The perfect recipe: blend one part French and one part Caribbean culture and cuisine. Add white and black sand beaches, turquoise waters and lush rain forests. Sweeten with sugar cane and add a dash of rum. Then savour and enjoy Martinique.

Serving Up a Whirlwind Tour of Martinique

As we descended towards Aimé Césaire airport, the sight of mountains and valleys carpeted in green filled my tiny airplane window. Little more than an hour later, after traveling north along the western side of the island, we arrive in St. Pierre.

Once referred to as the Paris of the Caribbean, St. Pierre was a vibrant city with running water and electricity, when in the spring of 1902 Mount Pelée began showing ever increasing signs of volcanic activity. At the time volcanology was in its infancy and with an election just days away, the political powers rejected the thought of an evacuation. A lack of science and a dearth of politics left the population of 30,000 in Mount Pelée’s crosshairs. On the morning of May 8th, steam, gases and ash barreled down the mountain and incinerated the city and ships anchored in the bay. The lone survivor, Cyparis, though badly burned, owed his life to the protection offered by his thick prison cell walls. You can visit Cyparis’ jail cell and the ruins of a once grand 800-seat theatre, still baring black scorch marks on the stone walls.

Chef Hot Pants, Guy Ferdinand in his brand new kitchen at Le Petitbonum

Chef Hot Pants, Guy Ferdinand in his brand new kitchen at Le Petitbonum
Photo Julie Kalan

It is here, in St. Pierre, below the cloud shrouded peak of Mount Pelée that I am spending my first night in Martinique. The balcony of my second floor room, at the Villa Saint-Pierre, offers an ideal spot to watch the sunset over the Caribbean Ocean. This welcoming 9-room hotel is located on the tranquil, dark volcanic sand fringed bay.

Just a few minutes south, literally on the beach at Carbet is Le Petibonum. Dinning here is an experience. Chef and owner Guy Ferdinand, aka Chef Hot Pants, creates a relaxed atmosphere where fresh ingredients fan the flame of creative cooking. And flames do abound with Ferdinand’s panache for flambé. Standing in his new stainless steel kitchen, wearing a traditional white chef’s half-coat and his now iconic hot pants, Ferdinand beams with pride and passion. From the fried balalu fish appetizer to the tatin de banane dessert, each sumptuous course is a delight.

An Evergreen Island

Lush, verdant, brimming with vegetation – normally the use of all these descriptions would be somewhat redundant, but they barely begin to capture the emerald gem that is Martinique. One of the best ways to discover the flora of the island is by visiting the Domaine d’Emeraude. Opened three years ago, in Morne Rouge, the Domaine d’Emeraude is an idyllic natural cathedral of foliage. Ferns, palms, bamboo, orchids, and hibiscus make up the more than 100 native botanicals. Three trails, of varying length, guide you through the rain forest. Greenhouses store rare endemic species and an array of plants historically used for their medicinal properties. According to Promotion Manager, Murielle Thermed-Giboyau the plants in the traditional Creole garden fulfill three criteria: provide beauty, food and healing functions. A pavilion houses interactive exhibits explaining the formation of Martinique, the island habitats and climate. (Note: Information panels are in French.)

The Atlantic Coast

Enjoy a nap in the day bed alongside a private plunge pool at Plein Soleil.

Enjoy a nap in the day bed alongside a
private plunge pool at Plein Soleil.
Photo: Julie Kalan

Still in the northern part of the island, Anse Charpentier offers a great spot for lunch. Le Point de Vue Restaurant serves delicious island specialties, like: acras (cod or vegetable fritters), colombo chicken and fricasseed octopus and conch. The view is stunning, as white foamy waves crash mightily against the shore. This is definitely not a good spot for swimming, but it is beautifully picturesque.

Further south, nestled in the hills of Le François is the hotel Plein Soleil. With only 16 Creole/Caribbean styled rooms, spread out over five villas, the atmosphere in this tropical garden oasis is a rarified blend of serenity and romance. My room includes a king-sized netted-canopy bed, a covered outdoor kitchenette and dining area, a large deck with a plunge pool, and a poolside cabana with a daybed. The meals, a gastronomic delight, are located in the elegant main building, where strings of delicate white lights twinkle and reflect in the koi pond.

The Caribbean Coast

The capital city, Fort de France is on the western side of the island. On a peninsula overlooking the city and the bay of Fort de France is the Saint-Louis Fort. Perched atop a natural cliff, construction on the fort began in the 17th century. The Fort de France Tourism office recently began offering guided tours to this still active naval base. Originally the fort was to guard against an English naval invasion, but today the base is primarily involved with stopping drug smugglers and humanitarian missions. While touring the fort you can see volcanic rocks and bits of coral embedded in the walls, beautiful vistas and the occasional large iguana. These fort residents are not native to the island, but were brought here when the fort was temporarily used as a zoo, in the 1950’s. A few escaped and set up permanent residence.

The Schoelcher Library, built for the 1889 Paris Exposition and then transported to Martinique

The Schoelcher Library, built for the 1889 Paris
Exposition and then transported to Martinique.
Photo: Julie Kalan

A guided walking tour of Fort de France is another must-do while visiting the capital. The highlights include: La Savane Park, featuring the often-headless statue of the Martinique born Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte; the Henri Picq designed, St. Louis Cathedral, crowned with a 60m steeple and adorned with unique stained glass windows depicting both biblical scenes and the people of Martinique; the Schoelcher Library, named for Victor Schoelcher who led the fight to abolish slavery in the French West Indies, the building was built in France for the 1889 Paris Exposition, then dismantled, shipped to Martinique and reassembled.

Colourful souvenirs at the Fort de France covered market.

Colourful souvenirs at the Fort de France
covered market. Photo Julie Kalan

We ended the tour at the covered market – a riot of colours, local fruits, madras clothed dolls, spices, traditional straw hats known as bakoua and more. This is a wonderful place to buy souvenirs. If you are here at lunch time, make sure to walk all the way to the back of the market… that’s where you will find Chez Carole. I highly recommend Carole’s hearty lambi (conch) plate.

Across the Bay

Tonight’s accommodations are located on the southern side of Bay Fort de France, in an area of Trois-Ilets known as Pointe du Bout. Hotel La Pagerie has 96 renovated rooms, on three floors, built around a garden courtyard. The pool encircles a tiny island of palm trees and features a swim-up bar. Music and dance shows are held in the open-air lobby several times a week. The hotel is located in the Creole Village, a cluster of boutiques, ice cream and souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants. Within 300m of the hotel you will find the marina where the Fort de France ferry docks, a casino and Anse-Mitan beach – frequented by tourists and friendly locals.

A Creole garden, post-slavery period houses and a poignant history lesson at La Savane des Esclaves.

A Creole garden, post-slavery period houses and a poignant
history lesson at La Savane des Esclaves.
Photo: Julie Kalan

Not far from the tourist area, amid the forest covered hills, is La Savane des Esclaves. Created by Gilbert Larose, the site strives to ensure that the traditions and history of the island are remembered. The guided tour begins with a brief history of slavery on the island. Carved mahogany statues illustrate this history. A fleur de lis on the back of one wooden figure will forever remain with me. As Larose explained, the first time an escaped slave was recaptured their ears would be chopped off and a fleur de lis branded on their shoulder blade. The site, also, includes Creole gardens filled with medicinal plants and tiny post-slavery period houses with dirt floors and cane leaf roofs.

A Five Star Stay

Try windsurfing and kite surfing or simply relax on the private beach at Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa.

Try windsurfing and kite surfing or simply relax on the private beach at Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa. Photo: Julie Kalan

I am spending my last night in Martinique at the five star Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa. This luxury resort is on the Atlantic coast, in the Le François area. The resort has fifty very spacious suites, 31 of which have their own private plunge pool. Meandering paths, lined with palm trees, cacti, and blooming bougainvillea lead to the 18 villas that house the suites. The resort boasts two top notch restaurants, a bar, spa and cardio-fitness room. The clear turquoise waters of the lagoon lie between a coral reef and the small crescent-shaped beach. While an arbour of seagrapes leads to the resort’s secluded pier. From the edge of the curved infinity pool, I try to take in all the beautiful scenery. My four day whirlwind tour of Martinique has left me with memories to last a lifetime.

Travel Planner

Located in the eastern Caribbean, just south of Dominica and north of St. Lucia, Martinique is only about 80km long and 39km wide. The tropical climate on this French island keeps temperatures heavenly all year round.

French and Creole are the main languages spoken. A basic knowledge of French is definitely an asset, but don’t let a potential language barrier deter you. To tour Fort de France, Fort St. Louis, and other sites with an English speaking guide inquire at each location in advance, especially when traveling in low season.

Air Canada flies direct from Montreal to Martinique twice a week during high season and once a week the rest of the year. During high season, Air Transat has one direct flight per week.

www.lamartinique.ca

Accommodations:
Villa Saint-Pierre www.hotel-villastpierre.fr
Hôtel Plein Soleil www.hotelpleinsoleil.fr
La Pagerie www.hotel-lapagerie.com/en
Cap Est www.capest.com

Places to See:
Domaine d’Emeraude (website is only in French) www.pnr-martinique.com
Fort de France (website is only in French) www.tourismefdf.com
La Savane des Esclaves (website is only in French)  www.lasavanedesesclaves.fr