A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of spending a few days aboard the 198' Feadship Blue Moon, discovering both the yacht’s amenities and the leeward and windward sides of Martinique.
Our Dutch vessel, flying a Cayman Islands flag, has its bow pointed toward Fort Saint Louis, the imposing 17th century fortress designed by Louis XIV’s military architect Vauban to defend Martinique against invaders after France claimed the island as its own in 1635.
Chief Officer Johan Harris announces our arrival, which must have been noticed; we are the biggest noncommercial vessel around. “Motoryacht Blue Moon, what are your intentions?” inquires a French-accented voice. “We are requesting permission to anchor for the night,” Harris replies.
Permission is granted and within seconds of this brief radio exchange, the sturdy anchor chain unspools under the close supervision of Captain Emile Bootsma. A South African native, Bootsma has planted roots in Charlestown, SC. He has worked with the owner of this and previous two Blue Moons for 13 years. Debonair and full of humor, Bootsma is all business when it comes to the safety of the vessel, passengers and crew. After making a series of routine checks, he asks Officer Harris, who had also worked on the previous Blue Moons, to shut off the two caterpillar engines. Just like that, Blue Moon has become an addition to the city skyline, a sight to see for the ferries and fishing boats hurrying back to port for Sunday dinner.
The previous evening, on our way back from dinner in Trois-Ilets (a village where Marie-Joseph-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, better known as Empress Joséphine, was born), I got a good look at Blue Moon in her evening best. Capt. Bootsma was waiting for us at the dock when we returned from a quaint French restaurant near the town square. He took the wheel of the yacht’s restored 1972 mahogany Aquarama Special, and we savored the quiet ride under a sky sprinkled with stars. As we rounded a small peninsula, Blue Moon appeared between two palm trees, her decks a blaze of light against the midnight blue sky. I felt goose bumps, and I am pretty sure the warm tropical breeze had little to with it.
Fort de France, capital of Martinique, is a big city, and as the late January sun quickly slipped behind the horizon, the waterfront and hillsides began to sparkle with thousands of lights. Yet, as close as we were, the anchorage, home that night to a dozen sailboats, was amazingly peaceful.
History recounts that Joséphine, a socialite who narrowly escaped with her life in the French Revolution, had softened the heart of the general; Bonaparte fell madly in love with the woman with big eyes and long eye lashes. Just as the charismatic divorcée took hold of Napoleon’s heart, the island of her birth seems to have cast a spell on us. It is true, though, that we have discovered Martinique under the best possible conditions—aboard an impeccably maintained luxurious yacht with a friendly and professional crew, attentive to our every need.
Shortly after docking in Fort de France, our group gathered in the skylounge. A perfectly chilled rosé wine that Chief Stewardess Cynthia Mauger had selected fueled a lively pre-dinner conversation while a beautifully appointed dining table waited on the aft deck. It was a warm evening, and the glass panels that normally surround the dining table were neatly tucked away. Stewardess Tara Moore had created a centerpiece with the red torch ginger and variegated shell ginger we brought back from our day trip to Saint-Pierre in the northwest part of the island.
Saint-Pierre, which is an easy hour cruise from Fort de France along the scenic leeward coast, is hard to forget. The small town, with a colorful waterfront, was rebuilt on the site of what once was the vibrant capital of Martinique, the birthplace of carnival in the Caribbean and the cultural center of the Lesser Antilles. Saint-Pierre in the late 19th century drew comparisons as the Paris and the Venice of the Caribbean, but in 1902 two volcanic eruptions killed more than 30,000 people—28,000 in Saint-Pierre alone. The now dormant and verdant Montagne Pelée, its peak often mysteriously shrouded in clouds, towers over a shore dotted with black-sand beaches.
A man on the pier watched us dock and asked about the Riva. Was it really wood? he asked. “Mahogany,” I replied. He spotted my camera and launched into a melodious French/Creole tirade that the town of Saint-Pierre was ill prepared for tourism. Martinique is, after all, a French island, so everyone has an opinion and is willing to express it. It seems true that Saint-Pierre never fully recovered. Step off the tourist track and as nearly anywhere else, you will see cracks under pretty façades. But, compared to some of the other Caribbean islands, the infrastructure is quite upscale here. Roads are well maintained, and abundant signage makes it easy to find your way. While Martinique’s close ties with the “Métropole” occasionally cause friction with the natives, the island’s relationship with France has a few obvious advantages.
Saint-Pierre itself may not be an idyllic town, but it is charming and moving. The former 8,000-seat theater is a blackened ruin that overlooks a harbor full of ships destroyed in the 1902 eruption. In the town’s small museum are misshapen musical instruments recovered from the theater after the eruption, a cast iron church bell melted by volcanic gases and sepia images of Saint-Pierre residents before and after the tragedy, including one of a mother and child, who death caught unaware as she worked on her sewing machine that day. These relics tell a powerful story and exude a feel of arrested development. Saint-Pierre’s town square is a social-gathering spot nowadays, and on that Sunday, village people browsed a small market and listened to rhythmic drum music.
Leaving Saint-Pierre behind, we took a trip through the nearby town of Morne Rouge and up a winding road toward l’Aileron, a shelter at the foot of Mt. Pelée. From 2,703 feet, you get a good feel for the island’s topography, a mix of rolling hills, farms, villages and gardens nourished by fertile volcanic soil, unfurling toward the coasts. I watched a trail of people slowly disappear in the fog as they climbed toward Le Chinois, at 4,584 feet.
We chose an easier way to see the island from up high—a 45-minute helicopter tour aboard the island’s sole R44. We took off near Le François and flew over clear water and sand bars before crossing over toward the Pitons du Carbet, another favorite hikers’ destination. We chatted amicably with the French pilot through our headsets until the mountains were so close they appeared to fill our bubble with greenery. The helicopter veered smoothly. We exhaled.
We landed safely on the grounds of Habitation Clément, a complex of galleries and gardens with a working rum distillery. It produces some of the island’s finer spirits, bearing the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) label, a strictly controlled mark of quality and authenticity. There are 11 distilleries on the island, and the people of Martinique take their rum very seriously.
We discovered white, agricultural (distilled from molasses) and vintage rums. We also learned to pair them with fine chocolates made by Martinique’s artisans chocolatiers Frères Lauzéa. Martinique produces a fine spirit that aims to rival the best cognac or scotch. Rum is also a popular pick-me-up. If you join in a local celebration, you’ll likely be invited to try Ti punch (rum, ice, lime and a little cane sugar). Much stiffer than a mojito, this “petit” drink hides a powerful bite. Best to sip gingerly.
The historic Habitation Clément was our first stop on the windward side of the island where we began our trip. While we discovered the area by car, the yacht cruised to the Bay of Le François. The services of a licensed pilot are mandatory for yachts 164' (50m) and larger in this area (and other locations around the island)—and for good reason.
The second largest island in the French West Indies, with an area of about 425 sq. miles, Martinique shows great diversity in landscape and coastline. The east side’s relatively dry coastline harbors a few white-sand beaches. Coral reefs, islets and shallow waters create a patchwork of vivid blues laced with white foam. The barrier reef is home to an estimated 225 species of fish. It’s great fun for snorkeling, diving and sailing small craft, but navigating a bigger boat can be treacherous.
Still, it is possible and well worth the effort, and Blue Moon’s captain successfully anchored in a secluded and protected bay.
After visiting the island’s Relais et Châteaux, Hotel Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and watched colorful kite sails, we returned to the yacht aboard the 26' Chris-Craft. The small islands in and around the bay have little residential development, making First Officer Harris’ offer to take a sunset Champagne cruise impossible to resist. We felt nearly alone, as dusk turned to early night, passing only an occasional fishing boat and lonely piers, jutting into the bay.
We packed a lot into a few days, and our recent experiences sparked the lively conversation taking place in the skylounge, until dinner took center stage. Blue Moon Chef David Cowcill, who studied culinary arts in Canada, captured our attention with amazing menus, blending classic technique and surprising flavors, from fresh fruit sorbet with Prosecco and white chocolate ice cream with crème fraîche to fabulous steak fries (accompanying a salt-crusted Kobe beef) and brioche French toast with pecans.
He and the entire crew gave us plenty of reasons to stay aboard. Torn between a cruise on Blue Moon and a day excursion to some of the island’s villages, I elected to stay for a half-day trip around the southern end of the island to Fort de France. We followed our pilot out of our protected bay, and soon after, the waves came fast and furious until we reached the leeward side. The yacht proved remarkably quiet and comfortable as it progressed at a steady 12 knots. Leaving the comfortable perch on the pilothouse’s leather banquette, I made my way to the aft deck and stared at the vast swath of milky blue water unfolding behind us as the propellers churned the ocean.
Martinique’s lure is hard to resist, and its natural beauty and many attractions provide many reasons to go ashore. Yacht agent Douglas Rapier, a Francophile born in Grenada, moved here in 2002. He is intent on supplying everything that yachts cruising between Dominica and St. Lucia may need. After a few years of what Rapier describes as a bit of complacence, island officials are willing to do what it takes to give visiting yachts a reason to see Martinique as much more than a stopover for provisioning. The island has the potential to be reborn as the yachting haven it was 30 years ago.
We had to rise early to catch an early flight back to Miami. I used the remote to open the shades covering big portholes in the stateroom. As they slowly lifted, all they revealed were an inky sky meeting dark water. And then I heard a rooster, calling for dawn, somewhere in the big city. The crew had long been at work preparing breakfast and taking our luggage to shore. We were minutes away from the morning hustle of Martinique’s capital and a world away from home. The island had cast its spell. ■
About Blue Moon
Royal van Lent built this award-winning 198' Feadship in 2006. A private yacht since delivery, Blue Moon is now available for charter.
Captain Emile Bootsma, who supervised the yacht’s construction in Holland, heads an international crew of up to 15. Languages spoken on board include English, Dutch, French and Spanish.
In addition to a full-beam ondeck master suite, with office and guest room/gym, the yacht features five comfortable lower-deck staterooms. The two twins connect with two queens to form suites. Each has a private bathroom, individual temperature controls, individual satellite receivers and connect to a full library of movies and DVDs through the Kaleidescape Entertainment System. All have iPod docking stations, and Wi-Fi is available throughout the yacht.
Several dining areas are available: formal dining on the main deck and a panoramic dining area on the bridge deck. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels disappear, leaving no tracks on the teak deck, to open the dining area to the aft deck. Sheltered by the top-deck overhang, this is a great spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The sun deck features a wonderful Jacuzzi, surrounded by sun pads forward, and another casual dining area aft. A stunning glass elevator goes from lower deck to sun deck and leads to a panoramic nook, insulated from the elements but perfect for quiet observation and reading. Another dining area is aft of the sun deck, equipped with wet bar, refrigerator and grill.
The classic interior décor is comfortably luxurious. The central staircase with spectacular wrought iron banister and wood veneer recalling an ocean motif wraps around the glass elevator. The yacht carries a full complement of toys, including two great tenders: the 1972 Riva Aquarama Special (fully restored) and a 26' Chris-Craft plus kayaks, wakeboards, WaveRunners and snorkeling equipment. A second gym is located on the lower deck.