My Week in Martinique - A Solo Trip Living aboard a Sailboat
Prior to March of 2017, I would have been hard-pressed to locate the small island of Martinique on a map. But when Skyscanner told me I get a roundtrip ticket from BWI to Fort-de-France for $275, I didn’t care too much about its exact location - I was just ready to go.
I looked for hotels and Airbnbs and came across The Thélème, a 29-foot sailboat, likely from the early 80s, perfectly anchored just a short row away from the beach. Its hand-painted exterior didn’t distract me from the incredible views in the backdrops of the pictures, and for less than $50/night, I was sold.
Martinique was going to be the first truly solo international adventure I’d be taking. I’ve traveled somewhat solo several times in the past, and have done my fair share of domestic solo journeys, but this was my first passport stamping, cell phone roaming, ‘no one I know’ trip.
Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes.
I approached it like any other trip I had taken; I did my research, constructed a few possible daily itineraries, and made sure I had working maps for when I lost cell service.
Lastly, I did the one thing that I always tell myself not to do - I investigated the dangerous snakes of the island.
Luckily for me, there’s only one dangerous snake native to Martinique.
Unluckily for me, that snake is the Fer-de-Lance - aka the ultimate pit viper. According to Reptiles Magazine, this snake is the most deadly snake in the Americas...fun.
I had already booked my trip, and I wasn’t about to let a slightly enhanced fear of snakes persuade me against going. However, I was a bit more pleased in my decision to sleep in a boat rather than on land.
No WiFi. No Problem?
On the morning of March 20th, I made my way to BWI and boarded a Norwegian Airlines direct flight to FDF. Upon landing, I was asked to text my Airbnb host and give him an ETA. I was told there would be WiFi in the airport, a necessity as I did not have international roaming on my phone. When I landed and connected, I was greeted with a prompt to enter my cell number for a WiFi access code.
A vicious little cycle this was. I needed WiFi because I didn’t have cell service, but couldn’t get WiFi without getting a text through cell service.
I decided to head to the rental car office, ask for WiFi, or at least find a cafe or hotel along the way with WiFi. Long story short, that never happened. I drove towards the pin I put in my offline maps near the location that Airbnb provided for the boat. Essentially, I drove towards water.
It was dark, I was tired, and my few attempts to speak with locals resulted in both parties being confused (my French doesn’t stretch far beyond Bonjour).
I turned down a dead-end street, now in a slight panic that I was never going to reach my paradise on water. At the end of this street sat a man upon a rock.
I rolled down my window. “You’re not Yannis by any chance?”, I asked.
"Yes. Are you Alex?”, he replied.
I was shocked, relieved, and feeling a bit guilty as Yannis had clearly been awaiting my arrival for at least an hour now. Nevertheless, I went to park my car on the side of the road, we hopped into his motorized zodiac boat and zipped through the water into pitch blackness.
In just a few minutes, we arrived at The Thélème and unloaded my bags. It was only 8pm, but I couldn’t see anything in the water except for several mast beacons sprinkled around me.
A Daily PARADISE
I awoke the next morning to the sun shining in my eyes. As I turned my gaze to outside, I was moved speechless by the now-visible surroundings. Dozens of sailboats bobbed along the water, which stretched seamlessly to the horizon. A cloudless sky held a bright, hot sun that lit up the island to my right. Older couples were out on the decks of their impressive sail yachts, while kids were snorkeling near the beach as their families watched on.
I had no idea of the beauty of this place just a few hours ago, but now I understood what paradise meant.
Over the next few days, I experienced a myriad of places and events. I traveled to the Memorial Anse Caffard, a moving arrangement of 20, 8 foot tall stone statues placed in memory of an offshore slave ship tragedy in 1830. I traveled to Fort-de-France to experience the open air markets, the Cathédrale Saint-Louis, and The Schœlcher library.
My days were spent exploring as much of the island I could reach. My nights were spent stretched out under the stars, sipping sweet rum, watching the occasional turtle pass by, and listening to the sounds of the sea. The tranquility and serenity that these nights offered were sensations I had never experienced, and ones I have not been able to recreate since leaving.
The Hike of Mount Pelée
On my final full day in Martinique, I awoke at the break of dawn, paddled my zodiac boat to the pier (Yannis had a motor, I had paddles), and made my journey north. My destination was Mount Pelée, the mountain notoriously known as the deadliest volcano of the 20th century.
I was nervous as I pulled into the gravel parking lot at the base of the mountain. I wasn’t fearful about a nearly-impossible eruption. Rather, my fear rested in the devilish eyes of the Fer-de-Lance that I had researched just days before. Mount Pele, so I read, was one of the primary natural habitats for these creatures and their aggressive-by-nature attitude wouldn’t keep them away from trafficked pathways.
Nevertheless, I pushed my way up the mountain into the deepest fog I’ve ever hiked through. A bit over two hours later, I reached the crater rim and rewarded myself with a handful of trail mix and a carefully scoped-out resting spot. I never did come to meet the Fer-de-Lance (at least not on this trip - check out my upcoming article on my journey to Belize!).
This wasn’t Everest and, in most regards, wasn’t a significantly noteworthy accomplishment, but I certainly felt accomplished.
Perhaps it was my ability to push through one of my greatest fears and continue hiking when the clearly-marked trail turned into waist-high brush, deterring my ability to scan the ground for snakes. Maybe it was the fact that this marked the biggest accomplishment of my first truly solo international adventure. Whatever the reason, I felt on top of the world with a clear mind and free of the personal and work stress I had been carrying for many weeks prior.
i'll be back. hasta la vista, baby
I arrived back to the boat that evening after a few more stops at cultural and historical landmarks, and a delicious dinner at a randomly chosen roadside restaurant. As I packed my bags and watched one final ocean-framed sunset, I felt no sadness that I was leaving. Rather, I felt a great sense of peace and clarity. Truth be told, I would have stayed another month aboard that sailboat if given the chance, but it gave me everything I needed in just a few short days.
When I reflect on my trip to Martinique, I think about the sunsets, the warm breezes, and the incredible, otherworldly landscapes. I remember the delicious croissants fresh from the oven in a small, roadside bakery. And I laugh at recalling my frustration with the abundance of traffic circles that seemed to come along every half mile. However, what comes through most clearly is just a touch of the peace and clarity that I felt. And for that reason alone, Martinique has earned a permanent place on my list of “must return to” locations.