You know you’re in a department of France as soon as you explore downtown Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique. The buildings with wrought iron balconies remind me of New Orleans, the beaches the French Riviera, the bakeries the boulangeries of Provence and the perfume shops the boutiques of Paris. The city even has a Galleries Lafayette where you can buy French scents and fashions and pay for them in euros.
Bear in mind, though, that this French enclave adheres to the time-honored tradition of the midday break. Many businesses, including shops, close from noon to 2:30 for the sacrosanct leisurely lunch and rest period. The locals love to eat out and the choice of restaurants serving French and creole cuisine is among the most extensive in the Caribbean.
But passengers on Oceania Cruises’ Insignia have little incentive to leave the ship for an exceptional meal given the variety of fine dining on board. Five-star menus are crafted under the watchful eye of master French chef Jacques Pepin, the cruise line’s executive culinary director. Care for some roasted quail stuffed with black truffle mousseline, or black Angus steak Provencale, or maybe a perfectly grilled ahi tuna garnished with tomato chutney?
This being a holiday cruise, on Christmas day Insignia’s Executive Chef Farid Oudir came up with Christmas goose and Christmas pudding for his menu. And every day, in addition to Chef Oudir’s creations, the menu in the Grand Dining Room has selections from Jacques and Red Ginger, two restaurants on Oceania’s larger ships.
Don’t get me started on the wine. The ship’s cellars hold a vast collection of vintages from around the world, some appealing to casual wine drinkers and some satisfying serious oenophiles.
Bill and I spent the morning walking around Fort-de-France, stopping at St. Louis Cathedral with its lovely stained glass windows and unusual iron steeple, La Savane, the city’s Central Park, and the beautiful Schoelcher Library built by the Eiffel Engineering Co. in Paris and shipped to Martinique in pieces in 1893.
Then we did something a Frenchman would never do. We skipped lunch and went to the beach. On a visit to Martinique last year we spent a lovely afternoon at Sainte-Anne Beach, 31 miles from the cruise port, but this time we walked down the pier and joined locals on a ferry taking us to Pointe du Bout and the beach Anse Mitan just 20 minutes away. A brief rain shower cooled us off after an hour of sunbathing and we were rewarded with a rainbow arcing over the beach.
I have fond memories of last year’s shore excursion and wish we had time to return to Sacre Coeur de Balata, a one-fifth scale replica of the famous Sacre Coeur of Montmartre in Paris, and the Botanical Gardens of Balata. Landscape gardener Jean Philippe Thoze began collecting plants as a hobby before opening his garden to the public in 1986. It’s now the second largest botanical garden in the Caribbean and the most visited attraction in Martinique.
No wonder this French speck of land in the Caribbean is nicknamed “Island of Flowers.”