One of the four islands of the Antilles Françaises, with around 370,000 inhabitants, Martinique was settled by the French beginning in 1635 and today is an overseas département (meaning an integral part) of France. It’s packed with a vibrant blend of French and West Indian cultures; stunning landscapes, nature, and beaches; rich historical sites; fantastic rum; and a chill, laid back vibe. I visited here around 15 years ago and still remember it fondly and fairly vividly. Here´s a quick rundown of some of the highlights of “the isle of coming back,” also affectionately dubbed Madinina:
Roughly midway along the west coast and with a population of a bit over 75,000, Martinique´s low-key capital is named after the fort first built here in 1638, and it´s known for its colorful markets; colonial architecture (especially check out the handsome Schœlcher Library, built in Paris in 1887 and shipped here in sections); vibrant street and cultural life; and several key historical sites. These include Saint-Louis Cathedral (the current neo-Romanesque version replacing its 17th-century predecessor in 1895), and Fort Saint-Louis (above), built in 1669 to replace a previous fort; while there's not much to see here in terms of furnishings or displays, just walking through a massive colonial fortress in the Caribbean is a hugely atmospheric experience. Also don´t miss a pair of interesting museums. Housed in an upper-class 19th-century manse, the Musée Régionale de l´Histoire et d´Ethnografie is all about the cultural and daily life of the island, while the Musée Departmentale, in a former military commissariat building, goes back 4,000 years into the island´s pre-Columbian past. Along the way, make a stop for colorful photo ops and handicrafts at the Lafcadio Hearn Market and the Grand Marché Couvert.
And of course there´s great French Creole eating all over town, from humble street stalls to elegant, white-tablecloth restaurants; besides fantastic seafood, specialties to look out for include accras de moure (cod fritters), colombo (a chicken or lamb curry dish courtesy of Indian immigrants), lambis (conch stew), and blanc manger au coco, a sweet paste of honey, coconut milk, and vanilla powder.
Finally, near town, a couple of other places worth a visit are the 44-year-old, TK acre (TK-hectare) Balata Garden, with some 3,000 tropical plants and a treetop walkway with cool views and the nearby Sacré-Coeur Church, the mini “Montmartre of Martinique” constructed between 1875 and 1905 to resemble its Paris namesake.
There are some 20 towns outside Fort-de-France, with honorable mention for appealing going to Les Anses d´Arlet (pop. around 3,800) in the southwest, famed for its iconic waterfront view (top) – and “Three Islets” (known as Twazilé in Creole), is definitely one not to miss. In fact, it´s Martinique´s top resort town, and arguably more popular than the capital just across the bay. Less than a than a half hour´s drive away and just 20 minutes by ferry, this charmer of around 7,500 is packed with – besides its characteristic brick-and-clapboard houses – a wide choice of restaurants, nightspots, shops, and all manner of hotels, resorts, inns, and guesthouses.
Check out the colorful public market, as well as a number of worthwhile historical/cultural landmarks, including the Church of Notre-Dame de la Bonne Déliverance (started in 1724 and not finished till 1955!) and most especially La Pagerie, a modest cottage-turned museum on the outskirts of town which was the birthplace in 1763 of a certain Marie Joseph Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, who shacked up with some dude named Napoleon Bonaparte and became France´s Empress Josephine. (I still remember visiting and being interviewed here by a local TV channel on the subject of tourism because I spoke some French.) There´s also a trio of interesting museums, devoted to sugarcane, coffee and cocoa, and seashells.
Also on the outskirts you´ll find La Poterie, a pottery village and brickworks in operation since the 1783, where visitors can see it all being crafted and of course shop for mementos – both pottery and other arts and crafts. Also not far from town, La Savane des Esclaves is a privately owned 12-acre (4.85ha) outdoor museum showcasing the island´s terrible history of slavery as well as its pre-Columbia peoples, including exhibits and reconstructed huts.
(And by the way, if you love to golf, check out the fantastic seaside 18-holer here. Also, in case you were wondering, the titular three islets are Charles, Sixtain, and Thebloux out in the bay.)
David Paul Appell
St. Pierre and Mount Pelée
Just over a half hour up the coast from Fort-de-France, the onetime "Paris of the Caribbean" was buried by the 1902 eruption of nearby Pelée, the island´s highest peak at 4,583 feet (1,397 meters). And while a new town grew up nearby, visitors can explore the ruins of the old city, including a jail cell which protected of the eruption´s three survivors, and learn more at the Musée Volcanique. These days the volcano is calm (though still classified as “active” – and is closely monitored); in fact it´s a popular spot for hiking and its spectacular panoramic views over island and sea, and its rainforested slopes and surrounding valleys were just last fall added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Très Beaux Beaches
There are three dozen, so obviously I can´t cover them all, but here are just three of the top picks:
Grande Anse les Salines, considered one of the Caribbean´s loveliest, is near the island´s southwestern tip, a 45-minute ferry ride from Fort-de-France. It´s famous for its mile and a quarter (two kilometers) of golden sands and calm, crystal-clear waters, perfect for swimming and sunbathing.
Anse Céron, up north near the town of Le Prêcheur, is serene and less crowded, known for its black sands (a relative rarity on Martinique), lush, forested backdrop, and seabed great for snorkeling.
Anse Noire down south also boasts black sands, as its name indicates, and it´s set on a peaceful little cove surrounded by swaying coconut palms and towering cliffs (which locals and some visitors jump off!). Besides luxuriating in the tranquil waters, rent a kayak and go snorkeling (giant marine turtles like to hang out around here).
Martinique is also known for its rhum agricole (accounting about 80 percent of its production of rum), made directly from sugarcane juice. You can enjoy tours, tastings and a look at rum paraphernalia/lore at three of the island´s top distilleries, Habitation Clément, La Favorite (one of the oldest on the island, dating back to 1842 and still operating partly via steam engines), and Distillerie J.M.
A small islet rising 574 feet (175m) out of the sea off that south coast, rife with sea birds, the land part of Le Rocher du Diamant is off limits to visitors, but it does present a magical spectacle, especially at sunset, and the surrounding waters are a favorite of snorkelers and divers for their rich marine life. Plus on a cliff across from the island, at Anse Caffard beach, the Cap 110 Memorial consists of 15 impressive white stone statues facing the sea in homage to slaves who lost their lives in a shipwreck.
Interested in more details and other island activities/destinations? Check out Martinique.org.