Martinique is one of four islands in the Caribbean that's part of France (also known as the French West Indies). Others include St. Martin, Guadeloupe and St. Barts. Few speak English there, and you'll find that signs and menus generally aren't meant to accommodate anyone who isn't French. A visit there, especially in the quick time of a day's call, can be challenging.
On the other hand, it's one of the most intriguing islands in the Caribbean. Martinique is one of the few islands that still grows sugarcane and bananas in the rolling fields of its central section. It's got an enormously respected reputation for producing unique and refined rums. Head up to Mont Pelee to experience its rain forest, or visit its beaches, which range from the St. Tropez-style of those at the resort town of Pointe du Bout to Pointe des Salines and St. Anne, on the south side, which welcome naturists and serious sun-worshippers.
The island also has contemporary appeal, offering elegant restaurants and chic boutiques in the Galleria shopping mall and the historic and urban attractions of Fort-de-France.
Martinique's New World history began in 1502, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island. The French claimed the island in 1635; for 180 years, ownership bounced between France and Britain, before the former took hold for good in 1815. Martinique became a region of France in 1974.
Napoleon's Empress Josephine, born on the island in 1763, is Martinique's most famous native. She is both revered for her fame and reviled for her part in propagating the slave trade. La Pagerie is a charming museum devoted to all things empress, but you can also see a statue of Josephine in Fort-de-France that was beheaded and splashed with red paint in 1991 by angry locals who were never caught.
Martinique is a sprawling island, and it's simply too vast to cover everything in a day. Narrow down your choices (beach day at Pointe du Bout for one visit, a trip to the rain forest and Saint-Pierre on another visit, etc.). Touring Fort-de-France -- and indulging in one of those great three-hour French lunches -- can consume a day as well, with numerous interesting architectural sites, a gorgeous park (La Savane) and shopping that ranges from pricey French-style boutiques to open-air markets.
Both terminals offer restroom facilities and easy access to taxis. La Tourelles offers two duty-free shops and Wi-Fi, but it can be spotty. Otherwise, there's not much going on in the immediate port area at La Tourelles. Head into the city of Fort-de-France or to the Pointe Simon terminal area, where a cruise village is set up on days when ships visit. There, you'll find stands with food and souvenirs. A business center is also in the works for Pointe Simon.
Fort-de-France: Unfortunately, the actual Fort de France isn't accessible to visitors, as it's been back in service as a naval base since 2001. You can still see it from atop its perch next to the Pointe Simon terminal, but other city highlights are more accessible, including La Savane, the city's lush 12.5-acre park. Don't miss the statue of Napoleon's Empress Josephine, which was vandalized in 1991, leaving her eerily headless with one hand chopped off and red paint streaks representing blood around her neck. The culprits were never found, and local officials decided to leave the statue without a head. (Rue de la Liberte)
The Bibliotheque Schoelcher, a Romanesque- and Byzantine-style library and architectural wonder (designed by Gustave Eiffel, after whom the Eiffel Tower was named), was built for the Paris Exposition of 1889. In 1895, it was shipped, piece by piece, to Fort-de-France and reassembled. (Rue de la Liberte, across from La Savane park)
In town, get your bearings by heading to Place Monseigneur Romero. There you'll find Cathedrale St.-Louis (at Rue Schoelcher), built in 1674, and a small outlet of France's Galeries Lafayette shops, ranging from local stores that sell household items to French boutiques, lined along streets like Rue Victor-Hugo, Rue de la Republique and Place Monsignor Romero. The big duty-free department store is Roger Albert (Rue Victor-Hugo 7 - 9), which carries all manner of French merchandise, from jewelry to cosmetics.
We also love the city market at Rue Blenac at Rue Antoine Siger; the covered marketplace is full of vendors selling everything from local foodstuffs and Martinican vanilla to straw hats, madras bags and jams. (Open Monday to Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
In an old courthouse, you'll find the Camille Darsiers Cultural Center, where locals perform traditional dances for cruise passengers on days when ships are in port. As you're walking inside, don't miss the statue of Victor Schoelcher, who was instrumental in abolishing slavery on Martinique. (Corner of Rue Schoelcher and Moreau de Jones)
Trois Ilets / Pointe du Bout: Take the ferry from the waterfront (20 minutes each way), which has decent beaches like Anse-Mitan and Anse-a-l'Ane, as well as a St. Tropez ambience. It's also home to some of the island's major resorts, such as the Kalenda Trois Ilets and Hotel Bakoua. The atmosphere, with its cafes and shops, will transport you to the South of France.
Water Sports: Ever tried sea kayaking in a see-through kayak? Give it a shot with tour operator Fleur d'O (97280 Le Vauclin; 696 50 25 35). They'll take you out for a couple hours of paddling through crystal-clear waters. You'll learn a lot about the ecology of the area as you spot wildlife like starfish and other native flora and fauna. Or try stand-up paddleboarding with Glisse and Love (696 70 41 62) at Madiana Plage in the town of Schoelcher. Both are great for those who enjoy active pursuits, but you'll need to rent a car or take a cab to get to either location.
Drive to St.-Pierre: Rent a car, and set off for Martinique's northwest coast. The island's original town, dating back to 1635, was a flourishing city until nearby volcano Mont Pelee erupted in 1902, killing all 30,000 residents (save for the jail's only prisoner, who was the lone survivor). Beyond its history, the town, which was ultimately rebuilt but never again served as the central city, has a terrific waterfront (lots of cafes); here and there you'll find black-sand beaches. In town, check out the Musee Volcanologique (Volcano Museum). (Rue Victor-Hugo)
Drive to Macouba: Rent a car, and travel to this fishing village on the island's north end, which boasts awesome views of nearby Dominica, the sea and mountains. Other on-the-way diversions include a stop at J.M. Distillery, which is still operational and tucked into a gorgeous valley.
Shop Among Locals: The Galleria is the island's largest mall (not half as big as typical American mega-malls, however). It's fun for its foreign feel; you'll see outposts of French chains like Kookai, Morgan and Pimkie. There's also a fabulous supermarket. It's huge, and it's a great place to buy French wines.
Hire a Boat: Venture from Fort-de-France to the marina in Trois Ilets via the ferry at the Pointe Simon cruise terminal. The ride will take about 20 minutes, and once there, you'll find a number of private boat owners who will take you out swimming, snorkeling, parasailing or sightseeing, for a fee.
On Foot: Fort-de-France itself is a walkable harborfront city. You can walk to the city from both terminals; just follow street signs pointing to "centre de ville."
By Taxi: Taxis are available at both the cruise terminal and in the city center. Editor's Note: Avoid public transportation, as few drivers speak English, and fares are in euros. Instead, opt for taxi service from your terminal; drivers generally are English-speakers, and you can pay with U.S. currency.
By Rental Car: Budget (800-472-3325) has an office at the cruise terminal. Be warned that road signage is in French, and roads are narrow and excessively winding.
By Ferry: An affordable ferry service, which leaves from the Pointe Simon terminal, offers trips to nearby locales, including Trois Islets / Pointe du Bout (about a 20-minute ride). Fares are in euros.
Note that all beaches on Martinique are public, so go where you please, but do be mindful of those who are staying at resorts located there.
Best for a Half-Day Visit: Anse-Mitan and Anse-a-l'Ane in Pointe du Bout offer a relaxed atmosphere, and in town you'll find lots of cafes and shops if you tire of sand and sun.
Best for Naturists: Les Salines in Sainte-Anne, on the island's southern tip (rental car or taxi ride required), is great for people-watching. Nearby Pointe Marin is also gorgeous and attracts lots of locals.
Best for Seclusion: Madiana Plage, in the town of Schoelcher, is small, quiet and generally not crowded. There you'll find restrooms and outdoor showers for rinsing off sand after swimming, paddleboarding or kayaking.
Best for a Laid-Back Party Vibe: Le Coin beach in the town of Le Carbet, about a 30-minute drive or taxi ride from Fort-de-France, is ideal for those who enjoy music, topless sunbathing and fruity cocktails. Water sports are also offered, and bathrooms and restaurants are right on the beach.
Best Black-Sand Beach: Enjoy volcanically produced black sand at the beaches of La Raisinier in Le Carbet, a 40-minute ride or drive from Fort-de-France. Look around and you'll see Mt. Pelee towering above in the distance. The beach is long and winding, bumping up against the coastal road, which can be busy at times. There are virtually no amenities.
Traditional food on Martinique is split between Creole and French. Menus feature lots of Caribbean dishes that incorporate fish, chicken, seafood, and fresh fruits and vegetables, but you'll also find more French-inspired cuisine, including foie gras and boudin noir (blood sausage). If you try one local dish while you're in town, make sure it's accra (cod fritters).
La Cave a Vins: If you want to feel like you're in France, this is the best place in town. It's part wine store, part restaurant. Its chef, who hails from the south of France, has been in Martinique for nearly 20 years; the menu features duck, fresh fish and foie gras, and the tarte tatin (an apple tart) is, well, ooh-la-la. (124 Rue Victor Hugo, Fort-de-France; open for lunch daily, except Sunday and Monday, from noon to 2 p.m.; 596 70 33 02)
La Marine: Located right at the marina in Trois Ilets, La Marine offers both French and Creole dishes, as well as options for less adventurous palates. It works well for anyone looking for an affordable bite in a casual atmosphere. (Pointe du Bout Marina, 97229 Trois Ilets; open noon to 11 p.m.; 596 66 02 32)
Chez Carole: At the back of the open-air market in Fort-de-France, you'll find Chez Carole, a tiny stand where a local woman named Carole makes some of the best accras on the island. You can also choose from a variety of other Creole dishes. (Fort-de-France open-air market, corner of Rue Blenac at Rue Antoine Siger; open Monday to Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Le Petibonum: For a low-key lunch right on the beach, check out this bar-restaurant, which specializes in Creole dishes like Colombo (curried meat) and crawfish. It's also got the perfect atmosphere for enjoying a drink made with local rum. (Ask for planteur punch.) You can also lounge on the beach, rent water sports equipment and try flyboarding. Be sure to say hello to owner and chef Guy Ferdinand, also affectionately known as "Chef Hot Pants." (Le Coin beach, 97221 Le Carbet; Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.; 596 78 04 34)
Ships primarily dock at one of two terminals. Located on the edge of the city of Fort-de-France, La Tourelles is a one-mile, 15-minute walk (or five-minute taxi ride) to the Centre de Ville (center of town). This area has one berth and can only accommodate smaller ships.
Two-berth Pointe Simon terminal is located downtown, right in the heart of the waterfront, and the city's eateries, shops and historic attractions are nearby. This terminal underwent a series of renovations to expand the number and size of the ships it can accommodate. (Vessels as large as those in Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class can now dock there.)
A feasibility study is currently underway to determine whether a third terminal is needed at the town of St.-Pierre. Port officials say there's no official timeline for when a decision will be made.
Be aware that roads on Martinique -- especially those that weave their way through the mountainous areas -- are astoundingly winding. If you're prone to nausea and plan to venture from the immediate port area, you'd be wise to pack your motion sickness remedy of choice.
Also note that topless bathing is common on many Martinican beaches.
Euros are used on Martinique; dollars generally aren't accepted, except by a handful of taxi drivers near the terminal who cater specifically to cruise passengers. You'll find ATMs and an exchange bureau -- Change Caribe -- in Fort-de-France, just a short walk from the Pointe Simon terminal. (It's also walkable from La Tourelles, but it's a bit farther.) It can be difficult to find places to exchange dollars after you've left Fort-de-France, so if you're headed out to explore, secure some euros before you go. Visit www.xe.com for the most up-to-date exchange rates.
French is the primary language spoken on Martinique. You'll find English-speakers in most major tourist areas, but otherwise, be prepared with a phrasebook.
Take home rum or banana jam for the foodie in your life, or snag clothing, bags and housewares made from brightly colored madras fabric.
Get local with rum made from sugarcane grown at one of seven active distilleries located on the island. Ti' punch (rum, sugarcane juice and lime) and planteur punch (rum, fruit juice and lime) are two notable mixed drinks that are made with it. French wines are also readily available.