We’d chosen four Caribbean islands to visit, all quite close and linked by a ferry service, l’Express des Iles. (There ate inter-island flights we well, but they are much more expensive.) Each crossing takes about an hour and a half. We had to be at the Castries port very early on Thursday 15th January, as the ferry sailed at 7. It was quite smart, with comfortable seating, but few facilities. We were surprised at how few people were on board.
St Lucia is an ex-UK colony, so the official language is English, and they drive on the left. The currency is East Caribbean dollars, but US dollars are also widely used (you have to ensure you know what kind of dollars are being quoted). Because St Lucia is now an independent country, there are the usual formalities on entry and exit.
Martinique however was a French colony and is still part of France. So the language is French, they drive on the right, and the currency is the euro. What seemed odd was that, on arriving, there were no formalities at all for us: we waved our EU passports and walked straight through. Just like arriving in Calais!
We spent just four nights on Martinique – two in the south and two in the north – but it was an eventful time.
Following instructions from our next host, Franck, we walked from the main ferry terminal in Fort-de-France (the capital) to the pier where local ferries depart. It was only half a mile, but no fun in the pouring rain, dragging our cases. But by the time the ferry left, the sun was shining, and we enjoyed the short cruise across the bay.
At Anse á l’Ane we sat in a beach bar while waiting for Franck to collect us. We asked for white coffee, but there was no milk. When we said we did not like black coffee, the barman went off and eventually returned with some UHT whipping cream – would that do? We hadn’t the heart to say no, and actually it tasted fine. He then proceeded to tell us his life story, in great detail; he spoke fairly slowly and used lots of hand gestures. Even so, we understood about half of it.
Franck took us up to our apartment, but we were not able to check in until later. Meanwhile, we walked back to Anse á l’Ane, and then headed for the beach at Anse Mitan. This turned out to be further that we thought; the road was hilly, with lots of traffic, and it was very hot. We were getting tired when a car pulled up, and pleased to discover it was Franck, who gave us a lift to the beach.
After a drink and a swim, we walked on to Pointe du Bout, which proved to be a small holiday resort: Regent Road in Schagen terminology. We walked to the point, passing the ruins of what must have been a coastal defence. We then spent a bit of time on another beach, and bought ice cream and postcards before catching a bus back to Anse á l’Ane. We bought food at the supermarket and just managed to carry it up the steep hill to our apartment. This was truly beautiful: well furnished and equipped, artistically decorated, with a large balcony (fantastic views) where we were happy to eat our meals. But that evening a disaster occurred: Sandie’s laptop stopped working, and we have been unable to get it going again.
We’d discovered that there are two buses which do a circle round the south-west corner of Martinique, one going clockwise and one anticlockwise. This was a perfect way for us to get to the points of interest in that area. So the next day we set off on a tour, stopping at the les Trois Ilets (the main town of the region), Le Diamant (with a large rock offshore) and les Anses d’Arlet (a beautiful beach). The bus was not always on time, so some waiting around was involved, but it was an effective (and very cheap) way of sightseeing.
That evening, there was a second disaster: Ian’s camcorder packed up completely!
On Saturday 17th we caught the ferry back to Fort-de-France, and then a collectif (minivan bus) to Le Prêcheur in the north. The driver kindly did a detour to drop us right outside our accommodation. But then we found we could not get in! We pushed buttons frantically, and eventually the gates opened – we realised afterwards that this was just because a car was coming out, but it enabled us to slip inside.
We found reception, but it was closed! We were about to call the hotel number when we spotted a cleaning lady, and asked for help. She opened up reception, called the owner (manager?) and allocated our room. But we had lots of questions to ask, and she said that reception was not open at weekends! We asked about car hire (advertised as available) but she said not at weekends. Taxis? Buses? You’ve guessed it – not at weekends.
We stated to panic, thinking we would be stuck for the whole weekend. Luckily, after another phone call, the owner turned up with a hire car. After a quick lunch, we drove back to St-Pierre, and spent the afternoon exploring the town. It was destroyed in 1902 when the nearby volcano erupted, so there are plenty of ruins to see.
In the evening we drove into Le Prêcheur – our first opportunity for about a week to have dinner in a restaurant. At Chez Alice, the eponymous owner was friendly with her guests, most of whom she obviously knew well. There was no printed menu – just a choice of fish or seafood – but when Sandie explained about being vegetarian, they kindly prepared a huge plate of omelette and salad especially for her.
North Martinique is dominated by Mt Pelée, so next day we tried to get to the top. We drove up to a car park from which you can walk to the summit. According to our guidebook, it’s a one-mile walk along a well-marked path. The path is certainly well marked, but longer than a mile and difficult in parts where you have to clamber over rocks. When we set off it was very murky, and visibility was poor. But we hoped for good views from the top, because mountain weather changes frequently. And it did – for the worse. We had heavy rain on and off, and still no views. At the top we followed the path around the caldera for a short way, and then gave up and started our descent. This was even more tricky, as the rocks were now very slippery, due to the rain. So we were mightily relieved (as well as very wet) when we finally reached the car park.
After a reviving lunch (and change of clothes) we set off on a mini-tour of the north end of Martinique. We followed a scenic (i.e. difficult) drive to Grand’ Rivière, where we enjoyed the ocean views and even caught glimpses of Dominica – our next destination! On our way back we stopped in Le Morne Rouge, and then again in St-Pierre, just in time for good sunset views. From both places we got views of Mt Pelée: still partly covered in cloud, but a lot clearer than it had been in the morning!
Next day we drove into Le Prêcheur and had a look round the village, then drove a little further up the west coast and had a short stroll along a beach. Then it was time to return to our apartment, pack up and move on!