Martinique is the kind of Caribbean island where you can spend the morning wandering through lush forests bursting with a rainbow of native flowers and plants, and while away the afternoon sunning on a stunning nearby beach, relaxing in warm, sapphire water. But it’s the undeveloped rawness of the island that captured my heart. Growing up in Queensland, Australia, I’m well-versed in tropical paradise; in fact, I’ll openly admit to being an Aussie beach snob. But Martinique blew me away.
This relatively untrampled member of the French Antilles is something to behold. On the south end, the sea washes up on white-sand beaches, scattered with palm trees. That’s where you’ll find Martinique’s only all-inclusive hotel – Club Med, which opened in 1969 and has just undergone extensive renovations. It’s an excellent option if you want everything in the one place, but we traversed the island to take in as much as we could (and even then, five days wasn’t enough).
Take the beauty of the north, which seems particularly untouched. To me, the region’s thick rainforests and the looming shadow of Mount Pelée make it so very special, even on an island that already feels like a paradise.
It’s home to places such as Habitation Céron, a former 17th-century sugar-cane plantation now focused on cocoa and agritourism. A visit to the gardens will take a couple of hours, depending how much you want to learn about chocolate produced from cocoa beans grown on the farm, or whether you grab a cocktail or meal at the open-air restaurant where the menu changes according to what’s harvested on the property. But it’s the famous sprawling 350-year-old zamana tree that really blows me away; the gob-smacking size of its graceful branches, which umbrella a grassy clearing and dapple the sunlight, once led to it being voted the most beautiful tree in France.
The north is also where you’ll find Le Carbet, a pretty little village on the west coast. Christopher Columbus landed on the beach here in 1502, as did French trader Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc in 1635, beginning the island’s colonization.
On the beach we watch the sunset from red squishy loungers in front of Le Petibonum restaurant, where seafood caught by local fishers is the star of the menu, alongside an extensive selection of local rums. Or opt for the excellent Colombo – a thick, mild Martinican curry, served with rice. (If you, like me, end up slightly obsessed with Colombo, you can buy the blend at the spice market in Fort-de-France.)
Mount Pelée is the island’s big drawing card for enthusiastic hikers. In September, 2023, the volcano and the rainforests that surround it were granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Various trails will lead you through the dense green forest to the summit of this active volcano, with a peak of 1,397 metres above sea level, with or without a guide. The day we visit, however, the mountain is steeped in soupy fog and views toward the ocean are completely obscured.
But I’m not too disappointed, because – not being a hiker – I’ve chosen to explore Le Domaine d’Émeraude, an enchanting 25-hectare botanical garden about 10 kilometres away, just outside the town of Le Morne Rouge. Here, pathways crisscross the tropical rainforest, and the sound of bubbling streams mingle with the call of birds above, a foggy Mount Pelée in the distance. Martinique is sometimes called the island of flowers – an apt title, given its flora is some of the most diverse in the world. There are so many species, in fact, that the entire island was inducted into UNESCO’s Biosphere Program in 2021. Le Domaine d’Émeraude showcases swaths of undisturbed forests, alongside a manicured garden complete with fountains and native fruits such as cocoa and banana, herbs such as lemongrass and a bevy of tropical flowers.
Our guide, Gladys, learned all things flora from her grandmother, and delights in passing along traditional Creole knowledge. She tenderly touches plants as she shows them off; this red-leafed cordyline plant protects from evil spirits and bad luck, here are the spicy crushed leaves of the cinnamon tree, the tiny fruit from pods on this roucou bush are used for bright-red dye – be careful, don’t touch it!
A brief sunshower falls on our shoulders as Gladys proudly points to the indigenous plants that have, for generations, provided food, medicine and beauty to Martinicans. Rainbows of flowers and rich green leaves of all shapes jumble this place in the most wonderful way. I don’t know if it’s the oxygen from photosynthesis of those red-leaved cordylines or what, but my soul feels healed.
There’s a relaxed vibe no matter where you go in Martinique; it seems unbothered by tourism. The sector’s share of the economy hovers around 12 per cent, but, unlike some of its Caribbean neighbours, the island doesn’t wait with bated breath for the next cruise ship to dock – even though cruise ships do stop here with relative frequency, mainly in the capital Fort-de-France.
Despite the untouched air, tourism infrastructure is significant, whether you want to spend the day sailing up the coast on a catamaran and snorkelling, laze on a beach or tour one of the island’s many excellent rum distilleries. At night, rest your head somewhere cozy such as Hotel La Pagerie in the seaside town of Les Trois-Îlets, a short ferry ride from Fort-de-France, with its newly renovated pool and swim-up bar, its tropical garden alive with the chirrup of tiny frogs the size of your thumbnail. Or splash out for one of the villas up the road at the five-star La Suite Villa, with its infinity pool and views over the Caribbean.
Like many Caribbean islands, Martinique has a dark history of using slaves from Africa to work the sugar-cane farms – a practice that was not definitively abolished here until 1848. A difficult but important reminder of this chapter in Martinique’s history is in Les Trois-Îlets. La Savane des Esclaves is an open-air museum built by local Gilbert Larose, who spent 24 years creating exhibits single-handedly, carving the site from the forest to serve as a reminder of Martinique’s past to his kids and grandkids.
Bilingual panels in French and English and life-sized wooden figures inside thatched huts don’t shy from the hard truths of history, including brutal punishments meted out under Code Noir, a decree passed in 1685 by King Louis XIV to define the conditions of slavery in the French empire.
A wiry, strong man with a ready grin, Larose was a stone mason before he started this labour of love. Kids shouldn’t just learn about French history when they go to school in Martinique, he says as we walk the paths of the museum.
“For me it was very important for the children in Martinique, to tell them the history so they understand where they come from.”
After a tour of the grounds, he serves up his own secret iced tea made from various plants that grow throughout the site. He’s understandably proud of this place. It gives visitors a lot to think about during their tropical vacation, and my stay in Martinique was richer for it.
One night on the island, I watched the sunset burn across the sky, orange and pink flaming above the gentle sea that lapped the black volcanic sand. I nursed a local rum made slightly sweet and tangy with sugar syrup and lime. As the darkness grew deeper, our server brought wine glasses stacked with tuna crudo, creamy avocado and juicy fresh mango.
It was delicious, and the evening an encapsulation of the flavours and natural beauty that make Martinique nothing short of spectacular – even to this self-confessed Aussie beach snob.
If you go
Air Canada offers non-stop flights between Fort-de-France and Montreal or Toronto. The latter began in December to great fanfare on the island as it aims to expand its reach into the anglo tourist market.
Martinique is a French overseas region, so pack your European plug and euros. While many folks who work at hotels and tourist attractions do speak English, that’s not the case everywhere, including at restaurants and bars. So brush up on that high-school French before you go to make your trip a whole lot easier. If you can learn a few phrases in Martinican Creole before you come – even better!
The writer was a guest of the Martinique Tourism Authority. It did not approve or review the story before publication.