Martinique: Mais Oui, C’est Francais
How many tips on the tops of these headdresses signifiies marital status in Martinique. photos by Cathie Arquilla.
Mais Oui, Martinique is French!
By Cathie Arquilla
On the style beat for GoNOMAD, I uncovered the obvious for most, but perhaps not quite so for Americans, Martinique is a FRENCH island and all that that implies. Any Francophile would depart Martinique satiated in their quest for all things French with the added bonus of getting the sun, sand and sea that a Caribbean vacation promises.
Martinique has that Je ne sais quoi (special something) that’s a mix of planned elegance and “throw away” style, resulting in a sexy combination of adjectives; relaxed, seductive, sultry, friendly, warm, stylish, chic, groovy, casual, hip. As for the Martinicans, they’re a combination of all these things, and alarmingly suave.
This could be just because they are speaking French and anyone who does, to my ears, automatically sounds smart, stylish and worldly–silly, but true! To smart, stylish and worldly add a Creole patina and then you’re in the exotic neighborhood and that is what makes Martinique so cool.
There are plenty of French books and movies, which celebrate French style, “French Women Don’t Get Fat” and “Le Divorce,” to mention two, but they tend to focus on Paris. On Martinique the French female tourist isn’t wearing scarves, but she’s not wearing cut offs either, she’s all about casual elegance, feminine, practical (hat, sunscreen, camera for accessories) and attractive.
Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa, Martinique.
So much so, I could have spent the entire day at Sofitel Bakoua checking out la femme de France! Moving from breakfast terrace to infinity pool, to shore, I would have collected reference for that book I’ll probably never write, “How To Be Stylish On a Caribbean Vacation, The French Way”
Forte de France and Saint-Pierre, two cities on opposite sides of the island, are great for checking out the madras pieces worn by Martinican women. These eye-catching plaids are iconic to the island; bursting with citrus colors they hug shapely black women as they saunter down side streets and work in market squares.
Shaped like a skull cap with leaf-like points in madras, the Martinican lady’s headdresses tell a tale. If she is wearing just one point, this lady is a single and available. If she is wearing two points, she is engaged. With three, she is married. The lady who wears a fourth, is proudly advertising that she is a courtesan–a married man’s favorite and proud of it!
Madras prints are traditional to Martinique, but high fashion can also be found in Forte de France. Seen on the covers of countless WWDs, Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, photographed by the likes of Helmut Newton and Avedon, muse and “little sister” to Yves Saint Laurent, the Paris model Mounia has her own little shop right in Forte de France.
Anyone who is a fan of YSL or who has seen the recently released L’Amour Fou movie would recognize Mounia. But even if you’re not a fashion hound, you’d appreciate the graciousness of Mounia and her little shop. Open for 27 years, the shop originally sold only YSL clothes, now it has a few other lines as well as Mounia’s own creations.
When I asked Mounia what was most significant about her friendship with Mr. Saint Laurent, she said, “For me, Yves Saint Laurent, it was his creative spirit. I learned color, style and graphic shape–all that inspiration gave me a good idea to paint.” Mounia also talked about Saint Laurent’s drive. “He would call me in the middle of the night, saying “Mounia, I have a good idea, come, we try it right now!”
What advice couFresh, salty, tasty…fish at Ti-Sable.ld this beautiful Martinican woman who was discovered by Givenchy and photographed the world over give me? She said to be natural. The biggest mistake most women in their 40s and 50s make, is trying to look like girls in a magazine. Go light on makeup, “Not too much stuff!”
Today Mounia is designer, merchant, painter and philanthropist. She is currently looking for a New York exhibition space for her paintings, see drovot.com. She is also devoted to 157 orphans in Haiti. Find out more about this heartfelt cause at, Mounia Pour Amour Des Enfants.
Hipsters dining at Le Petibonum, Martinique.
Some like a secluded beach to read, sleep or reenact their “From Here to Eternity” fantasy, but this stylist prefers a scene–a place to people watch and be part of the vibe.
Ti-Sable is no beach shake shack, but an outdoor French/creole seafood restaurant with table service, linens and mixed fruity drinks–on the sand, right next to the water! There are no rules about wearing flip-flops or shirts, bathing suits are allowed.
The scene is delightful. Kids are playing in the sand while grown ups are enjoying conversation, beers, bickering (somehow it sounds so much better in French) and deliciously satisfying food. Food, that is perfect for the setting, salty, delicately fried and fresh. The mixture of the sand, sea and scene make you feel healthy and sexy and I liked it!
Le Petibonum in Le Carbet was more casual, hip, a bit more local in feeling. Owner/ chef Guy Ferdinand aka chef “hot pants” established the joint and has a following throughout the island. And why not?! His flamboyant persona sets a scene that says, “lets party at the beach, Martinique style.”
Fashion in Martinique.
Here, the restaurant is happenstance, like it was erected the night before. Diners eat under canopies and umbrellas, but the food is as refined as what you might find at the shore in Canne. And Petibonum has been known to host an occasional film star and TV crew too! If you’re a foodie, I only need tell you what I ate to get you interested.
I Balaou –tangy, salty small fish fritter
II Avocado and Marlin Cerviche
III Crayfish on coconut risotto, grilled tuna and plantains
IV Colombo – a Creole lamb stew – (Colombo is a spice blend unique to the island)
V Tangerine Sorbet
I asked Christel Coita of the Martinique tourist board, who brought me to this fab restaurant, how she would describe Creole food. She said it’s a mixture of the generosity from Africa, spices from India and French Savior-Faire. I’m sure I’m not the first writer she’s used that line on, but I liked it anyway!
Just behind the restaurant is La Boutik, which has a very unique assortment of accessories and beachwear, different from what is typical of the Island. Here, I bought a colorful necklace with giant batik beads. Every time I wear it, I get compliments and an opportunity to talk about Martinique.
The conversation was about Chante Noel and what specialties islanders eat in anticipation of Papa Noel’s arrival. The special Christmas drink is called Shrubb, an orange liquor. Menus might include, patés salés, (pork patties), caramelized ham with pineapple and blood sausages.
The breeze felt like a gigantic blush brush caressing my skin. The music was soft, jazzy. There was the distant sound of rushing water produced by a waterfall beside the stairway entrance. Rain fell on the roof. A glass of Champagne was in my hand and a mousse appetizer sat on the low table before me. Creole illustrations in heavy carved frames hung in the amber light. This was cocktail hour at the Cohi Bar at Cap Est (Relais & Chateaux Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa Cap Est).
I wore my gold heels, white dress and a linen wrap, glad of it, because the ladies were dressed. They had probably spent the day at this five-star resort. Perhaps pampered at the Guerlain Spa, napping poolside, lunching and swimming at the Cap Est lagoon. This bar scene was quietly hip, deluxe and sexy.
Pool at Cap Est: A crescent-shaped turquoise expanse.
Pool Note: The Cap Est pool is a huge crescent shaped turquoise expanse of water. It is situated above ground on one side creating an optical illusion when you are in it of the water spilling out to the shore beyond. To call it just “a pool” is an injustice. To call it an infinity pool isn’t quite right either.
I’m not sure every French dining experience starts with a amuse bouche, but every one I had on Martinique did! This is a little tiny plate of something delicate and delicious. It’s the chef’s way of getting your attention, “Attendez, I’m about to impress you!” The amuse bouche at Plein Soleil
Hotel was no exception.
The chef got our attention and the food was very good, the atmosphere was Wow! Decorated in neutrals with splashes of rich color, shapely furniture and objects d’ art, this boutique hotel is tres chic! Former Art Director and owner, Jean Christoph has realized his dream and exercised his passion in designing Plein Soleil Hotel. Purchases from Vietnam, The Ivory Coast, Africa and Brazil decorate the space.
Every corner, tabletop and seating area is a photographic still life, but the place still manages to be relaxing and inviting. It’s sublime. Here too, guests had dressed for dinner. Americans, leave your fanny packs and cargo shorts at home. Bury your sneakers in the sand.
Viewing any island from the sea gives you a whole different perspective. You reinterpret and connect with the solid ground you were on in a different way. I felt giddy when I stepped off Martinique and on to The Kata-Mambo, a little nervous, but also I was ready to relax, to let the wind be in charge. This full day large hulled catamaran excursion was touristy in just the right way.
There was swimming, snorkeling, eating, drinking, music and even a little dancing. But the perspective of the island from the sea is what I appreciated most. I could see the overall shape of the Caribbean side of the island, its beach coves, the big cities of Fort de France and Saint-Pierre, little towns, the historic fort and Mount Pelee volcano and this was just one portion of the island!
Kata Mambo, on the boat. Kata Mambo, on the boat.
My Kata-Mambo, boat mates where varied (all French, however) and lovely. Little girls who made best friends for a day, lovers, newly weds, and extended families became my companions and we all enjoyed the antics and expertise of our crew.
Remarkably, even after all that sea, salt and wind everyone still looked good! Is it a French thing? But it wasn’t about what they were wearing. As corny as it sounds, it’s because they were happy.
A little sun, a natural smile, some time on and in the sea, away from cell phones, email and expectations… Now that’s a recipe for looking good! But a great bathing suit helps too!
More on Martinique
Part art gallery, part restaurant/hotel, La Suite Villa Hotel is a modern hill top luxury boutique hotel. Developer husband, designer wife, have created 6 unique suites, 9 villas that are magnifiques!
Find out about Martinique history and culture as told through the life story of Empress Josephine, native to Martinique, one true love of Napoleon. La Pagerie Museum.
“When you look at nature and observe it, it can surprise you,” said the Domaine Émeraude park guide. This “living,” interactive regional national park museum is an extraordinary place to explore and appreciate the biodiversity of Martinique. Fun facts: 1) There are 500 times more verities/species in Martinique than in France. 2) The banana plant is a grass.
If Rums your thing, visit Habitation Clément. Wander the grounds, house and distillery of this old rum plantation. Also on view are several modern art installations. Save time for the gift shop’s rum tasting counter.
Habitation Clement gift shop.
Pottery–make and buy at Trois-Ilets pottery (Pottery Village). Stroll along the boardwalk boutiques for upscale local products that are more refined than what you might find at other tourist markets.
Views from horseback, Ranch Jack provides more than a tail to nose trail ride. Get ready to gallop!
Ziouka Glaces vast selection of tropical sorbets are as tasty as they are colorful, 15, place Grevy, Le Carbet.
Fashion stylist and travel writer Cathie Arquilla is an expert at finding a unique fashion edge in people and places. She tells us what’s cool. She is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and Travelgirl magazine, and runs MyStylist, where she offers wardrobe overhauls and access to private shopping venues. Read her blog “My Stylist.”