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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Fifty

While in Martinique, we rented a car and drove around the island with another cruising couple. The island is beautiful even by Caribbean standards and the standard of living appears to be extremely good. This is, to a great degree, due to the fact that Martinique is a "Department" of France and therefore is a recipient of enormous financial support from France. The roads are very well maintained, second only to Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and all government buildings are in excellent condition, and there is virtually no poverty and no shantytowns even though we were told that unemployment hovers around 30%. Martinique's sister island, Guadeloupe, is actually the center of the French government in the Caribbean, but Martinique has grown faster due to its better bays and beaches. To understand some of the financial support that the islands receive all we had to do was visit a grocery store. Prices for French items are absurdly low and are obviously sold substantially under cost. The finest cheeses can be had for a few dollars and wine is especially cheap. Excellent wine and champagne can be had for less than ten dollars a bottle and first rate table wines can be had for less than two dollars a bottle. The offset to these prices and incredibly generous social benefits, are France's very high income taxes. But for cruisers, it means an excellent and economical island to visit. We met many cruisers who were wine aficionados and they would literally buy hundreds of bottles of wine and champagne on each semiannual visit.

We had visited Fort-de-France, which is the largest city in Martinique on our visit last year, so this time we concentrated on the countryside and more out of the way attractions. One was a botanical garden just north of Fort-de-France, which was filled with tropical plants from all over the world. It was extremely well maintained and the entrance fee was very low. We also visited Mount Pelee, which is a huge currently dormant volcano, which dominates the North end of the island and overlooks the seaside town of St. Pierre. We wanted to visit St. Pierre, but the day we rented the car was the 100th anniversary of the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelee, which destroyed St. Pierre. To commemorate the anniversary six "tall ships" visited from various countries including the "Belam" which was actually in Martinique during the eruption and is now used as a training ship for the French Naval Academy. Consequently, the bay was full of boats and the town was cordoned off, with tour buses only allowed in.

The story of St. Pierre, the Belam and the eruption is interesting. St. Pierre was established in the mid 17th century as the capital of Martinique. It became an important harbor and shipping facility for export of rum, sugar, coffee and cocoa. By 1902, the population exceeded 30,000. In April and early May of 1902, Mt. Pelee began to tremble and erupt. Several dozen sugar cane field workers were killed in a boiling mud eruption on May 2nd. But the town was not evacuated because elections were only a week away and the local governor did not want to have to re-schedule them. On May 5th, boiling mud and ash in a fiery eruption overran the largest and richest plantation in the area. It is estimated that the boiling mud came down the mountain at over 250 miles per hour. But still, the governor urged the people to stay. However, many people did leave - and survived in the hills overlooking St. Pierre. On May 7th, the Belam sailed into the harbor, but there was no room for it, so the captain took it to a bay a few miles away to await an open berth. The next morning, Ascension Day, May 8th, Mt. Pelee erupted in a violent blast that blew out the side of the mountain and buried St. Pierre in hot ash and mud that exceeded 450 degrees Fahrenheit. The museum contains pots and pans that were partially melted by the intense heat. 29,933 people were killed in a matter of seconds. There were 13 ships in the harbor. Twelve burned and sank. The only one that survived was sailed by its captain, who later died of his burns, to a bay well south of St. Pierre. The ship was so damaged, it was later scrapped. The captain of the Belam, hearing and seeing the eruption sailed into the harbor a few hours later and recorded details of the damage. Only two residents survived. Leon Leandre, a cobbler, who was in his cellar, and a man named Cyparis, who was imprisoned in the local jail and accused of murder. Both men were badly burned and scarred.

We were able to drive part way up Mt. Pelee, where we had a wonderful view of St. Pierre and most of Martinique. From the parking lot and visitor's center, a foot trail leads to the top of the mountain. The day we were there, the top was hidden in clouds. Today there are several active volcanoes in the Caribbean. The most active is on the island of Montserrat, which is about 200 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. In fact, the southern two thirds of Montserrat are uninhabitable because the volcano. Another active volcano is still about 300 feet below the surface of the ocean and is located just a few miles northwest of Grenada. It causes tremors in the area and now and then smoke can be seen rising from the sea. Its nickname is "Kick-em-Jenny," which comes from a nearby island, so named because of the local waves that sometimes develop around it. The volcano is expected to break the surface of the sea and become an island within the next 50 years.

We left Martinique on May 14, 2002 and sailed a few hours south to the island of St. Lucia, which is English speaking and has a great grocery store that stocks many shelves of American products. As fun and exotic as it is to visit the islands, it is still very nice to be able to stock up on our favorite "American" foods. We anchored in Rodney Bay named for the British Admiral, who fortified the island in the 18th century. The forts and surrounding grounds are now national parks and are well maintained tourist attractions. Having been to St. Lucia last year, we remembered a pizza establishment that could be accessed by dinghy that has the best pizza this side of Puerto Rico. Naturally we pigged out there, and met another cruising couple from Texas. The four of us had a very enjoyable evening.

It is interesting that islands like St. Lucia, Dominique and Grenada are all former English colonies, but apparently do not wish to join into a single country. They all rely heavily on tourism and the export of bananas and other farm produce for income. But still, it must be difficult to financially support a government in a country that is geographically smaller than some cities in the United States and in terms of population are much smaller than the average city in the states. Our next stop is St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which sounds like a religious leader and his entourage. Stay tuned.

Dates: , 2002-05-14
Locations: Martinique

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.