Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
A piece of France transported to the tropics, this beautiful, mountainous island, famous for its exotic flowers, exudes a sense of sophistication from the black and white beaches to the rainforest.
Jardins de Balata
Gorges de la Falaise
Musée du Rhum St-James
Musée de la Pagerie
La Plage des Salines
When Christopher Columbus landed on Martinique in 1502, he commented, “It is the best, the most fertile, the softest, the most even, the most charming spot in the world. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. My eyes never tire of contemplating such greenery.” But he continued on his travels and another century went by before the first French settlers arrived in 1635, led by the corsair Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, to found St-Pierre and begin the colonization of the island.
Les Anses d’Arlet.
Martinique Tourist Board
Apart from a few short-lived occupations by the British, Martinique has remained steadfastedly French. The first impression visitors have of the island is of a tropical France: amid the palm-fringed beaches, hillside banana plantations, valleys of pineapples, and volcanic mountains, the essence of the motherland can be found in the boulangeries, the pavement cafés, the noisy mopeds, the hypermarkets, and Parisian shops in the capital, Fort-de-France. Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul wrote in The Middle Passage (1962): “Unlike the other islands, which have one main town to which everything gravitates, Martinique is full of little French villages each with its church, mairie and war memorial…”
The coastline at Le Diamant.
Luc Olivier/Martinique Tourist Board
A mountainous island of 417 sq miles (1,085 sq km) - 40 miles (65km) at its longest, 19 miles (31km) at its widest - its contours ascend gradually from an irregular coastline and culminate dramatically, in the north in Montagne Pelée (4,583ft/1,397 meters), the now-dormant volcano that erupted with a shattering violence in 1902. Pelée is linked to other mountains - Les Pitons du Carbet (3,923ft/1,205 meters) in the center, and La Montagne du Vauclin (1,653ft/504 meters) in the south - by a series of gentler hills, or mornes.
Martinique is a largely agricultural island with a racially mixed population of 386,000. Like the other Caribbean islands, it has been through the horrors of colonialism and slavery; but while most of the British West Indies have sought their own paths in independence, Martinique, with its sister island of Guadeloupe (for more information, click here), has been absorbed politically and economically into France as a full département d’outremer (overseas department) and région of the republic.
Escape from the Revolution
The first French settlers wasted no time in establishing sugar plantations, despite resistance from the Carib population, who moved to the Atlantic coast until they were eventually wiped out by more sophisticated French weaponry and unfamiliar diseases. Slaves were imported and the economy thrived, driven by the békés, the traditional white elite. In 1789, at the onset of the French Revolution, their security was threatened by slave unrest and they invited the British to occupy the island to preserve the status quo. As a result, between 1794 and 1802, unlike Guadeloupe, Martinique’s békés avoided the guillotine.
After Emancipation in 1848, fought for by French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, the sugar industry went into decline, although remaining the island’s main export with its liquid-gold by-product, rum. Nevertheless, St-Pierre, the capital, grew into a cultural center with a “saucy” reputation, until it was obliterated on May 8, 1902, when a volcanic eruption killed the entire population of 30,000.
Aimé Césaire, born in dire poverty in Martinique in 1913, became part of the intellectual café society in Paris between the wars. There he published his anti-colonial views and started a new black-pride movement, called négritude. Mayor of Fort-de-France for more than 50 years, he died in 2008.
Horseback-riding at Anse Grosse Roche.
Martinique Tourist Board
Supporters of the Vichy government in World War II, the Martinicans were deprived of their essential imports by the Allied naval blockade and learned to live off their natural resources. Afterward, the black radical Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, who had been educated in Paris and was a member of the French Communist Party, was elected both mayor of the new capital, Fort-de-France, and député to the French Assembly on a tide of anti-béké feeling. He and many others (not all Communists) were keen to divert power from the local aristocracy to the republic.
Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France 1 [map], is large by island standards and, with a population of more than 85,000, it is thronged with people, traffic, and noise. If there are cruise ships in port, it can be positively heaving in the old quarter by the waterfront. Like most Caribbean ports, Fort-de-France has had its fair share of fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, so there are many modern structures among the more interesting 19th-century (and earlier) buildings. What hasn’t changed, however, is the grid of narrow streets, which makes driving a nightmare and walking a pleasure. While the center has a Caribbean atmosphere, highways, office blocks, industrial centers, shopping malls, and concrete apartment blocks spread all the way out to the airport and beyond, emphasizing that this is France, in all but name and climate.
The centerpiece of the town is La Savane, a 12-acre (5-hectare) park of lawn, shady palms, footpaths and benches. At the northern end of La Savane stands the headless statue of Napoléon’s Joséphine, who was born at Les Trois-Ilets across the Baie de Fort-de-France. Her pedestal shows a relief of Napoléon about to crown her, plus her date of birth (June 23, 1763) and the date of her marriage (May 9, 1796). Many believe that she was behind her husband’s decision to reintroduce slavery in 1802 after the Revolutionary Convention banned it in 1794, hence the monument’s decapitation. And it remains defaced, a potent symbol of Martinique’s tortured past. A second statue is of Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, the Norman nobleman who led the first French settlers in 1635.
Proud to parade at the Carnaval de la Martinique.
Constructions of metal
On the northwest corner of La Savane is the magnificent Bibliothèque Schoelcher (rue de la Liberté; Mon 1-5.30pm, Tue-Thur 8.30am-5.30pm, Fri 8.30am-5pm, Sat 8.30am-noon; free), a colorful Baroque building crazy with Roman, Egyptian, and majolican tiles, and named for the man most responsible for the final abolition of slavery in the French West Indies. The library contains the abolitionist Schoelcher’s private collection of books, and often stages exhibitions. Designed by Henri Picq, a contemporary of Gustav Eiffel, it was built of metal in Paris in 1887, then shipped out to Martinique piece by piece.
Cathédrale St-Louis, on rue Schoelcher a few minutes away, is another of his metal constructions, built in 1895 to withstand the fiercest hurricanes and earthquakes. Known as the “iron cathedral,” its steel-reinforced spire rises 200ft (60 meters) into the sky and it has some fine stained-glass windows.
On the west side of La Savane is the Musée d’Archéologie et de Préhistoire (Mon 1-5pm, Tue-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat 9am-5pm; free on the last Sat of each month) with three floors of remnants from Taino and Carib Amerindian tribes. It has the finest collection of pre-Columbian artifacts in the Caribbean: stone, shell, and ceramic.
Racial hot pot
Although the majority of Martinicans can trace their ancestry back to African slaves, a large proportion are descended from East Indian laborers who arrived after the abolition of slavery. Of Tamil origin, they now make up some 5-10 percent of the population. There are also small communities of Syrians, Lebanese and Chinese, in addition to the békés, descended from the first French and British settlers and often still the land-owning class.
Creole cuisine reflects this mix of cultures, with many dishes containing elements from all of them. One dish that appears to take ingredients from everywhere is the Colombo, a curry of chicken, meat or fish with vegetables, spiced with a masala of Tamil origin, enlivened by tamarind, wine and/or rum, coconut milk, lime juice and cassava.
Southeast of La Savane, Fort St-Louis, over the bay, was originally built in 1640 and added to over the years. The fort is still used as a military base and is closed to visitors, except on special occasions such as the annual Journées du Patrimoine, when all the island’s historical monuments are open to the public free of charge. These Heritage Days are held over the third weekend in September.
Downtown can be a hot, humid, traffic-dominated place, but it is dotted with colorful street markets. The Marché aux Poissons (Fish Market), by Place Clemenceau and next to the river, is the scene of constant activity, as fishermen unload their catch from small boats. In surrounding streets there are several other less pungent markets specializing in flowers, fruit, and vegetables. The Grand Marché on rue Blénac is the most tourist-oriented and is full of attractively packaged spices and sauces; it is open every day, all day, but busiest on Friday afternoon and Saturday.
French is the official language, but many Martinicans speak creole, which consists of a West African grammatical structure with a basic Africanized French vocabulary.
The market in Fort-de-France.
Luc Olivier/Martinique Tourist Board
North to higher ground
Heading for the hills, north out of town, you pass through the prosperous suburb of Didier and, 1 mile (1.5km) or so farther on, join the spectacular Route de la Trace, or N3, which zigzags across the mountainous spine of the island to Morne Rouge. Originally carved out by Jesuits, it runs through thick and varied vegetation with explosions of color from flowering plants. You may do a double-take at the sight of Sacré Coeur de Balata 2 [map] peering out of the hillside, as the church is a copy in miniature of the Sacré Coeur in Paris, but less white, because of the greater humidity of the tropical rainforest.
Fort-de-France’s street markets start early, at dawn. It is a good idea to visit as early as possible in order to see or buy the best - and freshest - produce.
Nearby, the Jardins de Balata (Balata Botanical Garden; tel: 596-596-644 873; www.jardindebalata.fr; daily 9am-6pm, last entry 4.30pm) are tropical gardens with a grand view over Fort-de-France to Trois-Ilets. At their best, after the rainy season at the end of the year, they have a stunning collection of anthuriums, as well as an array of exotic trees and shrubs. Jewel-like hummingbirds flit among the flowers, while lizards scuttle along the paths. Indeed, Martinique has a wealth of parks and gardens to discover - more than 30 dotted around the island.
The ruins of Rue Victor Hugo and La Place Du Mouilage, Martinque, 1902.
A Caribbean Pompeii
At Le Morne Rouge, take the left fork on the N2 for 5 miles (8km) to descend to the Caribbean and the ghost town hugging the coast: St-Pierre 3 [map], the former cultural and economic center of Martinique that was once known as the “little Paris of the West Indies.” Behind looms Montagne Pelée, the sleeping volcano (now constantly monitored) that, after grumbling for a few days, finally awoke on May 8, 1902, at 7.50am, in a fireball of seething lava and superheated gases. Fires erupted in the town and the sea boiled. Within seconds, 30,000 people were dead. On entering the town, the road passes the cemetery where a large white mausoleum contains the victims’ remains.
St-Pierre never recovered. Ruins offer their mute testimony: the burned, broken stone walls of seaside warehouses, the foundations and stairways that lead nowhere, the vanished theater, and on the hill that rises behind it the cell of the sole survivor, Antoine Ciparis, a drunkard locked away the day before and protected by the strength of his dungeon. Ciparis ended up traveling the US in a replica of his cell with the Barnum & Bailey circus.
A new town has grown among the rubble of the old, and there are cafés and restaurants to refresh the curious visitor. While the memory of the eruption is poignant, St-Pierre is not a gloomy place, and the local tourist office organizes fascinating tours of the ruins. The Musée Vulcanologique (tel: 596-596-781 516; daily 9am-5pm), in rue Victor-Hugo, presents evidence of the disaster: large clumps of nails and screws fused by heat, melted bottles, a large church bell deformed by fire, containers of scorched food. In the sunlight outside, knowing that deep down Pelée still seethes, it is a chilling display.
On the coast, south of St-Pierre, is the popular black-sand beach, Anse Turin, where the artist Paul Gauguin stayed in 1887 before he went to Tahiti. The Centre d’Interprétation Paul Gauguin (former Musée Gauguin; to reopen in 2016) has copies of his letters and works, and also a collection of creole costumes, showing the different dresses and headgear, with an explanation of their significance. Le Carbet, the next town south, is where Columbus is thought to have landed. Diving and other water sports are available and there are pleasant restaurants on the beach.
On the outskirts of the town is the Zoo de Martinique (www.zoodemartinique.com; daily 9am-6pm, last entry 4.30pm), a beautiful, colorful zoological and botanical garden created on the Habitation Latouche. The plantation was established in 1643, making it one of the oldest sugar estates, but destroyed in 1902 by the volcano. Ruins of plantation buildings can be seen, including a viaduct and waterwheel that powered the sugar mill.
The Gorges de la Falaise
From Le Morne Rouge 4 [map] at the foot of Mont Pelée, the Route de la Trace (N3) heads northeast to the Atlantic coast. After about a mile (1.5km), a rough road leads to within 1,600ft (490 meters) of the volcano summit, where the mountain air is cool. Only experienced climbers with guides should attempt the peak: it rains a lot and is full of hidden dangers. However, there are many trails suitable for different levels of fitness and experience, leading from the village around the mountain. The next town is L’Ajoupa Bouillon on the slopes of Mont Pelée. Look for signs: a hike along the River Falaise leads to the Gorges de la Falaise 5 [map] (daily 8am-5.30pm, closed after heavy rain; charge includes a guide), a series of impressive canyons and dramatic waterfalls in the forest, with trailing lianas and overhanging ferns. Take a swimsuit and shoes with a good grip that can get wet. This is also one of several locations for canyoning along the rivers coming down from Mount Pelée, cutting gorges as they descend to the sea (contact Bureau de la Randonnée et du Canyoning, tel: 596-596 550 479; http://bureau-rando-martinique.com).
Tastings at the Musée du Rhum Saint-James.
The Rum Museum
Taking the dramatic Atlantic coast road, peppered with beautiful beaches, battered by an angry sea (swimming is dangerous), it is worth stopping off in Sainte-Marie 6 [map] to visit the Musée du Rhum Saint-James (www.rhum-saintjames.com; daily 9am-5pm; free) in the St-James rum distillery. Here, exhibits tell the story of sugar and rum from 1765, and there is plenty to sample and buy. Martinican rum is considered to be among the finest in the world. In 1996 it was awarded the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée) label, bestowed only on fine French vintages. Rum flavors vary according to climate and soil conditions and all the island’s distilleries offer dégustation, or rum tasting. There is a little train for visitors, Le Train des Plantations (daily; charge) pulled by a tractor, which will take you through the sugar-cane and banana plantations to the Musée de la Banane (http://museedelabanane.fr daily 9am-4.30pm) on a working estate, Habitation Limbé. Here you can find out all about the production, packaging, and export of bananas. Former workers’ huts are now shops and there are pleasant gardens
The road meanders on down past La Trinité to the 8-mile (13km)-long Presqu’île de la Caravelle 7 [map] which, protected by the Parc Naturel de la Martinique, is crisscrossed by nature trails. There are plenty of good beaches offering an assortment of water sports, particularly surfing. At its tip are the ruins of Château Dubuc (daily 9am-4.30pm), a sugar estate rich in legends of smugglers and slavery.
Joséphine and the south
It takes 15 minutes for the navettes or vadettes (half-hourly from the quay in front of La Savane) to cross the Baie de Fort-de-France to Pointe du Bout 8 [map], where they tie up in another Martinique. Beaches here are pristine, with smart yachts moored in the marina, restaurants, the Créole Village Shopping Plaza, and a cluster of luxury hotels.
Taxis await to drive you to the Musée de la Pagerie 9 [map] (Tue-Fri 9am-4.30pm, Sat-Sun 9.30am-2pm) just outside Les Trois-Ilets. A rusted metal sign points the way to the birthplace of Empress Joséphine. Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, later rechristened Joséphine by her famous husband, left Martinique for Paris in 1779 to marry the Viscount of Beauharnais. In 1796, two years after the viscount’s death by guillotine during the French Revolution, she married Napoléon Bonaparte.
La Maison du Bagnard.
Luc Olivier/Martinique Tourist Board
The main village in this area is Les Trois-Ilets, where the sidewalks and roofs are made from clay bricks and tiles manufactured at the Village de la Poterie de Trois-Ilets (tel: 596-596-680 344; www.pti-sa.com; Mon-Sat most workshops 9am-6pm). One mile (1.5km) east of Les Trois-Ilets, at Pointe Vatable, is the sugar-cane museum, La Maison de la Canne (Tue-Wed 8.30am-5.30pm, Fri-Sat 8.30-5pm, Sun 9am-5pm), within the walls of an old distillery. Machinery and models are used to great effect to show the history of the sugar industry.
Across the southwestern peninsula, on the Caribbean coast, the pretty village of Les Anses d’Arlets has a fine sandy beach dotted with restaurants. Next is Petite Anse, and a few miles and many bends later is Le Diamant ) [map], a larger village with a good choice of hotels and restaurants and a long beach of soft, white sand. At Anse Cafard at the western end of Le Diamant stands the cap 110 sculpture by local artist Laurent Valère. Overlooking the sea where a slave ship sank in 1830, the 15 large bowed figures are a memorial to the 300 enslaved Africans who perished in the wreck; the sculpture also commemorates the 150th anniversary of the French abolition of slavery.
About a mile out to sea is the unmistakable hump of the Rocher du Diamant (Diamond Rock), an outcrop of volcanic stone which, curiously, was once a small part of the British Empire. In 1805, a party of 100 British soldiers, complete with cannons, took possession of the rock to control the channel between Martinique and St Lucia. After 18 months the French ejected them from their uncomfortable position, which they had named HMS Diamond.
The best beaches in Martinique are on the southern coast. In Diamant, Grand Anse is a lovely stretch of sand but the sea can be treacherous. For calmer waters, head towards Sainte-Luce ! [map], the neighboring village, where several beaches are tucked away in calm coves. Further along is Le Marin @ [map], a busy seaside town and the center of all yachting activity. Marin has a pleasant, arty feel; on the seafront, restaurants and bars add to the atmosphere with live music and late-night sessions.
Marin is a cultural hub with its own resident artist, Habdaphaï, whose art studio is on the hillside overlooking the sea, opposite the 18th-century church. Habdaphaï organizes art fairs and exhibitions that attract artists from all over the Caribbean.
Plage des Salines £ [map], the finest stretch of white-sand beach and calm turquoise sea on the island, wraps itself for miles around Sainte-Anne and the surrounding littoral forest. Further up the Atlantic coast, Le François $ [map] is protected by an immense barrier reef; maritime excursions offer picnics on the islets in the shallow bay. Martinicans say you have not really visited the island until you have drunk a midday Ti-punch in the Baignade de Josephine, a stretch of clear, shallow water between two islands. Le François is also home to Habitation Clément (www.rhum-clement.com; daily 9.30am-5pm), a plantation house with a rum distillery and aging facilities producing Rhum Clément; an art gallery; and an arboretum with an important palm tree collection containing specimens from all over the world. If you are going to do a little tasting be aware that traffic police carry out regular patrols.
Plage des Salines.
Luc Olivier/Martinique Tourist Board