Ah, the French. They have a knack for great food and wine, and a few hundred years ago they managed to secure a handful of lush tropical islands in the Caribbean. One of them is Martinique, a rugged, rustic-looking island in the Lesser Antilles region.
On a recent trip to explore the island’s eco-tourism options, we totally immersed ourselves in all things French the second we landed in the bustling capital Fort-de-France after a four-hour non-stop flight from New York with Norwegian Airlines.
Because Martinique is in the same time zone as the U.S. East Coast, there’s no jet lag. This means that you can get down to the business of sunbathing, swimming, and sightseeing right away, with enough energy left at the end of the day to go zouk dancing—French Caribbean partner dancing—which is what we did on the first day.
Martinique, along with Guadeloupe, half of Saint Martin, Saint Barth, and French Guiana are overseas departments (regions) of France. The standard of living and laws are similar to those in France. Tourism represents 20 percent of the island’s economy; rum, sugar cane, and bananas make up the rest.
Martinique’s diverse landscape is a combination of micro-climates. Rugged, rocky terrain and dry vegetation characterize the northern part of the island, while mountains and lush green forests, thick with bright tropical flowers, can be found on the southern side. Picturesque coves dot the island, and even the sand is different colours—from black in the north where the semi-active volcano Mount Pelée is, to white on the southern side.
We started our exploration of Martinique at the Jardin de Balata, a tropical garden boasting 3,000 varieties of plants and an aerial path high up in the trees. Having a car to get around is a necessity. We relied on Marc Martial, a chauffeur hired through the local tourist office.
Marc turned us on to a few insider tips, like the exquisite Neisson rum distillery, one of eight on the island (ask for Nico to take you around), and Le Petitbonum, the beachside restaurant/club in the Le Carbet district where Guy Ferdinand, a.k.a. Chef Hot Pants, makes a sublime seviche (raw fish) with freshly caught sea bream.
Hiking, a Huge Tree, and Ice Cream
For those who like to hike, the whole island is accessible, depending on your level of endurance and tolerance to heat. The same goes for biking, but you really have to be in top physical shape to handle the hills.
At the northern part of the island is Mount Pelée (Bald Mountain), a popular hiking spot. Another hiking option is the Trace des Jésuites which crosses the rainforest, or the Savane des Petrifications, which takes you through a moon-like desert and ends at a cliff with crashing waves. For really intrepid hikers, there is La Trace des Caps, a 27 km trail along the Atlantic coast past the island’s coral reef.
Back at our hotel, Hotel Bakoua, after a quick dip in the infinity pool to relax, we set off for the adorable Village Creole at Trois Ilets a few minutes’ walk away. There, we were able to enjoy exceptional and reasonably priced fresh seafood at one of the village’s several restaurants. On our last night, we ate at the nearby Le Kano, a chic beachfront restaurant and bar with a good vibe, and sampled a seviche made with conch and yet another variation on the island specialty: fish fritters.
One of the most unusual and enjoyable excursions we made was to Habitation Céron, a 17th-century estate boasting the largest, oldest indigenous tree on the island. It is called the zamana, it is 300 years old, and its foliage covers almost 2.5 acres. Located in Le Precheur on the northern-most part of the island, the estate, once a sugar refinery, is in the middle of a tropical rainforest. Make sure you stay for lunch and taste the freshly caught crayfish.
This being a French island, ice cream is ubiquitous. The best ice cream maker on Martinique is Ziouka Glaces in Le Corbet. Flavours range from tropical fruits to chocolate with ginger pieces. Inventive and delicious!
We’re already looking at our calendar to plan our return trip to Martinique so we can explore the other side of the island and see all the sights we weren’t able to catch on this trip—as well as revisit our favourite spots.
Isabelle Kellogg is a writer and public relations consultant in the luxury sector, with a passion for diamonds, jewelry, watches, and other luxury products, including travel.