Time to Reconsider Martinique

AFTER ALMOST A DECADE OF INADEQUATE AIR SERVICE FROM THE U.S., MARTINIQUE TURNED THE CORNER THIS YEAR. American Airlines/American Eagle have stepped up to daily service to Fort de France from New York and other gateways via San Juan and Delta has begun weekly nonstop service from Atlanta. At the same time in Martinique, a group of hotels has come on stream, enabling travel agents to match almost any client to their hotel preference.

At the top of the list, not only in Martinique but also on par with the leading resorts in the Caribbean, is Le Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa (www.capest.com) on the east coast between the towns of Francois and Vauelin. The quietly elegant, all-suite resort is a 35-minute drive from the International Airport in Lamentin and overlooks a coral reef lagoon. The long driveway into the resort, bordered by sugar cane and stately palms, is a comely invitation to what lies ahead. At the open-air reception, guests are greeted by one of the "Comfort and Leisure" hostesses who serve refreshments and a cool towel and assists with check in.

The resort's 50 suites are housed in 18 villas designed to resemble local Creole cottages with gingerbread trim. There are three types of suites: 19 Garden or Oceanview (280 square feet); 24 Deluxe with private pool and ocean view (280 square feet); and seven Executive suites, each with a private pool and ocean view (600 square feet). For your A-list clients, request executive suite #122, at the water's edge; the view is like being on a boat. Club Med Buccaneer's creek, which in Recent years Completed a $60 million makeover designed to attract a more upscale clientele

Dining and Unwinding

Cap Est's two restaurants are under the practiced eye of Herve Romeau: the casual, beachside Le Campeche serves grilled seafood and lobster, fresh from the on-site lobster tank; Le Belem provides a buffet breakfast and elegant dinners around its wine cellar, which holds more than 120 varieties of French wines. In the room's center is a huge drum meant to represent the tanks used for aging rum, Martinique's centuries-old industry. (Room service is available from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. with a charge.) Le Cohi-bar, near the lobby, is the evening's rendezvous spot before dinner for cocktails and for post-meal entertainment.

The resort's spa, awash in fine marble and operated in collaboration with Guerlain, is perhaps the Caribbean's most exclusive spa—only two people are scheduled at any one time to ensure privacy and maximum attention. Ghislaine, the spa director and most requested masseuse, can be contacted through Cap Est's main number. Advance reservations are recommended; try the utterly indulgent "Massage Cap Est," the resort's most popular treatment.

Cap Est offers windsurfing, sea kayaking, snorkeling, kite surfing and boating. The resort can arrange for instructor-led deep-sea fishing, excursions to nearby islets, golf and limousine service. For romantics, general manager Stephane Baras suggests a helicopter flight or the hotel's motorboat to a nearby small private island for lunch and a swim. Agent Advice

Most guest services are handled by the resort's hostesses who perform the duties of a concierge. Agents can contact Baras directly at +596-596-54-80-80 or [email protected]. For reservations, contact Betty Cappa, reservation manager at +596-596-54-88-01 or [email protected]. High season bookings, particularly Christmas and New Year, need to be made a year in advance.

From May to early December, if a company or organization books 35 rooms or more, it can have the resort exclusively. All bookings can be made via GDS or at www.capest.com. Rates range from 45O to 1,130 euros in low season and 980-1550 euros in high season. Private airport transfer/return is about 120 euros for one to three people.

Near Cap Est, in the Francois hills overlooking the Atlantic coast sits the newly reopened boutique hotel, Le P1ein So1ei1 (www.pleinsoleil.mq).

Following an extensive renovation, its highly regarded restaurant was doubled in size with the addition of a wide terrace, a new pool area was added as were three new villas, bringing the resort's total to 16 rooms and suites.

All accommodations are in five colorful villas designed in local Creole style. The new desirable bi-level Duplex Suites (#30 and #31) in one of the new villas have 1,322 square feet of living space. A large living room on the top floor (it's the entrance) is furnished with two wide chaise lounges that can convert to beds for young children. The lower floor has a huge bedroom, a large, deluxe bathroom with dual sinks and twin showerheads and opens onto a large terrace with a private plunge pool. Rooms at the Hotel Plein Soleil are spacious and airy and offer excellent views of the surrounding gorgeous landscape

Near the hotel's new pool area, a single-story villa houses two new garden suites, each with 1,033 square feet. These suites, also with an expansive deck and private plunge pool, have a spacious, airy bedroom with a high ceiling and large bathroom. Some rooms connect via an outside staircase and could work for families; however, due to the hillside setting and steep steps between the guest rooms and main building, the property isn't practical for a family with small children or those with disabilities.

The restaurant offers an innovative cuisine that's as appealing to see as to eat; it combines traditional French and Creole styles with a modern twist by Martiniquan chef Nathanael Ductei1. The dining area now extends over a wide, inviting terrace bordered by flowering trees and traversed by a fish pond. Before or after dinner, most guests join the affable owner in the hotel's stylish lounge and candle-lit bar for cocktails.

The hotel also has a dine-around program with Cap Est and several nearby restaurants, and will organize excursions for sightseeing or to nearby islets for swimming. Contact Yoyo directly (+596-596-38-07-77, [email protected]) or Sebastian Vasse, assistant manager, or Marie Montebort, sales manager—all three are bilingual in French and English. For reservations: [email protected]. Rates range from 136 to 221 euros in low season to 181 to 316 euros in high season (book months ahead). Suite at Le Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa

Charming Manor House Style

Set in a manor house, Le Domaine Saint Aubin (www.ledomainesaintaubin.com) is a boutique hotel on the northern Atlantic coast above the town of Trinite. Occupied until the late 1970s, the mansion was abandoned for over a decade, becoming enveloped in tropical vegetation and acquiring a reputation of being haunted—a rumor reinforced by the house's movie-set-ready facade that is visible from the road through the iron gate—until its owner, Laurent Rosemain, and his wife, Joelle, bought it and restored it properly.

Named for the first settlers in this area of Martinique, the manor house with 12 rooms forms the centerpiece of the hotel. Twelve additional rooms have been added in the former stables, and three new hillside cottages are under construction for a November 2007 opening. The upper level of the cottages will house six suites with kitchens, while the ground level will have space for cars. Throughout, the house and guest rooms are furnished with antiques and period pieces—some heirlooms from Rosemain's family.

Across the front and sides of the manor house is a wide veranda, great for sipping cocktails and enjoying extensive views of the surrounding hills and countryside flowing to the sea. Several of the rooms on the manor's second floor open onto an enormous veranda and enjoy the same views. Rooms, all named for operas or opera characters, are large with high ceilings.

The atmosphere of the hotel is something like a bed and breakfast inn, with the friendly owners providing personal attention. All meals are served in the elegant dining room of the manor house and its adjoining terrace. (Guests dine on fine French cuisine created by Joelle; Rosemain, a musician, plays jazz.)

For reservations and special requests, contact Rosemain who speaks English at +596-596-69-34-77 (his wife speaks only French) or [email protected]. Rates range from 120 to 146 euros in low season; 189 to 220 euros in high season, single or double. Le Cohi-Bar at Le Cap Est

In December 2005, Club Med Buccaneer's Creek (www.clubmed.com) reopened following a $60 million makeover designed to attract a more upscale market than the original Club Med, which opened here in 1969. The property, scalloped with white sand beaches and shaded by groves of graceful coconut palms, now has 293 new or renovated rooms, including 44 new suites. All accommodations are bungalows of one to three floors (no elevators). Deluxe rooms have sea views; suites have a sitting area with either a garden or sea view.

Paul et Virginie, the main restaurant surrounded by coconut palms, serves buffets from around the world for all meals. Belle Créole is a specialty restaurant open for lunch and dinner, offering local and West Indian specialties.

Among the facilities of the sprawling resort are an Olympic-size swimming pool, a full-service spa and extensive water sports.

Rates range according to demand; ask for a reservations specialist at +596-596-76-72-72 or (in the U.S.) 888-932-2582.