Martinique, locally named Madinina - The Isle of Flowers, is enormously popular with the French, not surprising considering it's history and the number of direct flights from Paris. However, with croissants and palm trees, all perched near a live volcano, Martinique is the definition of a refined French-Caribbean island and is an excellent base from which to start a sailing trip around St Vincent and the Grenadines as I did last month with Dream Yacht Charter It's worth tagging on an extra couple of days before or after your trip to explore the island. Here are a few of my highlights.
The island is 80 km by 39 km and no point is more than 12 km from the sea. The number one reason that most people visit the Caribbean is for it's beaches and Martinique has some pretty fine ones. Sainte-Anne, the area at the southern tip of the island has many headlands and coves with some beautiful white sand beaches. Being one of the major tourist spots of the island, Sainte Anne is also known for promoting sustainable development, so brownie points there #20yearstravelmatters. Le Diamant, in the south has a lovely 4 km beach and the tourist hub of Les Trois-Islets also has a handful of great beaches. My personal favourite however was the beach at Anse d'Arlet Bourg, a traditional fishing village whose 18th century Roman Catholic church doors open almost immediately on to the beach. It's a lovely setting and as I was there on a Sunday and am catholic, particularly special to celebrate mass followed immediately by a dip in the sea.
Markets are part and parcel of life in Martinique. Forget your five a day, you can choose from dozens of different kinds of fruit and veg, some familiar and others less so. After days at sea it was fun to observe and rub shoulders with the local population as well as immersing myself in the exotic scents, tastes and colours. I particularly loved the passion fruits the size of grapefruits and a fruit, bizarrely not nameless but called anon and part of the custard apple family with the flavour of banana, vanilla, pineapple and mango all in one. Meanwhile, on every menu fish is king, the village of St Luce walking distance from my hotel along the shoreline was an excellent place for a very affordable grilled lobster eaten al fresco in a beach shack.
Martinique is not short of accommodation ranging from luxury hotels to apartments, Caribbean inns, resorts, villas and country guesthouses. I stayed at Residence Pierre & Vacances, a brand I know from mostly ski resorts in France.The Pierre & Vacances Holiday Village Sainte-Luce takes its name from the attractive fishing village nearby. Bordered by white sandy beaches, it extends down to the sea with a vast tropical garden and even bigger pool. The latter particularly got the big thumbs up from me, especially at night, lit up with multi colours changing from blue, to red to green (initially another case of had I been consuming too much rum!). The guests were mostly French (so a chic and stylish bunch around the pool, restaurants and bars) and lets be honest here, the French are not going to settle for poor quality food lacking in flavour and so the latter was impressive for what is essentially a 3 star property. Set along the central pathway, the air-conditioned apartments are grouped into red-roofed buildings, typical of the tropics and all in all it was perfect base to relax initially after my flight and from which to explore the island.
"All roads lead to ... rum" and as I drank vast quantities of it on my cruise around the Grenadines, I opted for a tour of a rum distillery to discover more about the pirates tipple of choice. Wherever you are on Martinique, a rum distillery is never far away.The rum-making season is February to June, when you'll be able to see the distilleries operating. Today nine distilleries in Martinique welcome visitors for a sampling of their product. I chose The Clement Estate, a huge 160 hectare estate, located in the town of Le Francois. There's a century-old rum house, a contemporary art museum, gardens to wander around, an 18th century creole plantation house complete with antique furniture and of course plenty of rum to sample.
La Savane des Esclaves
La Savane des Esclaves opened in 2004 is a traditional creole village recreated by Gilbert Larose, a Martinican passionate about his island and its history. He created the site as a duty to never forget the history of slavery and the knowledge and traditions of the inhabitants of the countryside after its abolition. There are a total of 13 recreated huts and attractions from a field slaves' huts on a plantation to a museum and exhibitions. It's very well done with excellent written descriptions. You come away with a better understanding of the horrors of the slave trade and I'd recommend combining a visit here with a stop at Anse Cafard Slave memorial, a cluster of stone statues overlooking the sea commemorating the fate of dozens of slaves who lost their lives in a shipwreck of the coast.
Like many Caribbean islands, Carnival is a popular tradition in Martinique. Organised festivities start on the Sunday following Epiphany and reach their peak during the days around Fat Tuesday (Pancake Day) and climax the Wednesday night. This year the five days of popular revelry will take place from March 2nd - 6th. I was lucky enough to be in Fort de France (the capital) on Sunday 20th January to catch one of the pre Carnival parades and what a spectacle of colour, music, drumming, noise, dancing, jubilant crowds and some pretty wacky home-made costumes. If this was just a warm up, the actual main festivities are bound to be something special with a different parade on each day: on Monday a burlesque wedding, on Fat Tuesday red devils and on Ash Wednesday she-devils, rambunctious mourners in black and white outfits. Getting a tiny taste of Carnival was for me the undoubted highlight of my visit to Martinique.
I also loved the quirky historical sites, who knew it was the birthplace of Napoleon's empress Josephine and that it's part of the EU, so no roaming charges on your phone - all in all Martinique was a perfect combination of Caribbean beauty and European flair.
Written by Petra Shepherd.