French Flair in Design and Food Gives Martinique Its Edge

If you're a Francophile looking for beaches and vistas, upscale boutique hotels and Michelin-trained chefs, then let Martinique beguile all your senses.

If you're a Francophile looking for beaches
and vistas, upscale boutique hotels and Michelin-trained chefs, then let Martinique beguile all your senses. While most celebrity seekers look to St. Barth’s as a short-term vacation destination during the holidays, Martinique has the advantage of being a year-round island with more than 350,000 residents (very few, if any, are celebrities) and owned by France. There are more than 80 miles of hiking trails that show off the island's beauty which include fragrant flowers, lush botanical gardens and landscapes, a rain forest and a towering mountain.  A rich, exotic gastronomy that is heavily influenced by French cuisine makes a visit double the pleasure. Large-scale hotels don’t have a place on this island, which is 6 times the size of Washington, D.C.

A quick history of the island tells us that Martinique is a mash-up of French and Caribbean people, giving way to Creole.  Before the French and African pioneers arrived, natives from South America called Arawaks settled there in 100 A.D. Caribs, people from neighboring islands, overran the Arawaks in 1,000 A.D. Christopher Columbus was welcomed by Caribs when he arrived in 1502 to Martinique. In 1635, the French arrived and took possession of the island, turning it into a source of economic strength setting up plantations for sugarcane, bananas and pineapple.  Slaves were brought to the island to provide the labor force, but the French outlawed slavery in 1848. In 1946, Martinique was declared a department of France, giving its citizens the right to vote in French elections. Voilá!

For all this French-ness on the island, you’d expect Martinique to be a well-run island, and it is. The island is broken up into districts with small “capital cities”. It is also prosperous.  Everyone drives French-made cars rather than mopeds and scooters (beware of traffic, there is a lot of it all over the island since public transportation is not a forte).  There is the annual Mardi Gras celebration proving that this is a party island.   

So what makes Martinique worth discovering? Besides the numerous beaches and coves, for flora and fauna, make sure to visit La Pagerie, the plantation where Empress Josephine was born and raised. The botanical garden, Balata, is also a wonderland of flowering tropical bushes and palm trees. There is a rain forest crossing the middle of the island, which has miles of hiking trails.  

When you’ve had enough of nature, move on to some of the cultural highlights of the island to get the flavor of the island and appreciate the fine cuisine and French wines.   

Martinique is famous for its bananas, sugar cane and rum. One of the best distilleries to visit is Clément, which is a fully restored distillery that includes a renovated landowner’s estate, a palm grove with 150 varieties of palm trees, rum tasting rooms, and a new cultural center that hosts exhibits and performances of local artists.  

At the open-air market in the capital city of Fort de France is a riot of color and fragrances.  Madras fabric, straw baskets, locally grown herbs, fruits, flavored syrups, cocoa sticks (yes, chocolate sticks that can be melted down to produce the Creole hot chocolate drink) make this less of a tourist trap and more of a local immersion in Creole culture.  Be sure to visit Chez Carole, one of the market’s lunch spots, where tall and glamorous Carole prepares delicious plats de jour (daily specials) with panache.

A trip to the Village de Poterie (Pottery Village) in Trois-islets is also a must. It’s got original huts and shacks (not shabby looking) where artisans make clay pottery, soap, jewelry and other island crafts.  By the way, there is a café called Coup d'Coeur on the premises that has a staggering array of exquisite tasting and looking pastries to win a culinary award. Paris clearly has rivals in the pastry department.

Speaking of sweets, chocolate lovers might wonder why Martinique hasn’t caught up with the French in terms of prestige chocolate. But now there is Freres Lauzea, founded by two brothers passionate about premium chocolate and using 100% local ingredients such as cinnamon, guava, bananas and rum to create award-winning chocolates, which have already won a series of culinary awards back in France. Call ahead to organize a chocolate and vintage rum tasting with the owners in their chic chocolate boutique.  

Bright color predominates in architecture, clothing and interior design—the neutral palate has yet to invade Martinique.

There are several boutique hotels worth mentioning where the combination of exquisite cuisine and luxury lodging that give Martinique a distinct advantage over some of the other Caribbean islands.  

Perhaps the most exuberant boutique hotel on the island is La Suite Villa, which is decorated with furniture and works of art by local artists. The restaurant, le Zandoli, is situated on the hilltops overlooking the harbor of Fort de France. A riot of bright tabletops, chairs bedecked with rosebud fabric covers and dramatically lit pools are the perfect foil for Michelin-quality food.  

Boutique hotel Plein Soleil has all the elements of a high design property, from the good looking staff to the public rooms and guest suites, sitting with a snaking driveway that leads to another hill. The dining room is centered around a large pool and tree (lit up at night) and the menu features exceptional creations like mousse au foie gras. 

The Relais & Chateaux Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa, on the Atlantic side of the island, boasts its own private jetty and motor boat are at the disposal of guests for discovering the waterways.  Guest rooms are decorated very much in the local Caribe style with dark wood both inside and outside; each suite comes with an outdoor plunge pool and porch.  The outdoor dining room is close to the beach and a sunset cocktail is one of the pleasures of being this far removed from the rest of the island.  

One of the most remarkable destinations on the island is actually a tiny rustic island right off the shores of Cap Est and called L’ilet Oscar. Accessible by a 10-minute speedboat ride with Bruno (a very fit sailor), this is paradise. This Creole plantation house is loaded with history and antiques and is registered as an historic landmark. Several gorgeously appointed public and guest rooms and a bar/restaurant all decorated in colonial style and powered by solar energy make this an incredibly romantic, restful and restorative stay.

The French use the term “bonnes addresses” like we use the term “insider tips” when referring to places to visit and things to do. There are a number of delightful boutiques and cultural sights worth taking the time to visit.  For example, Leontine Boucher in Fort de France is a fabric atelier where you can find Madras, as well as hats and accessories. Ziouka Glaces, in Le Carbet is an outstanding sorbet parlor where a master glacier (ice cream maker) creates flavors using all the local herbs and fruits from the island.  Other notable restaurants are le Petibonum beachside restaurant in Carbet and Ti-Sable in Anse d’Arlets where fresh fish, French inspired and Creole specialties are deliciously prepared in a very casual ambiance. Remember, just like in France, eating is an important part of daily life and a leisurely lunch is de rigor in Martinique as it is in France!