Caribbean Travel Roundup

Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor


Caribbean Travel Roundup
Paul Graveline, Editor
Edition 83
March 1, 1998

Last Update 28 Feb 98 1200et

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MARTINIQUE - PART 1, PORTIONS OF THE CARIBBEAN SIDE BY TOM CARROLL

(Ed. Note: the second part of this feature will appear in next month's CTR)

Trip 9/97 

Mid-morning  we  sailed  from  Rodney Bay into the St. Lucia Channel 
for  La Baie de Fort-de-France, Martinique's main harbor thirty-five 
miles  to  the  north.  The Channel is sometimes turbulent but today 
conditions  were  beatific,  perhaps the crew's spiritual reward for 
tolerating  the  skipper's  eccentricities.   We enjoyed a cloudless 
blue  canopy  as the boat cut through benign sea swells and piled up 
white  water on either side of the bow,  "sailing with a bone in her 
teeth"  is  the  expression.   Every  sailors'  darling  was with us 
today   - -   tropical NE tradewinds abeam for a perfect reach. We'd 
had  some  great  performances  when wind, sea, skies  and boat were 
choreographed  this  way  but  today  was  the  best  for this final 
channel  sail  of  the  trip.  It wasn't long after lunch as we were 
closing  rapidly  on Rocher du Diamant that some porpoises hailed us 
to   watch   their   matinee   aerobics   show.   They're  shameless 
exhibitionists  but  the  admission  price was right so we reefed to 
watch  them,   though  without  disclosing our true intent to simply 
prolong  a  trip  nobody  wanted to end.  Even under greatly reduced 
sail  we  anchored several hours before vespers at Anse Mitan across 
the  harbor from the capital. Vespers?  Certainly.  When vacationers 
arrive  intact  after  a  Windwards'  sea  channel  sail it warrants 
setting  aside  reflective  time  for  an  astonished  thanksgiving.  
Overall,  we  spent  33 days in the Windwards on this trip.  I write 
about  the  11  days, spread over two separate visits, that we spent 
on the waters and land of Martinique.        

The  sail from St. Lucia had been our return to Martinique.  Arrival 
had  been  nearly a month earlier when first crew and I had flown in 
from  Philadelphia.  Our charter contract required that we be on the 
island  a  day  early to insure availability for a morning departure 
briefing.    Some   charterers  complain  about  this,   arguing  it 
inflates   the   price  by  front-end  loading  a  dubiously  needed 
overnight   lodging.    Not   us.   We  reasoned  as  seafarers  not 
budgeteers:   what more fitting prelude to hardships at sea is there 
than  an  indulgence  at  some  nice  hotel?     Les Amandiers Hotel 
located  in  the  west  coast  seaside district of  Ste Luce was our 
pick based on our company's recommendation.  

We  had done our homework lessons.  Our party was prepared to recite 
that  Martinique  is a French  "overseas  department", more recently 
a  "region",   and  we  knew  this  carried with it the considerable 
benefits  of   a  statehood-type  affiliation with France.   But dry 
politics  did  not  prepare  us for Martinique's unique luster among 
the  jewels  of   the Caribbean.  Just looking about there can be no 
mistaking  that  something   - -  presumably lineage  - -   has made 
it  a  well groomed,  prosperous, and civilized looking place with a 
body builder's infrastructure unique in the Lesser Antilles. 

For   the  prospective  vacationer,  this  state  of  affairs  might 
reasonably  be  seen  either as good or bad news.  On the plus side, 
the  island  has a full range of well-funded public institutions and 
services,   museums,  libraries,  a  U.S.  style road system , and a 
school  system  accounting  for  a  high  literacy  rate.  There are 
substantial  residential  and commercial buildings everywhere and it 
has  the  largest  deep  water  port in the Caribbean.    But on the 
other  side,  development has brought some urban negatives like rush 
hour  traffic  jams  and  glimmers  of big city smog caused by a few 
smokestacks  and  over  150,000  motor  vehicles  servicing  400,000 
inhabitants.    Aren't  some  of  these  factors contraindicative of 
idyllic vacations?  

In  my opinion,  the opinion of an 11 day wonder, the answer is this 
-  -  development  here  complements  the  vacation  experience  not 
detracts   from  it.   Urbanization  and  the  byproducts  of  heavy 
development  grip  only  Fort de  France and its immediate environs,  
it's  sort  of like a trade  zone.  Even there,  conditions are much 
like  other  major  Caribbean  seaports  though magnified by Fort de 
France   being   the   largest   city   in   the   Lesser  Antilles.    
Elsewhere,   development  is  low  impact and much of the tourism is 
concentrated  around  smaller  towns  to the south having at worst a 
little  touch  of  suburbia  but  for  most  part  more  of  a rural 
quality.    Yearn  for the old Caribbean?  That's here in places far 
distant  from  the  hub.  Besides, don't forget the chic that's part 
of  the  fabric  here  - -   the cachet of always  having the latest 
from Paris  - -  is dependent upon this trade zone.  

Like  everywhere  else  in the Caribbean it would be a distortion to 
idealize  the  island's  history  into  a  happy  face  of  colonial 
beneficence   -  -  slavery  was  as  ugly  here  as  anywhere else.  
Presumably,  the  scars  are  just  as deep and the recovery just as 
painful,  palliated  perhaps  by  the racial majority here appearing 
considerably  more  prosperous  than  on  many  other islands.  This 
island  seems  to  be  more  successful  than  most  places  in  the 
Caribbean,  and  for  that  matter in the world, in blending African 
and  former  colonial ways.  The political structure is probably the 
key  but there's also something else.  Here, local zestiness cavorts 
with  the  high  style  of  Franco-  culture  to  produce a uniquely 
sensual   and  cosmopolitan  atmosphere.   Examples  abound  in  the 
lifestyle  but  the  most  tonal  is the music originating here  - -   
the sexy but sophisticated beguine and its successor the Zouk.    

The  road  system  glides  the  visitor  to  picturesque  inland and 
coastal  villages,  neatly cultivated farmland and awesome, hikeable 
mountains  in  the  north.  Towns dot the leeward and windward sides 
as  both coasts are fully accessible by car, a luxury not present in 
many  of  the  Antilles.   I  mention   in  particular  the farms of 
Martinique  because  I  enjoyed  seeing  them  so  much.    I'm  not  
speaking  of the mega banana and pineapple plantations  nor even the 
remaining  rum producing sugarcane plantations located in the plains 
and  to  the north.  I refer to the smaller farms mid- island and to 
the   south   .    Their   vitality   contrasts   with   the   sadly 
undercapitalized  agricultural  efforts  prevalent  elsewhere in the 
islands.  France subsidizes and pampers this place - big time.

Several  sources  called to our attention that the French are rotten 
hosts,    rude  and  unfriendly  to  Americans,  "snoots"  they  are 
called.   Speaking  of  Martiniquais in particular, an island hiking 
guidebook  walks  right  up  to  the plate: "This is a culture where 
rudeness  is  considered  an art form".  Based on little more than a 
week,   I  am  reluctant  to  buck such fervent and universally held 
viewpoints,  though I wonder when and how long the commentators were 
here.    I  guess  our own experience must have been attributable to 
our  being  here  during  off  season for snootiness.   Whatever the 
reason,  we  saw  no  such  thing.    Based on the forecasts, we had 
expected  to be assaulted with Gallic insults and snubs particularly 
condescension  at  our  inability  to converse in the divine tongue.  
Instead,  we  found  no  "snoots"  for  nastiness,  only "toots" for 
tourism.   We  were  treated  just  as one would expect in a country 
where  tourism  is the leading local industry  - - very well indeed. 
The  people  we  ran across, hotel staff, waiters, cabbies,  customs 
officials,   shop  employees   and  just  people  on the street were 
universally   friendly  and  helpful.   We  experienced  no  episode 
corroborative   of   these  negative  opinions.   Our  own  positive 
experiences  certainly weren't due to our mastery of  French culture 
nor  language.   One  of  the crew retained some college proficiency 
but  the rest of  us muddled through with phrasebooks, gestures, and 
memories  of  Maurice  Chevalier  movies.   Perhaps, though, I ought 
mention  that  our  first  crew included two very attractive teenage 
nieces  of  our  first  mate  - -  this engendered a distinctly pro-
American attitude among the young Frenchmen we encountered.  

Maybe  this  reputation  helps  explain  why  travel  czars  shelter 
Americans  by  making  it  slightly  inconvenient   for  them to get 
there.    There's  daily  widebody non-stops from France but there's 
no  mass  market  non-stop service from the U.S.   American Airlines 
flights  are  routed  through  San  Juan  or  Barbados requiring the 
hassle  of  transfer  to  smaller interisland planes  - - though, of 
course,  it's  hardly  a  disabling  inconvenience.  It is true that 
many  cruise  ships  call at Fort de France.  But those fond of this 
peculiar  form  of  sea  travel  are unshackled for just a few hours 
exercise  in  the  shopping  compounds  before  being rounded up for 
return to their ships.    

French    bureaucracy    is    notorious    for   organization   and 
classification.   Hotel oversight by the Martinique Board of Tourism 
is  no  exception.   Lodgings  are  placed into four groups: "Grande  
Hotelleries"  [about  20  major  resort  hotels  each  with  over 60 
rooms];  "Les  Relais  Creoles"  [about  100  small/medium  hotels]; 
"Gites  Ruraux"  [country guesthouses spread throughout the island]; 
and   "Villas"  [furnished  villas/apartments mostly in the vacation 
areas  south  of  Trois  Ilets].   For  hotels there's a star rating 
system,   using  criteria  of  which  I stand uninformed.  For all I 
know,  the  standards are arbitrary and  haphazardly applied but for 
the  otherwise  unknowledgeable  traveler at least the ratings are a 
start.  

Under  the  star  system  Hotel  Le  Bakoua  is usually rated first, 
called  either a five star or its variant  "four star - luxury".  We 
stayed  there  two  nights  and  my  generally  affirmative personal 
observations  about  that  place  will  be  in next month's article.  
There's  one  other  four  star - luxury hotel,  Bateliere (which we 
did  not visit) and two ordinary four starrers,  Meridien is one and 
the  other  is  Brigadoon   -  -  whoops, I mean Habitation Lagrange 
where  we  likewise  stayed  but I'm getting ahead of myself.  There 
are  some 30 more bearing  three star ratings, one of which I review 
in  this  article,   and  still  more  carrying  one  and two stars.  
Personally,  I wouldn't rate Meridien with four stars.  To my way of 
thinking  it's  more  like  a  high  rise  convention  hotel  than a 
Caribbean  vacationer's  spot,  but  my  objection may challenge the 
criteria  rather  than  the  validity  of the rating.  Regardless of 
ratings,  overall  it  seems  there are fewer luxury places than one 
might  expect  on  an  island  of  this size and prosperity but this 
might   have  something  to  do  with  the  French  vacation  ethic.   
Lodging  prices  aren't exorbitant here.  But vacationers looking to 
lowball  should  be  aware  that  at  the  mid  to low pricing range 
lodgings  will  be  sort of  European relaxed and casual  - - that's 
the  vacation  ethic  I'm  speaking about.  That style warrants some 
probing  with a knowledgeable travel agent to make sure this is what 
you want.     

We   arrived   mid-afternoon   via   American   Eagle  at   Lamentin 
International  Airport  near  Fort  de  France.  It might sound like 
common  sense  but  in  the  summer  it's  sometimes forgotten: come 
dressed  for  the tropics.  When the airplane door opens you will be 
welcomed  by  a  blast  of  tropical  air and maybe even a drenching 
afternoon  shower  before  you're  off  the  tarmac.  The  versatile 
traveler  arrives with phrasebook unholstered. Have it bookmarked to 
the  travel  glossary  so you're  ready to improvise if there's some 
snafu.   In our case, the freebie shuttle van never showed up for us 
and  some  similarly  situated  Italian and Chilean charter sailors.  
Polyglot  we were, but the wrong tongues.  But we worked it out when 
we  got  another driver to figure out what was up and he grabbed the 
job by getting radio ok from our charter company.

We  had  gotten a few francs before leaving Philadelphia but there's 
no  need  to  come  with  a fistful.  Banks exchange money and there 
were  also  money exchanges in the towns and at the airport [dollars 
for  francs  but  not  francs  for  dollars].   I had read that post 
offices  also  provide  this  service  but  the one in St Pierre did 
not.   The larger hotels accommodate their guests for small amounts, 
though  the  rate  is  less  favorable.   Credit  cards  are  widely 
accepted,  providing  an  easy  way to avoid the exchange hassle.  A 
credit  card  transaction,  incidentally,  is normally written up in 
francs  (the  shopper  must  know  the  approximate exchange rate to 
avoid  a  fleecing).   The  exact exchange rate is determined not as 
of   transaction  date  but  on  the  date the transaction is posted  
(usually   a   few  days  later).  This  phenomenon  worked  to  our 
consistent  advantage  as  the  dollar  grew  progressively stronger 
against the franc while we were there. 

The  drive  from the airport to the Ste. Luce district took about 30 
minutes  .   We  drove from the plains-like area of Lamentin along a 
divided  highway  towards  hilly  though  arable  land to the south.  
There  was   promise  of mountains, rainforests and cool nights over 
our  shoulders  to  the  north.  We  arrived  at Les Amandiers under 
clearing  skies  though  this  was  just  a temporary setback to the 
day's  rainy destiny.  The spacious reception area was semi-pavilion 
-  -   no  walls  on  two  sides and open to the outdoors  - -   set 
amidst  flowers  and  ornamental plantings.   Flowers are everywhere 
here   -  -   huge, colorful ones that are shipped north to tropical 
flower  outlets from the place considered by the Carib Indians to be 
the "island of flowers". 

The  rain  resumed  and  then  slackened  again  causing a tree toad 
chorus  to  rise  in  gleeful serenade,  our official welcome to the 
tropics.   Our  host  poured  a  second  round  of  free rum punches 
prompting  an exchange of furtive and piratical looks among my rough 
crew.   Our  situation  was  now good but potentially desperate  - -  
free  rum was ours but only in the reception area.  Quick plots were 
hatched  to  linger  there  pretextually  under  sanctuary  from bar 
bills.   The  thirstiest  elements considered insisting on polka dot 
sheets,   a surefire killer to the rooms being ready.  But the rooms 
had  been  ready for hours and the management was already suspicious 
of  our  low  tones.   We then began a filibuster of effusive praise 
directed  at  their  remarkably melodic toads.  Management made only 
token  pretense  at  not  fully understanding us when they countered 
that  the  frogs  weren't as noisy near our rooms.  Parched and with 
no  hope  of  a  close encounter with a rum punch of the third kind,  
the  crew  sulked  off   -   the more dehydrated shouting oaths over 
their  shoulders.   Travelers  who  evaluate a resort by whether the 
rooms  are  ready  on  arrival  and its welcoming rum punch policies 
should   like   this   place    -   -     but   only   if   two  are 
enough.                   

Les  Amandiers  is  a  full  service, three star,  grande hotellerie 
comprising   120   low   rise  air  conditioned  rooms  with   pool, 
restaurant-bar,   water   sports   and   other  conventional  resort 
amenities.    When  not  clowning to glom free drinks, our party was 
fully   satisfied   and   recommend   it  to  others.   Service  was 
satisfactory  throughout  our stay and the rooms clean, spacious and 
functional.   I  would rate the rooms Holiday/Ramada Inn equivalent, 
plus  ours  had  a  nice  little  porch to sit outside with a garden 
view.   The public areas, especially the handsomely planted and well 
maintained   grounds,  were several notches above, definitely resort 
quality  and  that includes the pool, outdoor bar area. The hotel is 
separated  from  the white sand beach by thick foliage, it's about a 
50  yd walk, where there are on-beach services and water sports with 
a  great  view  of  Diamond  Rock to the north.   As charter company 
customers  we got a summer rack rate discount,  paying $100 per room 
double  occupancy  with  breakfast included.  There were maybe 25-30 
rooms  occupied at this off-season time.  There was another American 
charterboat   party  here  but  otherwise I believe we were the only 
English  speaking  guests.   Just  about  everyone else seemed to be  
French  other  than our fellow sailors.    Front desk staff were bi-
lingual  but  not  most  other  employees.   We  had arrived in late 
afternoon  so  we  spent  the few hours before nightfall dodging the 
raindrops at the pool and poolside bar.  

La  Yole,  the  hotel  restaurant, was fun.  Dinner turned out to be 
typical  of  island cuisine - - French/creole style, a cuisine which 
is  said  to  reflect  the  "tang  of  the  soil: exotic, varied and 
colorful".    I  found  the  food to be reasonably priced and a real 
treat.   Among my favorites were the varied appetizers prepared with 
exotic  herbs  and  spices  and  the similarly prepared seafood main 
courses  with  local  vegetables such as yams and plantains.  But in 
my  view,  creole  is not up to traditional French.  The tastes were 
not  as  delicate,  the  sauces  not so sublime, the desserts not as 
lustful.   There are however  "gastronomic" - -   haute cuisine  - -
   French/creole  restaurants,  two  of  which we tried.  I admit an 
inability  to distinguish between gastronomic French and gastronomic 
French/creole   .    Maybe   there's   no  real  difference.   Haute  
cuisine,  I  suppose,  is a method not a menu. By the way, a service 
charge  is   added to bar/restaurant bills  - - 15%.  Further "tips" 
would be on top of that charge.

After  dinner  we  remained for drinks and live music at Le Baril de 
Rhum,  the  house  bar.  The hotel is a family place and we couldn't 
help  but  watch  the intergenerational ways of the French tourists.  
Parents  danced  and  interacted  with  their  young kids,  having a 
great  time  the way you'd expect at a wedding reception rather than 
hotel  bar.   There's  a  charm about watching families able to have 
fun   together,    a   delight  some  experience  only  vicariously.  
Breakfast  the  next morning was a buffet with the works.  Of course 
it  was  Sunday morning but hereabouts the custom is to have a grand 
breakfast  buffet every day of the week.  Before checkout,  I took a 
morning  exercise  walk around this seaside neighborhood, a pleasant 
non-commercialized  section  with  a  mixture  of  private homes and 
unpretentious small hotels/guesthouses.  

We  were  vanned  through  the coastal district of Riviere Pilote to 
the  marina  at  Le  Marin  where the boat  awaited us.  Le Marin is 
Martinique's  charter yacht center and has all the necessary boating 
support  services  but  otherwise  it  is pretty much just a country 
town.   Part  of the crew spent the morning being briefed by charter 
company  representatives  about  the  boat,   navigation/weather/sea 
conditions  and  like  sailing  details,   while  the remaining crew 
stowed luggage and provisions and did last minute shopping.  

Some  details might be of interest to those who've never experienced 
a  bareboat  vacation.   Bareboating is to be distinguished from its 
first  cousin,  crewed  charter  boating.   Bareboating is much like 
renting  a  car;   the  charter company supplies the boat, you drive 
it.   But  for crewed chartering the company also drives the boat  - 
in  other  words,  you  get a paid skipper and crew who prepare your 
meals  and  tuck  you  in.  You are a passenger with the perquisites 
and  limitations  that  term  implies.    Each  has  its virtues and 
drawbacks.    Bareboating   is   the  favorite  of  charterers  with 
pretensions  of  sea  captaincies,   after  all  they  get to drive.   
People  who  crew  on bareboats, generally friends of the charterer,  
have   various   skill   levels   and  motivations.   But  a  common 
denominator  is  their benighted unawareness of the contrast between 
a  crewman's  burdens  on  a  bareboat and a passenger' s easy going 
aboard  a  crewed  charter,    a  contrast   that  the  would-be sea 
captain has no intention of ever disclosing.  

The  term  "bareboat"  is  misleading.  "Bare" doesn't mean stripped 
down.   It  means  the charter company rents out the boat  "bare" of 
the  aforementioned  company  crew  to  sail it.  The company is not 
responsible  for  navigation,  that's  the  charterer's   job - -  a 
point  significant in maritime law to defining the respective rights 
and  liabilities  of  the  parties.  Before entrusting its +/- $150, 
000  -   $300,000   asset,   the company naturally requires that the 
proposed    charterer    demonstrate    sailing    proficiency   and 
insurability.  The  company may also require proof that at least one 
crewperson   is  qualified  to get the boat to port in an emergency.   
But  bareboating  is not done on what one would normally think of as 
a bare boat, it's fully equipped.

Bareboating  involves  more,  of  course,   than just gassing up the 
boat  and  turning  over  the  keys.  There's  a pretty long list of 
equipment  needed  including  all  gear  standard  for  this kind of 
auxiliary  sailboat   (one  equipped with an inboard diesel engine), 
especially  safety  equipment  such  as  a ship-to-shore radio and a  
liferaft   [charter  boats  are not always equipped with the latter; 
but  in  the  French West Indies maritime law so requires].  There's 
also  a dinghy with outboard motor for getting ashore and snorkeling 
trips.   Also  provided are linens, pillows,  towels and most of the 
things  you  would  expect  to find in a hotel room (at night that's 
just  what  the  boat  is)  including   items  needed  for the small 
toilet/shower  room.   For  a  fee  the company will arrange for the 
initial  boat provisioning  -  food, drink, condiments,  paper goods 
and   the   like.   Our   35'  yacht's  galley  came  equipped  with 
refrigerator,  stove,  hot/cold  water  and  other  comforts of home 
including   a   tape   deck/CD  player  and  a  cellular  telephone, 
convenient  for  incoming/outgoing  international  calls but costing 
several  dollars  per  minute.   We took on provisions for a week of 
breakfasts  and  lunches,  but  fewer dinners since the custom is to 
eat  ashore now and again.  In our case it's  more often ashore than 
not.  

We  motored  out  Cul-de-sac Marin past the Club Med les Boucaniers,  
a  resort  that's been a landmark here for several decades,  located 
on  Pte  du Marin peninsula amid shallow and reef strewn waters good 
for  snorkeling  but  a  boating hazard.  The resort was reviewed in 
the  July,  l995  CTR  issue.   We  sailed almost westerly for three 
hours  with  the  wind  and  seas behind us causing the boat to roll 
uncomfortably  as we approached Diamant Beach/ Point, where there is 
rough  Caribbean surf due to a long easterly fetch,  and the starkly 
sheer   Rocher  du  Diamant  or Diamond Rock, about a mile offshore.   
Several  miles  to  the  north  we reached our first destination for 
overnight  anchoring,  the  harbor  of  the fishing village at Grand 
Anse  D'Arlet.   The town looked pretty sleepy on a Sunday afternoon 
though  it's  supposed  to be a popular weekend spot with locals who 
patronize the several bars and restaurants along the waterfront.  

It  was  pretty  hot  and  we were in a mood for a swim so we hopped 
into  the  dinghy  and motored to a cove 3/4 mile away midway to the 
sister  village  of  Petite  Anse  D'Arlet.  We snorkeled there over 
fair  fish  and  coral  in  reasonably  clear  water.   Martinique's 
leeward  coast  is  only  so-so  for snorkeling, though there's some 
good  areas.   In a lot of places, deep water goes right up to sheer 
coastal  cliffs  and sediment runs off  making the water cloudy, but 
the  water in this cove was clear and shallow with coral.  There was 
no  real  beach  so  we just tied the dinghy to some awash rocks and 
went  over  the  side.   We later had dinner  aboard,  a ratatouille 
prepared  by  the  crew  that  was  a  cruisers' haute cuisine. Some 
nights  we  would  go  ashore  after  dinner  to  sample  the  local 
nightlife;  other  nights  we  would stay in the cockpit talking and 
listening  to  music into the evening. Tonight we remained on board.  
The  summer  sun  sets  early  here,  about 6:45 p.m., and like most 
boaters our crew was in the  bunk before 10:00 p.m. 

Next  day  we  dinghied  into  town  for a de rigueur morning ritual 
among  sailors  in  these parts  -  a little walk around the town to 
find  a  boulangerie,   a  French  bakery.   Our mission:  bread and 
pastries.    Past  acquaintanceships  with  baguettes, beignets, and 
croissants  are  feeble  initiations to their splendor shortly after 
dawn  and  fresh  from  the  baker's  oven  in  a French West Indies 
seaside  town.   Which  is  not  to  say  we  were destined for such 
splendor  this  morning.   We  couldn't  find  a  bakery.  A grocery 
store   had to substitute, turning out to not be a bad substitute at 
all.    It  was  certainly  picturesque  and,  more important, had a 
promising  looking bakery section.  Our spirits were buoyed when the 
clerk  indicated  that  his  goods  were  fresh  that  morning.  The 
indication  in  question was his gesture towards the window which we 
took  to  mean  the  baker  was just across the street, but he could 
have  meant  across  the  island.   It  wasn't  until we were in the 
dinghy  that the nightmarish prospect crossed my mind that there may 
have  been  a  frozen food locker in that direction. But back on the 
boat   the   bread   and  pastries  proved  up  to  their  legendary 
reputations.  

Later  in  the morning we saw a sight from 2000 years ago.  75 yards 
from  our anchored boat  fishermen seined from skiffs.  Three of the 
skiffs  were  unpowered  and rowed by their crews. The sole occupant 
of  the  fourth (which had an outboard) signaled his colleagues onto 
station  by  blowing  into a conch shell.  He shut down his outboard 
and  from  thereon  all  the  maneuvering was done by oar in silence 
save  the  eerie  sound of the conch signals and the throwing of the 
nets  onto the water.  This seemed so unreal I fully expected it was 
a  tourist  tableau  and shortly a guy would come around looking for 
tips.   But  it was very much for real, they pulled in a nice catch.  
By  the  way,  guys don't come around looking for tips in Martinique 
or,  for  that matter, come around selling stuff you don't want.  We 
didn't  see  a  single  boat  boy/vendor in any of the anchorages or 
beaches,   a   welcome   relief   from   their  ubiquity  in  points 
proximate.    I  did  see  a  very  agreeable  form of beach vending 
women's bathing suits but I'm getting ahead of my story.

Mid-morning  we  made  our  way  15  miles  north to St. Pierre, the 
second  city  of  Martinique.  A  century  ago Mt Pelee erupted near 
there  with the loss of  30,000 souls and  destruction of the entire 
city,  then  the  commercial  and  cultural  capital  of the island.  
Today,  St.  Pierre's  grim  past  sustains  its   economic present.  
There's   volcano  related  attractions  including  the  informative 
museum,  Le  Musee Vulcanologique [where the guides offer tours both 
in  French  and  English]  and  preserved ruins throughout the town.  
There  is  also  a  submarine  that takes visitors to see underwater 
remains  and  picturesque reefs although it was not operating in the 
off-season.    We  were  disappointed  with the city, perhaps due to 
the  dampening  of our spirits by rain all afternoon or maybe due to 
Le  Petit  Train  being  broken  down, the motorized  choo-choo that  
takes  tourists  around  town  to  see  the sights.  Perhaps we grew 
weary of the varied faces of an incinerated past.   
Our  first night in the anchorage we believed we were being beckoned 
to  a  lively  disco  by a large,  flashing green neon sign.  It was 
cross  shaped  and  seemed  to gaudily deliver a universal  message, 
"come  and  have  fun".  We went, we didn't.  The green cross is the 
symbol,   common throughout France we later learned, of an all-night 
chemist's  shop where you can not only get medications but advice on 
minor  ailments.   Our only ailment was in not finding any good bars 
that  night  or  the  next.  They really should have discos in those 
places,   terrible  waste  of  neon.    Next  day  we  did see a few 
upscale  shops  that  sold  high end European women's fashions,  and 
the   open   market  was  fun,  but  neither  dispelled  the  town's 
dowdiness.     

Mt.   Pelee,   still  considered  active,   looms  majestically  but 
dolorously  over  the city, a flawed beauty incapable of atoning for 
a  homicidal  rampage  of  this  magnitude.  Accounts  of  surviving 
eyewitnesses   from   nearby   towns  capture  the  horror  of  what 
happened.    For  a  few  moments  one  whole  side  of   this 4000' 
mountain  became  incarnate  as it split open exposing the demons of 
the  netherworld.   Flames,   lava  and an open furnace of poisonous 
gases  and  burning  ash  spewed  out,   descending  on the city and 
killing   by   natural  means  all  those  thousands  almost  within 
seconds.    

Thoughts  of  this  terrible  business  were  in our minds as looked 
northwards  to  Montserrat  175  miles  away.   Its volcano was then 
erupting   but  there  was  nothing  in  sky.  During our July, 1995 
Leeward  Islands  trip to Montserrat some of the crew visited - - as 
many  tourists  then did - - its "dormant" volcano.  First eruptions 
started not more than 5 days after our departure.  Whew!

When  the  weather  cleared we returned south along the coast making 
the  first  of two stops in La Baie de Fort-de-France.  Those visits 
and  our  land  tour  of  the  interior  and  Atlantic coast will be 
covered  in  next  month's  Part Two of this article.  We eventually 
cleared  customs  and  were  off  to  our  circle tour of  the lower 
Caribbean.   During  the  next  22  days  we sailed from St Lucia to 
Grenada  and back to Martinique.  Those 22 days have been covered in 
articles   appearing   in   past   issues  of  CTR:   January,  l998 
(Mustique),   and  February,  l998  (Island  Hopping In The Southern 
Caribbean, Grenada to St. Lucia). 

ST. MARTIN: RESTAURANT REVIEWS BY DOTTIE STONE

Trip 2/98

My  husband  and I spent 10 days in St. Martin in late February 1998 
(our  first  return  since the hurricane). While there, we enjoyed a 
lovely  new  little  hotel and took a gastronomic tour of Grand Case 
and surrounding area. Here's a summary:

Le  Petit  Hotel  -  a delightful 9-unit hotel (8 studios and 1 one-
bedroom  apt)  on  the  Marigot  side  of  Grand Case - right on the 
beach.  The  proprietors are an extremely pleasant and helpful young 
American   couple,  and  the  facilities  are  very  nice  and  well 
maintained.  Within  walking  distance of stores, restaurants, etc., 
but  a car is handy. Guests can use the beautiful pool (with swim up 
bar) at sister hotel L'Esplanade.

Restaurants  -  we  were  not  there to economize, but to sample the 
best  that  the  area  has to offer, considering food, presentation, 
atmosphere,  wine  list, etc. Most of our dinners cost $125 to $175, 
including  three  courses,  a nice bottle of wine, tax and tip. Some 
of  the  best  restaurants  are normally booked way ahead, so we had 
the  hotel  make  a  few  reservations  for  us  in advance to avoid 
disappointment.  Here's  how we rated our experiences (on a scale of 
1 to 4 stars - with 1 being Don't Bother and 4 being Exceptional):

L'Auberge  Gourmande (Grand Case): Very well prepared classic French 
cuisine  and  professional service. Cozy atmosphere. We've been here 
before, and it's consistently good. (3 stars)

Sebastiano  (Grand  Case):  Really  excellent Italian kitchen with a 
wide  variety  of delectable dishes. Nice seaside location. However, 
the  restaurant  has started booking large groups and we happened to 
arrive  at  one of these times. The food was wonderful and they have 
a  nice  wine  list  (including many good Italian vintages), but the 
service  suffered  tremendously  as  the  overworked  staff tried to 
accommodate  the  group  experience.  This  also made the atmosphere 
noisy  and somewhat frenzied. If you go here, check first that there 
are  no  groups  scheduled  for  the  same  time.  The  quality food 
warrants a retry. (2-1/2 stars - downgraded due to service)

L'Hibiscus  (Grand  Case): Small, romantic garden-like restaurant on 
the  airport  side  of  Grand  Case. Innovative French/Island dishes 
featuring  interesting  combinations and exotic ingredients. Unusual 
and   attractive   presentation,  attentive  service,  but  somewhat 
limited wine list. (3-1/2 stars)

Bistrot  Cairibes  (Grand Case): Streetfront bistrot in the heart of 
town  -  look  for  the  tank  with the live lobsters! Atmosphere is 
nothing  special,  but we thoroughly enjoyed extremely well-prepared 
Caribbean  lobster  (their  specialty - not dry or tough like some). 
All  food was very tasty and attractive and service was pleasant and 
professional. (3 stars) 

Charolais  (downtown  Marigot):  This  is  a true no-nonsense French 
steak  house for those nights when you want something "ordinary" but 
good.  They specialize in grilled Angus beef (a variety of cuts with 
optional  sauces), tasty salads, baked potato, etc. served in an air 
conditioned  Western  atmosphere.  Reliable  and  not too costly. (3 
stars)

Le  Pressoir  (Grand Case): Charming Creole house near the Community 
Center.  Food  is  very  well prepared French/Creole with attractive 
presentation  and  attentive,  friendly service. A delightful dining 
experience. (3-1/2 stars)

Mario's  Bistrot  (near  the bridge at Sandy Ground): An exceptional 
restaurant  that  is  always  busy  -  book way ahead. Very pleasant 
waterside  location.  Unusually  large  menu  and more comprehensive 
wine  list  than  other  places  we visited. Delicious French/Island 
dishes,  presented in innovative and attractive ways. Very friendly, 
extremely  attentive  and  helpful  servers  (they can explain their 
menu,  the  meal  progresses smoothly, and your wine/water is always 
filled!)  Don't  order  too  many courses, as portions are large and 
sometimes rich - but absolutely yummy. (4 stars)

Le  Tastevin  (Grand  Case): Very pretty seaside restaurant in prime 
location  at  center  of  town. French/island cuisine that is tasty, 
but  not  exceptional. Service adequate but a little rushed, routine 
and  impersonal.  Somewhat  more  expensive than others on the list, 
and the premium is not really warranted. (2-1/2 stars)

Il  Nettuno  (Grand Case): Attractive beach front Italian restaurant 
in   town  center.  Friendly  service  with  very  outgoing,  genial 
owner/host  (he  sings  opera when the spirit moves him!). Good food 
with  large,  varied  menu  highlighting seafood dishes. We may have 
gotten  special  treatment  because  we were from Washington DC, the 
owner's former home. (3 stars)

Kon  Tiki Beach Bar (right on Orient Beach): The definitive feet-in-
the-sand   beach  bar/restaurant  with  shaded  tables  attractively 
scattered  midst  the  palms  and  sea  grapes,  live combos, bikini 
fashion  shows (but tasteful), efficient and friendly young servers, 
and  large portions of really good food. We absolutely loved it, and 
made repeat visits. (4 stars) 

TURKS & CAICOS BY JUDY BELL

Trip 1/98

My  husband  and  I  just  returned  from  a  very  relaxing week on 
Providenciales ( Provo ). 

We  stayed at Turquoise Reef. On the plus side, I found the staff at 
Turquoise  Reef  to be very friendly and courteous. The location was 
good  (near  Ports  of  Call shopping center) and I thought the food 
was  good  (we  bought  their  meal  plan, so we ate their fantastic 
breakfast  buffet every morning (a $12 value), had one great meal at 
their  upscale  restaurant Portofino, and three other good dinners). 
They  were very generous in providing the two hundred or so folks in 
our  charter  with  a hospitality suite (two rooms for showering and 
changing)  since  our  check out time was noon and our flight wasn't 
until 9 pm. 

On  the  minus  side,  we  were without hot water two evenings which 
meant  that after getting sunburned and waterlogged (and chilled) we 
were  forced to take tepid showers and there was no hairdryer in the 
room.  There  was  also  no  safe in the room so we had to use their 
safe  deposit box at the front desk. This wasn't a problem until the 
last  day  when  there  was  the  time  gap  between  check  out and 
departure.  One  had  to  plead with the front desk to keep the safe 
deposit  box  after  checking  out  to  avoid  having to leave one's 
passport  and  valuables  on the beach while snorkeling. They have a 
few  little  problems  to iron out. (It took the front desk one full 
hour  to  find  my Mastercard imprint when I went to settle the bill 
at check out.) 

In  spite  of  all  this,  the  overall value for the price was very 
good.  Caicos  itself  presents many advantages to US travelers. The 
beaches  are  pristine.  The  snorkeling  (especially at White House 
Beach's  snorkeling  trail)  is great. Electricity is 110 volt -- no 
converter  is  necessary.  They use the US dollar. You can drink the 
water.  You  can  bring  your dog! Crime is almost non-existent (the 
natives, or "belongers" really are decent people). 

Activities:  Provo  is a sleepy island, good for those seeking water 
sports  and sun during the day, and R&R at night. The casino is VERY 
sleepy.  When  the  slot machines get full or malfunction, they just 
shut  'em  down for a day or two until the guy with the key can show 
up to make them active again. 

We  spent  a  full  day  with  Captain  Bill  on his "Ocean Outback" 
getaway.  He  took  us  to a pirate cave, to two different reefs for 
snorkeling  and then he grilled chicken and his famous "tube steaks" 
(hot  dogs) on the beach and poured us endless rum punches. He is an 
informed,  interesting "can do" kind of guy. My husband I both think 
that  our  day  with  Ocean Outback was one of the highlights of the 
trip. 

Our  other  highlight  was our day aboard a 52 foot trimaran "Tropic 
Sol."  The  charming captain, Christoph took us on a three hour sail 
to  French  Cay  for  shelling  and  to  the  nearby  reef for great 
snorkeling.  His  beautiful wife, Agnes, put on a magnificent buffet 
lunch  with  the  most  delicious  deviled  eggs,  salads  and conch 
chowder.  One afternoon we rode bikes out to the Conch Farm and took 
the  tour which was interesting. Overall, I'd give this trip a grade 
of  95  (out of 100). My husband and I both agree that we would like 
to return to Turks and Caicos in a few years.   

VIEQUES: RESPONSE TO A PREVIOUS ARTICLE BY V. SYKES

I  would  like  to reply to Evan Ferguson's article on Vieques.  The 
Blue  Horizon  is  one  of  the  finest  places  I have ever stayed.  
Please  consider  that  the  price  of  a meal does not allow one to 
wander  around  any  inn at will.   Further, what do you mean 
by  "arrogant  and  flaming  American  homosexual"?   Watch it, your 
bigotry  is  showing.  Every day that I was at the inn  Billy Knight 
was  extremely   pleasant  to everyone who came to the inn and,  you 
know what?  He looks just like anyone else.  

I  don't  think  your  scathing  review of the Inn is going to deter 
anyone  from  staying  there  or  eating  there.   One  has  to make 
reservations  at  least  a  year in advance to get into the Inn and, 
the  dining  room is one of the most popular on the island.  Back to 
p.c. school for you.   

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Andover, MA 01810-1408 USA
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