In French West Indies, the accent is on food, European ambience

October 02, 1994|By Ellsworth Boyd | Ellsworth Boyd,Special to The Sun

Faites comme chez vous" -- Make yourself at home," they say when you arrive in the French West Indies, seven sunny isles that are attracting Americans to this little bit of Paris in the Caribbean.

You don't have to worry about language. In the hotels, restaurants and shops of Martinique and Guadaloupe and the five smaller islands in the group, the people communicate well enough to meet your needs and make your stay a pleasurable one. From deluxe to first-class hotels to bungalows and cottages, living quarters are boundless at varied prices. Thrifty travelers avoid the high season (mid-December to mid-April), when hotel room rates rise 30 to 50 percent.

If you have an urge to experience French culture without traveling to Paris, these islands will fulfill your desire for customs and traditions. But the people are the best part -- low-key Caribbean islanders whose smiles beget smiles as pidgin English is exchanged with pidgin French.

Nowhere else in the Caribbean is the culture so diverse. There are French, Creoles, Spanish, English and Portuguese, a reminder of the days when France, Spain and England struggled to possess the coveted "sugar islands."

So much alike, yet so different, Martinique and Guadeloupe are sort of city-and-country cousins. Fort de France, the port-city capital of Martinique, reminds visitors of New Orleans with its lacy, wrought-iron balconies that trim pastel-colored houses, but also has traffic jams and big-city power.

Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe's principal port city, is a mini-metropolis in comparison. Old-timers, astounded by its growth over the years, remember it as a sleepy little waterfront town for most of their lifetime. Despite city expansion, they stand up for its people. "They are the aristocrats," says one venerable Guadeloupan, speaking of Martinique, "while we are the good, simple people."

Years ago, both cities became the preferred winter destination of Europeans, who had in the past spent holidays in the Mediterranean and then discovered the delights of the West Indies, French style.

Shopping opportunities in Fort de France are profuse on Rue Victor Hugo, Schoelcher and Antoine Siger, busy balconied thoroughfares three to four blocks from the docks of Baie des Flamands. In a city of more than 100,000 people, where streets are often narrow, jammed and bustling, it's a good idea to seek one destination, then branch out from there.

Several tours and excursions also leave from Fort de France. Martinique's 11 museums showcase everything from history to folk art, dolls and rum distilleries.

Art enthusiasts flock to the Paul Gauguin Museum at Anse Turin Carbet, a fishing village near the beach, where the painter lived in 1887. History buffs gather at La Pagerie Museum in the Trois Islets district, where the Empress Josephine was born. Visitors stroll through the ruins of her birthplace and enter the museum, an elegant little stone building where letters from Napoleon and other belongings of the empress are displayed.

History buffs who want to explore Martinique both topside and underwater -- without getting wet -- are converging on St. Pierre, a small town along the northern coast, where a submarine explores shipwrecks in the bay. The recently launched submarine is being heralded as the biggest event to hit St. Pierre since its volcano, Mount Pelee, erupted in 1902 and a blanket of hot ashes, smoke and poisonous gases snuffed out the lives of 29,000 inhabitants and spread to the bay, where it sank more than 12 ships.

A Paris-based entrepreneurial firm has invested $10 million in the submarine and two quadrimarans. Tourists board two 88-foot-long quadrimarans, docked at Fort de France and debark on the beach at St. Pierre 45 minutes later, ready for a submarine descent in the bay of lost ships. The round-trip price from Fort de France, including the quadrimaran and submarine ride, is $70 for adults and $35 for children up to age 13.

Shaped like a butterfly with tattered wings, Guadeloupe is divided into two islands -- Basse Terre and Grand Terre -- joined by a bridge. Gosier, on Grand Terre, is a short drive from Pointe-a-Pitre and plays a vital role in the island's growing tourist economy. A resort center that continues to grow, Gosier is a playground of hotels, restaurants, discos, tennis courts and water sports.

Dormant volcanoes rise thousands of feet into the clouds on both Martinique and Guadeloupe. Villages that time forgot stretch from the highlands to the sea, where fishermen still ply their trade in old wooden sailing vessels. Rain forests are so dense that a landing party Columbus sent got lost, wandering for days among the trees.

Good roads fan out over both islands, and a typical drive in the country reveals fields of sugar cane, tall and green. Banana plantations and pineapple farms -- the other leading crops -- dot the countryside. Tropical fruits such as mangoes, avocados, pomegranates and guavas grow wild and uncultivated.

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