19 February, 2018: MAR JOLIE put the zoo in Martinique on the map for us, when we bumped into them in what was their penultimate night in the Caribbean. The zoo is in the north of the island, and as we wouldn't have time to sail there, we decided to hire a car for the day. It was important for us to carve out the space for a day's outing in this way, otherwise time, when we are at anchor or moored up, slips by in a flurry of boat chores and home ed assignments, and playtime with friends. I have always been ambivalent about zoos, ever since seeing the sorry state of a solitary polar bear at Edinburgh Zoo as a child. Still, we live in more enlightened times now in terms of care and environment, and I appreciate the educational value they have, not to mention the conservation aspect.
The privately run zoo is set in the ruins of an old 18th century sugar mill, and the grounds are stunning and caught us completely by surprise. It was a heady combination of cultivated botanical gardens set against a tropical wildness that made our young adventures feel like they were Indiana Jones movie when crossing the rope hung swaying bridges or on the wooden walkways in the trees. To walk round takes a good hour or two, and we could have dawdled for longer had it not been 4pm already by the time we arrived. I was very moved to walk past the ruins of the slave village, wondering at the echoing history from ages past and the stories the trees could tell of colonials building wealth on the (breaking backs) of slave labour. And yet now all was so tranquil and peaceful, the weathered wheel mill so picturesque. We loved watching the spider monkeys balance on ropes with the grace of extraordinary funambulists, laughed at the racoons, and the giant lumbering ant-eater, and delighted at the butterfly enclosure and flamingos flocking. Oh, and Catherine monkeying around was priceless! I didn't enjoy watching the big cats through the glass though, magnificent though they were, and I found it even more poignant when the children spied through the gap in the floorboards a black jaguar restlessly pacing up and down in a cage below our feet.
As I knelt down with the children to peer through, I was reminded of the classic film noir from the 1940s "Cat People", which opens with a mysterious woman sitting at a zoo sketching a black panther, who becomes a symbol for her own feline sexuality and the dark secret she hides. I wondered again at what dark secrets this plantation may have in its colonial past or whether I am simply imposing my own gothic imaginings on its history. All this, of course, was lost on the kids, who simply were chuffed at the discovery! More classic black and white films featured in the exhibition on pirates at the end. A fun little exposé of buccaneers included Douglas Fairbanks on a big screen, swinging around in a film that was so outdated it was quality comedy for one and all.
So much more than a zoo, and if you are visiting Martinique, definitely worth a trip.