By Jeanine Barone
Dominated by wide expanses of luxuriant gardens, dense forestland, and fringed with sandy beaches, this rugged French Caribbean island combines a pervasive eco-sensibility with a refined sense of style.
Just a tad smaller than New York City, the Caribbean island of Martinique offers an impressive variety of experiences despite its wee size. Sure, the island’s golden sand beaches get most of the attention, but a wealth of other treasures await: hiking trails that snake across mountainous terrain, historic ruins from the sugar cane industry, sophisticated culinary experiences and luxurious accommodations in unexpected locales. No wonder Martinique is a destination that easily satisfies everyone, from fussy gourmands to nature lovers to fans of contemporary art.
1. Cosmopolitan restaurants
With contemporary paintings hanging on whitewashed walls, Le Kano is a simple, informal restaurant that faces Anse Mitan beach—so close to the sea you can hear the waves from your table inside. Indeed, should you choose to lounge outside and sip a cocktail while nibbling on tapas, their specialty, your chair is set in the sand. Menu offerings change regularly, but expect creative tapas like mashed avocado with shredded cod, or dark rum-flamed wild shrimp. And save room for the innovative desserts: the passion fruit meringue pie is made with cassava shortbread.
Le Zandoli at La Suite Villa offers poolside dining on a deck that provides stellar views of the Bay of Fort-de-France and the cruise ships anchored in the distance below. Everything about this restaurant (and the entire hotel) reflects an avant-garde artistic aesthetic. Ceramic plates are emblazoned with a different colorful sketches, and the tables hold various artistic lamps, including cactus- and gum drop-shaped ones. The menu, which includes a degustation option, offers the grilled catch of the day (such as red tuna) glazed with passion fruit butter. And the lemon tart is the prettiest you’ll encounter, accompanied by meringue drops and candied daisies.
2. Refined boutique hotels
The posh 49-suite Le Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa has the ambience of an Asian retreat, with its simple, elegant decor, serene vibe, and use of bamboo and exotic woods in its interiors. With a peaceful spa boasting both a Japanese bath and a hammam, and some of the guest suites featuring outdoor showers (some are graced with a private plunge pool), it’s easy to get into a Zen state of mind.
After negotiating an exceedingly rugged, pothole-laden road that winds through banana plantations and other agricultural lands, you’ll delight in the abundant comfort that awaits at Hotel Plein Soleil. The handful of colorfully-painted villas at this 16-room property are enveloped by a veritable Eden of extensive, blooming gardens with towering palms. Whether dining in the sun-filled dining room beside a koi pool, enjoying a cocktail on the outdoor terrace overlooking the calm Bay of Francois or relaxing in the mezzanine reading room, you might, like many guests, decline to venture out from this luxurious hilltop retreat until checkout.
3. Pristine hiking
On the picturesque Caravelle Peninsula that juts into the Atlantic, the Grand Sentier courses through a 200-year-old, dry, deciduous forest populated with red gum and other trees. Once the sea becomes visible on this mostly flat trail, the path ascends on steps that have been chiseled into the volcanic rock, leading to an over 500-foot-high lighthouse, the highest in France. This panoramic observation point, considered a favorite on the island, provides stellar views of the coastline, including the dramatic cliffs of Basse Point as well as Mount Pelee, a volcano that last erupted in 1932.
4. Family-friendly forest walks
With views of Bay of Fort-de-France and Les Gros Ilet (a small uninhabited island), the coastal Vatable Forest is a favorite spot among Martiniquais for family picnics and walks. A network of paths weaves through the shaded interior where many visitors become pleasantly lost as they ramble past the myriad tree species: teak, mahogany, Caribbean pine, palms, and others. There’s also an abundance of mangrove forests, an ecosystem that’s key to the life cycle of native fish and the health of the coast (they prevent erosion and preserve water quality). Eventually, the main trail wanders along the waterfront where a narrow, sandy beach awaits as does a pavilion with picnic tables.
5. Repurposed sugar plantations
A sprawling estate that was once home to a mid-17th-century sugar refinery, Habitation Ceron was converted to an agro-tourism operation that allows the public to explore the tropical gardens and dine on locally sourced foods at their al fresco restaurant. Mostly destroyed when Mount Pelee erupted in 1902, the former plantation also grew cocoa and coffee along with manioc and cassava. Many visitors spend an hour or so walking paths paralleling the Ceron River, past numerous fruit trees (tamarind, jackfruit, mango, starfruit, papaya and lime), Arabica coffee bushes and the hundreds of cocoa trees that are regularly planted. Among several ruins remaining are those of the manioc and sugar factories, including the water-driven sugar cane wheel.
Dating back centuries, Habitation Clement, a former sugar plantation named for the family that resided on the property for almost 100 years, offers a medley of different experiences. Appealing to history buffs, the restored, tortoise shell-roofed house and other outbuildings, which are all open to the public, overlook the beautifully landscaped gardens dotted with some 300 different trees. (The path of royal palm trees is especially impressive.) Art aficionados will be impressed with the contemporary sculptures, some wildly fanciful, that pepper the landscape and were created by well-established French and Caribbean artists. Rum connoisseurs should visit the old distillery that was converted into a rum interpretation center with the original machinery on display.
6. Lush gardens and dense woodland
Anyone who wanders through le Domaine d’Emeraude will come away with a greater knowledge and respect for plant life, and an eco-consciousness that might make them more likely to protect the natural environment—the mission of this flourishing natural regional park. On the 2.5-mile network of forest trails, paths meander up and down steps, transitioning from deeply shaded to sun dappled environs. Whether walking on a short, 15-minute path or on a one-hour trail, you’ll want to look up, down and all around, spotting marigold pepper, cigarbush, wild fuchsia, and other species, and being mindful of the myriad colors, textures, sounds, and scents. Relax and enjoy the photographic display at Ajoupa L’eau—with atmospheric shots of waterfalls and macro images of heliconia dappled with water droplets—one of several themed pavilions (ajoupa) along these trails. Beyond the forest are curvy garden paths threading the undulating landscape where Mount Pelee may be spotted through its ubiquitous cloud cover.
7. Lessons in history and ethnobiology
After clearing the wild landscape by hand using a machete, Gilbert Larose opened the seven-acre Slaves Savannah (La Savane des Esclaves), an open-air museum of sorts, as a window into the history of Martinique, from the time of the first native inhabitants (Amerindians) to the post-slavery period. With map in hand, take a self-guided walk to explore the gardens and structures on the property, such as the thatch-roofed huts in the reconstructed traditional Creole village. He gathered plants from all over Martinique to construct the medicinal garden, like the one his mother cultivated at his childhood home—along with a fruit and vegetable garden—as is traditional among many Martiniquais.
Jeanine Barone is a New York City-based freelance journalist and photographer specializing in travel, food and wine, art, design, and architecture.
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