Fort-de-France, Martinique — The spirit of many peoples - the fierce Caribe Indians, French colonists, African slaves and Indian workers - hovered over the births of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Like a crystal catching the sun, the French Antilles reflect their primitive past and a Gallic present. Martinique and Guadeloupe are the French Hawaii. To walk the shores and paths of these islands is to walk in France, for they are departments with the same status as Brittany or Alsace.
Both are washed by Caribbean and Atlantic waters and are of course places of both restful beaches and more active relaxation such as scuba diving, tennis, golf, and other popular sports. Here the wind surfer is powered by the trade winds, and the beginner takes his spills into warm tropical seas.
The beauty of lush Martinique is found not only in volcanic mountains and rain forests, but in a number of historical sites. Oleander and bougainvillea ensnare the ruins of the colonial past - rocky crumbling walls of long-gone sugar refineries or ramparts of old (and sometimes still operational) forts rise from rocky cliffs. The Hotel Meridien, for instance, has a romantically boarded-up fort at the end of its private beach.
The Arawacs and Caribe Indians, old plantations, and Paul Gauguin, who turned from bank teller to master artist under the island's influence, are commemorated at special places all around the island.
Musee de la Pagerie, the birthplace of the Empress Josephine, is centered in what used to be the 850-acre plantation of Josephine's father. The former kitchen and sugar mill, plus the ruins of the first house and a sugar refinery, are what remain. One sees the foundation of an early house and of the sugar refinery which was transformed into the family home after the first was destroyed by hurricane.
Mementos, the bed she slept in until she departed for France at age 16, invitations to Paris balls and a souvenir of a ball given by Citoyenne Bonaparte tell the story of her life.
She left the plantation to marry Alexander Beauharnais, son of the governor of Martinique. He helped to foment the French Revolution and was guillotined when rivals came into power. Then came a merry widowhood and the attentions of a rising young general from Corsica.
Just how the plantation deteriorated is shrouded in mystery. No one knows if it fell into ruins because of lack of maintenance or because of a rebellion after the slaves were freed.
The Musee Volcanologique in St. Pierre depicts the awesome eradication of a city of 30,000 people. Fused scissors and pottery melted into lava rock are tangible relics of a three-minute fire storm that resulted when Mt. Pelee erupted in 1902. Residents were warned that the volcano would erupt but were forbidden to leave the town because the government wanted them to be counted in a pending referendum. To convince them to stay, the governor joined the people of St. Pierre to show it was safe and died with them. The walls of the museum have photos and sketches of a city so special it was known before its destruction as ''The Paris of the West Indies.''
A few miles away at Turin Cover is the Centre d'Art Musee Paul Gauguin. When the bourgeoise Gauguin fled Paris, he headed for Panama, but found a fury of disruptive canal building and so he journeyed on to Martinique. Original canvases are in private hands, but the museum displays reproductions of work such as ''Two Women of Martinique'' and ''The Bay of St. Pierre.'' He shows here a style somewhat more formal than the burst of primitivism inspired by Tahiti. Memorabilia such as copies of letters begging his long-suffering abandoned wife to write are also in evidence.
In the capital city of Fort de France is the Musee Departmental de la Martinique. Here is a somewhat cursory look at the island's history to the present. Of greatest interest are examples of the pottery of the Arawak Indians. They were an artistic, gentle people who expressed themselves in graceful lines and forms. They were conquered by the Caribe Indians, whose painted pottery had a rougher touch.
Plantation Leyritz in the north of the island is not actually a museum but is instead a working plantation where former Presidents Gerald Ford of the US and Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France met. While it is a half hour's drive from several beaches, it is a wonderful place to see banana, tangerine, and orange trees, and to experience plantation life from the position of favored guest. Here one has the chance to see the work of a native artist named Will Fenton, who creates figures of Elizabeth I, Josephine Baker, and the Sun King's court and invests the personality of the original into each piece. He is an accomplished artist though his media are straw, dried leaves, and tiny beads.
Of the two islands, Martinique is the more sophisticated. The women, inspired perhaps by the French shops, dress with a Gallic flavor. Even uniformed schoolgirls have well-tailored skirts, most of which they make themselves. Guadeloupeans feel the difference. ''They are the aristocrats,'' said one Guadeloupean guide. ''We are the good simple people.''
Befitting its gentle beauty, Guadeloupe is in the shape of a butterfly. Multicolored sails swell around it, and its corals beckon divers or those who simply want to peer through glass-bottomed boats. The natural beauties of the islands are worth a day or two of exploration. Cars can be rented for around $35 a day. Gas is about $2.60 a gallon.
There are stories to be read in the animals tethered in the fields and in the seemingly unprepossessing houses. Rather than windows these homes have six or eight doors running on all four sides. Doors are shut so tightly against the sun that homes appear empty.
Guadeloupe has two main islands parted by Riviere Salee, which amounts to little more than a stream. Basse Terre to the West is the home of St. Soufriere, the volcano that threatened to erupt a few years ago. Used to a rocky terrain, the people of Basse Terre walk with different steps than those of their fellow countrymen.
The Natural Park of Guadeloupe is a three-dimensional Henry Rousseau painting with its gum trees, ferns, bamboo and pines, trails, and waterfalls. Its mascot is ''tiki'' or the raccoon, which was brought in by the English.
From Malendure on the western coast one can board a boat for a 20-minute trip to Ile de Pigeon. Here, where Jacques Cousteau himself makes frequent expeditions, one sees corals, sea urchins, and darting fish through the glass bottom or available snorkeling equipment. Afterward, one can eat at Chez Loulouze near the dock. Delicious creole specialties including langouste, a huge crayfish rivaling the taste of lobster, accra or fritters and christophine, a vegetable whose taste resembles celery root and which looks like an overgrown pear.
Grande Anse with a long stretch of white sand and waves gentle enough for the most timid, is said to be the best swimming beach.
On Grande Terre lies Goser-St. Francois and the best area for wind surfing, certainly one of the newer attractions, and a chance to reexperience one of the oldest. By booking a tour, one can go to the beach as Guadeloupeans of old did - via ox cart. A farmer at Gros-Cab near Petite Canal takes tourists on a two-kilometer ride to Anse Maurice, then leaves them to sun along the beach or rest in the shade of almond trees.
Pointe de la Grand Vigie or ''Lookout Point'' is a horn of land jutting into the sea. Waves of the Atlantic pound against its rugged cliffs and caves, which supposedly once sheltered the Caribes.
The Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwartz Bart has written that if one's heart is big he can find the entire world in an island. Visitors, who are truly welcome, quickly slow to these islands' pace and can find more than they expected if they look with hearts and eyes.