Martinique is one of four French overseas territories in the Caribbean. (The others are St. Martin, Guadeloupe and St. Barts; collectively, they're known as the French West Indies.) French is the first language, and most locals do not speak fluent English; you'll find that signs and menus generally aren't meant to accommodate anyone who isn't French. This can make a visit challenging, especially in the quick time of a day's call, but it's also part of what makes this island so intriguing.
Martinique is one of the few islands that still grows sugarcane and bananas in the rolling fields of its central section, and it has an enormously respected reputation for producing unique and refined rums. Head north to Mont Pelee to experience its rainforest or see the ruins at Saint-Pierre, which are remnants of a volcanic eruption in 1902. Beaches range from the St. Tropez-style of those at the resort town of Pointe du Bout to the naturist-friendly Pointe des Salines and Sainte-Anne, on the south side of the island.
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 small museum set at her birthplace and shows her early life on the island; in Fort-de-France you can also see a statue of Josephine that was beheaded and splashed with red paint in 1991 by angry locals who were protesting her pro-slavery stance.
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 rainforest 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, thanks to numerous interesting architectural sites, gorgeous La Savane park and shopping that ranges from pricy French-style boutiques to open-air markets.
--Updated by Ashley Kosciolek, Editor, and Susan Moynihan, Cruise Critic contributor