A European Vacation In the Caribbean
|FRENCH FLAIR BY THE SEA: Martinique offers a mix of tastes, activities, and scenery that add another dimension to any Caribbean vacation (Weststock)|
It happens every year: As the weather cools and skies turn gray, warmer climates beckon vacationers, luring thoughts away from work to the bewildering array of tropical choices offering cloudless skies, blue waters, and white-sand beaches. Enter an island that offers all of this plus a European flair, just a short flight from Miami.
The characteristics that differentiate Martinique from most other Caribbean islands extend beyond its status as a full-fledged province of France, as integral to the country as Normandy or Provence. It has the same sun, sand, and sea as its neighbors, but it lacks the tourism development sprawl so common among its peers. Except for one unpretentious, family-oriented Club Med, the island is free of the sterile, corporate-owned resort hotels that dominate so many Caribbean beachfronts.
In their place, charming seaside inns prepare fresh fish, seafood, and produce in the finest traditions of French haute cuisine and flavorful Creole cooking. Complementing the temptations of the palate, delightful images of lush tropical rainforests cascade to azure waters off pearly white slivers of beach. These stunning slopes, cultivated with patchwork quilts of bananas, corn, and other crops, capture Martinique's visitors as they drive to the island's myriad attractions. In fact, Martinique boasts one of those rare landscapes where, sitting on a hillside verandah with a drink in hand at sunset, the difficulty lies in choosing a focal point for one's attention: the luxuriously verdant Alps-like mountains and valleys of the interior, or the vast turquoise of the waters lapping the shores.
History buffs should take note of two sitesSaint-Pierre and Les Trois-Ilets. Often called the Paris of the Lesser Antilles, Saint-Pierre was once a great cultural center. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, stopped here to attend the opera on his way to try and duplicate his success with a canal across Panama. Alas, fate dealt both the French engineer and Saint-Pierre the cruelest of blows: The man failed miserably because of a flawed plan, while the town was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée, which can still be seen smoking today. Saint-Pierre earned its nickname as the Pompeii of the Caribbean, and now a miniature train called The Cyparis Express transports visitors through the living ghost town to the impressive ruins of the famed opera house and the Musée Vulcanologique, a unique museum housing some unforgettable relics including petrified cups of coffee, clocks melted and frozen in time, and front-page New York Times reports of the 1902 disaster.
Just across the bay from the capital city of Fort de France, Les Trois-Ilets is the birthplace of the girl who grew up to become the empress of Europe, the lover and wife of the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte. The museum at La Pagerie contains letters from the smitten general to his beloved Josephine, Martinique's favorite daughter, whose name is now linked with a very endearing local custom.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication