A stick shift, a map, and a little French to get by…

by The Design of Things

We arrived in Martinique after dark, suddenly overdressed for the humidity, gearing up to make our rental car transaction in French. We didn’t have much in the way of a guidebook (there don’t seem to be any in English about Martinique and Guadeloupe) – just a ripped-out chapter of Fodor’s Caribbean 2014 that we’d found in a used bookstore. The iphone hadn’t come back to life in the new country, and we weren’t sure of the directions to our first hotel — on a peninsula across the island. While we waited, the shuttle driver came in to tell the woman behind the desk that the customers off the American flight all wanted automatiques and he did not have enough cars for them.

She did not speak English. At first, when we requested a map, she told us there was one in the rental car. When we asked whether it would give us directions to the Peninsula Caravelle, she smiled and produced a large, glossy map of the entire island. A map of major and minor roads, topography, the names of beaches and coves and major sites. Big smiles all around, and merci beaucoups for such a treasure. And that was the beginning of our figuring things out for ourselves – a ten day escape from technology that was freeing and relaxing…eventually.

Soon after collecting our stick shift Renault, we were lost in Martinique. Several times. We ended up on a highway going the wrong way and not going fast enough according to the drivers behind us. We squinted at signs in the dark, many of them so faded as to be unreadable as we hurtled into rotaries. We pulled over and used our map, righted ourselves, calmed down. But when we arrived at the peninsula where our hotel was supposed to be, we found that the address we had been given indicated it was in the next town over, on the mainland coast.

We learned later that everything addressed “Trinité” meant the province of Trinité and not necessarily the town. For the moment, we were confused and dismayed. The phone had found a signal by now but the map app decided we were in California. (Does it go by vegetation and temperature? Did it not notice everyone was speaking French?) Calling the hotel phone number didn’t work. We drove into the seaside town called Trinité and pulled over. Improbably, at eight o’clock at night and the streets deserted, there was a barbeque going on under a canopy, with people eating at a picnic table behind it. When we addressed the women operating it we discovered that Martinicans really are formal, as Fodor’s suggested. They greeted me with “Bonsoir, madame,” and were calm and friendly as they guided us back on to the peninsula.

We drove up a winding road, in the true dark of a nature reserve, then dipped down into a quiet fishing village, the occasional restaurant lit but not occupied, looking for Rue de la Distillerie. When we found it, we drove up and down its steep hill unable to find our hotel – discreetly tucked away as it was.

A half an hour later we had parked on the side of the main road, the Atlantic lapping at the strip of sand just beside it, stars glittering in the black sky overhead. The hotel website did not mark the spot on its own map. We walked into the neighborhood and knocked onsomeone’s door and the someone turned out to be the hotel owner. He led us down the street to the entrance and we were greeted by warm smiles and offers to help us with our luggage, a place to park the car.

Over the next week, we found our way around using that beautiful map. We learned more French, discovered a stick shift was very handy on the steep, winding roads and got comfortable driving fast. While I was working on a proposal in the hotel one day, Kevin went for a run, encountered bulls on a hillside, got lost in a tangled jungle, found his way out, got caught in a tropical downpour, and found a Creole chicken and rice dish to bring home for lunch. The whole adventure made him sparkle with the happiness of the tales to tell.

martiniquestpierreWe discovered that whoever wrote the Fodor’s Martinique chapter had possibly not visited Martinique at all – or not ventured much past Club Med. We learned that every beach, however small, might have a place to shower and a wonderful spot to dine, even if hidden in the trees. We found a funky cafe frequented by neighborhood surfers at night, down a dark path with a slim boardwalk right under the palms, tables in the sand, buffeted by the ever-blowing trade winds. We used our French to have a high time with the Creole owner of another hotel on an island off the island for two nights, making friends with her and a French couple who stayed there, too.

caravellemangroveWe never again consulted our phone or computer for directions or ideas. We brought phrasebooks and a bird guide to breakfast with our novels. When we went online for the news and email, for columns exulting in the Patriots andTom Brady, it was like being shuttled into a very narrow experience, chosen and curated by a few people but somehow claiming to encompass all the world. We had proof that it didn’t — being, just for example, on a major island Google couldn’t find.

I hope we can remember how fun it is to discover the world without the help of technology. But then I remember when a friend of mine and I came back from Switzerland vowing to be more European. A central tenet of that plan was to wear more scarves. I think it may have lasted a week. But do your kids know how to read a map? Have you ever spun a globe together? Have you tried a trip through your state on the backroads, looking and figuring out where to go? It’s a big world out there, and even Google hasn’t found all of it.

From top: Cocoa Beach Cafe owner Jeremy – we never saw this cafe by day, only by night when the surfer dudes and dudettes gathered for beers and Champagne; a typical Creole lunch on a madras tablecloth, easy snack places on the main street of Tartane, a hummingbird we saw in the gardens that looks black until you see the blue-green flash of its wings.

Above: Our beloved map. A mangrove area on Caravelle. The beautiful town of St. Pierre, the description of which first led us to believe no one at Fodor’s had visited Martinique.