Martinique is one of four islands in the Caribbean that are part of France (also known as the French West Indies). Others include St. Martin, Guadeloupe and St. Barth's. Few speak English there, and you'll find that signs and menus generally aren't meant to accommodate anyone who isn't French.
Martinique is one of the most intriguing islands in the Caribbean; it's also one of the few 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 Martinique's rain forest, or visit its beaches, which range from the St. Tropez style 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, the homestead and sugar plantation where she grew up, is now a charming museum devoted to all things empress. 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; narrow down your choices (beach day at Pointe du Bout for one day, a trip to the rain forest and Saint-Pierre the next day, 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.
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 cruise 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 on Rue de la Liberte, 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.
Head over to Place Monseigneur Romero to check out the Cathedrale St.-Louis (at Rue Schoelcher), built in 1674.
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. It's on Rue de la Liberte, across from La Savane.
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.
Take the ferry from the waterfront (20 minutes each way) to Trois Ilets/Pointe du Bout, 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, including 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. They'll take you out for a couple of 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 standup paddleboarding with Glisse and Love 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).
Rent a car and travel to Macouba, a 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.
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.
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).
Dining at Le Plein Soleil means enjoying a leisurely meal on a hillside terrace overlooking the sea. The menu might include dishes like mousseline of yam with parmesan cheese, lobster bisque or giramonade a l'orange. Prix-fixe menus are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner; just be sure to make reservations at least 24 hours in advance.
If you want to feel like you're in France, La Cave a Vins 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 (apple tart) is, well, ooh-la-la.
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.
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.
For a low-key lunch right on the beach, check out Le Petibonum, 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."
For Caribbean favorites like callaloo soup or grilled lobster, head to Le Colibri Parfume, a family restaurant located on the northeastern coast of the island. The ocean views are as good as the food.
If you've maxed out on sophisticated French fare during your stay on Martinique, get some comfort food at the quirky Soup Bar du Centre Ville in Fort-de-France. As the name suggests, the menu consists of a variety of soups, including both local fare and international favorites (like goulash). It's a venue for live music as well.
Martinique offers the usual panoply of luxurious resorts, friendly guesthouses and stylish boutique hotels. Don't discount properties that aren't located right on a beach; there are many lovely properties located in the hills a little further inland, boasting spectacular sea views. Winter is high season in the Caribbean, so expect rates to go up accordingly, and be sure to book well in advance.
For Martinique's most luxe digs, look no further than the Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa. All of the property's Asian-influenced suites boast plasma televisions and teak terraces; some also have private plunge pools. Activities include tennis, wind- and kitesurfing, kayaking, sailing and deep-sea diving; there's also an elegant spa on the premises.
Hotel Plein Soleil is a lovely boutique property with airy rooms and a fine restaurant. Though it's not on the beach, it enjoys a serene location in the hills outside of Le Francois with wonderful views of the sea, and there's a pool if you're looking to swim or get a tan. Accommodations have flat-screen TVs, small refrigerators and Wi-Fi.
Funky contemporary decor and striking sea views make La Suite Villa, in Trois Ilets, one of the island's most stylish places to stay. Its spacious suites and secluded villas are perfect for honeymooners or travelers seeking a little romance (private hot tubs), and there's a fantastic infinity pool with a sun deck, which makes up for the lack of a beach.
If you're hoping to stay near the center of Fort-de-France, Le Squash Hotel is a convenient, mid-priced business hotel. Its 105 rooms, spread between two buildings, offer televisions and either sea or garden views. If you can, opt for a Lotus room, rather than a Hibiscus room; those have a few extras like minibars and hair dryers.
If your goal is to shop while you're in town, take home rum or banana jam for the foodie in your life, or snag clothing, bags and housewares made from brightly colored madras fabric.
In Fort-de-France, get your bearings by heading to Place Monseigneur Romero. There you'll find 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, 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.
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.
--written by Carolyn Spencer Brown, with contributions by Sarah Schlichter and Ashley Kosciolek