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martinique rum barrel barrelsOf all the islands in the Southern Caribbean, Martinique will elicit the most controversy. Some visitors love it; others hate it.

I love it.

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 locals speak English, and you'll find that signs and menus aren't meant to accommodate anyone who isn't French. So a visit here 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: elegant restaurants, chic boutiques in the Galleria, its relatively new 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 in La Savane Park a while back).

Martinique is a sprawling island with plenty to cover over the course of a few days' visit. You could spend one day at Pointe du Bout, take a trip to the rain forest and St.-Pierre on the next. 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.

What to See
A must on any itinerary is some time spent exploring Fort-de-France; where highlights include La Savane, the city's lush 12.5-acre park. Don't miss the aforementioned statue of Napoleon's Empress Josephine. An act of vandalism has left her eerily headless; one of her hands has also been chopped off, and red paint streaks appear around her neck like blood.

In town, get your bearings by heading to Place Monsignor Romero (at Schoelcher). There you'll find Cathedral St.-Louis and a (small) outlet of France's Galeries Lafayette shops. Not far away is 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 to Fort-de-France, where it was then reassembled.

la pagerie martinique empress josephine historic museum house plantation Near the town of Trois Ilets is La Pagerie, a museum that marks the spot where Empress Josephine was born in 1763. This historic plantation displays letters from Napoleon to his wife as well as portraits and other artifacts. You can also wander through the surrounding botanical gardens.

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. Along the way, you may want to stop at the old-fashioned J.M. Distillery, tucked into a gorgeous valley.

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.

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).

Martinique is home to a number of beautiful beaches. Anse-Mitan is one of our favorites, with golden sand and good offshore snorkeling. Les Salines is another lovely stretch of sand, popular with families.

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