Last updated: 10:30 AM ET, Wed August 17 2016

Five Things That Make Martinique Unique

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | August 17, 2016

Five Things That Make Martinique Unique

PHOTO: The Tour des Yoles Rondes race is unique to Martinique. (Photo by Brian Major)

Virtually every Caribbean island owes some aspect of its lifestyle to various influences. But Martinique’s confluence of French, African and Caribbean cultures are unmatched anywhere in the region.

Visitors will not only encounter the same French wines and champagnes, fashions and perfumes found in Paris, but also a distinctly West Indian culture as authentic as the Creole spoken widely across the island. Traditions as disparate as Colombo-seasoned cuisine, storytelling festivals, Carnival celebrations, and a very distinctive boat race all live side-by-side on this fascinating island.

Here’s a look at five things that make Martinique unique:

Paris in the Caribbean: While it’s located in the center of the Lesser Antilles, Martinique is an overseas region of France and the connection is apparent almost everywhere.

French is Martinique’s official language, the euro is the currency. While it lacks the sheer size and architectural splendor of Paris, the historic capital of Fort de France features several historic buildings and a walkable downtown district offering one of the few genuine urban experiences among Caribbean islands.

Fort de France’s French culture comes through in numerous ways, from the residents who can be seen toting loaves of French bread as they make morning rounds, to the Tricolour flag that waves daily over the city’s historic Fort St. Louis.

Attractions are generally focused around Place de la Savane, a large urban park and green gathering space in the city’s center. Le Savane features palm trees, statues and memorials and overlooks the seaside Promenade du Front de Mer. The walkway links the city to the Point Simon cruise ship terminal, historic Fort St. Louis and a small, popular city beach. A tourist information office is located at the park’s edge.

Must-visit Fort de France landmarks include the Schoelcher Library, an ornate cast-iron building built in France in 1889 and shipped piece-by-piece to Martinique. The imposing edifice honors French abolitionist writer Victor Schoelcher and features historic texts and a working library.

The Schoelcher Library was built in France in 1889 and shipped piece-by-piece to Martinique.

Construction of the Cathedrale St.-Louis began in the mid-17th century; the first church on the present site opened in 1657. The current structure dates to 1895, was designed by Gustave Eiffel and was built with an iron frame to withstand hurricanes. The building features magnificent stained glass windows chronicling the city history.

Construction of the neo-classical Old City Hall on Rue de la Republique was completed 1901; the building previously housed the city government, and has since been converted into a combination museum and theater honoring Aime Cesaire, a long-serving mayor of Fort de France, distinguished poet and author, and a founder of French literature’s négritude movement.

African and Creole cultures: Martinique people are largely the descendants of enslaved Africans forced to work on sugar plantations during the colonial era. Victor Schoelcher persuaded the French government to end slavery in Martinique in 1848.

African and French influences continue to define Martinique society, activities and attractions, and travelers will find numerous venues through which to explore Martinique’s distinct cultures.  

La Savane des Esclaves in the resort town of Trois Ilets is a two-hectare, open-air museum, operated by proprietor Gilbert Larose. The popular site replicates a post-slavery native village with traditional houses built of palisades wood with beaten earth floors and cane-leaf roofs.

Guests can stroll among La Savane’s exhibits or partake in demonstrations of traditional construction techniques and agricultural processes. Unlike some Caribbean plantation attractions, La Savane’s exhibits include a frank and accurate documentation of slavery in Martinique. Paintings, sculptures and historical drawings and photographs depict the incredible cruelty and violence of the slave-based agricultural economy.

READ MORE: Touring Martinique’s Magnificent Museums

Visitors can also sample Martinique’s African, Creole and French cultures through the country’s outstanding cuisine. Travelers will find numerous outstanding options ranging from informal to gourmet.

A daytime walk to Fort-de-France’s century-old Grand Marché will bring visitors to Chez Carole, whose eponymous restaurant is a one-woman show of Créole cuisine. Charming Carole does the cooking and serving and offers genuine fare at reasonable prices with plenty of Lorraine, Martinique’s signature beer.

Within the Grand Marche’s cast-iron arcade, travelers will also find an array of local fruits, Creole spices and homemade rum hawked by friendly vendors. An evening stroll down pin-drop quiet Rue Garnier to the bright, welcoming Le Vieux Foyal bar and restaurant will deliver travelers to delicious Creole fare and weekly jazz jam sessions.  

Martinique also features several top-rated options, including La Table de Marcel, a 24-seat boutique restaurant headed by Martinique native and Michelin-starred chef Marcel Ravin.

Located in the upscale, new Le Simon Hotel in downtown Fort de France, the eatery features Ravin’s combinations of local spices, herbs and Creole seasonings with traditional French fare. Another native Martinique native, Jean-Charles Brédas, offers classic French and Creole fusion at Le Bredas in Saint-Joseph outside of Fort de France.

The hotel Le Simon is located in downtown Fort de France.

Yole boat racing: Boat-racing is a traditional activity in numerous Caribbean islands. But Martinique’s annual Tour des Yoles Rondes (Yole Boat Race), held each year in late July, is something special.

Yole boats are unique to Martinique and based on fishing vessels developed by local craftsmen many years ago. The carefully built boats fly brightly colored rectangular sails and use rounded hulls made from local pear trees.

The speedy boats are very difficult to sail and capsize quickly should the boat fail to keep moving. Skilled deck hands manipulate winches and wheels and at times are required to literally go overboard, balancing on long poles astride of the vessel as they work to keep boats upright.

The multi-day race proceeds in a counter-clockwise direction around the island in seven stages. Each day residents celebrate the end of the day’s competition with Carnival-style celebrations featuring live music, dancing and food and fun.

Meanwhile, a colorful procession of yachts, catamarans, speedboats, personal watercraft and private vessels trail the racers, partying along the way. Visitors can work with their hotel to arrange an affordable charter boat excursion to view the race from the sea. Packages include meals and side trips to secluded beaches.

READ MORE: French-Flavored Fun in Martinique

Prestigious properties: Martinique does not boast the Caribbean’s largest or most diverse hotel and resort inventory but the island does boast several of the most distinctive properties found anywhere in the region.

Le Simon Hotel in Fort de France opened earlier his year and is more of a business hotel than a resort. But the property features deluxe amenities and offers visitors an ideal base from which to explore the cosmopolitan city. The 94-suite property features room service and free Wi-Fi.

French Coco is a 17-suite boutique luxury property set in the Tartane, a small fishing village on the border of the Caravelle Peninsula Natural Reserve. All but one of the suites features its own private pool, and décor emphasizes local fine art, furnishings crafted from reclaimed materials and a soothing, intimate atmosphere amidst gardens featuring 1,000 plant species.

Le Panoramic is another boutique property with superior staterooms and a stunning location on a hillside overlooking the town of Trois Ilets. The property offers a great base for excursions to the white-sand beach at Pointe de Bout, to local golf courses and to diving and horseback-riding excursions. The nearby 137-room Bakoua Hotel is another great option for travelers who want a beachside resort.

Hotel Bambou is great for families and offers colorful and attractive Creole-style cottages inspired by Martinican architecture. Cap Est Lagoon and La Suite Villa are top-shelf luxury options. The former is situated on a peninsula in Le Francois on the Atlantic coast; the latter overlooks scenic Trois Ilets.

Easy access: Late last year, Norwegian Air launched new non-stop flights from the northeastern U.S. to Martinique, representing the first direct flights to the destination from the Northeast in more than 20 years. The affordably priced flights depart four times weekly from New York, twice weekly from Baltimore/Washington, D.C. and twice weekly from Boston. American Airline has also increased its Miami-Martinique air service for 2016.  

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