French Creole culture hits the beach in the lush homeland of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine

By Bob Curley

An outpost of France in the Caribbean, Martinique brings fantastic cuisine to the table along with rhum agricole, the fragrant rum distilled directly from locally grown sugar cane. Small resorts here cater to a sophisticated clientele—mostly from France and Europe, but with a growing contingent of Americans attracted by discount airfares and the island’s unique blend of French, African, Creole, and West Indian cultures.

Les Salines
Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

The Best Beaches on Martinique

Maybe it’s just the French name, but Les Salines simply sounds beautiful, and this Martinique beach on the island’s southernmost point more than lives up to its name with wide sands, calm and clear waters, and vendors selling local treats like cocoa ice cream.

On the southwest shore, Plage du Diamant has killer views of a diamond-shaped rock offshore and is one of the island’s top surfing beaches. Le Carbet Beach, with its views of slumbering Mount Pelée, and the aptly named Anse Noire both have black sands, a reminder of Martinique’s (not-so-distant) volcanic history. Anse Mabouyas in Sainte-Luce on the south coast and Anse Ceron in the north are both are known for excellent snorkeling amid a colorful tapestry of tropical fish.

Storehouse at Habitation Clément
Photo: Adrian Stone

The Best Things To Do on Martinique

Martinique’s distinctive rhum agricole is produced by 10 distilleries scattered across the island; follow the island’s rum trail to learn how the main ingredient in the Martinique “ti punch” cocktail is made, as well as getting a history lesson and of course lots of rum tastings. Standout distilleries include Habitation Clément, Rhum JM, and Neisson.

Martinique’s port city of St. Pierre was once known as the Paris of the Caribbean, its genteel streets lit by electric streetlamp silhouetting well-heeled residents flocking to the town’s lavish Opera House in the evenings. It was all wiped out in a day when the volcano looming over the city erupted in 1902, sparing only a single resident who was protected by the sturdy walls of the city jail. The ruins, intermingled with a far more modest modern town, are fascinating to tour, as is La Pagerie, the birthplace of Josephine de Beauharnais, an island girl who became queen to Napoleon, and Empress of France

Related: A mother-son expedition goes in search of local rum on the island of Martinique.

The Best Restaurants and Bars on Martinique

Gastronomy on Martinique is as vital to a visit as you would expect on a French Caribbean island. Le Petibonum, the domain of the legendary “Chef Hot Pants” (Guy Ferdinand), looks like a simple beach bar on the west coast’s Plage de Coin, but the Creole cuisine is as sophisticated as the setting is relaxed and informal. Lili’s Beach Bar brings a bit of Ibiza style to Schoelcher, a coastal town just west of Fort de France.

Related: 50 Secret Places To Visit Now

Many of Martinique’s best restaurants are located in hotels. The traditional gourmet French cuisine at Le Belem restaurant is a perfect match for the Cap Est resort—gastronomic heaven in an atmosphere of relaxed elegance. A Michelin-starred chef, Nicolas Magie, helms the kitchen at Le Zandoli (at the La Suite Villa hotel); among the multi-course meals is a menu built entirely around lobster dishes.

Combine a visit to the Martinique zoo with lunch or dinner on the shaded terrace of Restaurant 1643, serving creole cuisine in a historic home in the traditional seaside village of Carbet.

Wherever you dine, be sure to order a ti punch, the national drink made with local rhum agricole, lime, and sugar and swizzled with a traditional bois lélé.

Market in Fort-de-France
Patrice Coppee/Getty Images

 The Best Places To Shop on Martinique

The magnificent circa-1901 Grand Marché Couvert public market is local culture distilled into commerce—it’s a must-see in the capital city of Fort de France with its bustling trade in local produce, spices, madras clothing, and tourist-oriented trinkets.

Rue Victor Hugo in downtown Fort de France has high-end shops selling the latest fashions from Paris, and you’ll also find a tropical outlet of the upscale French department store Galeries Lafayette in the Martinique capital. Carry the sweet aroma of the island home with you at Parfum des Iles (Perfumes of the Islands), where the expert perfumers blend fragrances from a selection of more than 50 scents—or guide you as you create your own unique scent.

Le Village Creole in Trois-Illets offers a similar selection to Fort De France’s covered market, but in a pleasant outdoor village setting.

Hotel Plein Soleil
Adrian Stone

The Best Hotels and Resorts on Martinique

Martinique leans heavily toward small inns and hotels, but there are a couple of major exceptions. Club Med Les Boucaniers is the one brand-name resort on the island familiar to North American travelers, offering all-inclusive lodging, dining, and activities, on the island’s southern shore. The Cap Est resort is the island’s premiere luxury address, with 49 suites arrayed around a placid lagoon, a spa with a hammam and Japanese bath, a pair of fine dining restaurants, and one of the island’s best rum bars.

On the boutique side, Hotel Bakoua has Creole-style rooms and a landmark sunset bar on the Trois-Ilets waterfront, while a pair of new boutique hotels—Hotel Simon and French Coco—bring fresh sophistication to downtown Fort de France and the beach town of Tartane, respectively. And perched high above the water outside of Le François, Hôtel Plein Soleil is home to Creole-style cottages with private plunge pools, not to mention a beautiful bar and restaurant.

Ilet Oscar is an affordable, rustic-chic, private-island getaway on the Atlantic coast that also boasts one of Martinique’s best restaurants. And when you’re really ready to get out of your bubble (and into a real one), check into Le Domaine des Bulles, where the beds are snugged into transparent orbs surrounded by ponds and lush tropical gardens.

Related: Top 10 Exotic Beach Destinations

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