We were certainly on the road again. After our three month stint in Utila it was starting to feel like home. The totally botched passage from there to Martinique solidified the fact that we were still very much traveling. At this point, however, we have transitioned from the rough-around-the-edges backpackers that we were to a decidedly lower effort travel style, characterized by staying in nicer places and affording ourselves more luxuries. This is mostly because Ian is working full time again, which gives us a bit more disposable income, but also imposes a more rigid schedule on our travels. Where there was a night or two before, there are six or seven now, with travel days mostly limited to the weekends. It’s a slower gait; one where we settle into the week’s rhythms before moving on.
After touching down in Fort-de-France, Martinique’s largest city, we picked up our rental car and were on our way. We had booked an Airbnb place on Martinique’s south coast, in the small burg of Le Diamant. It was dark when we arrived, so all our impressions of the place were a bit off. The accommodation was lovely though, with a fully-functional air conditioner to boot. We picked up a late dinner from a crepe truck in a dusty parking lot down the street whose primary customer group seemed to be inebriated locals; they would order some food, recede into the shadows, and stumble back at some point to pick it up. One such local started up a conversation with us, coaxing Oona’s French back into full-time employment. He was a proud Martiniquais, with many good things to say about his island.
Our time on Martinique was relaxed indeed. There was much sitting on the back porch of our temporary digs, eating good cheese and a baguette from the boulangerie down the street. We bought a bottle of La Mauny r(h)um from the Carrefour, and made ti punch on a regular basis.
Martinique was a bit of a pilgrimage for us. Long have both of us been into high quality spirits, with the rum from Martinique very near the top of our list of favorites. The rum that is made on the French-speaking Caribbean islands is often rhum agricole, made from fresh cane juice rather than molasses like much other rum. This production process results in a very unique taste, making the product fairly easily-distinguishable from the rums from elsewhere. Long have we indulged in a ti punch or two to finish off the night, and we were finally in their homeland.
With this in mind, we made it a point to visit several of the many distilleries present on the island. With only a single weekend day with which to do so, we limited ourselves to three distilleries, starting with Rhum J.M on the north side of the island, following up with HSE towards the middle, and finishing off with Clement towards the south. Much like the rum they make, J.M’s distillery was our favorite. It is far and away one of the most difficult to reach, with nearly a two hour drive to get there. We had the place almost all to ourselves, with only a few other visitors there. The grounds were beautiful, and we had a good time wandering their ample gardens. They provided some nice olfactory indulgement as well, with a series of buttons releasing a small dose of essential oils allowing the user to target a specific scent from their rums.
HSE was not that great. Neither of us had much experience with their product, but it looked nice enough on the outside. The tasting room staff was uninterested and the product mostly focused on a series of casks within which their base product was aged. The series consists of bottles aged for six or eight or so years in Sherry, Highland, Islay, Bourbon, Port, etc barrels. The result, unsurprisingly, tastes much like the barrel it was aged in. A nice exercise indeed, but we found it uninspiring.
Clement’s distillery was nicer, but clearly much more commercial than the other two. They charge an entry fee, and the grounds is much more like a museum focusing on the plantation’s history and production techniques. There were many other people there, owing to the ease of access near Fort-de-France. We spent some time wandering around the plantation and finished off with a tasting (along with 20 or 30 other people). The woman supplying the booze, we think, was used to the typical visitor, and sensed a certain passion in us. As such, she offered us some higher-end products, fetched from hidden cabinets underneath the bar. We settled on a bottle of their 15 year vintage, which was fantastic.
If there’s something that can be said of French territories, including French Polynesia, it’s that they take their food seriously. Lovely restaurants abound, grocery stores replete with all the fresh produce and imported French cheese in the world, boulangeries with delicious baked goods, and last but not least, fantastic wine. With that in mind, we dabbled much in the local culinary scene. A particular standout was the strangely-named La Baraqu’Obama, a seaside restaurant in Saint-Luce with a focus on seafood and fresh lobster.
Finally, the time came for us to leave. We dropped off our rental car and headed to the port to catch our Sunday evening ferry to Martinique’s southerly neighbor, St Lucia. With seven bottles of Martinique’s best in tow, we checked in only to learn that all alcohol would need to be checked. We bundled up the bag with packing tape, wrote “FRAGILE!” all over it, and hoped for the best.
Our rum made it through OK, but the St Lucian customs agent had a few choice words for us. Had we been thinking, we would have realized that we’re probably not allowed to bring that much booze through, but fortunately for us she was in no mood for further formalities and let us through with a warning. In any case, we plan on shipping it all home, so paying St Lucian tax on it would be pretty silly.
We finally made it through all the red tape and found our rental car representative waiting for us outside. By representative I mean the husband of the woman running the show, as this was a mom-and-pop sort of affair. After signing the paperwork we were off. Fortunately for us, the drivers are much calmer on St Lucia than they are on Martinique, but they drive on the left with right-side-drive vehicles, so it took a bit of getting used to again after our first foray with that in New Zealand. We made our way up into the hills above Rodney Bay to our accommodation and settled in for the night.
Our time in St Lucia was similar, with a whole lot of relaxing and sipping rum. St Lucia feels worlds apart from Martinique. Where there was European on Martinique, there was unadulterated Caribbean on St Lucia. Nearly everywhere was within earshot of reggae music blasting from some parked car, a crew of locals emblazoned with Rastafarian colors grooving to the music not far away. The people of St Lucia were some of the nicest we had met anywhere, approaching the levels of those in the Cook Islands even.
We visited the legendary Pitons of southern St Lucia, the likes of which were an experience to behold; the dark pillars of rock and vegetation reaching for the stars, nestled between them was the lovely little town of Soufriere. The drive from the north, where we were staying, took quite a long time with the stop-and-go traffic of the coastal highways, so some three hours after we left we came rolling into Soufriere. We hadn’t eaten all day, so we were trying to navigate our rental car down the tiny alleys of the old town when up came Bird Man, a shirtless and graying rasta-type, insisting that he lead us wherever we want to go. We told him we were looking for a restaurant and he knew just the one, off he jogged in front of our car, beckoning and glancing back all the time. We managed to park a few blocks away and he escorted us the rest of the way to the restaurant. We gave him a few coins for his work, but he insisted that he does what he does for fun, “just to help the tourists!” He eventually conceded and took the small sum of money. The restaurant, for what it’s worth, was quite good, with a lovely view out over the harbor from the second floor.
On another day down in the south we visited the sulphur springs and mud baths. The “tour” of the volcano caldera was hardly worth it, although we opted out of the guided option, as we weren’t sure how much value would really be added. The views of the boiling pots of mud were decent, but unspectacular. The mud baths towards the entrance were the bigger attraction for us, as we sat in the warm and muddy waters of the geothermal river. They have buckets of mud that you can spread on yourself, which is purportedly good for whatever ails you, but it leaves you smelling like sulphur for a day or two.
We stopped at St Lucia Distillers on the way back up north, but we narrowly missed the tasting hours provided there. The woman at the front desk was frazzled –as dozens of locals came and went, stocking up on supplies for Christmas– so perhaps she just didn’t have the energy to put on a tasting for us. We settled on buying a few bottles of 1931, SLD’s most meritorious product, but to add to our bad luck, their credit card machine was broken and we didn’t even have enough cash for one bottle (105 XCD per bottle). The woman, perhaps beginning to feel the Christmas spirit, took what we could give her in cash and gave us a single bottle of our choice in return. We opted for the 5th Edition, which neither of us had tried before, and handed her a measly 80 XCD (less than $30) for the rum, a fantastic bargain for a bottle that retails at more like $100 most other places.
We spent our last night at the legendary Gros Islet street party, where the blocks of the Gros Islet neighborhood are cordoned off and revelers take to the streets. It was fun to see how the locals party, but these days it seems like there are easily as many tourists as there are locals. The music is loud, the grills are fired, and the rum punch flows freely, though, and people dance in the streets until the wee hours of the morning. It’s evident that the prices are jacked up considerably for this weekly event though, with a single cup of punch coming in at $5/10 XCD. It’s strong, but that’s nearly three times the price of a drink on a weeknight. We visited the neighborhood a time or two prior, on a quieter night of the week, which we ended up enjoying more perhaps. We met a nice Trinidadian/South African couple who was mooring their boat in the harbor and we were all pretty done with the party by that point, so they invited us out to their boat for a bit of an afterparty. We spent a few hours out there with them, playing Trouble on a tablet computer, and capped off the night with a skinny dip from the deck before they ferried us back to the marina by dinghy. We concluded that living on a sailboat in the Caribbean is not a bad way to live. All in all a great time, leaving us with far too little sleep before our early departure the following morning.
We made it to the ferry terminal on time to return our rental car, and managed to get through the draconian security screening (seriously, we had flashbacks from Uzbekistan) for our eight hour ferry journey up to Guadeloupe.
We arrived on Guadeloupe the night before Christmas Eve. We made our way from the ferry terminal to the airport, where we had our car rental waiting. Considering the day, we stocked up on food and supplies from the Carrefour on the way to our accommodation, just before it closed for the several upcoming holidays.
Our format on Guadeloupe was much the same as Martinique, with the exception of Christmas. We did a lot of relaxing, and a lot of rum tasting and distillery visiting. But first things first, we had a nice Christmas Eve dinner at L’Autre Version, in St Francois. The dinner was quite good, as a piano player nearby soothed the comfortably full restaurant into the holiday mood. We finished off the night with some aged agricole from a couple local distilleries as a digestif.
We hardly left the apartment on Christmas Day, save for a short trip to a nearby boulangerie for a baguette to accompany our previously-bought grocery store stock. We watched a few Christmas movies and facetimed/skyped (those words have probably been thoroughly verbified such to forego capitalization) our families to spread the holiday cheer.
The following days were taken up with the visiting of distilleries and procuring of yet more rum for our collection, which will be quite flush when we finally have ourselves a place to live.
Our initial experiences of Guadeloupe were not great, but we learned that this was mostly owing to the location of our apartment, on Grande-Terre, the easternmost of the two (nearly connected) islands that make up Guadeloupe. It’s a flatter, more geologically boring island, where most of the nice beaches apparently are. It’s also considerably more industrial than Basse-Terre, the western island. We visited a few beaches near our apartment, but were surprised and disheartened by the crowds and general acrimony of the places. A group of red-faced and stumbling tourists –evidently having had a bit too much of the local rum– even flipped us the bird, for no reason at all, as we were looking for a parking spot. The time of year surely had something to do with this, as many tourists from France visit during Christmas break, but suffice it to say we were missing the relative laissez-faire of Martinique at this point.
We eventually discovered that it wasn’t all bad on Guadeloupe, however, as we made our way to Basse-Terre for a bit of diving one day. The weather and the landscape was much nicer over there, and the diving wasn’t bad either. We did a few dives in the Jacques Cousteau Marine Reserve, and while unspectacular, the visibility was quite good, and we saw a turtle and explored the nearby shipwreck a bit.
The distilleries were hit or miss as well, much like the ones we visited on Martinique. Our favorites were Reimonenq and Longueteau, both offering considerable tasting options. We did manage to find quite a few exceptional bottles at a very steep discount from their European prices (if one could even find such bottles in Europe). The definite loser of the distillery visits was Severin, whose shop didn’t even include any of their own product, instead stocking run-of-the-mill labels from other distilleries on the island. The staff at the shop even tried to sell us a cat, which was quite unexpected. As Oona was approaching to ask about a tasting or if they had any decent bottles, the woman working there asked if we’d like to buy a cat they had in a box atop the counter. The crucial part of this exchange, which was carried out in French, mind you, was lost on us at first, and we thought they were talking about liquor. We expressed interest, and they asked us how we’d get it back to where we live. “On the plane?” they enquired. “No, we’ll just ship it, no problem!” we replied, to the utter disbelief of the selling party. They went on to describe how we couldn’t ship a live cat, at which point we got the cat part, and backpedaled, doubling down on how we were looking for rum (a reasonable request at a rum distillery), and had no interest in buying a cat. Needless to say, we saw ourselves out. Damoiseau gets honorable mention because of the distillery itself, which you’re free to roam in its entirety, with not even so much as a closed gate or fenced off area, although the tasting, including only their three most basic rums, left much to be desired. The Bologne distillery looked lovely as well, but we arrived after their shop closed (at 1pm), so we could only walk around the plantation a bit, which is situated in the hills above the sea on the west side of Guadeloupe.
All in all, we ended up with 16 bottles from Martinique, St Lucia, and Guadeloupe, and shipped them back to Finland the day before we left. We threw in a couple extras for Oona’s parents, as a thanks for holding on to the hulking 25KG box in our absence.
On our last full day in Guadeloupe, we took the ferry from the town of Trois Rivieres to Terre-de-Haut, one of the islands in the Les Saintes archipelago some 10km south of Basse-Terre. We arrived to an absolute fairytale of an island, with a small town, backed by earthy green hills, surrounded by an ample harbor with a dozen or so sailboats lazing in the surf. There are very few cars on the island, and the streets of the town are mostly pedestrian only. We hiked up to the top of a nearby hill, which afforded some spectacular views, and then down to the neighboring beach, Plage de Pompierre, which was reasonably nice. We spent much time eating at several of the lovely restaurants in town or drinking a ti punch or kir from a terraced cafe overlooking the main square. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the beach near the end of the airstrip, which is quaintly easily accessible –with not even a fence between it and the beach– before getting on the afternoon ferry back to Guadeloupe. Paradoxically, there was also a rum shop (called Nouveau Monde) on the main street of the island which had some of the most impressive bottles we have ever seen, like the 21 year old Neisson, coming in at almost 1000€. Alas, we had already shipped our box, and most of the prices were no better than what we saw online, so we mustered up a bit of self control and opted not to buy anything.
In retrospect, spending most of our time in Les Saintes followed up by a shorter visit to Marie-Galante and an even shorter visit to “mainland” Guadeloupe would have been an ideal itinerary. We weren’t able to make it to Marie-Galante at all, which left us a bit disappointed, as some of our favorite distilleries of the French Indies are located there. However, the local product is available in excess at the grocery stores of Guadeloupe, so we were able to scoop up a few bottles of Bielle for hardly anything.
The time did eventually come for us to depart, and we bade farewell to the idyllic West Indies which had hosted us for what felt like a lifetime. We thoroughly enjoyed our time, particularly in the French West Indies, and another rum-soaked trip is surely somewhere in our future.