A ‘Oui’ Taste of France?


They're popping corks of French Bordeaux for a romantic dinner at Plein Soleil in the hills above Baie du Robert.

And on a tiny street near the airport, women dressed in white smocks say, "Bonjour, monsieur," as they fill a bag with dainty pralines and tropical mints in a shop you'd joyously discover in Paris.

Meanwhile, in the green valleys and mountain forests of the north that seem so far removed from the white, southern beaches of this windward Caribbean island, an ex-Parisian jazz drummer and his theater professional wife say good morning to their guests in their Creole manor house with warm croissants, freshly brewed coffee and … CDs of soft jazz.

Mon Dieu, could this be France? Well, yes … and no.

It's Martinique, a far-flung, tropical outpost of France warmed by the sunny breezes of the Lesser Antilles.

My first glimpse of this "flower of the Caribbean" comes as our aircraft approaches Aimé Césaire International Airport, passing over dozens of sailboats, which seem like specs of white in the shimmering Caribbean.

The island appears surprisingly large, too — all 425 square miles of it — and geographically diverse, with Mount Pelée, a towering volcano, firmly planted north.

Touched in the west by the Caribbean Sea and in the east by the Atlantic, Martinique was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, but has been associated with France since 1635, and is now an official "department" of that country.

In the capital of Fort-de-France, it's possible to buy the latest in French fashions and perfumes — in euros, of course.

The island flies the French tricolor and benefits from a modern European infrastructure, but when it comes to the "French Connection," there's one loaded with absolute fun, "Martinique-style," that you can experience in the waters of the island's eastern coast.

From the hills overlooking Baie du François, "Josephine's Bathtub" comes into view. It's the famous sandbar where Josephine, the Creole woman who was Napoleon's wife, is said to have bathed.

Of course, the bathing part is all myth, but who cares? We're here to party!

About a dozen of us climb aboard Captain Jean-Marc's small boat, appropriately named Evasion, and make for the "bathtub," where the warm water is shallow enough for us to walk on the soft sand. We're in it up to our chests, laughing and shouting to our hearts' delight.

Then, Jean-Marc's deckhand gets into the water, towing a serving tray shaped like a boat that's filled with Poulet Boucannes ("Buccaneer Chicken"), typically sold at roadside barbecues, with a reservoir of rum mixed with guava juice and vanilla to make the ever-popular "Planteur."

A common greeting on Martinique is "What's cooking?" And the answer, of course, is "Chicken and rice."

But no matter what you're eating, all meals here seem to come with rum in some form, both as an appetizer and an aperitif.

Visits to Martinique distilleries, like the Saint James Distillery and its rum museum, or Clement Distillery, offer an opportunity not only for tasting, but to see 18th-century plantation homes and sprawling estates under palms, a reminder of rum's ties to the slave trade, which the Dutch introduced in the 17th century and was not officially abolished until 1848 by the French.

On the other hand, Neisson Distillery — located in Le Carbet, a little town on the northwest coast near where Columbus landed in 1502 — carries a different history.

Opened in 1931, it has no ties to the slave trade, and is Martinique's only family-owned distillery. Claudine Neisson-Verdant owns it with her son, Gregory, and led us on a tour.

Claudine, a former physician, told us that she gave up hospital work to devote herself to the award-winning distillery.

During our tour, Claudine also touched on her family's history, telling us that her father had left Martinique before World War II to study chemistry in France. By 1940, he had married a Russian émigré from Odessa; Claudine was born in Nice in France's wartime Free Zone.

Her Russian origins made my wife and I wonder, "Are you Jewish?"

"Oui," came her reply, and she went on to tell us that her maternal French grandfather had been killed in Buchenwald.

We left the distillery truly amazed at having made this "Jewish connection" where we least expected it.

It's all very peaceful around here now, but half-an-hour north, we found the Caribbean city of St. Pierre, Martinique's former capital, which was completely destroyed by the Pelée volcano in 1902.

St. Pierre was also a center of Jewish life — going all the way back to 1645 — when Jews from Brazil first arrived here, bringing valuable know-how for producing sugar cane.

We learned about this history from Moshe Yehuda Nemni, Martinique's Chabad rabbi. Today's Martinique Jews are French citizens, and enjoy the modern economic and educational infrastructure the island has to offer.

If you really want to go "off-the-beaten-track" on Martinique, you need to head to the northeastern highlands and Madame André's flower farm in Bezaudin on the edge of a national forest.

Under the cover of a patio during a sudden downpour, we feasted on yam bread, a thick pumpkin-and-breadfruit soup, and local roasted fish au gratin.

Further up the coast, we found Plein Soleil, the perfect setting for a romantic dinner.

Still farther up the Atlantic coast, off the island of Saint Aubin, we discovered our favorite inn of all, Le Domaine Saint Aubin, a magnificent three-story Creole plantation house full of character.

The inn's owners are Laurent and Joelle Rosemain, a Parisian couple who moved here with their three children about five years ago. Laurent is an ex-jazz drummer, who also has a degree in French and English literature from the Sorbonne.

His wife, Joelle, a Sephardic Jew, was a costume and hatmaker for the prestigious French national theatre company, La Comédie Française. She's now the chef.

As Laurent noted: "From this part of the island, you may discover the green part, rainforests and the old distilleries … . I think it's a good opportunity for people to find rest and peace and discover real life."

For more information, log on to: www.martinique.org.


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