Travel

Martinique: Exploring the Caribbean’s “island of flowers”

Renowned for its world-class beaches, ecotourism and historical sites, this tropical paradise exudes relaxation, making it the perfect destination to unwind and escape from everyday life

  • Published Feb 12, 2024
  • Updated Feb 13
  • 2,882 words
  • 12 minutes
A view of Martinique's famous Pitons du Carbet captured from the water.
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Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique

I rise early and tread lightly down a dirt path covered in purple bougainvillea petals and a few fallen coconuts, making my way to Anse Mitan Beach. The sound of frogs singing from the night is replaced by the cooing of doves, and my only company is a pelican, standing on a volcanic rock, fluffing his feathers and staring northward across the mangroves to the capital of Fort-de-France. I can see the Pitons du Carbet, five extinct volcanoes covered in rainforest, looming in the cloudless sky as soft white sand massages my toes. 

Welcome to Martinique, where 70 per cent of the land is a protected national park with 3,000 kinds of tropical trees and rich biodiversity. Green is the island’s colour for its commitment to sustainable development, spicy is its flavour, and Creole is its soul.

A lone pelican spotted on an early morning walk on Anse Mitan Beach, Les Trois-Îlets.
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Located just north of St. Lucia and south of Dominica, Martinique is part of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean Sea. An overseas “department” of France, it has a unique blend of people, culture and cuisine — thanks to the Indigenous Arawak peoples who once lived here before French colonizers in the 17th and 18th centuries brought slaves from Africa. Later on, following the abolishment of slavery in May 1848, waves of immigrants came from South India and elsewhere. 

Small and mountainous, the country is not as built up as some of its better-known neighbours (the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas). And yet, it has three UNESCO designations; one includes the entire island, which was declared part of UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2021.

After tourists from France, Canadians make up the number two source of tourists as Martinique experiences a resurgence of popularity post-COVID. In Dec. 2023, Air Canada introduced a five-hour direct flight from Toronto to Martinique, a key milestone in the evolution of the country’s sustainable tourism strategy.

Writer Marina Jimenez standing outside of the prison ruins in Saint-Pierre.
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With only one all-inclusive hotel, the newly-renovated Club Med Buccaneer’s Creek, set in a coconut grove on the island’s southern peninsula, the country offers what it calls many “green accommodations.” This includes cabins perched high in the treetops, mountain huts, and Le Domaine des Bulles and Dom Nature — lodges with transparent bubble rooms surrounded by greenery.

No matter where you go, expect to eat like a king: outstanding Creole dishes include blaff de poisson (poached fish marinated in lime and garlic), accras de morue (cod fritters), chatrou (baby octopus), all served with delicious French sauces and curry blends. Not to mention the numerous organic tropical fruits such as starfruit, papaya and passion fruit. As our local guide, Andre La Houssaye, told us, “We don’t eat a lot in Martinique, but we like to say, ‘we eat often.’”

The island is full of beautiful beaches and lots of activities, including hiking, swimming and scuba diving, which could keep you occupied for days. But if you have limited time, consider renting a car and exploring some of the highlights listed below.

What to do in Martinique

Hike an active volcano

Located in the country’s less populated north is Mont Pelee, an active volcano and, at 1,345 metres (4,412 feet), the island’s tallest peak. On May 8, 1902, the volcano famously erupted, wiping out 30,000 people and flattening the old capital of Saint-Pierre within seconds. It was the highest death toll of any volcanic activity in the 20th century.

In 2023, Mont Pelee’s volcanoes and forests and the northern Pitons received a UNESCO designation for their unique biodiversity, volcanic features and flora and fauna.

Hiking down Mount Pelée.
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Hiking up Mount Pelée.
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There is a particular thrill to the idea of climbing a volcano – especially when you know the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Martinique monitors the site carefully, and it last erupted in 1932. 

We arrive at the parking lot of the L’aileron Trail on the east side of the volcano around 10 a.m., just as it begins to drizzle. The frangipani trees and ferns are stunning, and I soon see my first blue-headed hummingbird – found only here and in Dominica. 

At the trailhead, I follow a set of slippery, rotten wooden stairs that then give way to giant boulders. Soon, I am on all fours, scrambling between rocks, trying not to fall.

A view from the trail hiking up Mount Pelée.
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It takes approximately four hours to complete the hike, and we only have one. We quickly run out of time to reach the summit. We run into two French tourists who say it took them four hours round trip, noting the stupendous view. One woman said the difficulty of the trail made her cry in some parts – though it was worth it. My advice: arrive by 6:30 a.m. to give yourself enough time to complete the seven-kilometre loop with plenty of water, snacks and sturdy hiking boots.  

But don’t worry, this is by no means Martinique’s only hike. Throughout the island are 385 km of marked trails with day hikes and 20 multi-day hikes of varying degrees of difficulty. Overall, the country has nine ecosystems: tropical, semi-humid and dry forests, high-altitude vegetation, rocky coasts, beaches, seagrass, and rivers, according to Gilles Vicrobeck, president of the Martinique Hiking Committee.“I like Presqu’ile de la Caravelle, a peninsula on the island’s Atlantic side with trails that wind through mangroves, as well as dry forest,” he says. An easier hike to consider is Didier Absalon, a popular trail with day tourists from cruise ships for its shorter distance and wider trails. The start is at the spa resort of Absalon, reached by branching off to the left coming from Fort-de-France, with hot springs, a waterfall, and the source of Didier, the only naturally carbonated water in the Caribbean.

Sail on an electric catamaran to Saint-Pierre

Martinique boasts numerous beautiful beaches: black sand in the north, white sand in the south and bigger waves on the eastern Atlantic side. However, sailing up the western coast in an electric catamaran is a unique way to indulge in ‘blue’ tourism. And, if you’re escaping a Canadian winter, this indulgence is definitely worth it. Leaving at 8:30 a.m. from the Marina in Les Trois-Îlets, Soley Mambo (a 100 per cent electric catamaran) offers full-day excursions with lots of time to watch for dolphins and sea turtles and relax on the water.

A selection of fruits aboard the catamaran.
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More of the delicious food enjoyed while sailing on the catamaran.
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I lie on the catamaran’s beach platform and daydream in the sun, mesmerized by the sound of crashing waves as we sail across the Bay of Fort de France. Our guide, Andre La Houssaye, declares it the “nicest Bay in the Caribbean.” We sail past a yole, a unique boat used in the annual Yoles Rondes sailing regatta. Andre points out the capital and the looming Fort St. Louis, a fortress and modern naval base, before we sail north towards the old capital of Saint Pierre.

We disembark in the midday heat and amble through Saint Pierre’s local market, up steep cobblestone streets to the remains of this once thriving metropolis, which had a commodity exchange and a magnificent cathedral and town hall. It feels like a moment in time as we pass moss-covered rocks in the ruins of the prison that survived the eruption. According to Andre, one of the few survivors was a prisoner named Louis-Auguste Cyparis, who was in solitary confinement in a dungeon with thick walls and a vault-shaped roof when the volcano erupted. Later, he ended up joining the Barnum and Bailey Circus, celebrated as “the man who survived doomsday.” 

Nearby the prison are the ruins of a majestic old theatre, built in 1786, of black volcanic rocks, red clay bricks and Italian marble. 

“You have to respect Lady Nature; when she decides to do something, she will do it,” says Andre, noting the eruption continues to haunt Martinicans.

Back on board our catamaran, we enjoy a delicious lunch of fish, chicken, fruit, and banana flambe before stopping for a swim in Fond Boucher and the Pitons du Carbet, admiring the beautiful coral reef and fish.

As if the day weren’t full enough, the catamaran’s guide and chef break out dancing as we sail back toLes Trois-Îlets, their salsa and zouk moves perfectly in sync as they sing along to French pop songs. An explosion of pure joy, as natural to them as breathing.

Gilbert Larose, the Martinique local who spent years building La Savanne des Esclaves located in Les Trois-Îlets.
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Learn about the preservation of Martinique’s heritage 

Located in Les Trois-Îlets, La Savanne des Esclaves is a three-acre open-air museum built entirely by Martinique local Gilbert Larose. Here, visitors can learn about the islands’s tumultuous past and fight for emancipation.

It took Larose 24 years to construct the beautiful gardens, trails and museum that showcases the island’s Indigenous Peoples, African slaves and those who fled the plantations to live off the land. The rue Case-Negres and the Place de l’Esclave show the tiny thatched roof huts freed slaves lived in and their traditional agricultural ways, including coal ovens, basketry, and crops of cassava and manioc. The well-maintained Creole and medicinal gardens, filled with lemongrass, ginger, thyme and Barbados nut, highlight the way of life. One structure filled with sculptures and murals captures the horrifying violence of slavery and the long road to emancipation. The site, a sobering nod to the past, is also serene, “This is our collective memory,” said Larose. “I built this to promote our heritage.”

Admire a historic memorial 

Located at Anse Caffard in southwest Martinique is The Memorial Cap 110, a monument built in 1999 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. It pays a solemn tribute to the 214 Africans who perished in a storm that occurred on Aug. 8, 1830, when a clandestine slave ship struck the rocks at the edge of Anse Caffard in the middle of the night. The boat was destroyed, and all but 86 people died.

The Cap 110 Memorial built at Anse Caffard in 1998 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.
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The 15 towering busts of The Cap 110 are made of concrete and they are hunched over with a defeated look on their faces. The white symbolizes Martinique’s colour of mourning, and the statues face 100 degrees East, towards the Gulf of Guinea, thought to be where the boat originated. They are placed in a triangle, a reference to the triangular nature of the slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

There is a beautiful view of Le Diamant, a volcanic rock standing 175 metres tall that was once a shelter for pirates, as well as a bridge during the battle for Martinique between the French and the English. In the distance, Larcher Hill is also visible; it resembles the shape of a woman lying down — a favourite spot at sunset for writers, artists and tourists.

Immerse yourself in Martinique’s diverse ecosystem 

Located near Le Precheur, a coastal village in the north, is Habitation Céron (Ceron Residence), a hidden gem of Martinique. Dedicated to agro-tourism, this beautifully restored estate has a restaurant as well as a magnificent garden.

The famous Zamana tree located Habitation Céron, in Le Prêcheur. The tree survived the 1902 earthquake and is estimated to be about 350 years old.
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Originally a 1600s sugar cane plantation, the residence fell into disuse following the abolition of slavery and the volcanic eruption. In the 1930s, a local family purchased the land, slowly restored it and has since opened its doors to the public. 

The “Remarkable Garden” deserves its moniker, with a lush rain forest, gurgling river, and gorgeous hibiscus, heliconia, porcelain rose, banana blossoms, mango and jack fruit trees, vanilla plants and cilantro. The garden’s centrepiece is a 350-year-old zamana tree, also known as the “rain tree”, which survived the 1902 volcanic eruption. It won France’s “Tree of the Year” in 2016, and is the largest tree of the Lesser Antilles. You could stare at its huge branches for hours and marvel at the immense scale. I was delighted to spy a fuzzy blue tarantula on the bark, an endemic creature now protected on this island.

Julie Marraud des Grottes, the daughter of the Ceron’s owners, shows us the cocoa trees the family has re-introduced. She explains the process of turning beans into organic chocolate by harvesting, roasting and grinding down the cocoa. “I was born here, and I am living my dream life,” she says.

The superb farm-to-table restaurant is managed by her sister and Hugo Thierry, her sister’s spouse, a European-trained chef from France who uses herbs, chocolate, vanilla and edible flowers for his unique menu. 

The wind whistles through the outdoor patio, and sweeping bamboo trees tower over us as we begin our “blind” tasting menu. The starter of avocado and raw tuna paired with nettle wrapped in a begonia leaf is delicious, but I would never have guessed the ingredients. The duck in bitter orange sauce is also tasty, as is the chocolate fondant. “We use the ingredients we have, and we give pleasure to the people through our food,” says Thierry.

Discover the world of rum (and more)

Martinique’s “rhums” are the only ones in the world to be awarded the appellation d’origine controlee, the same designation that recognizes certain wines from France. This means they are made using the unique rhum agricole production technique, where freshly pressed juice from sugar cane is fermented and distilled before being aged in oak barrels.

Andre La Houssaye, our guide in Martinique, standing outside of the prison ruins in Saint-Pierre, the old capital flattened in the 1902 earthquake. This is the same dungeon where the lone man Louis-Auguste Cyparis survived the catastrophic earthquake.
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Martinique boasts 14 distilleries, including the 40-acre Fondation Clement. Purchased in 1887 by Homer Clement, one of Martinique’s first mixed-race physicians,  this site used to be a sugar plantation but is now a distillery, museum and cultural centre. 

Although rum is no longer distilled here, aging is still carried out in cellars with huge barrels. The site includes a traditional Creole house, art exhibitions, and a botanical park with more than 300 tropical trees and 30 kinds of palms. I fall in love with a fan-shaped tree called the Traveller’s Tree (Ravanela) its leaves accumulate water, which has saved many a thirsty traveller.

Don’t forget to visit the smelling room, where you can smell a variety of rum (Daiquiri, Ti’Punch, Dark Mule, Sidecar, Rum Espresso, Alexandre Creole). Jane Poletti, our enthusiastic sommelier, opens bottles of blue sugar cane white rum (aged from three to 10 years), as well as Shrub, a delicious white rum with orange and spice traditionally drunk at Christmas, and rum with cream, which tastes like Bailey’s.

Explore colonial architecture

A visit to Martinique would not be complete without walking the historic sites of the island’s capital, Fort-de-France, which can be reached via a 20-minute ferry ride from Les Trois-Îlets. 

A dungeon in the remains of the prison following the 1902 earthquake.
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Tourists from cruise ships rent peti-cabs and walk around the Allee des Dissidence (Resistance Alley), decorated with beautiful frescoes by graffiti artists,  paying tribute to the Martinicans who fought for France during World War II. Fruits, butterflies, mountains and a giant crab (a traditional Easter food) are only some of the works that can be found here.

During a visit to Fort Saint-Louis, the working naval base, we spot an iguana lounging in the sun on the stone walls. The St. Louis Cathedral is lovely, and so is the impressive Bibliotheque Schoelcher, an ornate library built for the French abolitionist that was originally on display in Paris for the 1889 World Fair. It had to be broken down into pieces to be shipped to Martinique, and then reassembled. It re-opened in La Savane, the central park.

The former Hotel De Ville is now a theatre and museum named for Aime Cesaire, a poet and anti-colonialist activist who celebrated Black culture and was mayor of Fort-de-France for 50 years. I am amazed to find a park bench, gifted by U.S. writer Maya Angelou in honour of Cesaire’s fight for civil rights.

The Grande Marche (covered market) has fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers, souvenirs, alcohol, chocolate, spices and handicrafts — a parting gift from Martinique before you head for the airport.

Where to stay in Martinique  

Located in Les Trois-Îlets is La Pagerie, a 97-room, three-story hotel with a pool, swim-up bar and tropical gardens. Helpfully located at the entrance of the Creole Village, this accommodation is close to shops and places to eat and is a five-minute walk to the beach. The hotel’s Pitaya restaurant has a delicious ocean salad with shrimp and homemade vinegar and a redfish dish in curry sauce. The breakfast buffet includes guava, coconut and passion fruit jams, homemade breads, eggs, cheese and tropical fruits.

Restaurants of choice

Dinner at La Suite Villa 

A restaurant worth visiting in Les Trois-Îlets is La Suite Villa. Located in a luxury boutique hotel of the same name, this restaurant provides a panoramic view of Fort-de-France Bay with unique cuisine in a blissful setting. Guests can enjoy foie gros, fish, seafood tacos, and pineapple crumble for dessert.

Lunch at Hôtel L’Imperatrice 

Built to resemble a cruise ship, this hotel on the La Savane Central Park is the place to be seen if you’re visiting Fort-de-France. Just as we arrive, a diplomatic party sweeps in, led by none other than the Prefect of Martinique, Mean-Christophe Bouvier. The food is superb: cod in béchamel sauce, rooster with sweet peppers and creole-style rice and red beans, not to mention the coconut pie for dessert.

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