IT’S STILL A BIG WORLD
Oprah Is Right About This Small Caribbean Island
Come to Martinique for the rum, stay for the ruins and the yole boat rides. Maybe leave speaking French?
“Wait, there’s only one all-inclusive here?”
I had just arrived at the French Caribbean island of Martinique with very little idea of what to expect. As the daughter of a major cruise-loving family, who also happen to be Puerto Rican, I visited at least nine different islands over the course of my adolescence. But aside from everyone speaking French, its amazing rum and Oprah really liking it—I knew close to nothing about Martinique or the French Antilles.
I (falsely) assumed the things I’d see and do would be akin to the other islands I’ve been to—including mainly interacting with the turquoise water and endless mai-tais. So the news that the island only had one all-inclusive (Club Med) in the southernmost part of the island—on purpose—threw me for a loop. But my guide Géraldine Rome (who also happens to be the Martinique Tourism communications coordinator) told me that’s exactly how the island wants it.
“It’s a conscious decision,” she says as we ride together in the back of our tour van. “We want you to meet Martinique and it’s people. It’s another type of tourism.”
In other words, it’s OK to relax here. There’s plenty of places to do so and rum to consume. But there’s also opportunities to immerse yourself in the Martinique French and Creole culture—and it’s highly encouraged.
Just a few minutes later I started to see what Rome meant. Looking out the window on the way to our first destination, up the eastern coast from the from the capital of the island to the very northernmost tip, I observed no less than one out of every three people headed to work, school, or running errands with a baguette in tow—a remnant of the cultural influence of France, which colonized the island in 1654. Tourists could be spotted here and there, but there seemed to be no other distinction between the life of those on the island and the visitors exploring among them.
We arrived at the village of St. Pierre, which sits in the shadow of the dormant volcano Mt. Pelée. I had been speechless only once before on my travels, after spotting the Colosseum in Italy for the first time. Seeing this majestic volcano standing proud and unbothered among the luscious rainforest in the northern part of this island marked the second time. But unlike the Colosseum, tourists don't overtake the area. We were actually the minority, making a stop at the ruined remains hidden among the town where locals casually went about their business—baguettes and all.
They didn’t seem bothered by this huge volcano in their backyard, but as someone who loved seeing Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii, I was enthralled. Referred to as a “Little Pompei,” visitors have full access to the ruins from the devastating 1902 eruption, one of the worst in the world. Our second guide, André, showed us the spots where an entire theater and prison had been destroyed, telling the infamous tale of the lone prisoner who survived in one of the cells.
Hours later, and after a rum factory tour and the first of many incredible rum tastings at the northern Depaz Distillery, we made our way to a restaurant called Le Petibonum that is, like most places in Martinique, frequented by tourists and locals alike. Located in the coastal village of Le Carbet, which is conveniently located on the way back south from St. Pierre, the restaurant sits under a large wooden canopy for shade just a few steps away from the beach. A tiki bar was nearby, ready and able to make any drink of your choosing, including the local “Ti Punch” rum drink, that’s actually a shot of rum with a cup of sugar cane juice on the side.
When you’re ready to be seated, you get the unique pleasure of meeting the chef, Guy Ferdinand a.k.a. Mr. Hot Pants, who proudly sports a pair of very short jean shorts. He’s the kind of guy that would be an excellent guest cook on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives—he’s funny, a bit zany, and in love with his home island and food. And on top of all of that, he’s an incredible chef.
I don’t eat fish. But at Le Petibonum that changed. Fried cod fritters, a staple appetizer on the island, became my new-favorite food. And that’s coming from someone who peels the skin off of hot wings. The main dish was blue marlin served with a vegetable covered in cheese that somehow tasted better than a potato. I ate every last bite. But if for some reason you aren’t as much of an adventurous eater, don’t fret. I spotted the biggest, most delicious burger I’ve ever seen at the table diagonal to where I sat.
As Rome laughingly told me, “Martinique is all or nothing!”
Throughout the week my tour group and I continued the theme of culture and leisure, getting beach time on those amazing bathwater beaches, but also living like a local. What truly impressed me was the seemingly endless activities that we could do on this island that would take no more than 2 hours to travel across. In no particular order, here are just a few of the sites we visited:
- Rum distilleries
- The Le Jardin de Balata botanical garden
- Le Tombolo (a place in the sea where the water recedes enough to create a walkway from the shore to the neighboring island)
- The Habitation Clement and its Arts Foundation (which has a full-fledged sculpture garden)
- La Savane des Esclaves
I tried to joke to someone on my tour that Martinique was the island to make everyone happy—from your snorkeling-obsessed uncle to your art-loving cousin—but it really is true. The rum distilleries, with tasting stations, are the perfect combination of history and alcohol-tasting excursion. The botanical garden that sits, literally, in the middle of the rainforest will knock the socks off of nature lovers.
Le Tombolo, located in the village of Sainte-Marie, is the must-see spot for travelers on the hunt for those once-in-a-lifetime kind of experiences (and sights.). And the sculpture garden at Clement featured historical and political elements that will leave art lovers feeling accomplished on their vacation. I was personally drawn to the huge piece that spelled out “blood” in red letters, hinting at the island's colonization by white settlers in the 1700s.
There’s even La Savane des Esclaves, which is a beautiful outdoor, living museum dedicated to telling the history of the slaves that colonists brought to Martinique.
For those looking for a truly authentic adventure, I recommend choosing a “yole boat” tour as one of your water excursions. Yole boats are a traditional type of row boat only found in Martinique. Each person sits on the side of the boat as one person steers. To turn, each person must alternate between sitting on the edge of an oar. Every year locals hold races and we happened to go on the yole boat trip with one of the best competitors on the island.
Most importantly, to me anyway, was the food. It did not disappoint, especially if you’re a seafood lover. Seriously, Martinique people love their fish. If you come here, you will too—even if you’re not a seafood lover, there’s a 90-percent chance you will become one. In two days, I had tried 12 new kinds, from sword fish to cod to sea urchin, and they were all amazing.
In addition to Le Petibonum in the north, I was absolutely impressed with the food at Zanzibar, which is conveniently across the street from Le Tombolo in the south. You’d think with all the focus on amazing fish, that the island would somewhat lack in the dessert department, but that was not the case. I’m a huge sugar addict and finding sweets here was high on my priority list. The french toast dessert at Zanzibar made my foodie heart sing, and an incredible photo for my Instagram page.
Because I couldn’t take that home, I opted to bring back the go-to Martinique dessert called amour caché, which is a kind of pound cake that you can get with guava, coco, or creme underneath. Our yole boat captain shared some with us after we docked for a bit and I fell in love. I purchased a box from a local bakery in the island’s capital and more city-like area of Fort-de-France— then proudly stuffed it into my carry-on and safely brought it back to my kitchen in New York.
Now, I have to give credit to where credit is due. I visited that all-inclusive Club Med, and it seemed everything like it should be. Blue waters. Snorkeling. Lounging by the water as waiters bring endless food and drinks to you. There’s no shame in a relaxation game. But if you have the chance to escape, do it. Do it all, the way Martinique wants you to. Lots of fun, history, fish, yole boats, and a Chef Hot Pants await you.