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Martinique is one of four islands in the Caribbean that are part of France (others include St. Martin, Guadeloupe and St. Barth's) -- and it definitely is French. Few speak English here and you'll find that signs and menus as well aren't meant to accommodate anyone who isn't French. So a visit here, especially in the quick time of a day's port of 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 grow sugar cane and bananas, and as such rolling fields and groves mark the lush countryside. It's got an enormously respected reputation for producing unique and refined rums. Head up to Mt. Pelee to experience its rain forest. Its beaches 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 veered 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 (La Pagerie is a charming museum devoted to all things Empress) and reviled (witness the beheading of an elegantly designed, 19th-century, marble statue of Josephine that occurred a few years ago. The statue is located on a piece of prime greenery in Fort-de-France's La Savane Park).
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 St.-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 its numerous interesting architectural sites, a gorgeous park (La Savane) and shopping that ranges from pricey French-style boutiques to open-air markets.
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain (Trinidad) • San Juan • St. Barts • St. Kitts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
French wine or a snifter of JM Distillery's rhum vieux.
Where You're Docked
Ships primarily dock at the Tourelles Terminal. Located on the edge of the city of Fort-de-France (and a cargo port), it's a 15-minute walk (or five-minute taxi ride) to the Centre de Ville (center of town).
Only very small ships -- such as SeaDream -- are lucky enough to pull up to the Pointe Simon terminal. It's located downtown, right in the heart of the waterfront, and the city's eateries, shops and historic attractions are nearby.
For those passengers whose ships have docked at Tourelles Terminal ... nothing is nearby. Head into Fort-de-France. Those on smaller vessels who dock at Pointe Simon are in the heart of everything.
On Foot: Fort-de-France itself is a walkable harbor-front city. You can walk to the city from the main terminal; there's a helpful "blue line" painted on the roadway that stretches out of the terminal, ostensibly to give you directions though we found it petered out about two-thirds of the way there. Still it wasn't hard to figure out how to find it at that point ... just follow street signs pointing to "centre de ville."
Taxis: Taxis are available at both the cruise terminal and in the city center. Cost between Tourelles Terminal and downtown is about 10 euros.
Renting a Car: Budget (800-472-3325) has an office at the cruise terminal; rates start at $36. Avis (800-331-1212) has a storefront in Fort-de-France; rates begin at $47. Otherwise, most major car rental firms have airport locations. Editor's Note: all but the more "deluxe" car rentals are, oddly enough, non-air-conditioned.
A must on any itinerary is a tour of Fort-de-France, where highlights include La Savane, the city's lush 12.5-acre park. (Don't miss the statue of Napoleon's Empress Josephine, which was vandalized years ago, leaving her eerily headless with one hand chopped off and red paint streaks epitomizing blood around her neck.)
In town, get your bearings by heading to Place Monseigneur Romero (at Schoelcher). There you'll find Cathedral St.-Louis and a (small) outlet of France's Galeries Lafayette shops, ranging from local stores that sell household items (many sell lovely fabric) to Frenchy boutiques. They are lined along streets like Rue Victor-Hugo, Rue de la Republique and Place Monsignor Romero for fascinating Frenchy boutiques. The big "duty-free" department store here is Roger Albert (Rue Victor-Hugo 7 - 9), which carries all manner of French merchandise from jewelry to cosmetics. The Bibliotheque Schoelcher, a Romanesque-Byzantine-style library and an architectural wonder, was built for the Paris Exposition of 1889 and shipped piece by piece -- and then reassembled -- to Fort-de-France.
We also love the city market at Rue Blenac at Rue Isambert; the covered marketplace is full of vendors selling everything from local foodstuffs to Martinique vanilla, straw hats and bags, and jams.
For a St. Tropez ambience, take the ferry from the waterfront to Pointe du Bout (20 minutes each way), which has some good beaches -- Anse-Mitan and Anse-a-l'Ane -- and is home to some of the island's major resorts, such as the Kalenda Trois Ilets and the Bakoua. The atmosphere, with its cafes and shops, will transport you to the South of France.
Been There, Done That
Rent a car and drive to St.-Pierre, on 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, is in the midst of a spiffing up and has a terrific waterfront (lots of cafes); here and there you'll find black sand beaches. In town, check out the Musee Volcanologique (Rue Victor-Hugo).
Rent a car and drive to Macouba, a fishing village on the island's north end with awesome views of nearby Dominica, the sea and mountains. Other on-the-way diversions include a stop at J.M. Distillery, which is still old-fashioned and tucked into a gorgeous valley.
Take a taxi to the Galleria and shop among locals. The island's largest shopping mall (not half as big as typical American mega-malls, however) is fun for its foreign feel -- you'll see outposts of French chains like Kookai, Morgan and Pimkie. There's also a fabulous supermarche -- it's huge, and it's a great place to buy French wines.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Anse-Mitan and Anse-a-l'Ane in Pointe du Bout.
Best Beach for Snorkeling: St. Anne.
Best Beach for Naturists and People-Watching: Pointe Les Salines, on the island's southern tip (rental car required). Nearby St. Anne is also gorgeous and attracts lots of locals.
If you want to feel like you're in France, the best place in town is La Cave A Vins (Tuesday - Saturday, noon - 2 p.m, 124 Rue Victor-Hugo). It's part wine store, part restaurant, and it keeps getting better -- the restaurant recently moved into lofty new digs (ask for a table in the conservatory, with its glass ceiling, in the back; the wall murals of French wine country are delightful). Its chef, who hails from the south of France, has been in Martinique for more than a dozen years; the menu features duck, fresh fish and foie gras, and the tarte tatin is, well, ooh-la-la.
Historic Glimpse: The Fort-de-France Walking Tour gives you a good overview of this historic Creole-style city.
Island Overview: This tour takes you to the island's north side, visiting the rain forest, St. Pierre (the town that was destroyed in a volcano eruption in 1902), and a rum distillery.
Sail & Snorkel: These trips head to the beach of Anse Dufour; gear is provided (as is a plentiful supply of rum punch).
Best Island Outreach: The Martinique 4x4 Adventure, via four-wheel drive vehicles, offers a look at the island's varied, gorgeous countryside and villages, with stops that also includes its rain forest.
Staying in Touch
23 Rue Schoelcher (just look for the sign saying "Internet"); this cyber cafe, like most of those scattered throughout Fort-de-France, is located on the second floor of a storefront. There are no cyber facilities located at the Tourelles Terminal.
For More Information
Martinique Promotion Bureau: 800-391-4909
On the Web: www.martinique.org
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Martinique
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
All images appear courtesy of the Martinique Promotion Bureau and are copyright David Sanger.