From the shimmering beaches around Sainte-Anne in the south to the rugged crags of Diamond Rock to the soaring volcanic dome of Mount Pelee – oh so destructive Mount Pelee – in the north, Martinique is a picture of Caribbean perfection.
Blessed with swathes of deep-green rainforest and ivory-white sands like Les Salines, gushing waterfalls and walkable gorges, there’s always something on the menu for the adventurous traveler.
Meanwhile, luxury seekers can find refined French haute along the streets of Fort-de-France, history buffs can witness a brother of Pompeii in Saint-Pierre, and culture lovers can see old sugar plantations and humble homesteads that bred empresses.
Add to all that the wild surfing swells along the eastern coast and the SCUBA sites (and there are loads of them!), the fantastic museums and the verdant botanical gardens (some of the best in the Caribbean for sure), and it’s easy to see why this speck in the Lesser Antilles is worth the visit!
1. Get some peace at the Jardin de Balata
A mosaic of verdant lawns and flower meadows, multi-coloured begonia beds and orange heliconias, of lanky bamboo groves and gem-like bromeliads, swaying palm forests and flourishing ferns, the Jardin de Balata remains one of the most enticing and interesting attractions on all of Martinique.
Housed just on the edge of Fort-de-France, it’s the perfect escape from the cruise ships and bustling harbors of the city.
Visitors can wander the swinging rope bridges and winding paths, spot cuckoos and warblers in the canopies and gawp at the great clusters of bananas that hide between the boughs.
2. Conquer sulphur-belching Mount Pelee
Infamous for the super destructive eruption of 1902 – the only volcanic disaster on French soil in history – Mount Pelee soars above the Caribbean clouds on the northern side of Martinique.
A truly breath-taking sight, its silhouette lurches large over the town it once utterly razed: Saint-Pierre.
While officially only semi-dormant, the peak has become an irresistible hiking spot for many outdoorsy types hitting to the island.
A trail can be found weaving up the sinewy ridges of the massif just outside Morne Rouge, and walkers can look forward to some unforgettable panoramas over Dominica in the distance!
3. See frozen history in Saint-Pierre
At once sobering and startling, Saint-Pierre is the town that was.
Before the great pyroclastic flows that cascaded down from aforementioned Mount Pelee in the early 1900s, it was the capital and largest city of Martinique.
After, it was little more than a shell.
Having suffered the same fate as Roman Pompeii before it, the old heart of the city still stands; petrified and frozen in time by the onslaught of lava and ash.
Travelers can come and wander the old cobbled streets, see the historic jail cell where one of the few survivors weathered the eruption, and learn all about the destruction wrought upon the island all those decades ago.
4. Follow in the footsteps of an empress at the Musee de la Pagerie
Hidden away between the flamboyant flowers and acacias on the outskirts of Trois-Ilets on Martinique’s southern edge, a humble stone cottage pokes out from the greenery.
Believe it or not, this is one of the most historically-important places on the whole island.
Why? Well, it was here that one Marie Joseph Rose Tascher de la Pagerie was born in 1763; otherwise better known as the Empress Josephine and wife of Napoleon! The onetime plantation house has been transformed into a museum dedicated to chronicling the early life of the lady, complete with a family tree, childhood artifacts and more.
5. Go wild at the Gorges de la Falaise
Clutching the windward ridges of Mount Pelee, and around a mile’s walk from the off-the-beaten-track commune of L’Ajoupa-Bouillon, the rugged Gorges de la Falaise offer a chance for more intrepid travelers to sample the wilds of Martinique.
The spot hides a series of gushing waterfalls and narrow gorges that are perfect for swimming and river walking.
But it’s the hike there that’s the real draw, leading travelers over moss-clad boulders and lichen-studded protrusions, through dense groves of forest, and between blooms of palms and ferns where hummingbirds whiz overhead.
6. Shop for spices in the Grand Marche
Come and weave between the stacks of turmeric root and sweet potatoes, palm tree-green limes and sun-yellow lemons, blood-red radishes and formidable chillies, huge vanilla pods and spiny pineapples bigger than you’ve ever seen.
Yep, that’s what’s on the menu in the sprawling Grand Marche of downtown Fort-de-France.
Also known simply as the Spice Market, it’s a great place to shop for those regional herbs and condiments.
Expect everything from sweet-smelling cinnamon sticks to plumes of nutmeg, premade jerk concoctions to verdant lumps of dried bois bande – said to be a local aphrodisiac!
7. Shop and sightsee in Fort-de-France
Aside from the aromatic stalls of its famous Spice Market, Martinique’s capital at Fort-de-France has plenty of other treats hidden between its glimmering streets and boat-spotted portside.
For fashionistas there’s the swish courses of Rue Victor Hugo, where Parisian haute beckons from the windows, between the occasional local fruit shack for good measure.
There’s also the gorgeous Romanesque rises of the Cathedral Saint-Louis, and the palm-shaded plaza of Place de la Savane, where locals flit amongst the effigies of Empress Josephine and others.
Also don’t miss the pretty domes of Sacré-Coeur de Balata – a replica of Paris’ famous basilica on the hill.
8. Find the real Caribbean at Les Salines
Chalk-white sands drop softly into the ocean.
Coconut palms lean like something out of Robinson Crusoe over the water’s edge, the waves lapping and lapping rhythmically below.
The Trade Winds billow lightly, laden with salt and fresh sea smells.
Yep, this one really is the quintessential Caribbean.
Stretching for some way around the extreme southern peninsula of the island, the powdery beach of Les Salines is a great place to come and kick-back, relax, swim, snorkel and sip (rum punches preferably) the day away.
You’ll find a peppering of cocktail shacks lining the sands behind, along with plenty of shaded spots to recline and unwind.
9. Dive down to Diamond Rock
Diamond Rock can be seen shouldering its way above the swells of the Caribbean Sea just a stone’s throw from the south coast of Martinique island.
A craggy, rugged spike of stone that resembles a diamond in shape (hence the name), the great headland is widely famed for being one of the major points of contention between British and French forces during the Napoleonic Wars.
Today though, it’s also beloved of expert divers, who flock to delve deep into the underwater caves that traverse the entire thing below the tide line! It’s a tricky feat, but there are otherworldly species of sea fans and sponges, corals and fish to look forward to.
10. Devour Creole come French foods at 1643
Housed in a charming Caribbean-style cabana with Tiki overtones close to the Martinique Zoo, the acclaimed restaurant of 1643 is the go-to place for eating authentic, fresh and creative tropical and Creole cuisine.
The menu bursts with taste-bud-tingling flavors of the region: Polynesian fish cuts in coconut milk; cod fritters; bass fillets in Carib spices.
And there’s a twist of the Med too, with the likes of filo pastry parcels, Spanish pork and that forever Parisian crème brulee making an appearance.
If you’re lucky, you’ll also be able to catch one of the regular local folk or jazz performances.
11. Hit the La Caravelle Nature Trail
One of the many nature trails that offer travelers a chance to delve into the wild hinterland of Martinique, the La Caravelle route encompasses everything from ocean swells to dense forest to crumbling colonial ruins.
Start with a hike through the great mangroves of the eastern shore.
Then, clamber over the rocks to the bay of Anse Tartane, where the salt-frothing rollers of the Atlantic forever buffet the coast (this whole area is famed for its excellent surfing opportunities). From there, go back into the woods and discover the remnants of Dubuc Castle.
Now crumbling and chipped by the ages, the site offers a glimpse at the old colonial age of Martinique.
12. Go off-the-beaten-track to the gardens of Les Ombrages
Hidden away between the misty jungles around L’Ajoupa-Bouillon, this off-the-beaten-track nature park is home to some of the most immersive backcountry in Martinique.
Wax up the walking boots and get out the hiking sticks before you come, because the trails here crisscross the babbling courses of the Rosalie River, weave around groves of blooming calabash trees and Creole-inspired gardens.
Visitors can opt to take a guided tour of the site and learn all about the botanical richness of the region, along with the healing and medicinal powers of the various plants that thrive here.
13. Understand the great peak at the Musee Volcanologique
Pint-sized but still one of the most-visited museums on the island, Martinique’s acclaimed Musee Volcanologique makes its home amidst the historic Fort Quarter of Saint-Pierre in the north.
Concerned with chronicling and unravelling the scientific and human side of the destructive eruption of Mount Pelee, the institution is a must for budding geologists and historians.
You’ll be able to compare images of the city before and after it was hit with pyroclastic flows, and see household items found amidst the ruins.
There’s parking on-site, while those who walk will enjoy good views over Saint-Pierre town and the north coast.
14. Lunch on the sands at Le Cocotier
Make a beeline for this unassuming little beach shack right on the sands of Plage de L’anse Michel Cap Chevalier for some of the best casual lunches going.
The kitchen only kicks into action around 12, making midday meals here a really sought-after treat.
Food wise, you can expect seafood catches of the day, papaya fruit and veg salads and stacks of rice on the side, while the drinks are colourful and fresh, creative and tasty.
It’s the setting that makes it though, with diners enjoying the shade of the swaying palms just meters from the Caribbean Sea!
15. Stand where Columbus stood in Le Carbet
Lined with white beaches and spiked with a whitewashed Church, fringed with palm gardens and kissed by the light swells of the western cost, little Le Carbet is a truly charming stopover.
It’s perhaps most famed as the supposed spot where a certain Christopher Columbus alighted during his voyage of 1502. However, other luminaries – think Paul Gaugin – have trodden here too, and there are plenty of cultural treats to see in the way of local art galleries and live music venues to boot.
Another highlight are the green, green lawns at Latouche’s Creek, where lily ponds and waxy orchids are all on display.