Martinique is one of the special islands of the Caribbean. Even though it is 4,400 miles away from France across the Atlantic, it still exudes a “French-ness” about it like no other island in the region. In fact, you might not even be able to distinguish Martinique from, say, a southern French city in the Mediterranean. The island, after all, is as modern as any French city – skyscrapers, highways, luxury hotels, and modern ports and marinas. And the people in Martinique even speak French.
Of course, for all its connections and associations with France, Martinique can’t hide from its geography in the Caribbean. The island is lush, mountainous, and lined with gorgeous beaches all around that bake in the sun pretty much year-round. Essentially, Martinique is a blend of France and the Caribbean, offering the best of both worlds. Visitors can bathe in spectacular beaches, swim or scuba dive in crystal-clear waters, venture into the tropical rainforests in the interior, or climb up the volcanic Mount Pelee. On the flip side, they can also have a day out in the town, splurging at chic and designer boutiques, and dining at fine restaurants – most of them boasting French-Caribbean fare.
Geographically, Martinique is part of the Windward Islands. It is actually the largest of the Windward Islands, and is situated between Dominica in the north and St. Lucia in the south. The island is more than 420 square miles and has a population over 400,000. One-third of the people preside in the capital, Fort-de-France.
The landscape of Martinique consists of mountainous volcanic rock that in some areas rises to peaks in excess of 3,000 feet above sea level. Three mountain ranges dominate the island: Mount Pelee in the far north at over 4,550 feet high, the Carbet Mountains in the interior north at over 3,900 feet high, and Mount Vauclin at over 1,600 feet high covering most of the southern region of the island. Mount Pelee in particular is a fun trek. It is graced with tropical rainforests and has been dormant as a volcano since 1902 when it last erupted and destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre killing more than 30,000 people.
Dividing the north and the south is the Lamentin Plain, which makes up the Lezarde River basin. It combines with the coastal plains to form the only flat area in Martinique. Rushing rivers are also scattered throughout the mountains of the island on both sides running down the slopes and into the sea. In the north and northwest part of the island, you’ll find steep cliffs. In the central-western and south-western coast, the island is dominated by two bays and the capital of Fort-de-France. The eastern coast consists of coves, inlets, and offshore coral reefs. The main city in the south is Le Marin.
The best beaches on Martinique are those south of Fort-de-France. They feature white smooth sands, whereas north of the capital the beaches are grey. In the south, the best beach is perhaps Plage des Salines; it stretches for miles with its golden sands. Other notable beaches in the south include Sainte-Anne, Anse Michel, Plage de Macabou, Cap Chevalier, Le Diamant, and Anses d’Arlets. There are no nude beaches on Martinique. However, many hotels permit topless bathing.
Martinique was first inhabited by Arawak Indians who were subsequently displaced by the Caribs. The first European to sight the island was Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage. He did not explore the island until his fourth voyage in 1502. In 1635, the French began colonizing the island. The island was soon afterwards transformed into sugar cane plantations. The first slave ships arrived from Senegal in 1664. In 1674, Martinique was declared part of the French crown. The British attempted a number of times to invade the island but treaty settlements always returned Martinique to the French, including the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War, which exchanged Canada for the French West Indies.
In 1794, slavery was abolished. The plantation owners were upset and even encouraged the British to take over, as they had not yet abolished slavery. The British stayed until the French re-introduced slavery and re-assumed control of the island in 1802. For much of the first half of the 19th century, plantations owners were encountering a growing dissent from slaves in the form of uprisings. In 1848, over 70,000 slaves were finally granted freedom. They were replaced by indentured laborers from India and China. Since 1974, Martinique has operated as a French region in the same category as Normandy and Brittany. The island is also part of the European Union.
The island’s airport is located about 6 miles from Fort-de-France, 13 miles from Trois Islets, and 25 miles from Le Marin. Martinique’s roads are definitely among the best in the Caribbean, which has contributed to more cars and more traffic jams. The best way to explore the island is by hiring a car. There are hundreds of taxis that operate, and they mostly congregate around the airport and the major hotels in Fort-de-France. They are reasonably-priced, although more expensive at night and in the early mornings.
Public bus fares are cheap and represent a great way to travel around Fort-de-France, but not so much around the rest of the island. There are ferries that run daily from Fort-de-France to Pointe du Bout, and to many of the beaches in the south.
“History of Martinique.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Martinique>
Philpott, Don. Visitor’s Guide to the Windward Islands. Ashbourne: Moorland Publishing Company Ltd., 1996. ISBN: 0861905598.
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