Until recently, Martinique seems to have been a jealously guarded getaway primarily for a French audience, often perceived as expensive and exclusive. But low cost airline Norwegian.com’s seasonal services via New York and Boston (to both Martinique and neighbouring Guadeloupe) is changing that by opening up the possibilities for an unusual and enticing twin centre holiday. With add on fares from the transatlantic sector starting from just $79pp, I jumped at the chance to experience a February break in New York combined with 7 nights of warm Caribbean sun – it was, it turned out, a thrilling sun and snow combo. Read my review here.
As one of France’s 18 administrative regions, Martinique is a ‘petit tranche’ of mainland France but… with the all important tropical twist. So much is familiar – the language, imported French cars, Carrefour supermarkets and an instinctive local appreciation of fine food and wine. Add in all the joyful aspects of the Caribbean – the heat, the blue seas and tropical settings and, for francophiles like me, its a holiday match made in heaven.
Its a large island covering 436 square miles – the north is mountainous and largely covered by rainforest whilst the southern half of the island is where you find the best beaches and, as a result, the vast majority of hotels. Fort de France is the capital and the cruise port as well as being home to the airport just to the south.
We stayed in the Trois Islets area which is directly opposite Fort de France across the bay of the same name – a passenger ferry service runs between which takes around 15 mins or the drive around the bay (passing the airport en route) is around an hour, depending on traffic. Trois Islets is made up of several small villages but one of the most popular tourist hubs is the Creole Village at Pointe du Bout – there are two good 4 star hotels, Le Pagerie and La Bakoua. The latter has the advantage of its own small but very picturesque beach. As its within a short walk of the ferry, it can get crowded but in the calm of the early morning its a delightful spot for a swim.
Other good places to be based for a beach holiday would be the 5-star Cap Est resort over on the east coast near Saint Francois which has both a fabulous lagoon and a secluded beach or down towards Saint Anne and the southern most beaches. Of these Anse les Salines is the best known. It is a beautiful 5km long sweep of white sand backed by palm trees and lush green foliage providing welcome shade. However it is also the beach most favoured by cruise ship excursions and can get very busy.
Wherever you stay, hiring a car is pretty much essential. Costs vary widely and last minute availability can be patchy so its best to book in advance online. All cars on the island are high standard French imports, roads are generally well maintained and clearly signed.
Aside from the beaches, and there are lots of them, there’s plenty of other things to see and on the island. A day trip to the north provides dramatic scenic contrasts and, if you are interested in hiking or biking this is certainly the best area. The rainforest is lush, beautiful and full of colour.
Sometimes dubbed the Pompeii of the Caribbean, St Pierre on the north east coast was the island’s elegant capital until it was destroyed by a devastating eruption of Mont Pelee in 1902. Almost 30,000 people died and the city was never rebuilt, the capital was instead moved to Fort de France. The ruins have been preserved and its an interesting, if somewhat eerie, place to visit. This was once the Paris of the West Indies – the ruins of the theatre in particular give a sense of the former grandeur.
Heading back down towards the capital, the Balata Botanical Gardens set into the hillside are well worth a few hours. Full of colour all year round, the palm collection is particularly impressive and the highlight is the 15m high Treetop Bridge walk offering spectacular, if wobbly, views of the lush valley.
Another interesting outing is to one of the nine rum distilleries on the island. They take their rum very seriously in Martinique and its a source of great pride that they produce ‘Rhum Agricole’ made from pressed sugar cane as opposed to mass produced rum which is made from molasses, a bi product of sugar cane. The Depaz Distillery is a working distillery where, post the harvest in February you can see production in action. Habitation Clement near Saint Francois is also a prominent rum producer although the production is no longer done on site. Instead the original distillery buildings have been preserved as a museum of the process and the whole estate has become more of cultural foundation – its very impressive. In the beautiful gardens there is a fabulous modern sculpture collection and just by the entrance there is a steel clad, contemporary art exhibition hall, currently housing a splendid collection on loan from the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
From a historical viewpoint, many people will know Martinique as the birthplace of Napoleon’s Josephine – you can visit the site of her original family home and see a rather beautiful white marble bust of the lady herself at Le Pagerie in the Trois Islet area. Just down the road and, in my view, a must see on the island is La Savane des Esclaves. Until very recently only French history was taught in Martinique schools but one passionate islander, Gilbert Larose, has made it his mission to make sure that slave history now also features on the curriculum. He singlehandedly created La Savane des Esclaves, a recreation of an original settlers village, where you can witness, learn and help preserve the true history of the island. A larger than life character, look out for Gilbert at Les Savanes – he will be the one wearing the traditional pointy ‘Bakoua’ straw hat.
Another powerful reminder of this part of Martinique’s history can be found at Anse Caffard. Overlooking the sparkling sands of Le Diamant bay and its rolling waves is a stunning memorial to the slaves who drowned on their way to the island. The huge white stone figures cast an ominous shadow on the otherwise serene landscape.
A day out on a catamaran is a fun way to see more of the coastline and enjoy the warm Caribbean sea. Our trip with Kata Mambo was from Pointe du Bout marina in Trois Islets, sailing north up the coast to St Pierre. En route we got to sail along with dolphins and, after lunch on board, a snorkelling stop was a lovely way to round off the day.
Long sunny days on Martinique typically only end in one way – sundowners followed by a delicious dinner under the stars. As you might expect of a French island, dining out here is always an event whether you opt for a casual creperie, fresh seafood at a casual beachside place or fine dining in one of several celebrated hotel and independent restaurants. Making use of the freshest local ingredients with often more than a mere nod to classical technique, I can honestly say across the board, the food in Martinique was way superior to any other Caribbean culinary experience I’ve had.
As someone who loves France, its Caribbean cousin easily won me over. Sure, we Brits have other islands that we may feel more akin to, but the combination of French chic and Caribbean charm is a winning combination.