A mother-son expedition goes in search of local rum on the island of Martinique.

By Tracey Minkin
November 08, 2017
Plantation vistas at Le Domaine Saint Aubin
Photo: Adrian Stone

Martinique, French West Indies
"Ti' Punch?" It's a sultry evening on Martinique's Caribbean coast, our last. My 23-year-old son and I occupy the tiny balcony of a pink hotel overlooking the sea. We're using the dusky light to play gin rummy at a table that barely has room for the discard pile because of a portable box of booze, a bottle of cane syrup, a sticklike aerator called a bois lélé, limes, a knife, and two tumblers.

Tracey and her son, Adrian
Photo: Courtesy of Martinique Sud Photo

He's right: My glass is nearly empty. Adrian suspends his play to mix me another round of the drink that has symbolized—and fueled—our four days on this small island in the French West Indies. But he's doing more than making sure his mother's drink is freshened. Adrian has created this scene as part of a journey that was his alone to envision. And that's a change: As a single mother, I'd always worked hard to create trips that honored his boyish interests: fishing Canada's boundary waters, skateboarding California's back roads, lingering over exotic cars in Florida. I was the family's vacation guru, but the problem is, we mothers often just keep thinking we know what's best for our kids, long after they're adults. Maybe it was finally time to ask instead of assume.

So a few months ago, I'd texted him: If you were in charge of our next trip, where would it be?

Two words, he'd texted back. Rhum agricole.

I knew what those words meant, and where they pointed. On a trip to Martinique with college friends the previous year, Adrian had marshaled a field trip to Habitation Clément, home to a historic distillery and the fragrant, bright liquor known as rhum agricole. He'd loved it and had spent his scant budget on a few bottles to bring home. At his graduation, he'd given one to me.

This was no ordinary spirit. While most of the world's rum is distilled from molasses, rhum agricole is distilled from fresh sugarcane juice in a field-to-still dash that takes barely 36 hours. This ties the distiller closely to the fields, and in that tight knot resides the beauty of rhum agricole: terroir. Every sip (particularly of rhum agricole blanc, the base of the island's beloved Ti' Punch) summons a patch of bristling, green sugarcane. Not only did my son want to show me Martinique, but also how it tasted.

Storehouse at Habitation Clément
Photo: Adrian Stone

So we put rhum at the center of our journey, making a circuit that hit five of the island's eight active distilleries in four days. Starting with Habitation Clément on the Atlantic coast, we pushed north to Rhums Martiniquais Saint James in the seaside town of Sainte-Marie, and then up to the island's northernmost tip. There, in a luxuriant, narrow valley at the foot of volcanic Mt. Pelée, the crimson buildings of Rhum J.M sit like a child's blocks scattered in high grass. From there the journey took us south and west to the Caribbean coast, where we gaped at the elegant Distillerie Depaz plantation. We ended our odyssey in the warm hospitality of tiny, family-owned Distillerie Neisson.

Our days were simple. To beat the heat, we rose early for coffee and croissants—gifts bestowed by Martinique's status as an overseas region of France. Then we hit the narrow, winding road, navigating past vast fields of sugarcane and bananas, climbing steep ridges, and descending to pastel towns along black sands.

Abandoning Martinique's fickle GPS signals for the naive promise of a brochure map, we got frequently lost, but always eventually found. At each distillery, we spent hours peering at massive machinery both antique and modern, getting schooled in the complexity of turning sugarcane to spirit. We inhaled the heady hit of evaporated rhum agricole hanging in the storehouse air. And we tasted everything each indulgent staffer poured for us.

Like pilgrims, we slept in a different place every night—four beautiful hotels in as many days. Architecturally inspired, we discussed the history these buildings evoked—from the island's colonial past of slavery and cultivation, through its emergence as a diverse and cultured outpost. We talked work and politics, music and movies—roaming the conversational alleyways opened up by time and travel. And we played cards.

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And while our raison de voyager was seeing Martinique, I found myself seeing my son in new ways: spending more time in a sculpture garden than in the ocean, reasoning out the flow through an antique distillation column, laying out for me the reggae diaspora. I learned he was quiet in the mornings not out of unease, but by nature. And that the sight of local families taking their ease on a Sunday, in the shady fringe of a beach, made him deeply happy. While my son was showing me Martinique, in other words, Martinique was showing me my son.

And so, on this last night, I feel the lesson coming to a close. Adrian carves a wedge of lime and plunks it into my glass. He pours a careful cascade of syrup followed by a splash of agricole blanc. He takes our lélé—with its spidery splay of four legs at its end—and rubs it back and forth between his palms, agitating the spirits like a pro.

He makes a matching punch for himself, we clink tumblers, and get back to playing cards. I break the game with a question.

"Ade," I say. "Where should we go next?"

Another agricole island? Gaudeloupe? Réunion? But then I realize I'm doing it again. I need to sit back and wait.

He draws a card. "I'm thinking," he says.

Petit déjeuner at Hôtel French Coco
Photo: Tracey Minkin
Hotel Plein Soleil
Photo: Adrian Stone
Vintage ad at Plantations Saint James
Photo: Tracey Minkin
Le Domaine Saint Aubin
Photo: Tracey Minkin
Spoils from Rhum J.M Martinique
Photo: Tracey Minkin

Get Here: Connect to Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport in Lamentin from New York City, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Providence, Rhode Island.

Stay Here: Atop a breathtaking Atlantic peninsula, Hôtel Plein Soleil is a sophisticated cluster of five Créole-style villas with 16 rooms and suites (some with private pools) and a main house with a gorgeous restaurant and bar to match. Rates start at $181; hotelpleinsoleil.fr. Bordering the natural reserve of the Caravelle Peninsula and a short walk from the beaches of Tartane, Hôtel French Coco has complemented its 17 serenely contemporary suites (many with private pools) with lush botanical gardens and a splendid restaurant. Rates start at $400; hotelfrenchcoco.com. On a spectacular former plantation overlooking the Atlantic, Le Domaine Saint Aubin's 30 rooms are situated among its 19th-century Créole manor house, as well as in villas and cottages. Rates start at $117; domaine-saint-aubin.com. Hôtel Villa Saint-Pierre's seven charming rooms are steps from the Caribbean and in the midst of the fascinating colonial ambience of Saint-Pierre. Rates start at $130; hotel-villastpierre.fr.