The largest of the Windward Islands, Martinique is 4,261 mi (6,817 km) from Paris, but its spirit and language are decidedly French, with more than a soupçon of West Indian spice. Tangible, edible evidence of the fact is the island's cuisine, a superb blend of French and creole. Martinique is lushly landscaped with tropical flowers. Trees bend under the weight of fruits such as mangoes, papayas, lemons, limes, and bright-red West Indian cherries. Acres of banana plantations, pineapple fields, and waving sugarcane stretch to the horizon. The towering mountains and verdant rain forest in the north lure hikers, while underwater sights and sunken treasures attract snorkelers and scuba divers. Martinique is also wonderful if your idea of exercise is turning over every 10 minutes to get an even tan and your taste in adventure runs to duty-free shopping. A popular cruise-ship excursion goes to St-Pierre, which was buried by ash when Mont Pelée erupted in 1902.
Most cruise ships call either at Tourelles (in the old port, about 1½ mi [2 km] from Fort-de-France) or at Pointe Simon, right in downtown Fort-de-France. (It is rare to have a ship anchor in the Baie des Flamands and tender passengers ashore.) Tourist information offices are at each cruise terminal.
Traffic in Fort-de-France can be nightmarish. If you want to go to the beach, a much cheaper option is to take a ferry from Fort-de-France. Vedettes (ferries) operate daily between Quai d'Ensnambuc in Fort-de-France and the marina in Pointe du Bout, Anse-Mitan, and Anse-à-l'Ane. Any of the three trips takes about 15 minutes, and the ferries operate about every 30 minutes on weekdays.
Aqualand. This U.S.-style water park is a great place for families to have a wet, happy day. The large wave pool is well tended; little ones love it, as they do the pirate's galleon in their own watery playground. Older kids may prefer to get their thrill from the slides, including the hairpin turns of the Giant Slalom, the Colorado slide, and the Black Hole, which winds around in total darkness. In the best French tradition, the fast-food options are top-notch, including crepes, salads, and even beer.Inquire about catching a weekend Somatour shuttle boat. Nouvelle Frontier organizes tours that include the park.
Balata. This quiet little town has two sights worth visiting. Built in 1923 to commemorate those who died in World War I, Balata Church is an exact replica of Paris's Sacré-Coeur Basilica.
The Jardin de Balata (Balata Gardens) has thousands of varieties of tropical flowers and plants. There are shaded benches from which to take in the mountain views. Rte. de Balata, Balata. Admission charged.
Fort-de-France. With its historic fort and superb location beneath the towering Pitons du Carbet on the Baie des Flamands, Martinique's capital should be a grand place. It isn't. The most pleasant districts, such as Didier, Bellevue, and Schoelcher, are on the hillside; there are some good shops with Parisian wares and lively street markets. Near the harbor is a marketplace where local crafts and souvenirs are sold.
The Bibliothèque Schoelcher is the wildly elaborate Romanesque public library. It was named after Victor Schoelcher, who led the fight to free the slaves in the French West Indies in the 19th century. The eye-popping structure was built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, after which it was dismantled, shipped to Martinique, and reassembled piece by ornate piece.
Le Musée Régional d'Histoire et d'Ethnographie is a learning experience that is best explored at the beginning of your visit, so you can better understand the history, background, and people of the island. Housed in an elaborate former residence (circa 1888) with balconies and fretwork, it has everything from displays include everything from the garish gold jewelry that prostitutes wore after emancipation to reconstructed rooms of a home of proper, middle-class Martinicans.
The Galerie de Biologie et de Géologie at the Parc Floral et Culturel, in the northeastern corner of the city center, will acquaint you with the island's exotic flora. There's also an aquarium. The park contains the island's official cultural center, where there are sometimes free evening concerts.
Rue Victor Schoelcher runs through the center of the capital's primary shopping district, a six-block area bounded by rue de la République, rue de la Liberté, rue Victor Severe, and rue Victor Hugo. Stores sell Paris fashions and French perfume, china, crystal, and liqueurs, as well as local handicrafts.
The Romanesque St-Louis Cathedral, with its lovely stained-glass windows, was built in 1878, the sixth church on this site.
The heart of Fort-de-France is La Savane, a 12.5-acre park filled with trees, fountains, and benches. It's a popular gathering place, and the scene of promenades, parades, and impromptu soccer matches. Along the east side are numerous snack wagons. although no longer a desirable oasis, what with a lot of litter and other negatives often found in urban parks. Diagonally across from La Savane you can catch the ferries for the 20-minute run across the bay to Pointe du Bout and the beaches at Anse-Mitan and Anse-à-l'Ane. It's relatively cheap, as well as stress-free—much safer, more pleasant, and faster than by car.
The most imposing historic site in La Savane (and in Fort-de-France) is Fort St-Louis, which runs along the east side of La Savane. Admission charged.
Musée Gauguin. Martinique was a brief stop in Paul Gauguin's wanderings, but a decisive moment in the evolution of his art. He arrived from Panama in 1887with friend and fellow painter Charles Laval and, having pawned his watch at the docks, and rented a wooden shack on a hill above Carbet. Dazzled by the tropical colors and vegetation, Gauguin developed a style, his Martinique period, that directly anticipated his Tahitian paintings. Disappointingly, this modest museum has only reproductions and some original letters and documents relating to the painter. Also remembered here is the writer Lafcadio Hearn. In his endearing book Two Years in the West Indies, he provides the most extensive description of the island before St-Pierre was buried in ash and lava.
St-Pierre. The rise and fall of St-Pierre is one of the most remarkable stories in the Caribbean. Martinique's modern history began here in 1635. By the turn of the 20th century, St-Pierre was a flourishing city of 30,000, known as the Paris of the West Indies. As many as 30 ships at a time stood at anchor. By 1902 it was the most modern town in the Caribbean, with electricity, phones, and a tram. On May 8, 1902, two thunderous explosions rent the air. As the nearby volcano, Mont Pelée, erupted and split in half, belching forth a cloud of burning ash, poisonous gas, and lava that raced down the mountain at 250 mph. At 3,600°F, it instantly vaporized everything in its path; 30,000 people were killed in two minutes.
The Cyparis Express, a small tourist train, will take you around to the main sights with running narrative (in French) for a half hour on Saturday, an hour on weekdays. .
An Office du Tourisme is on the moderne seafront promenade. Stroll the main streets and check the blackboards at the sidewalk cafés before deciding where to lunch. At night some places have live music. The city, situated on its naturally beautiful harbor and with its narrow, winding streets, has the feel of a European seaside hill town, sprinkled with stage sets for a dramatic opera, including the ruins of the island's first church (built in 1640), the imposing theater, and toppled statues. Many of the historic buildings need work.
For those interested in the eruption of 1902, the Musée Vulcanologique Frank Perret is a must. Established in 1932 by Frank Perret, a noted volcanologist, the museum houses photographs of the old town, documents, and a number of relics—some gruesome—excavated from the ruins, including molten glass, melted iron, and contorted clocks stopped at 8 AM.
If you want to know more about volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes, check out Le Centre de Découverte des Sciences de la Terre, an earth-science museum with high-tech exhibits and interesting films.
An excursion to Depaz Distillery is one of the island's nicest treats. For four centuries it has sat at the foot of the volcano. In 1902 the great house was destroyed in the eruption, but soon afterward it was rebuilt and the fields replanted. A self-guided tour includes the workers' gingerbread cottages and an exhibit of art and sculpture made from wooden casks and parts of distillery machinery. The tasting room sells their rums, including golden and aged rum (notably rhum doré) and distinctive liqueurs made from ginger and basil.
French products, such as perfume, wines, liquors, designer scarves, leather goods, and crystal, are good buys in Fort-de-France. Luxury goods are discounted 20% when paid for with traveler's checks or major credit cards. Look for creole gold jewelry; white, dark, flavored, and aged rums; and handcrafted straw goods, pottery, madras fabric, and tapestries. Shops that sell luxury items are abundant around the cathedral in Fort-de-France, particularly on rue Victor Hugo, rue Moreau de Jones, rue Antoine Siger, and rue Lamartine.
The work of Antan Lontan (213 rte. de Balata, Fort-de-France) has to be seen. Sculptures, busts, statuettes, and artistic lamps portray Creole women and the story of Martiniquaise culture. Cadet Daniel (72 rue Antoine Siger, Fort-de-France) sells Lalique, Limoges, and Baccarat. Roger Albert (7 rue Victor Hugo, Fort-de-France) carries designer crystal.
Pointe du Bout (Pointe du Bout, Les Trois-Ilets) is small, man-made, and lined with resorts, including the Hotel Bakoua (formerly Sofitel Bakoua Martinique). Each little strip is associated with its resident hotel, and security guards and closed gates make access difficult. However, if you tTake a left across from the main pedestrian entrance to the marina—between the taxi stand and the former Kalenda Hotel—then go left again to reach Hotel Bakoua's beach, which has especially nice facilities and several options for lunch and drinks. If things are quiet—particularly during the week—one of the beach boys may rent you a chaise; otherwise, just plop your beach towel down, face forward, and enjoy the delightful view of the Fort-de-France skyline.
Les Salines (Ste-Anne) is a mile-long cove lined with soft white sand and coconut palms. The beach is awash with families and children during holidays and on weekends but quiet during the week. The far end—away from the makeshift souvenir shops—is most appealing. The calm waters are safe for swimming, even for the kids. You can't rent chaise lounges, but there are showers. Food vendors roam the sand. From Le Marin, take the coastal road toward Ste-Anne. You will see signs for Les Salines.
Fishing. Deep-sea fishing expeditions in these waters hunt down tuna, barracuda, dolphinfish, kingfish, and bonito, and the big ones—white and blue marlins. You can hire boats from the bigger marinas, particularly in Pointe du Bout, Le Marin, and Le François; most hotels arrange these Hemingwayesque trysts, but will often charge a premium.
Golf. The 18-hole Golf Country Club de la Martinique (Les Trois-Ilets) has a par-71 Robert Trent Jones course with an English-speaking pro, pro shop, bar, and restaurant.
Hiking. Two-thirds of Martinique is designated as protected land. Trails, all 31 of them, are well marked and maintained. At the beginning of each, a notice is posted advising on the level of difficulty, the duration of a hike, and any interesting facts.
Horseback Riding. Horseback-riding excursions can traverse scenic beaches, palm-shaded forests, sugarcane fields, and a variety of other tropical landscapes.
At Black Horse Ranch (Les Trois-Ilets), one-hour trail rides (€35) go into the countryside and across waving cane fields; two hours on the trail (€40) bring riders near a river. Only western saddles are used for adults; children can ride English. A real treat is the full-moon ride. Most of the mounts are Anglo-Arabs. Riders are encouraged to help cool and wash their horses at day's end. Reserve in advance. Riders of all levels are welcomed.