photo of Martinique

A beach in Martinique (Hemera/ThinkStock)

What to do in Martinique

It's no wonder that Martinique, in the Lesser Antilles, feels so vintage French—since 1635, France has had a firm foothold on the island. Sandwiched between Dominica to the north and Saint Lucia to the south, Martinique was historically known as the isle with enormous slave plantations, the birthplace of Napoleon's Empress Joséphine, and the site of the 1902 eruption of the Mount Pelée volcano, which wiped out the then central city of Saint-Pierre and its 30,000 people in just three minutes.

Mont Pelée still smolders to this day, but the center of the island has migrated to the town of Fort-de-France, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the French West Indies. Over a third of the island's population of 400,000 lives here, a town full of antique charm with ornate iron balconies overflowing with flowers and narrow streets climbing steep hills. The island displays its rich history in its fine museums (including a Gauguin museum near where the painter lived in Carbet), and shoppers will relish the fine French luxury imports like perfumes, clothes, and crystal, often at prices much lower than in the States.

Martinique has so much to offer visitors, from stunning scenery to old fishing villages lining the coasts, rainforests and black sand beaches in the north, small mountains in the center, and arid beaches and nature preserves in the south. The island is nicknamed the Isle of Flowers—there's no lack of botanical gardens tucked into the rugged landscape. Other natural highlights include the Caravelle Nature Preserve, the wide undeveloped beaches of Les Salines, and the town of Le Prêcheur and its volcanic hot springs. The island explodes for a great Carnival celebration, known locally as Vaval, with each village on the island getting involved with costumes and floats. You won't be disappointed by the array of options for lodging, from huge resorts to hidden B&Bs to Gites de France—apartments, studios, and guest rooms for rent in friendly private homes.

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