Introduction to Martinique
Nowhere in the Caribbean is the crossroads between preserved European sophistication and a three hundred year evolving distillation of AmerIndian, East Indian and African cultures so apparent, as in the French West Indies and especially in Martinique. It has created a unique and recognisable social and economic energy.
The first time I saw Martinique was sailing northwards up through the eastern Caribbean islands, stopping at our leisure (those were the days!) at each island and learning all we could like enthusiastic sponges. That first time we anchored below the old walls of the town of St. Pierre, was the start of my fascination with all things French Caribbean. St. Pierre was a spacious town once, but is now most famous for its total obliteration in 1902 beneath a cloud of superheated steam which wiped out its total population of forty thousand souls, and tens of merchant and naval ships at anchor in the harbour.
The market on the St. Pierre waterfront opens at dawn along with the boulangeries and patisseries. Tying the dinghy to an old iron ring on the jetty, our thirty yard walk to the open fruit and vegetable market first entertained our ears, with mix of french and creole, zouk rhythms and beats, and then our noses were treated to the same joyous barrage; the sweet and yeasty smell of the breads being delivered to the tiny bakeries along the main street, and the confusion of fresh scents from the market foods, the pungent spices, the rich herbs, the thin cool smell of a fresh water melon sliced open, the earthy smell of tannia and eddoe and sweet potato, tomatoes, pineapples, mangoes, plantains, bluggoes, mammy and custard apples....you get the picture. And why is that fruit always tastes better in French? Doesn't le corrosol sound so much better than ‘soursop'? or melon d'eau has a cool sangfroid about it whereas ‘water melon' sounds like a puddle. And so we filled our two baskets with the best and largest choice of fruit and vegetables we had found since leaving the island of Madeira six months earlier and two and a half thousand miles away.
Prior to Martinique we had fully explored the south eastern Caribbean islands, of Grenada, Barbados, Tobago, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and since then we have extensively travelled most of the other islands. For sheer richness and diversity of peoples, geography and culture, including music, dance, foods, wines, language, history, modern infrastructure, geology, oceanography, and so on.. Martinique just wins hands down. Guadeloupe comes a close second, but Martinique is certainly the more sophisticated of the French Caribbean islands and it is from here that the rest of the French West Indies are governed. Including Guadeloupe, Marie Galante, Isles des Saintes, St. Barts, St. Martin and a few small outlying islands. The whole group constitutes a Departement of France and is governed as such from Paris in Metropolitan France, just like the Ardeche or Dordogne.
Consequently Martinique does move at a faster pace than the rest of the eastern Caribbean. Much of the infrastructure and style of mainland France is apparent in daily life, utilities, roads, gendarmerie, the international airport, and deeply woven throughout is the unique Caribbean character. Just watch a local fisherman working at dusk on the bay of Anse d'Arlet, or (if you have the courage!) ride a local bus thrashing along at high speeds bursting with zouk at top volume and the staccato of French Creole. A language which paradoxically bridges and separates the European French from their Caribbean compatriots. In Martinique it is said in Creole, "la vi a ka mache". Life is going just fine! At least for the Martiniquais it really is.
On an island of fifty miles in length and twenty two miles at its widest, just 8 hours from Paris and direct flights to Canada, New York and Puerto Rico, there is a new Science Museum, an annual Semi Marathon, university, many theatres, a golf course, casinos, an active volcano, walking, hiking, waterfalls and protected eco-areas for the keenest environmentalist, miles and miles of golden sand, and a warm ocean for swimmers and divers. They really do have ‘life going just fine'.
Around the English speaking world, Martinique is little known. Not many North Americans or Britons visit the island. Most visitors arrive from metropolitan France on charter or Air France flights, holidaying throughout the year. Air Canada and American Eagle run limited schedules. Many Martinique business people would like to see this change to a more international vacation getaway, and there have been some active projects promoting these changes. Club Med has recently invested 60 million US dollars into a new resort on Martinique. This just opened in December 2005 and is deliberately aimed at attracting visitors from the US, facilitated through a new weekly non-stop charter flight from New York City's JFK International Airport to Martinique. The Martinique Chamber of Commerce offers French Language Immersion Programmes, which combines a resort holiday and some pretty intensive language teaching. (Then when you return to work you can announce with strong French accent Je parle francais! Nobody will understand you, but don't worry about that, it has a lot more cachet than the ubiquitous suntan)
Over the last few years Martinique has welcomed expatriates buying both homes and businesses, especially French Real Estate Agents, some of whom do speak good English.
Martinique real estate compares favourably in price with the other well developed islands in the region, and without any of the implicit risk that is inherent in investing in the smaller autonomous countries in the eastern Caribbean. As an investment, its possibly the safest there is in the Caribbean, close or better even than the Dutch and US Caribbean islands, which have greater local governance.
For example an absolutely stunning, very private 5 bedroomed villa, with private access to the Atlantic ocean and beaches, large swimming pool, bordering the Martinique Regional Park, and fantastic views across the bay is selling for just a little more than $1,000,000 US.
For those looking to run a small tourist operation and provide a very comfortable income, a three bedroomed Creole style home and four gingerbread holiday villas, set in tropical gardens and just 200 metres from the beach, will set you back $886,000 US. This really is an excellent commercial and investment opportunity, if you are looking for something and somewhere different.
There are very strict Planning Laws in France, and this is another good reason for investing in property in Martinique since land put aside for environmental and farming purposes remains reserved in perpetuity. There are set rules for the size of a property you may build on a given piece of land, and these change between the city and the countryside. Rigid implementation of these regulations ensures that neighbours cannot spoil your view or encroach onto your land.
For example, a very valuable piece of land for sale in a much sought after country area close to the National Park in Morne Valentin, with great views, is on the market for $177,000 for a half acre. Permission has already been granted for a property of up to 330 square metres.
If you have a yen for many things French but can't deal with the crowded beaches of southern France, there is a piece of France down here in the Caribbean to satisfy the most devoted francophile with sun loving tendencies. A rendezvous at the French Caribbean crossroads!