Friday, April 1, 2016 - by Ann N. Yungmeyer
A playground for blue water adventure, Martinique boasts picturesque beaches and fjord-like coves, but the French West Indies island also has much to discover in the way of history, culture and cuisine. The 50-mile-long island, an overseas department of France, offers unique attractions in its coastal towns and rainforest hills – from heritage museums and botanic gardens to volcanic ruins and rum tasting tours.
On the Caribbean coast about an hour’s drive north from Martinique’s capital of Fort-de-France, the city of Saint-Pierre is at the heart of some of the island’s most fascinating history and longstanding traditions – all in the shadow of a famous volcanic mountain, Mont Pelée.
Once a busy port town, Saint Pierre was originally the sophisticated capital of Martinique, called the “Little Paris of the West Indies.” It is a city of many stories, but most poignant is the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée, four miles away, that totally destroyed the town and its nearly 30,000 inhabitants. Only one man survived, locked in a jail dungeon, which remains among the town ruins that can be seen today.
The stories of the lone survivor and horrific destruction of the city are depicted in Saint Pierre’s Volcano Museum, established in 1933 by American volcanologist, Frank Perret. Housed in a former gun battery, the museum shows before and after photos and molten artifacts including the melted bell from the church tower.
Strolling through the town, one can still see empty spaces and charred ruins of ancient buildings including an 18th century theatre and a church facade. Signs are posted for visitors, and guided tours are available. The volcanic eruption also destroyed ships in the town’s old harbor, leaving many wrecks that make it one of the island’s best scuba diving spots.
After the destruction, Saint Pierre came to be called “Little Pompeii of the Caribbean,” but unlike Pompeii, it was gradually rebuilt as a living city with a cathedral, modern town hall and covered market. Today, one also finds a few small hotels, shops and cafes in a peaceful, village-like atmosphere with about 5000 inhabitants. A recent art installation of totem poles throughout the city celebrates Saint Pierre’s past grandeur and creative rebirth, and the French government has recognized it as a “city of art and history.”
Mont Pelée is Martinique’s highest peak and it is still considered an active volcano.
For the geology-minded and others curious, an Earth and Sciences Discovery Center was established in 2004 with interactive exhibits and scientific presentations focused on the natural risks of the region including hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The fertile foothills of Mont Pelée have been home to sugar cane fields and some of the island’s earliest rum producers from the 17th century. The Saint James Distillery began in Saint-Pierre in 1765 and was rebuilt on the other side of the island after the volcano. It now features a popular rum museum highlighting the history of rum making and showcasing antique stills and photographs.
Also destroyed by the volcano, the historic plantation and distillery Depaz Estate had one family survivor, Victor Depaz, who was away studying in Bordeaux at the time. For Mr. Depaz, the city of Saint-Pierre was described as the "cradle of his childhood and the tomb of his family." He returned to Martinique 15 years after the eruption and rebuilt his family’s estate and distillery. The volcanic eruption left extremely fertile topsoil, which prompted Mr. Depaz to plant a rare type of blue sugar cane – the only cane that requires true volcanic soil to flourish.
Depaz Blue Cane Amber Rhum is among the finest vintage rums, and the estate is one of the great distilleries to visit with its picturesque setting at the base of Mont Pelee and overlooking the sea. A self-guided tour invites visitors to learn about Martinique’s agricole method of making rum – with sugar cane juice instead of molasses, used in industrial rum production. One can visit the tasting room, stroll the grounds around the impressive Chateau Depaz, and have lunch in a pleasant stone restaurant overlooking the cane fields.
Neisson is a small distillery nearby, well known for its award-winning white rum. The boutique producer is one of the island’s last family-run distilleries, and the personable owner sometimes conducts tours herself. If you arrive during production season, March through May, Neisson is a good place to get an up close look at the operations – beginning with a walk in the sugar cane garden to observing the crushing process, collecting the cane juice, fermentation, distillation and aging.
Just down the coast from Saint-Pierre is where Columbus landed in 1502 – now the village of Carbet. The historic village is also where Paul Gaugin lived and painted in 1887, but it’s better known today for Le Petibonum restaurant, where the charismatic “Chef Hot Pants,” whips up Creole-style, artisanal dishes in his beach kitchen. With the backdrop of Mont Pelée, his canopied café and island music invite one to enjoy the beach vibe along the volcanic-gray sandy shore. http://us.martinique.org
Ann Yungmeyer is a freelance writer in Kingsport, Tenn.