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Martinique -- The Cosmopolitan Island

Martinique is the home of Fort de France, a cosmopolitan city with a pace that is fast for the tropics. (There is even a rush hour with traffic jams!) Fort de France has a population of over 100,000. It is a bustling port city, with a city park called La Savane just off the wharf. La Savane has a now- headless statue of Empress Josephine, first wife of Napoleon and perhaps the most famous person born on Martinique.

Just across the Rue de la Liberte from Josephine is the Bibliotheque Shoelcher, a stunningly beautiful building. It was built of iron in Paris by the architect of the Eiffel Tower and transported to Fort de France in 1890. It houses a collection of books donated by Victor Shoelcher. The day we were there traffic was stopped on that street while a Yoplait commercial was being filmed.

It rains every day on Martinique, and the vegetation is lush and gorgeous. Martinique has an agrarian economy, with sugar cane, pineapples, and bananas being the money crops. We stayed at Hotel St. Aubin, just outside of La Trinite and totally surrounded by a banana plantation. While Fort de France is on the western Caribbean side of the island, La Trinite is on the eastern Atlantic side. We had a nice view of the little islet of St. Aubin and the Atlantic from our room. Hotel St. Aubin has a veranda surrounding the entire second floor, and many of the guests sit outside their rooms in the evenings for nice conversation and refreshments. The picture accompanying the paragraphs on Martinique at the French West Indies page was taken on the veranda.

As with most Caribbean islands, the Atlantic side is steep and subject to heavy surf, but just a few miles to the north of our hotel we found Anse Azerot which was sheltered enough for swimming. We also swam at the Caravelle Peninsula, which juts out beyond La Trinité and provides shelter from the Atlantic surf.

Although none of the beaches here are clothing optional, all are optionally topless. Because Martinique is a volcanic island and rises rather steeply from the sea, it does not have a great many swimmable beaches. Most of the tourists go to Pointe du Bout, which is directly across the Baie de Fort de France from the city of Fort de France. The water there suffers somewhat from industrial usage, Pointe du Bout has a few marinas lining the shore, and the ferry from Fort de France comes to Pointe du Bout frequently. But the water is semi- clear, there are many restaurants, restrooms, telephones, and places to stay.

Perhaps because of the steepness of the shoreline, the swimming and snorkeling in the waters off Martinique leaves much to be desired. Often the beach leads into the water and declines steeply into the depths. No reefs ring the shores, and no fish are visible. The few people in the water seemed mainly interested in getting wet and cooling off. If the water was calm enough, some people stand chest deep talking and smoking cigarettes.

As usual in the French West Indies, the restaurants and lodging are world class. If you want a Caribbean island with nightlife in the fast lane, Martinique is it. Although not many Americans come here, many people speak English well enough that you should have no problems communicating in restaurants and hotels. Some of the out of the way places may be without English, however, so a smattering of menu French is very helpful if you want to know what you're eating.
(An aside: while we were at Anse Azerot, we met a couple on their honeymoon. They were living in Stockholm, Sweden, the birthplace of the husband. His wife was a native of France. Neither spoke the other's native language, so they conversed with each other in English.)

Martinique is home to an active volcano, Montagne Pelee, which erupted in 1902, killing everyone in the town of St-Pierre except the town drunk who had been thrown in jail. The ruins of old St-Pierre have been preserved, and a statue of a woman who's clothes are falling off has been erected to commemorate the victims of the eruption. At the time of the eruption, St-Pierre was the capital of Martinique, and its beauty was such that it was known as the Little Paris of the West Indies. It was totally destroyed along with its 26,000 inhabitants. After the destruction, the capital was moved to Fort de France, where it remains, and the new St-Pierre is a pleasant village with splendid views of Montagne Pelee in one direction and the Caribbean in the other.

Roads are very well maintained, and the roadside landscaping is superb. As with all the islands of the French West Indies, the people of Martinique keep a very clean island. Around Fort de France, the roads are divided with two lanes of traffic in each direction. In the northern part of the island, which is seriously mountainous, the roads are sometimes only a car and a half wide; meeting a car, passing, and being passed becomes an adventure, especially at night. The drivers are remarkably good, however, and as long as we let the other drivers do whatever they wanted, we had no trouble -- just a few palpitations of the heart.

Our Martinique pages have been updated to include our trip in April 1999. See the site Table of Contents for a current list of pages. For more information, you may wish to refer to the CIA World Factbook and to Destination Highlights - Martinique.

There is a new commercial site for Martinique with a chance to win a free trip to Martinique (when 5,000 valid entries have been submitted).

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