The Caribbean is always fascinating to New Englanders in the winter, and with the sudden return of snow perhaps now is the time. Norwegian Airlines has fares for this month out of Boston to Fort de France, Martinique that are hard to beat. Think less than $200 per person round-trip.
Never heard of Martinique, or if you have, thought it was off the coast of Africa or somewhere in the South Pacific? Actually it is in the southern range of the Caribbean Islands, the French Antilles, roughly in line with Venezuela — and it is every bit a tropical paradise.
You might even say you are going to Europe when you head there because the island is a department of France, an integral part of the country (departments are like our states). The entire experience on this tropical island is French; the currency there is the Euro. That makes travel easier for anyone that has traveled in Europe recently, and if you haven’t, right now the Euro is just about the same as a dollar.
Even for experienced travelers in the Caribbean, Martinique will be a new and different experience. A friend who found out we were headed there said “Well, it isn’t Aruba.” And Aruba it is not. Martinique is not a place of mega-resort, never-leave-the-compound sort of travel. Rather, it is for the traveler that delights in discovery, loves to find new places, and relishes interaction with new cultures.
Fort de France, the island capital, is moderately large but not overwhelming. The total island population is 386,000 and a sizeable percentage live in or around the capital. There are fascinating things to see and do there, including a visit to Fort St Louis. It dates back as far as 1638 and was attacked by the Dutch and several times taken by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tours of parts of the fort are available, although part of it still remains a French naval base.
Downtown Fort de France, while having no spectacular sites, is fun to wander around. Its narrow streets and alleys are lined with 18th- to 20th-century buildings and intriguing small shops. One stop should be at the old Palais de Justice, a neo-Italianate beauty built in 1906. Now a community art center its open air central courtyard is a good place to learn about Martinican architecture. At its front is a pleasant park with a statue of Victor Schoelcher, a French abolitionist who as undersecretary of the French Navy abolished slavery in all French Colonies. Close by lies the Cathedral of St Louis with its skeletal spire. For pure color, especially earlier in the morning, head to the Rue Blenac for the colorful Marche Couvert, Covered Market, with its displays of tropical fruits, exotic spices and colorful beach towels.
Of course one goes to the Caribbean for the beaches, and Martinique has plenty to choose from. On the west coast not far from the busy capital is le Carbet, a beach where Columbus landed before sailing off to bigger things. Beaches along this shore are beautiful and low key, with white sands. On the south shore of the island, the towns of Le Diamant and St Luce both have red sand beaches, those at Le Diamant being the longest. These have a view of Rocher Diamant, a rock outcrop that was once captured by the British and christened as a ship!
St Luce has an attractive fishing harbor and several very casual beachside seafood restaurants. On the east coast seek out the long peninsula Presque Ile de la Caravelle where small towns and sandy beaches line the road to the Chateau Dubuc, fascinating ruins of a massive slave-driven sugar and coffee plantation from the 17th century.
For northern New Englanders Martinique can be reached from Boston on Norwegian Airlines. Norwegian flies this route twice a week until March 22.