by Nigel Tisdall, The Telegraph, July 30, 2019
The capital of the French overseas territory of Martinique is a popular stop on Caribbean cruises and happily welcomes ships carrying from 400 to over 4,000 passengers. For many North American visitors, the towering island is a chance to get a taste of la belle France without having to cross the Atlantic, while European passengers enjoy its fusion of Gallic traditions with the warmth and vivacity of the Caribbean. Here you will find all the classic joys of the French seaside – orderly families, baguettes and boules – supplemented by the rum, lilting sounds and tropical splendour of the region. Inland lie mighty volcanic mountains, scenic drives, venerable rum distilleries and characterful gardens and heritage properties.
Cruise port location
Fort-de-France lies on the island's west coast, safely tucked into the northern shore of the huge Baie de Fort-de-France. Some cruise ships dock at Pointe Simon pier beside Baie des Flamands, others tie up at the Tournelles Cruise Terminal to the east. The first is preferable, with visitors immediately greeted with live music, officials handing out maps and tented stalls selling local souvenirs and produce. The second is a well-marked, 15-minute walk from the city centre.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Cruise ship passengers arrive in the heart of Fort-de-France which is easily explored by foot. Use Place de la Savane as a landmark and meeting point – this is a large seafront park where you can watch life on Martinique roll by – there is even a small sandy beach, Plage de la Française, where you can rent loungers and take a dip. To its east rises the formidable Fort Saint-Louis (closed Sunday, Monday) which dates from the 17th century and is still used as a naval base. A kiosk in the park sells tickets for one-hour tours, times vary so if this is of interest pay a visit on arrival.
Find time to visit the majestic, free-entry Bibliothèque Schoelcher (closed Sunday), a public library in the north west corner of the park that was built in Paris in 1889 then shipped here. From here walk west to enjoy the shops, markets and restaurants of the city centre.
Martinique is a mountainous island that covers 436 square miles – almost twice the size of neighbouring St Lucia. It is crowned in the north by the now dormant 4,583ft Mt Pelée volcano, which erupted in 1902 killing 28,000 people, many of them residents of the former capital, Saint-Pierre, where you can still see blackened ruins. Travelling around the island's beautiful green interior is enchanting but takes time, while the coastal roads are generally good.
Car hire is possible but not for the faint-hearted, particularly on the narrow and elderly motorways around Fort-de-France where the locals drive with terrifying speed. Getting to popular beaches and coastal towns by bus is feasible – things will be easier if you speak French. For all these reasons, a pre-booked excursion, or independently-arranged tour with a taxi, is by far the best way to explore – if you choose the latter be aware not all drivers speak good English.
Best beaches for cruise-ship visitors
If downtime at the beach is a priority take the 15-minute ferry from the pier near Pointe Simon south to Pointe du Bout or to the less hectic, family-friendly Anse Mitan, where the water is shallow and there are plenty of beachside restaurants. The best beach on the island is Grande Anse des Salines, in the far south of the island near Ste-Anne, which takes around an hour to drive to. If you are seeking peaceful sands, avoid visiting these beaches at weekends.
What to see and do
Fort-de-France is worth seeing, but you'll need to travel further afield if you want to relax on the island's best beaches or appreciate the scenic magnificence of Martinique. Head south for the first and north for the second. Excursions sold by operators such as Carnival Cruises and Holland America offer a decent range of island tours as well as active adventures such as rainforest hiking, 4x4 jeep safaris, kayaking, snorkelling and catamaran cruises.
What can I do in four hours or less?
If you like to focus on one sight, consider a trip to the Musée de la Pagerie (closed Monday) near Les Trois-Îlets, the country estate where Joséphine de la Pagerie was born in 1763. The white Creole went on to marry Napoleon Bonaparte and become Empress of France. A hurricane destroyed the main house so there's not that much to see, but the grounds are delightful and it makes a pleasant trip. Another option is Jardin de Balata, a private botanical garden and horticultural labour-of-love six miles north of Fort-de-France.
For a rum distillery, Habitation Clément is a superbly-run visitor attraction near Le François with a sculpture garden, historic buildings and tastings. This is a good pick if you like to be independent, just take a taxi there and maybe a picnic as there is plenty to see. Among the organised group shore excursions within four hours, the stand-out is one that travels north along the inland Route de Trace to St-Pierre then returns via the coast to Fort-de-France.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
A more extensive tour combining two or three of the elements above. Royal Caribbean offers a seven hour 'Best of Martinique' trip that takes in St Pierre, the Depaz rum distillery and Jardin de Balata, including a lunch featuring local dishes.
Eat and drink
If you are familiar with dining out in France, the cuisine in Martinique may seem disappointing. Meals are taken seriously here, but restaurants tend to be geared to passing tourists – prices are high, while the service lacks the passion often found in La Métropole. Look out for fresh fish and seafood, spicy creole dishes and tropical fruits and vegetables.
Local specialities include accras (saltfish fritters), conch, boudin (sausage) and ti punch(rum with lime and sugar).
Don't leave the island without...
As you're in the EU, there's no roaming charges on your phone so feel free to make some calls, pay bills and maybe book your next cruise. Rum is a top buy and most supermarkets are well-stocked, or invest in a premium bottle from a distillery. Spending money in markets and crafts stalls will help the islanders – look out for straw goods, hot sauces, spices and beauty products made here.
Need to know
Flight time from the UK
Air France flies to Martinique's Aimé Césaire International Airport from six UK airports via Paris – from London the journey takes around 15 hours. Transfers to the port take around 20 minutes. The island can also be reached on fast-ferry services from St Lucia, which is served by direct flights with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick. The crossing takes around 80 minutes and docks at the Gare Maritime in Baie de Carenage on the east side of Fort-de-France.
Martinique is a safe and civilised island that understands the value of tourism and visiting cruise ships. It does have issues of poverty and social disadvantage that are obvious from the security bars on many buildings and billboards inviting residents to hand in their weapons. Steer clear of run-down neighbourhoods and leave all valuables on board. Take cash (Euros) in small denominations for purchases and admission fees, and make sure you have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Best time to go
Fort-de-France welcomes cruise ships year-round with the peak winter season from October to April busiest. June to November is the official hurricane season with stormy weather most common in September or October. Key events are Carnaval (February or March), the Tour des Yoles Rondes sailing regatta (July), and French public holidays such as Bastille Day (14 July).