Imagine a place where Parisian chic and the wines and gastronomy of Burgundy are blessed by powdery palm-shaded beaches and sun-soaked skies. Offering a wealth of cultural, artistic and scenic attractions, the island of Martinique is much, much more than a ‘flop and drop’ Caribbean destination. Fusing exquisite French influences with a rich Creole history, lush tropical blooms and a blissful climate, take a look at our quick guide to Martinique for a taste of something a little different.
Named by the indigenous Carib tribes as ‘Island of Flowers’ on account of its bountiful foliage, almost 65 per cent of Martinique is today protected as a botanical nature park. Sweeping verdant swathes of glossy-green rainforests scattered with velvety crimson, pink, yellow and orange flowers backdrop one of region’s most vibrant islands. Located right at the very heart of the Caribbean archipelago, Martinique is one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles group, with an eastern coastline that borders the Atlantic Ocean and a western coast flanked by the Caribbean Sea. It enjoys strong links with the beautiful island of Saint Lucia as one of its closest Caribbean neighbours - travel between the two is an easy 30-minute jaunt by airplane.
France may be over 4,000 miles away, yet Martinique retains a character heavily steeped in Gallic traditions. Wines from Macon, Champagne from Reims, apple brandy from Normandy, delectable filled crepes, and hundreds of regional French cheeses are in abundant supply in Martinique’s fine restaurants. Barefoot cafes on the sands boast plenty of savoir-faire, often serenading diners with melodic accordion music, while bistro tables topped with red chequered cloths are diligently tended by a legion of friendly maître d’s. In boulevards that evoke the charm of a bygone French era you’ll find numerous chichi boutiques selling the most sought-after designer labels from Paris. A sophisticated year-round events calendar is packed with art exhibits, fashion shows and regattas. Martinique also has great local shopping and festivities, from Creole crafts, woven wicker baskets and painted pottery to pots of fresh island spices and some fine-tasting rum.
However, unlike the elitist exclusivity of many upscale French resorts, every single one of Martinique's beaches are open to the public. Choose from the coral-sand beaches around Pointe du Bout or the lesser-known sands of Anse-Trabaud, Les Salines or Baie des Anglais. Or visit the endless succession of alabaster sands that hem the scenic southern Caribbean coast. Near Le Carbet and Le Prêcheur the peppery-black sands offer world-class bill fishing, windsurfing, scuba diving, snorkelling, kite surfing, sailing and swimming. On the Atlantic coast, the picturesque Caravelle Peninsula is a Nature Reserve rich in gasp-inducing views together with numerous leafy trekking trails out to Dubuc Castle at its eastern tip.
St-Pierre, the island's oldest city, was dubbed the ‘Paris of the West Indies’ at the turn of the 20th-century. But in May 1902, Martinique's volcano, Mont Pelée, erupted and St-Pierre was decimated in less than 120 seconds. One man survived: a prisoner called Antoine Ciparis who was saved by the thick walls of his underground cell. He was later pardoned and became a sideshow attraction at the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States. Today, a blood-pumping, bird-filled hiking route leads up to the summit of Mount Pelee at 4,500 feet (1,371 metres) where both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea can be seen on a clear day – part of a National Biological Reserve that spans 2,285 hectares. Keen for an easier option? Then head for the Musée Volcanologique in St-Pierre, open daily (9am-5pm) for a compelling permanent exhibit of historical photographs and artefacts and presentations on volcanism, local geology and native plant-life.
Other outdoorsy activities that make full use of the spellbinding scenery include sightseeing at a gallop or a trot in the saddle. Martinique’s horse-riding trails are suitable for all levels of equestrian, from novice to experienced horseman. Umpteen different bridle paths offer unforgettable hacks with striking ocean views across wildflower meadows, emerald-green valleys and powdery sands (596 68 37 69). Golfers, meanwhile, won’t be disappointed by the island's only course, an 18-hole facility - Golf de L’Imperatrice Joséphine - named after the wife of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Empress Joséphine, who was born in 1763, hails from La Pagerie in Martinique, close to where the Robert Trent Jones course is built. Demonstrating genius use of the surrounding tropical topography, together with streams and natural ponds, this lush par-71 course is laid out to offer golfers two nine-hole circuits with jaw-dropping views of the Caribbean Sea
Another activity that pays homage to Empress Joséphine is a boat trip out to the shallow, white-sand basins, known as fonds blancs, at the Ilets de l'Imperatrice. Joséphine was said to owe her serene beauty to swimming in these tranquil waters - and, today, trips depart regularly from Le François to allow visitors to enjoy the uniquely Martinican custom of sipping ti punch in waist-high sparkling waters whilst nibbling on deep-fried accras (seafood croquettes). For a more insightful peak into Josephine’s world, visit the charming Musée de la Pagerie Trois-Ilets, a museum in the village of Trois-Islets dedicated wholly to the empress with artefacts that range from bedding, toys, antique furnishings and resplendent family portraits to a love letter dated 1796 written by Napoleon.
For a mesmerising stroll through perfumed walkways that are home to over 3,000 varieties of tropical flora, visit the Balata Botanical Gardens. Nestled in the outskirts of Fort-de-France this most dazzling kingdom of plants and trees was designed by Jean-Philippe Those. Frequented by a colourful array of humming-birds, the Balata Gardens is a magical place to re-connect with the wonder of nature.
Night owls will find plenty of different venues to enjoy after-dark in Martinique, where the nightlife is centred on Fort-de-France or in the resort areas in the island’s south. Places shut down, re-open, get taken over, and then disappear - so it pays not to rely on out-of-date guidebooks. Ask for local recommendations and be certain to taste some award-winning local rhum - some of the local distilleries, such as Neissons, run special evening tasting sessions in peak season.Another favourite island drink is 'ti punch, an oh-so-sweet cocktail made with sugar cane syrup, lime and local rhum - but don’t be fooled by its sugary taste, this tipple packs a seriously potent punch!
Header image © Matinique Tourist Board
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About the author: SarahWoodsSarah Woods
Award-winning travel writer, author & broadcaster Sarah Woods has lived, worked and travelled in The Caribbean since 1995. She has visited resort towns, villages and lesser-known islands where she has learned to cook run-down, sampled bush rum, traded coconuts, studied traditional medicine, climbed volcanoes and ridden horses in the sea. Sarah is currently working on a travel documentary about the history of Caribbean cruises.