By Everett Potter
When I visited the mountainous and verdant Caribbean island of Martinique, I discovered a rainforest, sweeping sugarcane fields that rippled in the Caribbean breezes, and more beaches than I could count. Near empty beaches, in fact, with sand that ranged from black to near white. Dominated by Mont Pelee, a 4,500 foot slumbering volcano, the French and Creole cultures are intertwined on this 40 mile long island. That also translates to a gastronomes paradise, from sand-in-your-toes beach shacks with extraordinary grilled seafood to tiny resort restaurants with Michelin-trained chefs.
Officially an “Overseas Department” of France (hence, a great road system, courtesy of French taxpayers), it’s where “zouk” music blares and palm trees sway. But you’ll see gendarmes and prices in euros that rival those in Provence. The capital is the funky Fort de France. You’ll need a car to get around as well as a passing knowledge of the French language. The best news: American Airlines is launching non-stop service this month from Miami, the first non-stop from the US in five years.
1. Go Under the Volcano
One of the most dramatic drives in the Caribbean starts in Fort de France (rent a car or hire car and driver Marc Martial 06 96 45 69 07 E240 or $350 for all day for four people) on the N3, which snakes through Martinique’s mountainous rain forest like a fer de lance (the legendarily poisonous snake loves this island’s habitat). You emerge on the Caribbean coast at St. Pierre, above which looms the volcano Mont Pelee. On May 2, 1902, a pyroclastic (gas) explosion killed 28,000 people in St Pierre within minutes. There’s a small but moving Musee Volcanologique (05 96 78 15 16) filled with melted glass, children’s dolls and photos of the mummified victims. The former “Little Paris of the West Indies” is a bit ramshackle, with plenty of charred house ruins still in evidence.
Stop at Carbet on the return, where the animated chef Guy Ferdinand (a.k.a. Chef Hot Pants) serves up extraordinary grilled seafood such as baloua (flying fish) and red tuna at the island’s best beach shack, Le Petibonum (05 96 78 04 34).
2. Paddle to Fond Blanc
Oddly enough, it is the Atlantic, not the Caribbean side of the island, that provides the calmest waters for kayaking. Head out with the seriously eco-minded Max of A Fleur d’Eau (06 96 92 35 84) and paddle across Baie des Mulets in clear plastic boats that resemble canoes (comically wobbly ones at that) to explore coral reefs, mangroves, and “fond blancs” or sandbars.
3. Take a Walk Through the Colonial Past (and Have Lunch)
The waterfront of the city of Fort de France is lively but the highlight of any walk around town is Bibliotheque Schoelcher (rue de la Liberte), a towering and ornate Art Nouveau library of tile, stained glass and wrought iron that was displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and then reassembled here. The simple exterior of the St. Louis Cathedral (rue Victor-Schoelcher) belies an ornate interior.
The heart and soul of Fort de France is Grand Marche, where produce, spices and sassy vendors are the hallmarks. Lunch at Chez Carole in the market, where the cheery owner, Carole Michel, serves up Creole-inspired conch and octopus, alongside staples like lentils, plantains, and local Lorraine beer (596 06 28 83; lunch for two $40).
4. From Bonaparte to Beaches
Drive south from Fort de France to Trois-Ilets. Marie-Joseph Rose Tascher de la Pagerie — later to become Josephine, Napoleon’s wife and Empress of France — was born here on her father’s sugar plantation near Trois-Ilets in 1763. Today the Musee de la Pagerie (05 96 68 38 41) celebrates her life period paintings, busts and childhood bed. Go south past Le Diamant, a Gibralter-like rock, and spend a leisurely afternoon at the palm-lined, crescent shaped beach called Les Salines, the island’s best. Food stalls serve homemade jerk chicken and fish, along with crushed sugarcane juice or a local “Ti Punch” made with lime, sugar and a local “rhum agricole.”
5. Have Dinner a la St. Tropez
To call Gilles Duplan’s trendy boutique hotel La Suite Villa (05 96 59 88 00; http://www.la-suite-villa.com) “eccentric” would be a vast understatement – it’s South Beach meet St, Tropez in sleepy Trois-Ilets, a jazzy pastiche of red, blue and pink furniture, exuberant art, open terraces and jaw dropping views across to Fort de France. Equally impressive is the kitchen, where Michelin-trained chef Benoit Dang serves up marlin sushi and mahi mahi in cream sauce to a Euro chic clientele. Dressing for dinner? It’s one of the few places in the Caribbean where black looks completely at home. (Dinner for two 70E or $100). Doubles from E140 ($185) in low season.
For more info, visit the Martinique Tourism Authority