dismal: only twice a week, exactly at the same time as kitesurfing.
Restaurants in Martinique cater to its French tourists, therefore the food is exceptional. The staple offering of French fare was easily accessible, anything from moules-frites to boeuf bourguignon to salade nicoise… and of course wines and cheeses of all variety. As a vegetarian I struggled, my plant-based diet is quite foreign on this meat intense island. Not even the Chinese restaurant in Trois-Ilets offered dishes suitable for a vegetarian palate. Still, I ate well even though my options were limited. Every morning I would go to a local patisserie and sit with a croissant and an expresso, and revel at the exceptional taste.
Overall I truly enjoyed Martinique; it’s a Caribbean island that has retained its charm without becoming tainted by the tourist trade. Real people live in harmony with sun seekers wanting a respite from hectic lives. My return home was another marathon journey with connections through Puerto Rico, Ft Lauderdale and finally Los Angeles. Maybe I will fly through Paris the next time. I’d get there faster.
Copyright © Carl Paradise/2016 Singular Communications, LLC.
Carl Paradise is a professional pilot for a major airline, a member of SingularCity and an occasional contributor to Singular magazine. He does not work as a journalist, but enjoys traveling, dancing the tango, practicing yoga, fine vegetarian cuisine and sharing his experiences with our readers.