Just say ‘oui' to French Martinique
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 11:41 a.m.
Because Martinique is an overseas department of the Republic of France, its currency is the euro, and its people are distinctly French (and delightfully Creole). Columbus called it "the most beautiful country in the world." The indigenous Carib Indians called it Madinina (Island of Flowers) and hibiscus, frangipani, bougainvillea, anthuriums, poinsettias, orchids and huge ferns flourish throughout the island, along with vast sugarcane, banana and pineapple plantations.
During the 17th century, the French eradicated the Caribs, and the resulting population is a mix of French colonial and former African slave societies.
Dominating the scenery is the 4,583-foot volcano, Mont Pelée, which erupted on May 8, 1902 and killed the 30,000 inhabitants. Reportedly, there was a single survivor in the town — a prisoner in an underground cell. Obviously, it was his lucky day!
Drive to the ruins of St. Pierre to visit the museum that chronicles the event, and explore the savannas, tropical rain forest and wild lush landscapes.
The capital is Fort-de-France and shopping, bars and restaurants line the streets. But tourism isn't everything here. We arrived by cruise ship on a Sunday and almost everything was closed. Many passengers were disappointed, to say the least.
On the plus side, there were friendly tourist staff dotted throughout the city welcoming passengers and answering questions. We walked to town and took a ferry across to the beaches at Trois Îlets. Napoleon's Empress Josephine was born here and there's a small museum, but the legacy of slavery still tarnishes her reputation. Shops and restaurants were open, so it's a good place to go on a Sunday.
Politeness goes a long way, so when entering an establishment say "bonjour" and "merci" when departing. Martinique enjoys a higher standard of living than most other Caribbean countries, and the people are proud and dignified.
French products are easily available, from perfumes to Limoges porcelain to Chanel fashions. The southern part of the island has a petrified forest and beautiful white sand beaches, such as Plage des Salines, Ste. Luce, Cap Chevalier, Le Diamant and Anses d'Arlets.
Some northern beaches have a combination of black and white sands. Note that topless sunbathing and swimming is common at some hotel beaches.
This third-largest island in the Lesser Antilles has gorgeous landscapes to explore and a large part is wild and free from development. High season runs from November to May and some hotels close during September and October.
Martinique's Carnival in February is similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans on a smaller scale. U.S. travelers will have an easier time getting to Martinique when American Airlines begins weekly service starting April 6.
A popular resort is Club Med's Buccaneer Creek, and the most exclusive accommodations are at Le Cap Est Lagoon and Spa (part of the Relais et Chateaux chain).
English isn't widely spoken, but if you want to experience a taste of France in the Caribbean, say "oui" to Martinique!
Claudine Dervaes' travel column is published the first Sunday of every month.