France’s overseas Caribbean territory of Martinique is a mountainous utopia of striking natural landscapes, vibrant colourful towns and diverse exuberant culture. The island is located in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies, a sparkling gem that glistens in the idyllic waters of the Caribbean Sea. Martinique’s sombre history has seen the territory fall victim to centuries of foreign invasions, the enforcement of slavery in the colonial era and the devastating natural disaster of 1902, when the towering Mont Pelée volcano erupted and destroyed the city of St Pierre. Today, the peaceful island has bounced back from its difficult past and become a cosmopolitan haven of spectacular beaches and thriving cities. Martinique’s official language is French but most of the population also speaks Martinican Créole – an Afro-Caribbean dialect originating with the slaves brought to work on the island’s sugar plantations in the 17th-century. Although the island has a distinct French feel, Créole culture is still very much alive in Martinique and there are few places in the world which offer quite the same level of energy and spirit.
Why cruise Martinique
The majority of Martinique’s big tourist draws are, helpfully, located on the island’s coastline which stretches 350 kilometres around its landmass. Cruise ships dock at Martinique’s bustling capital, Fort-de-France, from where companies such as Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Marella Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princes Cruises MSC Cruise Ships, Costa Cruises and PO Cruises offer shore excursions to all the island’s most sensational sights. Whether you’re in search of crisp white beaches or lively Caribbean towns, look no further than magical Martinique.
Best Places to visit in Martinique
Fort-de-France is Martinique’s vivacious capital and by far the largest city in the French West Indies. This animated waterfront town offers a heady mix of compelling historical monuments and museums, which look back at a variety of periods in Martinique’s past. At Place de la Savane in the centre of town there stands a sizable statue of a headless Empress Josephine, who was the first wife of Napoleon I and a controversial figure in the island. This statue has been vandalised many times by local Martinicans in protest at her advocacy for the preservation of the slave trade. Opposite this statue, you’ll find the ornate Bibliothèque Schoelcher, originally built in France and brought to Martinique in tribute to Victor Schoelcher who led the fight to free slaves in the Caribbean. Take your time strolling around Fort-de-France and absorb the town’s other architecturally beautiful buildings. The grand Cathédrale Saint-Louis stands proudly on Rue Victor Schoelcher, boasting a magnificent 56-metre-tall spire. Explore the Fort Saint Louis naval base, home to the headquarters of the Navy High Command and gaze up at the 20th century Palais de Justice which very much resembles a French train station. Fort-de-France also hosts fascinating museums such as the Musée Départemental d’Archéologie and Musée Régional d'Histoire et d'Ethnographie. Browse their collections on the island’s history and culture before making your way to Balata Botanical Garden for an afternoon of relaxing amid the foliage. The garden boasts more than 3,000 species of tropical plants and flowers, as well as an elevated wooden bridge which offers visitors an aerial view of the park.
Across the bay from Fort-de-France is the cheerful coastal commune of Les Trois Ilets, perched on the Le Diamand pensinsula. It holds a firm place in history as the birthplace of Empress Joséphine whose former home has been turned into the Musée de la Pagerie. Learn more about the Empress’s life by touring the stone cottage which sits on what was once a large colonial sugar estate. Some of her possessions have been preserved and are on display there, including her marriage certificate to and love letters from Napoleon himself. La Savane des Esclaves is situated pointedly close to Musée de la Pagerie and provides a snapshot of the lives of slaves in Martinique by displaying traditional slave huts and carved mahogany sculptures which depict their everyday life. The Village de la Poterie des Trois-Ilets is another must-see attraction. Here, inside an old pottery yard which was formerly used to make roof tiles, you’ll find a myriad of local market stalls, shops and restaurants. Wander around and browse the products on sale which generally include locally made crafts, soaps, clothing and paintings. Alongside pottery, sugarcane was once an essential industry in Martinique, and you can learn more about its history and production process at the Maison de la Canne sugar factory.
The history of the seaside town of Saint-Pierre is steeped in tragedy, as it was the principal area affected by the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée. Contemporary Saint-Pierre has been built around the ruins of the old town and against the backdrop of the dramatic volcano which has fortunately not erupted since. Walk amongst the stone ruins in Saint-Pierre, which include an old theatre, a prison cell and a selection of bungalows known as Le Figuier. Before disaster struck, Saint-Pierre was the main city and port of the island and was once known as the Pearl of the West Indies. Visit the Volcanological Museum on the hillside by Le Figuier to learn more about the devastation caused by the volcano and view some of the remaining items that were re-discovered dotted around the old town. Saint-Pierre is also a popular spot for wreck-diving as the subsequent tsunami sadly caused by the volcanic eruption sank many of the ships that were docked at the harbour. At least 15 wrecks are used as dive sites and are now revitalised by marine life and gorgeous corals.
Le Morne Rouge and L'Ajoupa-Bouillon
Sprawled at the foot of Mont Pelée is the picturesque town of Le Morne Rouge. Here, quaint neighbourhood houses spring up from the luscious, dense forests. There are some fabulous walking tours available from Morne Rouge which lead visitors through the scenic, forest paths of the Domaine d’Emeraude Park and around the exquisite Beauvallon plantation. The more unusual and strenuous La Trade des Jésuites hike takes trekkers along the paths that were once used by monks, towards Gros Morne. This route allows walkers to become totally immersed in the tropical rainforest and to bathe in the crystalline Lorrains River that is found along the way. If you’re not up to a long walk, you can top up your knowledge on volcanoes instead at the Maison Regionale des Volcans and pay homage to those killed by the volcanic eruption at Larmes de Font monument outside.
Leafy landscapes and stunning natural wonders set the scene for the unique city of L’Ajoupa-Bouillon, which rejoices in the title of the most-flowered city in the world. Have a look inside the splendid Church of the Immaculate Conception which stands grandly in the centre of the town. Nature-lovers will find themselves in heaven at the Les Ombrages nature centre, where visitors can follow trails through man-made gardens exhibiting the various native species of flora found in Martinique. L’Ajoupa-Bouillon is also the best base from which to explore the Gorges de la Falaise. A series of small gorges run alongside the Falaise River leading up to a stunning waterfall.
La Trinité commune is the launchpad for exploring eastern Martinique’s tourist treasures. The area spreads out onto the Caravelle pensinsula, home to both the ruins of the Château Dubuc and La Caravalle Nature Trail. Château Dubuc was once the stately home of the wealthy Dubuc family who owned the peninsula in the 18th-century and produced sugar on the surrounding land. All that remains today of the grandiose mansion are some hollowed out walls, but you can learn more about the family and the former sugar plantation with a self-guided audio tour and at the nearby museum. In close proximity to the entrance of the Château, you’ll also find the beginning of the Caravelle Nature Trail. This is a one-hour hike through the dense mangrove forests that look out onto the jagged eastern coastline. La Caravelle is a protected area, where hundreds of local plants grow, and an assortment of native birds fly above the treetops and make nests in the forest. The nearby fishing village of Tartane is also home to an immaculate and peaceful beach. Fishing shacks and gum-tree boats are scattered across the shores and the local fish market sells delicious freshly-caught seafood.
The inspiration for much of Paul Gauguin’s work can be attributed to the romantic town of Le Carbet, where he settled in 1887. This pretty Martinican town hosts beautiful baroque-style churches and is renowned as the landing place of Christopher Columbus during his last Caribbean adventure in 1502. A collection of works and relics which belonged to Gauguin hang proudly in the Paul Gauguin Heritage Interpretation Centre and is a delightful little exhibition for art enthusiasts. Animal-lovers will go wild for Zoo Martinique Habitation Latouche which is just a ten-minute drive northward from Le Carbet. Built among the ruins of an old sugar plantation, visitors can weave their way around enormous enclosures inhabited by monkeys, jaguars and raccoons. You can also stroll across raised rope bridges and admire the colourful native plants that grow in the zoo’s botanical gardens. Half-day hiking excursions also leave from Le Carbet and loop around the Canal de Beauregard, which is also known as the Canal des Esclaves. An important historical site, the canal was named as such to honour the men who carried heavy stones and tools on their backs during its construction.
The island’s southernmost village, Sainte-Anne is known for its heavenly beaches fringed with coconut palms. Founded in the 17th- century, Sainte-Anne has witnessed a history of violent clashes between French and English settlers and suffered destruction by a cyclone in 1817. The ethereal Église Sainte-Aine suffered the consequences of this tragic history. It was burned to the ground by the British in 1730 before being ravaged by the cyclone. It has since been restored in a classic Martinican religious style and is definitely worth a visit. If you’re seeking fabulous views, head towards Le cimietière Marin to enjoy a view across the sea. Just south-east off Sainte Anne is the Savannah of the Petrifications. This lunar-like landscape was formed after multiple volcanic eruptions and its desert sands stand out against the otherwise tropical island. Before you leave, make sure you’ve paid a visit to the local market in Sainte-Anne, which is open every morning.
Best things to do in Martinique
Try the local cuisine
French and créole influences dominate the Martinican cuisine. The majority of Créole dishes involve seafood and the most common dish is accra de morue – a form of fritter made with saltfish and spices. Boudin sausages are also popular on the island and come in two types – Boudin Creole and Boudin Blanc. The former is made from pork which has been drained of its blood and is also a traditional Christmas food. Other delicious specialities use ingrediants such as chatrou - a small octopus, colombo – a signature Martinican spice and lambis – a large sea snail. Treat yourself to a tipple of Ti Punch, which is effectively a cocktail made up of sugar cane syrup mixed with a lot of white rum.
Go to the beach
Martinique is home to some absolutely out of this world beaches. In the north, don’t be surprised to find coastlines covered in black sand due to the area’s volcanic activitiy. If this does not appeal to you, there are also plenty of white sandy beaches in the south of the island. Top beach destinations include Anse Mitan, Grande Anse des Salines, Pointe Marin, Grande Anse du Diamant, Anses d’Arlet, Anse Noire and Carbet.
Hike up Mont Pelée
Hiking the active volcano of Mont Pelée is an exhilarating experience. Trails take trekkers all the way up to the summit from where the views of the Atlantic are spectacular. It is best to embark on your hike in the mornings, when there is less cloudcover, and the sun is not quite so intense. Trails begin from Morne Rouge, Ajoupa-Bouillon, Grand Rivière, Le Prêcheur, and Macouba.
Board a boat tour
A multitude of sailboats, cruisers, catamarans and kayak tours depart from Fort-de-France Bay and offer a variety of routes. Dolphin-watch cruises depart from Pointe du Bout, along with guided kayak tours of the mangrove forests near Trois-Ilets. If you’re in the town of Le Francois, look out for boat tours that will take you to the La Baignoire de Joséphine where, legend has it, Empress Josephine used to bathe.
Visit Diamond Rock
Three kilometres off the south coast of Martinique, a gigantic rock rises out of the sea. This is Diamond Rock, which is where the British fleets dropped their sailors in an attempt to overthrow the French naval forces. Scuba-diving around this volcanic mound is fantastic, while surfers will find themselves riding big waves from the shores of Diamond Beach. While you’re in this area, pay a visit to the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial which sits atop the hill behind the beach. This memorial pays tribute to those who drowned in a shipwreck off the southwest coast of Martinique in the 1830s.
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