Exploring Martinique: Le Jardin de Balata

I’m going to go out on a limb here pals and say that Le Jardin de Balata, a garden on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, is just about the most bloody beautiful garden I have ever set foot in. (What a claim to make, but take a look at the pictures for my reasoning for this drastic declaration.) Opened to the public in the 1980s, the garden is no historical landmark, but it’s setting up in the volcanic hills of the centre of the island, makes for a spectacular situation; combine that with the layers upon layers of plants and trees artfully laid out in a vivid explosion of colour, and you’ve got a strong recipe for aesthetic success.

The Creole culture of Martinique is very much a rich one that can be felt pretty much as soon as you step foot on the island. The smell of spices, the French language (technically actually an Antillean-Creole version of French), and the vivid colours that envelope you, all combine to create a beaut attack on the senses which out of the several Caribbean islands I visited is something I only really experienced to this degree here in Martinique in another French island: Guadeloupe. It was full on glorious I tell you!!

The classic conundrum of transportation

After a highly unsuccessful attempt at haggling a fair deal with a few taxi drivers waiting at the entrance to Fort-de-France’s port, we decided the only thing for it would be to keep our fingers crossed that a public bus would be along soon at the nearby bus station. Well, we were in luck pals; as if by magic a bus appeared as we drew closer to the stop, so we clambered in with a few local ladies laden down with shopping bags and sat eagerly awaiting the start of our journey. Awkward times, as it turns out the bus (which was more of a slightly dilapidated but characterful 15-seater van), could not depart until it was full. What a funny old time! Fifteen minutes later the driver cranked the gearstick and spluttered the bus-van towards the main road, through the city and onwards up into the steep hills of Martinique. GLORIOUS.

And now, a story! The Man who Lived through Doomsday!!

The views as we sped uphill were frankly nothing short of spectacular, as we were surrounded on all sides by lush green forested slopes down to the sea and up into the points of the Pitons du Carbet, a mountain range covered in tropical trees and running through the centre of the island. Nowadays the only active volcano in Martinique is Mont Pelée in the North, although that badboy thankfully hasn’t erupted since 1902. Back at the time of that fateful eruption the island’s capital, Saint Pierre (also known as the Paris of the West Indies, fancy), was completely destroyed, along with 30,000 people who were also in Pelée’s path of destruction. There were only a few survivors: a girl who had jumped in a rowing boat and was taken out to sea, a man who lived on the very far outskirts of the city, and a fellow named Louis-Auguste Cyparis who’d been locked up in jail for getting into fight the night before the disaster. It turned out Louis-Auguste’s underground concrete cell was the safest place in the city when facing a volcanic eruption and although he was badly burnt from the smoke and fumes that managed to creep in through the cell’s narrow ventilation grate, he was the only person found alive within the city itself. Naturally this propelled the survivor into fame and fortune; he was pardoned of his crimes having gone through quite enough already and became ‘Ludger Sylbaris, The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday!’ travelling through the US with Barnum and Baileys’ Greatest Show on Earth in a replica of the cell that saved him.

It always blows my mind to think that nature can be at the same time exquisitely beautiful and also capable of complete and utter carnage, let alone launching one man’s circus career and changing the course of his life forever.

The creole house and the hummingbirds

Once we reached the little roadside car park of Le Jardin de Balata, it was hard to imagine the full on TREAT FOR THE EYES that would greet us after walking through the little white wooden Creole house that precedes it. Let me tell you, stepping outside the house onto it’s veranda filled with hummingbirds was like being slapped in the face with a big piece of paradise. Several hummingbird feeders dangle from the overhanging roof, hence the ten to fifteen of the gem-like birds that constantly seem to be flittering around at just above eye level height. I don’t think I’ll ever find the sight of hummingbirds boring, there’s something just downright magical about them, know what I’m saying!?

Every section of Le Jardin de Balata is completely different from the next, and the general lack of signage (there is some, don’t get me wrong, just not enough to be obvious), almost made me forget that this place was actually designed and landscaped by someone; parts of it feel like a happy and beautiful accident rather than an intentional garden. It was all a bit Garden of Eden if I’m honest.

Winding pathways through groves of palm trees, swathes of colourful leaves carpeting the floor, and thick gargantuan leaves like blankets towering upwards. At one point an entire tree has been wrapped around by another even bigger and taller tree, a knotted boa constrictor of bark that stretches up so far into the sky that it’s hard to see the leaves of the poor little inner tree poking out defiantly at the top. Down low roots grow across the floor, with finger-sized green lizards jumping between stems of cloudlike fluffy flowers and hanging seed pods. Around every single corner there is something different.

Adventures of the rope bridges

At the far end of the garden, a series of rope bridges stretches across the steep downwards slope, leading a pathway across the trees and giving an even more amazing view of the rolling forested mountains out towards the sea. There are a few ground rules regarding the bridges; namely no more than two people on each bridge at a time, no pregnant people, and no hugging. It was an intriguing set of guidelines if ever I’ve seen one but what can ya do? I full on loved being able to see everything from a different perspective, as fearful as I was of losing my iPhone over the side of the rickety bridges.

We were incredibly lucky with the clear skies we had, as on the way back down to Fort-de-France our taxi driver (who was an all round marvellous chap), explained that normally even on the drive back down to the city the view tends to be completely obscured by clouds covering the lower ground. WHAT a stroke of luck I tell you!! All round, it was a brilliant day and genuinely one of the most beautiful and most tranquil places I’ve ever visited.

Martinique: you are a gem.

LOGISTICAL STATISTICALS

  • Being a French island, currency in Martinique is euros.
  • The price of the local bus from Fort-de-France to Le Jardin de Balata is normally around €2.50 per person although this fluctuates depending on the driver’s mood. (True story)
  • Entry to the garden is €13.50 for adults although we managed to get a cheeky group discount.
  • A taxi worked out at somewhere between €10-15 per person (my memory of that is sketchy), but as a few of us had to get back to the ship to work we decided it would be safer time-wise to avoid being fired.
  • It’s probs a good idea to brush up on your French before hopping over to Martinique; my French is extremely basic and although it’s still possible to get by I regretted not knowing at least a few more words to help me have a good old chinwag.
  • Saying that…the locals are a highly laid-back and friendly bunch! So don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

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