Traveled and written by Ceil Miller-Bouchet
Imagine a Caribbean island where village church steeples mingle with palm trees, the scent of baking croissants melds with that of passion fruit, the island’s liquid soul – rum – is spelled with an h, and “pas de probleme” is the lingua franca. For my French-American family, Martinique was the perfect place to ring in the new year. But, with the little-known host of direct flights from JFK, Boston and Baltimore to Fort de France, the “Flower Island – part of the French West Indies chain that includes St. Barts, Guadeloupe, St. Martin and St. Lucia – also makes for a great, under-the-radar destination for a last-minute spring break.
If you heart France (and who doesn’t?) you will love Martinique because, honestly, it’s France at our doorstep. As one of France’s cherished overseas territories, the island benefits from top-notch infrastructure and services. This translates into well-paved (if narrow) roads, regular trash collection, potable water, good public safety, and educated, French-speaking locals who seem happy to welcome Americans. Plus, most of the spotless beaches are part of the well-run and beautifully-kept French national park system, which means little beachfront development other than surf shops, creole cuisine beach shacks and homemade ice cream stands. An added bonus? You (and your kids) can brush up on your French. It’s nice to know, though, that you’ll also find English-speakers in the main tourist hubs.
Finally, the island’s natural beauty is sublime, and easily enjoyed by taking advantage of the well-organized network of “GR” trails (GR stands for Grands Randonnes, the French-run system of well-marked hiking paths). We hiked along an 18th-century irrigation channel in the lush, mountainous center of the island and also on the shaded path that connects many of the stunning beaches on the island’s southern coast.
Getting there and getting around
Martinique is about a four-hour flight from New York. We took Norwegian, the excellent low-cost carrier that flies direct to Fort de France from New York, Boston, and Baltimore. (American also flies direct to Martinique.) We rented a car; the best way to get around. But the beach and mountain roads are narrow (it’s France!) and winding, with plenty of speed bumps and roundabouts. The secluded pool villa we rented was at the end of a potholed dirt road, and I wished we’d rented a car with better shock absorbers.
Other than the touristy but fine Club Med, near Sainte Anne, the hotel pickings are slim, for now. I stayed at the four-star Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa a couple years back, but the bland Balinese décor killed the French vibe I was seeking. This time, we spent three nights at La Maison de l’ilet Oscar, a rustic-chic five-room B&B in a restored colonial villa on a private island, called Ilet Oscar, about 30 minutes from the airport. There’s nothing to do but read, sun, play board games, kayak, and hang out on the dock. The caretakers, Odile and Jean Luc, make the most amazing dinners, which we enjoyed every evening under the shaded pergola overlooking the ocean. The islet is a 10-minute boat ride from the mainland, so you’re really off the grid.
Next, we headed to the southern tip of the island and rented a private villa near Sainte Anne through VillaVeo. The people at VillaVeo speak English, are super-responsive, and also have a helpful concierge service. Sainte Anne is a nice base if you’re planning beach-y activities (you can kite and wind surf at Cap Chevallier on the Atlantic side or hit the soft sand and splash in the calm, turquoise water at Plage des Salines on the Caribbean side). If you’re into sailing, Marin, near Sainte Anne, is the yachting hub. Anse Figuier, just north of Marin, is a hidden gem of a family beach with a beachfront public park and a small island history museum in a restored 18th century rum distillery right on the little cove.
The open-air restaurant at Habitation Ceron (habitation means plantation, in French) is at the end of the road on the north end of the island but so worth the drive! I don’t use the word paradise lightly, but those who make their way to Ceron will find a tropical heaven, thanks to the sheer will and impeccable taste of the current owner, who has given her family’s 17th-century sugar plantation new life as an eco-chic day-trip destination and cocoa farm supplying high-end local chocolaterie, Lauzea. The farm-to-table food is amazing, and you can work it off with a stroll along the plantation’s jungle nature trail to the massive 300-year-old Zamana tree, which has been voted one of the most beautiful trees in France. There’s also a mountain stream for wading. And a well-curated gift shop with embroidered cotton tunics and a selection of beach chapeaux. The Anse Ceron, just up the road, has a soft black sand beach.
For another special treat, you can book lunch at La Maison de l’Ilet Oscar, where Jean-Luc and Odile whip up the most delicious local specialties at their chic table d’hote in a colonial home on a deserted island that’s listed on the national registry of historic sites. Be sure to ask them to book a boat transfer for you from the little fishing port of Francois. It’s a half-day experience, because you’ll want to ask your boat to take you to the nearby sandbar, called “La Baignoire de Jospehine” (Jospehine’s Bathtub, after Napoleon’s empress, who was born in Martinique) for a swim.
I also love lunch at Depaz Distillerie, where a windmill has been converted into a breezy hilltop restaurant with amazing views of the Caribbean Sea serving up Creole specialties like boudin blanc, a seasonal sausage made with fish and local crayfish.
Befitting its French pedigree, Martinique’s rhum agricole is some of the finest in the Caribbean, because it’s made from pressed sugar cane (as opposed to molasses, which is the basis of industrial rum). In fact, the northern part of the island, around the Depaz and Nissan Distilleries, was the Caribbean’s center of rum production until 1902, when Martinique’s Mount Pelee volcano erupted, destroying the rum-exporting port of Saint Pierre (once known as the petit Paris of the Caribbean). But the industry has revived and, for rum-lovers, there is even a well-marked “Route de Rhum” that connects the island’s distilleries. We especially enjoyed visiting Clement Distillery, where the 17-acre garden is studded with contemporary sculpture and the new Foundation Clement exhibition center complements the 19th-century rum production facility tour. Families with younger kids will like the Saint James Distillery and Rum Museum, though, because of the vintage train ride through the sugar cane fields. Each distillery has its special charm and story but, unless you’re really into rum, or island history, I would choose just one distillery to visit, especially if you’re on a family trip.
Unlike in St. Barts, I didn’t find much interesting shopping in Martinique. That said, it is France. And so we all had fun stocking our villa’s kitchen with wine, cheese and snacks at Carrefour (the French supermarket chain). We scanned the aisles for our favorite treats: “Tucs” – a kind of French Ritz cracker – for my son; traditional Eloi brand Martinique chocolate bars, with colorful Caribbean-retro packaging for me; refrigerated crème caramel and crème chocolat in those cute little glass pots for my daughter; foie gras for my husband. The most difficult choice? Deciding what kind of rum to buy. Vive les vacances!
Kelly's Packing List- Martinique
I think vacation should be a time to take some risks with your personal style, and I love mixing patterns. This striped top from Johanna Ortiz would be super fun with this Dodo Bar Or skirt (find it at Buru) or white jeans and these flats from Tabitha Simmons. Easy sunnies from Warby Parker, a chic sun hat from Yosuzi, orange maillot from MarysiaSwim, Beauty Counter Sunscreen, a Roxanne Assoulin choker, and the Corroon Fanabana!