Martinique at first glance is a piece of France transported to the tropics, where language and customs have adapted to the climate. There is something for everybody here: a variety of hotels, good beaches, watersports, historical attractions, beautiful scenery, hiking, birdwatching and countless other activities. Tourism is well developed in the south, but a large part of the more mountainous north is taken up by protected rainforest. The scenery is dramatic and very beautiful, with lush rainforest coating the slopes of the mountains and swathes of sugar cane grown on the plain. The volcano, Pelée, last erupted in 1902, when it destroyed the former capital, St-Pierre, killing all but one of its 26,000 inhabitants.
The impressive Fort St-Louis still functions as a military base. Built in Vauban style, it dominates the waterfront. It is still an active military base and has been closed to the public after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Adjacent to the fort is La Savane, the old parade ground, a 5-ha park planted with palms, tamarinds, and other tropical trees and shrubs, is having an elegant makeover. The park contains statues of two famous figures: Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc, the leader of the first French settlers on Martinique, and Empress Josephine (now beheaded by Independentistes), first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, who was born on the island.
The Bibliothèque Schoelcher is situated on the corner of rue Victor Sévère and rue de la Liberté, across the road from the Savane. Schoelcher (1804-1893), who devoted his life to the abolition of slavery, gave much of his library to Martinique, but most was burned in the fire of the town centre in 1890. The building to house the collection was commissioned, but not built, before the fire. It was designed by Henry Picq, a French architect married to a woman from Martinique. The Eiffel engineering company constructed it in iron, shipped it to the island and it opened in 1893. On the exterior you can see the names of freedom campaigners, including John Brown, of the USA, William Wilberforce, of the UK and Toussaint Louverture, of Haiti. Today it still functions as a library and regularly holds exhibitions.
Just along the rue de la Liberté towards the seafront is the Musée Départemental d'Archéologie Précolombienne. It contains relics of the Arawak and Carib Indians: pottery, statuettes, bones, reconstructions of villages, maps, etc. Worth a visit. In the centre of town, in the Square of Seigneur Romero, rue Schoelcher, there is a second chance to see the architecture of Henri Picq with the Cathedral of St-Louis which towers above the Fort-de-France skyline. This, too, is mainly of iron, in a romanesque-byzantine style. The arms of past bishops, in stained glass, give colour to the choir. In a beautiful Créole villa dating back to 1887, is the Musée Régional d'Histoire et d'Ethnographie de la Martinique. It is a modern museum and strong on the origins, customs and traditions of the people of Martinique.
The Parc Floral et Culturel (which includes the Galerie de Géologie et de Botanie and the Exotarium is a shady park containing two galleries, one of which concentrates on the geology of the island, the other on the flora, and mid-19th-century wooden barracks now housing 11 workshops for local artisans. Almost 2,800 species of plants have been identified in Martinique and the Parc Floral has a very good selection. Next to the Parc Floral are a feature of Fort-de-France not to be missed, the markets . The fishmarket is by the Madame River, facing the Place José Martí, where fishermen unload from their small boats or gommiers. Close by is one of several markets selling fruit, vegetables and flowers as well as exotic spices. The markets hum with activity from 0500 to sunset, but are best on Friday and Saturday.The northwest coast
A new attraction on the road north out of St-Pierre is Le Centre de Découverte des Sciences de la Terre, www.cdst.org. Permanent and temporary exhibitions include information on volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes.
The next village on the coastal road is the picturesque fishing village of Le Prêcheur. Madame de Maintenon, who married Louis XIV lived here. The three bells outside the church date from that time. The road then continues towards the spectacular beach of Anse Céron where the sand seems to be at its blackest. A rock called the Pearl juts out from the sea which is roughish but swimming is possible. It is a wild and beautiful beach, a pleasant change from the calm, white-sand tourist beaches in the south. The coast road peters out here, only a trail continues into the mountains to the north. Turn inland to Habitation Céron, a plantation where the early sugar buildings are largely intact and there is an attractive botanic walk taking you to a huge 300-year-old Zamana tree covering more than half a hectare. There are huge ponds where succulent crayfish are raised.
It is possible to follow a track 18 km through the rainforest around the northern coast, but a guide is essential. The first 20 minutes on a concrete road are discouraging, but once in the forest the path is cooler and the views beautiful. At the extreme north of the island is another small fishing village, Grande Rivière set in breathtaking scenery characteristic of this part of the island; plunging cliffs covered with the lush vegetation of the rainforest. The island of Dominica faces the village from across the sea. Winding roads lead through the mountains to the next village, Macouba, perched on top of a cliff.The tropical rainforest and La Montagne Pelée
At Balata, not far from the capital along the Route de la Trace is the bizarre sight of the Sacré Coeur, a smaller version of Paris's votive Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre, perched high up in the forest. A little further along the road is the Le Jardin de Balata, with superb views across the Baie de Fort-de-France to Trois-Ilets. The gardens feature a collection of 3,000 species with magnificent anthuriums, numerous hummingbirds and brilliant green lizards.
La Montagne Pelée is reached via a track branching off the Route de la Trace, between Morne Rouge and Ajoupa-Bouillon, where there is a delightful garden-park, Les Ombrages Botaniques. From the car park at the foot of the volcano there is a view of the Atlantic Coast, Morne Rouge and the bay of St-Pierre. The mountain air is deliciously fresh and cool even at the foot of the volcano. Not far away are Les Gorges de la Falaise, a series of small gorges along 3 km of the Falaise River, wonderful for swimming in, accessible only by following the course of the river on foot. Much of the walk is actually wading in the water and you clamber over waterfalls.North coast
From the N1 road along the northeast coast tempting beaches with crashing waves are visible, but the Atlantic Coast is too dangerous for swimming, except at Anse Azérot just south of Sainte-Marie. To the north is Fond St-Jacques a cultural centre also known as the Musée de Père Labat, which used to be a Dominican monastery and sugar plantation. Buildings date from 1689 and at its height the Dominicans utilized 1,000 slaves. It was here that Père Labat perfected the distilling of rum. His memoirs are a prime source of information on plantation life. Modern art exhibitions are also held at the centre. Nearby, Musée du Rhum Saint-James explains the process and history of rum production, and rum tasting. Northeast, above Sainte-Marie, is the Musée de la Banane a new museum on a working estate, Habitation Limbé. You can visit the former plantation house which contains the exhibition telling you all you ever wanted to know about bananas, the working banana packaging plant from where the fruit are exported, shops in former workers' huts and walk through gardens of tropical flowers and a variety of banana plants.Caravelle peninsula
A short bus ride from Trois-Ilets is the tourist complex of Pointe du Bout, directly opposite Fort-de-France. There is a marina, a Créole village, where some of the shops, cafés, bars, restaurants and souvenir stands can be found, discos, sports and a conglomeration of luxury hotels. The first beach after stepping off the ferry is a crowded strip of sand in front of the Hotel Meridien, almost completely covered with deckchairs for hire. Perhaps preferable is the beach at Anse Mitan (ferry from Fort-de-France), a five-minute walk away, where there are numerous reasonably priced restaurants and bars. Anse à l'Ane, a little way along the coast to the west is quieter and has a pleasant atmosphere. Grande Anse is a magnificent beach, although it does get crowded at weekends. Just south of the nearby pretty village Anse d'Arlets (ferry from Fort-de-France) and around the Pointe du Diamant is Le Diamant. This is an idyllic golden-sand beach stretching for 4 km along the south coast and dominated by the famous Rocher du Diamant (Diamond Rock). This huge 176-m rock, of volcanic origin, is about 4 km out to sea and was occupied by the English during the Napoleonic Wars. They stationed four cannon and about 20 sailors there in 1804 before the French reconquered it 1½ years later.
Inland and to the east of Diamant is the town of Rivière-Pilote, the largest settlement in the south of the island, with the Mauny Rum Distillery. The largest marina on the island is at Le Marin, which boasts a very fine 18th-century Jesuit church. Southwards are long white-sand beaches lined with palm groves, and calm clear sea.
At Sainte-Anne there is a long public beach backed by a pleasant promenade park. The water is calm, ideal for toddlers and there is shade from trees overhanging the sea in places. A former Club Med Resort is closed for renovation until late 2005. There is a wide selection of lively bars and restaurants and all types of watersports equipment. Ferries sail from Fort-de-France, 2½ to 3½ hours. There is a Jesuit church of 1766 opposite the jetty.