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Chic, unique Martinique

The island of Martinique lies in the Lesser Antilles, with the Carribbean Sea to the west and the Atlantic and Europe to the east. With a population originating from three continents, Africa, Europe and Asia, it is the product of a heady cocktail of influences, resulting in a unique atmosphere different to that of any other island in the Caribbean. A glamorous destination with a fantastic year-round climate, Martinique is a perennial favorite with the more sophisticated traveler, and it doesn't take long to find out why.

It may be more than 4,000 miles from Paris, but Martinique is an unmistakably French island. Located in the eastern Caribbean Sea, it is a full-fledged Department and Region of France, with full representation in French parliament and the official language to match. That said, Martinique is in the West Indies, and has its own culture distinct from that of its mother country and is closer in many ways to the Creole traditions of the Caribbean.

For many, the main reason for visiting Martinique is the same as for any of the islands in the tropics - sea, sand, and year-round sun. The island enjoys a particularly pleasant climate, with an average temperature of 79° Fahrenheit (25° Celsius). In winter, if the cooler season can be called that, temperatures rarely dip below 70° Fahrenheit (21° Celsius), and the hotter summers are never unbearable thanks to les allies, the trade winds, which cool the atmosphere. While Martinique is heaven for those who require nothing more than an idyllic beach for the perfect holiday, it has much more besides to offer. With a colonial history stretching back half a millennium, there is plenty to see and do, away from those picture-postcard playas.

Firstly, the food - the gastronomic delights alone are reason enough to make the journey to Martinique. The glorious French tradition of long, leisurely three-course lunches is very much a part of the island's culture, and with over 150 restaurants to choose from, great food is easy to come by. Eating out is a way of life for the locals, and the eateries offer a mixture of classic French cuisine and Creole, a glorious hybrid of African, Indian, Chinese and French cookery. The seafood is out of this world, with many restaurants serving up whatever was caught on the latest fishing trip, and it is invariably delicious. Highlights to sample include langouste, a clawless Caribbean lobster, and ouassous - a type of crayfish that are like giant prawns. The island's fertile soil provides a plethora of delicious fruit and vegetable, from plantain, yam and sweet potato to mango, pineapple and banana.

Fort de France, on the west coast of the island, is the island's capital, although it hasn't always claimed that status. The original capital was Saint Pierre, about 20 kilometres north up the coast, but the town was all but wiped out - along with its 30,000 inhabitants - when the Mont Pelee volcano erupted and wreaked devastation on the northern island. The disaster didn't quite finish off the town, however - rebuilding began almost as soon as the dust had settled, and it thrives again today, complete with a Musee Vulcanologique commemorating that terrible day a little over a century ago.

A third of Martinique's total population of 360,000 lives in Fort de France the island's largest city. The best colonial architecture can be found here, most significantly at the Schoelcher Library, an imposing presence built in a Romanesque/Byzantine style. The bibliotheque has an interesting story behind it too - it was built in Paris for the Exposition of 1889, after which it was taken down, brick by brick, and shipped to Martinique where it was painstakingly rebuilt. The library's name serves as a reminder of Martinique's history - Victor Schoelcher was the French abolitionist who was a driving force in ending slavery on the island in 1848. Schoelcher is also commemorated elsewhere on the island, notably with a statue outside the High Court building in Fort de France.

The island's main slavery memorial can be found on the south coast at Anse Cafard in Diamant, a collection of 20 eight-foot tall white stone statues marking the night of April 30, 1830, when a slave ship sank, taking all those on board with it. The Cathedral Saint Louis is another significant landmark in Fort de France, thanks to its impressive Roman-style bell tower and the huge organs inside. Built in 1895, many of the island's governors of the 20th Century are buried in the chancel. There is a wealth of choice in hotels on Martinique, with the standard luxury resort-style accommodation in abundance, but the most enjoyment can be had staying in one of the several converted plantation houses dotted around the island. The colonial era habitations offer a way of stepping back into Martinique's past, with all the character and comfort you could wish for in pleasingly low-key and intimate settings.

Habitation LaGrange, on the north-eastern coast, is a glorious 1920s plantation house that has been lovingly restored with great attention to detail in its furnishings and fittings. The house is situated in a wonderfully secluded spot, two kilometers from the village of Le Marigot with five acres of grounds surrounded by banana fields. The on-site rum distillery has long since closed down, but its ruins remain, and there can be few finer places to sip an early evening Ti Punch, the local specialty - a straight glass of rum with a twist of lime and a drop of cane syrup. The Louisiana-style main house is the place to stay for the authentic colonial experience, but several more modern rooms have been added in the comfortable 15-year-old annex, and two huge additional rooms feature in the former stables. Televisions and radios are out, as preservation of the tranquil atmosphere takes precedent over modern entertainment and with each room complete with its own veranda or patio, they will hardly be missed. As for the food, the Creole specialties cooked up at Habitation LaGrange are mouth-watering to the extreme - some of the best food to be had on the island.

Further down the coast, near the town of Le Francois, sits another exquisite former plantation house hotel, Habitation Clement. The hotel's unique claim to fame is that it played host to both President Bush and President Mitterand when the former world leaders were in Martinique for a world summit. It comes as no surprise the place was chosen to accommodate two of the world's most powerful men - Habitation Clement is fit for a king in its Eden-like setting of tropical flora, a palm garden and orchards, not to mention the still-active rum distillery. The house itself has been impeccably preserved in its original 18th Century style. Mahogany furniture and colonial arte facts adorn the interior, and fine art graces the walls.

Another fine former plantation house, Habitation Beausejour, is a great place to stay. Located in the attractive fishing village of Grand Riviere, on the northern tip of the island, the estate has an interesting history. Originally a 19th Century sugar cane refinery, it was converted into a distillery in 1928, and for over 30 years some of the finest rum in the Caribbean was produced here. The rum produced on site was branded HBS, and it was so good that the Beausejour distillery won a gold medal at the 1932 Colonial Exposition in Paris. Rum production gave way to a more lucrative trade in 1959, when Beausejour became a banana plantation but the house has been preserved in its original style. While the former plantation houses represent some of the best the main island has to offer in terms of accommodation, those in search of the ultimate seclusion can opt for similar residences on two of the tiny islets offshore from Le Francois. Ilet Oscar and Ilet Thierry can both be reached within ten minutes by motorboat from the town, and both can be hired in their entirety - private beaches included - for some splendid isolation.

The 20-acre Ilet Oscar boasts a five-bedroom former plantation house full of rustic charm. Each room comes with its own private bathroom with his ‘n' hers sinks and there is plenty of space for the party to luxuriate, inside as well as out. The veranda, with its hammocks and chaise-lounges, is a particularly pleasant place to relax. The full-time staffs of maid cook and boatman is on hand to cater to every need, making the idyllic hideaway the ultimate get-away-from-it-all destination. Nearby Ilet Thierry is a few minutes further out to sea by boat, and is the most remote place to stay in Martinique. The 37-acre mini-island contains one sandy beach and one solitary building, a turn-of-the-century clapboard and stucco-covered former second home of a merchant and plantation owner. The house was renovated in a simple but comfortable style in 1999 and turned into a hotel so remote that even the beach is half a mile away.

Back on the main island, the beaches may not be as secluded but the choice is plentiful and the quality as good as anywhere in the Caribbean. A succession of beautiful beaches beginning at Fort de France and culminating in Grand Anse and Les Anse d'Arlets are among the best on the island thanks to their golden sands. Other beaches on the island, like Anse Couleuvre and Anse Ceron, have black sand, but don't let that put you off - the beautiful backdrop of palms and tropical foliage more than makes up for it. On the southern Atlantic coast, Cap Chevalier is a prime spot for water sports, kayaking and magical snorkeling around the multi-colored coral reefs. The best beach of all is undoubtedly Les Salines, just around the corner on the southern Caribbean side. It is an expanse of white sand big enough to never feel over-crowded despite its popularity, and the clear blue waters are perfect for swimming. Several other sandy coves are easily accessible for more secluded sunbathing. St. Anne is the closest village of note to Les Salines and the surrounding beaches, and is well worth a visit. Tourist-friendly but not overbearingly so, the picturesque village is full of pretty painted houses and it has a great fresh produce market where all the mouthwatering local delights can be bought - mangoes, pineapples, bananas, peppers and much more. There are also a few attractive boutiques selling clothes, beach wear and pareos, colorful sarong-type garments.
With fascinating sights, culture, cuisine, fabulous beaches and much more, Martinique has something for everyone, and for hikers to historians and snorkellers to sun-worshippers, an unforgettable holiday is guaranteed.

Courtesy: Arabian Woman
Posted: 28/06/2008


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