Photo Courtesy of Thomas Baillieux
The island of Martinique is one of the Caribbean's finest escapes. Mont Pelée stands volcanic sentinel over a rocky landscape marked by spectacular beaches, secluded bays, and dense rain forest. Martinique’s busy capital, Fort-de-France, provides a lively and modern cosmopolitan core and packs treme…ndous historical caché into a small area. The north of the island is known for lush mountainous terrain, while the south contains some of the Caribbean’s best beaches and bays.
What to know before you go to Martinique
A tropical Caribbean climate makes Martinique a great year-round getaway destination. However, crowds tend to swell during the dry season, from December until May. The rainy season lasts from June until November (peaking in September), with heavy—albeit brief—rain showers most days. August is often overshadowed by the threat of hurricanes, and prices fall accordingly. Note that the French flock to Martinique in droves during their holidays, which drives hotel prices up.
Martinique is an overseas department of France. As such, it is considered part of Europe, and European Union immigration laws apply: Citizens of the E.U., the United States, Canada, Australia, and many more nations may visit without obtaining a visa. The quickest way to get here is to fly, and Martinique boasts excellent air connections via Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport. Large cruise liners also dock at the harbor in Fort de France throughout high season from December to April.
Fort-de-France is a busy city by Caribbean standards, and traffic can be extremely congested at times; indeed, there are more vehicles registered here, per capita, than anyplace else in France. Taxis are common, yet fees are extremely high. Public transport options are limited, with only a small fleet of buses serving the city proper. If you plan to travel around the island, the most convenient option is to rent a car. You can driving using a license from most nations, and the roads are generally kept in excellent condition.
Wine and dine to your heart’s content: Martinique is home to an eclectic mixture of local Caribbean specialties and exquisite European fare, with a culinary history informed by French tradition, Creole creativity, and Caribbean ingredients. There are nearly 500 dining establishments on the island, a number of which are world-renowned. High-end restaurants carry a substantial price tag, but you'll also encounter dozens of snack stands and small restaurants that serve up delicious island fare at reasonable prices. Gastronomes should time their visit to coincide with a local food festival to experience the best of Martinique's culinary culture.
Martinique boasts an impressive calendar of annual events given the relatively small size of the island. French traditions remain strong here, and the locals observe common European holidays. Bastille Day (July 14) is one of the most popular annual festivities, along with the Beaujolais nouveau celebrations that mark the annual grape harvest each November. Vaval, in February, is known throughout the Caribbean as Carnaval. In July, visitors and islanders alike enjoy Le Tour de Martinique, a cycling event akin to the Tour de France. The Tour de Yoles Rondes, an internationally renowned boating event, takes place in August. The Martinique Jazz Festival, in the last week of November, is the oldest and one of the largest jazz festivals in the Caribbean.
Sand, sun, surf, and epic mountain terrain may draw many visitors to Martinique, but the island is also home to a fascinating cultural history. The island was "discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1502, but it was inhabited by the native Arawaks—and, later, the Caribs—long before and after his visit. Martinique was not visited again by Europeans until 1632, when the French came to settle. They warred with the Caribs, and they massacred thousands before solidifying their dominion over the island. Some indigenous artifacts remain, though many were destroyed in the devastating 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée. Martinique's most treasured cultural highlights include the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial, Scoelcher Library, La Savane Park, the St. Louis Cathedral, and the Balata Gardens.
Martinique, nestled within the Lesser Antilles chain, is known for its diverse and dramatic geography. The eastern shore faces the tempestuous Atlantic, while the western shore cradles the calmer Caribbean. Each of the island's five bays are ripe for exploration, and intrepid visitors can still discover unnamed coves lined by beautiful beaches. Swimming is most popular at Trinite, and you can find quality scuba diving at Pointe Figuier. Martinique’s mountainous northern stretches are dense with tropical rain forests, home to a diversity of sea birds, hummingbirds, and various other island fauna. It’s possible to explore on your own, but many visitors will do well to hire a guide for their first time out in the wild; many a traveler has suffered from exposure after getting lost in the rugged underbrush and stifling heat.
Fort-de-France is a safe city that can still surprise. The capital features plentiful modern attractions—restaurants, galleries, cafes, and shops—alongside a rich cultural milieu of museums, churches, and historical sites. Visit the Musée Departemental d'Archeologie et de Prehistoire de la Martinique for a glimpse into the nation’s turbulent and complex history.
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Flash Parker AFAR Ambassador
Flash Parker is a writer, photographer, and photojournalist originally from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more; additionally, Flash was nominated for a PATA Gold Award in destination journalism.