Martinique combines the best of the Caribbean and France, with lush vegetation, beautiful sandy beaches and fantastic food. And with eight rum distilleries on the island, they mix a mean cocktail, too
Situated between St Lucia and Dominica, Martinique is one of the most exotic islands in the Caribbean. The French and British fought over this gem until 1815, when it was finally restored to the French. Today it is dubbed Little France, and no wonder. This island, with its lush green vegetation and beautiful sandy beaches, has almost everything you can find in France, including baguettes and croissants.
I was lucky - I got to spend one year in Fort de France, the capital, working as a language teacher. It was one of the most exciting times in my travelling experience: besides avoiding a whole winter, I learnt the local patois (a mixture of French and English), explored both the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts, and became an expert at making ti-punch, a local cocktail made with white rum, cane syrup and lime.
Martinique is easy to explore by car as long as you avoid the rush-hour traffic and keep to the right side of the road. The difference between north and south Martinique is quite striking - there's lots of tropical vegetation, natural landscapes and black volcanic beaches in the north, while the south, the more touristy area, is noted for sandy and luminous white beaches. All the beaches have one thing in common, though – they are all beautiful, clean and definitely alluring.
The Route des Traces will take you northwards towards St Pierre, rainforest territory, with magnificent mountain ranges, cane fields and banana plantations. A must-do for plant lovers is a stop on the way at the renowned Botanic Gardens in Balata. Turn off at the route de Balata and for only €6, your guide will take you through 1,000 species or so of plants, trees and flowers, including heliconia, anthuriums and orchids, all in a rainforest setting.
Equally amazing is the miniature Sacré Coeur nearby, an exact replica of the cathedral of Montmartre in Paris, except that this edifice is 450 metres above the coast, where you can feel that gentle Caribbean breeze.
St Pierre used to be the capital of Martinique, a busy port with ships waiting to load rum and sugar, until May 1902, when the volcano Mount Pelée erupted, killing 30,000 inhabitants and boat people, all except for one individual who'd been locked up in jail for the evening for being drunk. Today, it’s a quiet town with quaint restaurants and the Musée Vulcanologique, where visitors can study documents and remnants, as well as before-and-after photos of St Pierre showing how much damage the volcano wreaked.
Fort de France, the capital, is full of narrow streets, often overcrowded - this is not your typical laidback Caribbean town. Go to Rue Victor Hugo if you’re looking for expensive perfumes, jewellery, Vuitton luggage and elegant clothes. If you can’t tell the difference between a banana and a plantain (the cooking version), then you must visit the vegetable market in Rue Sigur, right in the centre of Fort de France; it's open every morning for all local fruit and vegetables, spices and even rum. Go to La Savane, near the harbour, for local art, straw hats, madras dresses and skirts typical of Martinique.
Trois Islets ('three islands') is a little protected bay tucked away on the Caribbean side of the island. This is the main tourist hub, with fine restaurants, discothèques, a casino, two marinas, hotels, beaches and a choice of water sports, all within easy access. If you like a choice of evening activities, this is the place to be. The beaches here are beautiful, but tend to be crowded at weekends.
When driving towards the extreme south of the island, look out for an enormous rock rising majestically from the sea and resembling a huge piece of Gruyère cheese. Historic Diamond Rock, 175 metres high, was captured and held by the British in 1804. British soldiers hoisted provisions from passing ships and managed to hold out for 18 months until being captured by the French.
Where to eat and drink
Hungry? You won’t be for long on this island. Martiniquan cuisine is unique, with an incredible blend of French, African and traditional cooking, and the choice of restaurants, cafes and bars serving food is immense. Pick up a free copy of Ti Gourmet; the guide lists (in French and English) at least 100 restaurants and cafés in the different regions. As in France, lunch and dinner take longer here; the idea is to relax, savour and enjoy your drink, food and the atmosphere. According to French laws, a service charge of 5.5% should be included in your restaurant bill.
For seafood, I recommend La Tartine (05 96 78 18 39) in Rue Gabriel Peri, right in the town centre of St Pierre, run by Annie and Jeremie the chef. The décor might be simple but this restaurant won a prize in Martinique in 2000 for best food. I particularly like their stuffed crab creole-style but everyone raves over their scallops in cream sauce. Creole menus start from €13.50-€18, with a special children’s menu at €8.
Tucked away in the Trois Islets district, in Rue l’Avenue de l’Impératrice Josephine, is a sublime and definitely upmarket French and Creole restaurant called Fleur de Sel (05 96 68 42 11). A three-course menu in this red-brick bourgeois habitation will set you back around €50, but the service, décor and cuisine are worth it. It's only open for dinner, and you need to book at weekends.
Martinique produces 15 different types of rum. Not only that, all of the eight distilleries on the island will let you sample what they make - old rum, white rum, mellow rum and even liqueurs. Order one of the many rum cocktails before a meal or even in any of the cafés; island favourites are planteur punch, made with old rum, punch coco, made with coconut milk, and ti-punch, with or without ice.
Where to stay
Pierre et Vacances, a complete holiday village in St Luce, south Martinique, is a homely place to stay, especially if you have children. They provide equipped studios for two to three people, starting at €84, and apartments for up to six. Situated opposite Diamond Rock, the hotel organises boat trips and diving around the rock.
Although situated in lively Trois Islets, the three-star Hotel Carayou is set away from the main tourist area, is quiet, has its own private beach, provides evening entertainment and is only a five-minute walk away from the ferry to Fort de France.