France In The Caribbean


It’s midwinter and as frostbite sets in on your hike to the subway, you’re pining for a beach. But your spouse disdains the Caribbean, preferring the cosmopolitan pleasures of Europe.

The solution: Martinique. A Windward Island of the Lesser Antilles, Martinique is an overseas department of France, which means the currency is the euro, the language is Français and the cuisine is considerably more refined than in much of the Caribbean.

The Europhile can browse the marches (markets), marvel at 19th-century architecture and take in an evening of French culture at the Thêatre Aimé Césaire. And the sun-worshipper has a myriad of stunning beaches — powdery white-sand in the southern coves; volcanic-black in the mountainous north — at which to scuba dive, snorkel or simply contemplate a Caribbean sunset.

This being France, Martinique also has a more stable and traditional Jewish presence than in much of the Caribbean. Centered in the Fort-de-France suburb of Schoelcher on the island’s west coast, the Jewish community maintains a historic synagogue, a community center and the institutions and rituals that define overseas Jewish life.

Of all the islands of the West Indies, Martinique is also among the most purely enjoyable — and not just because it’s a chic little piece of France.

Martinique is blessed not only by beaches, but also by a terrain of lush, verdant mountains, flower-scented rainforests and shimmering bays that delight the senses at every curve of the road. The island strikes a sweet spot so elusive in Caribbean islands: developed enough to have plenty to see and do, but free of the kind of tacky commercialism that blights so many of the English-speaking islands nearby.

True, it’s harder to get to than some tropical destinations. But a new direct American Airlines flight out of Miami — with a New York connection — just launched for this winter season, making the trip easier than ever before.

2013 is the centennial of one of Martinique’s most beloved cultural icons: Aimé Césaire, whose first name (meaning “loved”) more or less sums up the way locals feel about the Renaissance man who presided over Fort-de-France as mayor for half a century. Césaire, who died in 2008, was a renowned poet, playwright and civil rights crusader in addition to being a politician, which is why the president of France attended his state funeral in Fort-de-France, and local officials named the Martinique International Airport after him a few years back.

The Thêatre Aimé Césaire in Fort-de-France is the place to take in an evening of culture after a long day at the beach. The current season features plays by Bertolt Brecht and Jean Cocteau alongside concerts by the Martinique Classical Quintet, and various events to mark the Césaire centennial.

Césaire’s city is thriving in his absence. Low-scale and charming, with an easygoing tropical rhythm, Fort-de-France has rivers that snake canal-like through back alleys, reminding me a little of Venice, Calif.

Its buildings, of various shades of maize, terracotta and apricot, largely date to the early 20th century; some sport lacey wrought-iron detail or flower-filled balconies. The most famous building in Fort-de-France — the fin-de-siècle Schoelcher Library, shipped over from Paris — is (in my view) an eye-catching monstrosity, a vaguely Byzantine concoction of zebra stripes that appears to sport every possible façade all at once.

Fort-de-France became the island’s capital only after the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée — a still-active volcano on the island’s far north — killed more than 30,000 and destroyed the main metropolis of St.-Pierre. That explains the relatively recent vintage of downtown Fort-de-France. Today the island’s center of gravity lies firmly in its southern half: in the bustling streets of Fort-de-France and the quaint village of St. Anne, where French pop wafts from the open-air cafés, markets overflow with breadfruit, and the best beaches are just a stroll away.

The early Jewish settlers settled further north, in the 17th century, when Dutch rule gave way to French colonization; Sephardic merchants established the island’s first synagogue in the 1660s. Many of the 100-plus families who compose today’s Association Culturelle Israelite, the historic Sephardic temple, are descendants of those original French and Portuguese Jewish families; many more are 20th-century settlers from mainland France and French North Africa. A few years ago, a Chabad center opened to further invigorate Jewish life on the island.

While the early Jews came for economic opportunity, more recent arrivals are drawn to Martinique’s irresistible ethnic mélange, a hybrid French-Créole culture that feels in many ways more fluid than the traditional societies back home.

No institution celebrates the fusion of tropical and Continental quite like the Grand Ballet of Martinique, which performs at hotels throughout the season. Despite the name, the Grand Ballet bears little resemblance to its formal European counterparts; here in the tropics, “ballet” is loosely translated to mean 30 dancers in vibrant skirts of red and yellow swirling and dipping to infectious island rhythms.

Throw in dozens of lovely antique chapels and museums that celebrate everything from local ethnography to Martinique’s volcanoes, and culture vultures will find plenty to satisfy. But then those beaches beckon — and even the most ardent Francophile has to admit that Martinique, free of Paris’ wintry chill, might be the most enticing part of France this time of year.