A June 2005 trip
to Martinique by MoDean
Quote: Martinique is a destination with more than sun, surf, and sand—but devotees of these island vacation hallmarks needn’t worry.
The 424-square-mile island is one of the largest in the Caribbean, and from its southern to northern coasts, its landscape and climate flow from a hilly, drier environment to rain-forested mountains, where the air is thick with heat and moisture. Likewise, the oceanscape ranges from turbulent Atlantic to calmer Caribbean, with still, clear bays curled into its coast on both sides. Snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, sailing, and windsurfing are but a few other options available; consult your hotel or the Martinique tourism website for more.
Among this wealth of outdoor experiences, a few are unique to Martinique and should under no circumstances be missed. In the south, explore the excellent (but advanced) dive sites at Rocher du Diamant, a unique geological formation that protrudes from the sea. If yachting is on your agenda (and in your budget), Le Marin is your destination—it’s the best-equipped marina in the Caribbean and offers facilities difficult to find anywhere else.
On Martinique’s seldom-visited north end, don’t miss Les Ombrages, a combination nature preserve and educational gardening project. Make your way then to the former capital city of St. Pierre, incinerated in the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902. Formerly known as the "Little Paris of the West Indies," St. Pierre has never recovered its former glory, but today is a working village with some fascinating ruins. The nearby Musée Volcanologique (+596 0596 52 82 42) is a bit sterile, but provides a thorough scientific explanation of the eruption—and some great views of the volcano.
If you’re up for a hike, you can take on Mount Pelée itself from a choice of three departure points. Allow a full afternoon for each one, and be prepared with water, clothing layers, and trail food. Finally, before you head back to your accommodation, spend some time at Jardin de Balata and sister property Anse Latouche for an engaging and creative presentation of the island’s flora.
If you decide to hike Mount Pelée, be sure to explore all your options. The most popular hike, from the village of Morne-Rouge, takes half the time but is much more difficult; for a more leisurely, easier trip, consider embarking from either Grand-Rivière or Le Prêcheur.
To experience Martinique’s most beautiful beaches in a surprisingly arid climate, head to the Sainte-Anne region on the island’s southernmost tip—in particular, beach bums shouldn’t miss Petite Anse des Salines. Take caution in avoiding the poisonous manchineel trees found all along the southern end of the beach. Also nearby is La Savane des Petrifications, a barren petrified forest with unusual photo opportunities.
For an exhaustive list of outdoor tours, visit the Martinique’s tourism website.
Likewise, the Sofitel Bakoua is a high-end chain hotel camouflaged with French-Caribbean flair. The beautiful grounds unfold as soon as you enter the lobby, which subscribes to an open-air concept that incorporates the bar, dining area (where a fabulous continental breakfast is served), and reception area in one sprawling, tiled gazebo with a 180-degree view of the bay. Staff members were welcoming and helpful from the start—I made a stop at the gift shop in search of batteries, and though they didn’t have the size I needed, the man working there actually called around to other shops in Trois Ilets to find them for me. Likewise, bellmen were friendly and efficient in handling our bags.
We then crossed the lobby to the crest of the panoramic view—yachts moored in the water, the capital city of Fort-de-France spilling down the hill on the other side of the bay—and descended the stairs to each level of deluxe rooms. My room was on the bottom level, right on the beach, with a private screened porch. Inside, the dark wood-laminate floors, white down comforter (the new Sofitel MyBed concept), and softly lit, coved ceiling made the room’s small size work for it. My favorite part was the bay window with a pillowed nook. The room had clearly been renovated recently; rooms in the main building have yet to be refurbished as of summer 2005. The only downside—my corner room by the stairs caught a lot of outside noise, and the soundproofing could have been much better.
But the real appeal of the Sofitel lies in its outdoor amenities and location. The beach is man-made and very small, but there are enough sun chairs for an army, and the water here is extremely calm—perfect for children or those uneasy about the ocean. There is also a gorgeous infinity pool upstairs, near the bar—I usually don’t bother if I’m right on the ocean, but this pool was just too tempting. Also provided are lighted tennis courts, windsurfing, kayaking, and snorkel equipment; if your outdoor cravings aren’t sated yet, just talk to the front desk about arranging an excursion outside the hotel.
Another nice perk—a 20-minute ferry runs from the Trois Ilets pier (within walking distance) to Fort-de-France several times a day, enabling a day trip to the city without any driving and parking hassles.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 11, 2005
La Pointe du Bout
+596 (5) 96660202
I’ve been to a few botanical gardens in my day, but Jardin de Balata blew them all away. I found myself enthusiastic to an embarrassing extent, taking a million of those "arty" flower pictures you don’t know what to do with when you get home. The array is dizzying, and you could easily spend a full afternoon enjoying the shady gazebos, lily pad-blanketed ponds, rustic bridges, and magnificent mountain views on the grounds. Be sure to grab a walking guide in the main reception building—it includes a list of all species of flora found there, including origin, family name, and common name, corresponding to numbered markers along the walk. To give you some idea of the volume, the headcount of listed species is just shy of 200.
When you’re finished gaping at Jardin de Balata’s cornucopia, head up the road, past the village of Le Carbet, to L’Habitation de l’Anse Latouche. Also designed by the wildly imaginative Jean-Phillippe Thoze, Anse Latouche is an experiment in creative landscaping on the grounds of an old sugar plantation, once home to Martinique’s governor and the infamous 1717 slave revolt Gaoulé. In his landscape design, Thoze integrates different themes with different building structures, allowing visitors to walk among the ruins through a profusion of landscape environments. Within the sugar factory walls, for example, a canopy of hanging flowers evokes a cluster of colorful lanterns, illuminating the abandoned machinery. At every turn, Thoze plays with color and texture, highlighting subtle gradations of green and juxtaposing prickly cacti with soft, multihued blooms. Be sure to pick up the provided brochures, map, and guide to the plantation and gardens before setting out; guided visits can be arranged on request.
While each attraction would make a memorable day trip on its own, they’re best appreciated together. Jardin de Balata offers an indulgent sensory experience, while Anse Latouche is a truly unique way to experience Martinique’s plenteous ruins. Collectively, they make for an unforgettable confluence of the island’s natural treasures with the vestiges of its complex and absorbing history, embodying Martinique’s distinctive allure.
Snaking its way through the Parc Naturel de la Martinique (rainforest preserve) is the Route de la Trace, the only road to traverse the area, formed by Jesuit priests who walked through the preserve to get from Fort-de-France to the town of Morne-Rouge ("Red Hill"—named for the colorful red roofs that dot the mountainside). Legend has it that the priests indulged in some of that famous Martinican rum on the way (read my Gourmet Martinique Overview for more about the rum) and thus formed the road’s notorious winding curves.
Before the area became protected land, its indigenous wild parrots and monkeys were wiped out by a combination of the poisonous fer de lance snakes, poaching, and land development. Now you’ll see little more than mongoose and snakes in the preserve, although 40 wild parrots have recently been transplanted there in hopes of reestablishing the species.
After twisting along the Route de la Trace, head through the small town of Ajoupa-Bouillon to Les Ombrages, a park devoted to showcasing the region’s environmental riches. Created 15 years ago on a seven-acre spread of land astride the Rosalie River, Les Ombrages has come to house a number of hiking and walking trails with indigenous flowers and plant life. Paths wind along the river, crossing rustic wooden bridges and passing a number of rest areas and bamboo spouts functioning as natural spring water fountains. Stop for a drink, or bring your own; the rainforest environment feels like a steam room, and you won’t make it five minutes without breaking a sweat.
The centerpiece of Les Ombrages, however, is the Créole garden, where every imaginable herb and spice—originally imported during the Age of Discovery and cultivated by slaves—is grown. There’s everything from ginger root to black pepper, clove plants to cinnamon trees, all planted as an educational resource and environmental "laboratory." Visit on your own and take to the trails, guided by a comprehensive network of signs, or organize a tour with a guide, all of whom are trained in botany and nature conservation.
As with most attractions still in the growth phase, there’s little English spoken here, but staff is warm and friendly nonetheless. Besides, experiencing Les Ombrages is more about your other senses: sight, smell, touch, and—if you elect to take home some of the traditional jams, liquors, and honeys available for purchase in the main building (I highly recommend you do)—taste as well.
Our first stop was Ilet Chancel, or Island of the Iguanas. Since this former fishing island is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for the island’s native iguanas, I was expecting a more sanctuary-like setting; instead, our boat pulled up to a rickety pier on a drab-looking island. After making our way past an old stone-and-coral building, outside of which were tossed a few cages full of crabs, we went in search of the iguanas. As it turns out, the sanctuary was simply a fenced-off shady spot under some trees where the iguanas could safely lay eggs. Because the lizards are attracted to sun, and only the highest tree branches provided that, it was difficult to spot them (though we did see a few).
More memorable, however, were the oddities strewn about the island—slave-quarter ruins here, concrete factory remains there, interspersed with some pigpens (yes, with live pigs) and abandoned chunks of wood, wire, and other materials—the sorts of things you’d expect to find stashed in someone’s garage. What’s more, there were no walkways, so exploring meant climbing over fallen tree trunks and trudging through mud with the consistency of (appropriately enough) wet concrete. There was even a smattering of unmarked poisonous manchineel trees—considering these look relatively normal but will burn your skin if you touch the bark or stand under one in the rain, this seemed like an egregious safety hazard to me. They supposedly keep a supply of the antidote for skin reactions, but judging by the look of the place, I was skeptical.
To be fair, it’s likely that a lack of funding is responsible for the condition of the island; with some major refurbishing, it could be an interesting environmental attraction (how about turning that injury-waiting-to-happen grove of manchineels into an educational resource?). If you do go, bring binoculars, wear sturdy closed-toe shoes, and just don’t touch anything. Anyone with a boat or a guide can visit, and we didn’t pay anything to the island to do so; for this reason, I’d advise you to put it last on your list. As soon as Ilet Chancel starts benefiting financially from tourist visits, I’ll start recommending you go.
Continue to Josephine’s Bathtub
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on August 11, 2005
As it happened, Josephine’s Bathtub was packed with visitors that day, so we detoured to an alternative fond blanc. It was exactly as it was described—nothing more, nothing less—and it did make for a relaxing stop. Our driver stopped the boat in the middle of the pool and offered us fresh juice, rum punch, and accras (see my Gourmet Martinique Overview) while we lazed in the water. It was a bit surreal, bobbing around in what looked to be the middle of a huge, deep ocean. The serenity was somewhat lessened by the presence of several other large groups, but 1) you’re talking to someone who likes her beaches and oceans completely deserted, and 2) it was a sunny Saturday—the crowds might be less or even completely absent on weekdays or cloudier days. And if you’re the social type who likes meeting new people, well, there’s no place like the middle of the Atlantic to do it! A local told us that groups actually come out equipped with floating grills, coolers full of drinks, and music, making an all-day party of the trip.
As for the Cap Est catamaran trip itself, I have nothing but good things to say. Our guide was friendly, professional, and an able driver. He was kind enough to guide us around Ilet Chancel and assist us on and off the boat; when we returned to Cap Est and had to wade to shore, he graciously carried all our shoes through the water. Bottled water was available throughout the trip, there was an interior compartment to store bags en route (great for protecting cameras from the ocean spray), and when we stopped at the fond blanc, a number of hidden compartments in the boat opened up to reveal a surprising number of refreshment options. The boat was comfortable, roomy, and didn’t leave me seasick, as boats often do.
A word of warning: I recommend you reapply sunscreen at least 20 times an hour. Yes, I am fair-skinned, but even those in our group who claimed they "never burn" came away crisped by the sun. With the combination of midday sun, the light reflecting off the water, and the white surfaces of the boat (which provides very little shade), you will burn.
Guests of Cap Est should contact the front desk about arranging a catamaran trip of their own.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 11, 2005
New York, New York