Hello, Heaven: 10 Reasons to Visit the Caribbean Island of Martinique

Martinique
Martinique

Martinique (Photo: Courtesy of Martinique Magnifique/Facebook)

Martinique is probably not the first place that comes to mind for Caribbean travel. But if you’re willing to go off the beaten island-hopping path, this French-speaking oasis can be worth the effort. Here, the top 10 reasons to head to Martinique.

1. Escape the (American) crowds

The island is part of France — break out those euros — and is a destination for European and Canadian travelers. Americans? Not so much. Martinique’s tourism board would like to change that — and American Airlines now flies nonstop from Miami twice a week during summer and the winter high season, so it’s easier than ever to go. Still, plan some good reading for your trip: The flights add up to over six hours of travel time from New York City.

Martinique
Martinique

A dock in beautiful Martinique (Photo: Courtesy of Martinique Magnifique/Facebook)

Before a Yankee onslaught arrives, you have a chance to experience a vacation spot mostly untouched by American influence. There are no oversized hotel chains, and not much English is spoken here.

“This is for sophisticated travelers who want not just beach. They want history and culture, geography, and cuisine," Caribbean magazine editor Ed Wetschler told Yahoo Travel. "It helps if you can speak French.”

Martinique
Martinique

Martinique (Photo: Courtesy of Martinique Magnifique/Facebook)

2. Get the flavor of France without going to France.

France annexed the island in 1674, so its Creole traditions still front a French vibe, especially when it comes to gastronomy.  

Take the bubbly: Martinique boasts the highest consumption of champagne of any French region. “It’s really the joie de vivre island,” said Valerie Vulcain of Martinique Tourism. And it’s a place that grows sugarcane so it can produce its own rhum.

Some of the most inventive dishes come from chefs who have studied in France and then returned to cook Caribbean-French cuisine. “It’s Creole food,” explained Le Brédas chef Jean-Charles Brédas, “mixed with French, Indian, and African.” And yes, it’s delicious.

Chef-Jean-Charles
Chef-Jean-Charles

Chef Jean-Charles Brédas (Photo: Claudine Zap)

3. Parlez Français.

Time to dust off that high school French ― not a requirement but certainly appreciated by the islanders, who speak the local version of Creole along with French. (Scroll down for a quick glossary of island lingo.) 

4. See a live volcano.

Saint-Pierre, known as Martinique’s Pompeii, was finally rebuilt after being flattened by the 4,500-foot Mount Pelée’s 1902 eruption, which killed almost all of the town’s 30,000 residents.

Visitors to the seaside town can see what remains of the volcano’s destructive — and incredibly scenic — path: Along with a stunning view of the sea and mountains, you can see the ruins of a prison and church that still stand.


Martinique
Martinique

Mount Pelée on Martinique Island (Photo: Thinkstock)

5. Find gourmet food on the beach.

The sun blazes down on an outdoor eatery on the beach in Le Carbet. So maybe it’s no surprise that chef Guy Ferdinand wears short-shorts as he cooks up a range of local delicacies for diners who sit at canopied tables just steps from the sea.

On a late Monday afternoon, Le Petibonum is packed with guests who gobble up tuna and mango ceviche, lion fish, and, for dessert, roasted pineapple with ginger syrup. “It’s a new version of Caribbean food,” Ferdinand told Yahoo Travel. Bon appétit.

Chef-Guy-Ferdinand
Chef-Guy-Ferdinand

Chef Guy Ferdinand (Photo: Courtesy of Martinique Magnifique/Facebook)

6. Hit the books at Schoelcher Library.

It seems an unlikely place to head during a Caribbean vacation, but the Fort-de-France library is a must-see.

Donated by the French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, the ornate building, designed by Pierre-Henri Picq, was constructed in France in 1889, then taken apart and shipped to Martinique, along with almost 10,000 books.

A quick tour is all you need to see the stunning architecture and soaring ceiling ― but quiet, please. It’s a library, after all.

Schoelcher-Library
Schoelcher-Library

Schoelcher Library (Photo: Claudine Zap)

7. A fort with a view.

Visible from the sea, the impressive Fort Saint Louis, built in 1640, has finally reopened to the public, having closed to visitors after 9/11.

Bring your camera and your walking shoes. The cobblestones are uneven, and the steps are steep. But the panoramic view from 200 feet up is worth the climb. You may want to take a dip at the small but charming beach located just steps from the building.

Fort-Saint-Louis
Fort-Saint-Louis

Fort Saint Louis (Photo: Steve Bennett/ UncommonCaribbean.com)

8. Drink up the coffee origin story.

Just as France enjoys its morning café au lait, so does Martinique. Turns out the island introduced java to this part of the world: The Coffee and Cocoa Museum in Le Trois-Ilets has documented the island’s history with caffeine.

It all dates back to King Louis XIV of France, who received a coffee plant as a gift from the Dutch, according to the National Coffee Association. Cultivating coffee in Paris was not going to happen, so in 1723, Caribbean-bound naval officer Gabriel de Clieu took along some seedlings on his trip to tea-drinking Martinique.

Despite a journey that included foul weather and run-ins with pirates, the first coffee seedlings in the Caribbean arrived safely and flourished on the island. Some 18 million plants sprang up in the next 50 years — enough to supply coffee to both Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.


Coffee-Museuem
Coffee-Museuem

A display at the Coffee and Cocoa Museum (Photo: Claudine Zap)

9. See a headless empress in a spotless park.

An odd sight greets visitors to Fort-de-France’s La Savane Park: a defaced statue, literally. Vandals have beheaded a marble likeness of Martinique-born Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and painted blood-red drips down her empire-waist dress.

Empress Josephine was born on Martinique in 1763 to a slave-holding family, and at least some residents seem to have mixed feelings about her island ties: Born Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, the empress is blamed for persuading her husband to reinstate slavery in 1802, the story goes. The French government finally abolished slavery in 1848, and it’s not uncommon to meet locals who can trace their slave roots.

Napoleon’s wife, who spawned the popular waistline trend, remains a tourist attraction — so loved or loathed, the headless statue stays.


Empress-Josephine
Empress-Josephine

Headless Empress Josephine statue (Photo: Claudine Zap)

10. Beaches, beaches, beaches.

This is still a Caribbean paradise, after all, and that means fun in the sun. For an island just 50 miles long, there’s something for everyone. In the shadow of Mount Pelée, the sand is a volcanic silvery hue.

Farther south, you’ll find the iconic white-sand beaches dotted with palm trees, like those in the village of Sainte-Anne.

Sainte-Anne-Martinique
Sainte-Anne-Martinique

Sainte-Anne beach in Martinique (Photo: Selden Vestrit/Flickr)

In the town of Pointe du Bout, the lively Bakoua Hotel offers a swim-up bar just off its beach. Nearby are a casino; high-end restaurants on the water, such as Le Kano; and plenty of shops to explore. And Les Salines Beach to the south is held up as the most picturesque on the island.

Maybe the best part: Under French law, all beaches are open to the public for locals and tourists alike to enjoy. Equality. Fraternity. Beach-ity?

Related: Globe Trekker: Caribbean Islands St Lucia, Martinique, And Montserrat

TRAVEL TIPS

Prepare to pay in euros. Martinique is part of the European Union. Dollars can be changed at banks, and ATM machines are easy to find in Fort-de-France. Credit cards are widely accepted.

Power up. American travelers need power adapters for the European-style outlets.

Take bug spray. Hungry mosquitoes come out at night.

Wear a hat. You’ll need protection from the sun and sudden tropical rainstorms that stop as quickly as they begin.

Unplug. Wi-Fi in Martinique is not the most reliable. Be prepared to let go of email and enjoy the surroundings without the usual quick connection to the Internet.

Budget travelers, take note. It’s hurricane season through November, meaning that it’s the “worst travel time for weather but best for discounts,” according to Management.com president John Clifford. Still, the weather holds steady at a balmy high 70s year ‘round.

Speak Martinique:

Bonjour — “Hello”; a greeting for anyone and everyone.

Bonsoir — “Good evening”; same as above at night.

La plage — “The beach.”

Merci — “Thank you.”

S’il vous plaît — “Please.”

Où est la toilette? — “Where is the bathroom?”

Ça fait combien? — “How much is that?”

En Anglais, s’il vous plaît — “In English, please.”

À votre santé — A toast “to your health.”

Décollage — An alcoholic drink taken first thing in the morning.

Ti punch — The signature Martinique rum punch.

Rhum — “Rum.”

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