Destination of the week: Martinique
Check out this French island in the Caribbean for Creole flavor and hospitality.
Sat, Mar 27, 2010 at 10:14 AM
Visitors to Martinique can set foot in France without having to cross the Atlantic. Officially an Overseas Department of France, the island is located in the Lesser Antilles near Dominica and Barbados. Martinique was devastated by the eruption of its volcano, Mount Pelée, at the start of the 20th century, but has rebounded to become a top tourist destination.
But there is far more to Martinique than high-priced cafes and arrogant waiters. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find these Parisian stereotypes on the island. The lush landscapes and vibrant fusion cuisine are reason enough for non-Francophone travelers to opt for this island over other, more accessible, Caribbean destinations.
Yes, the language barrier can come into play, but visitors will find that the island speaks green quite fluently. The so-called Creole Gardens (tiny, locally owned farms) are examples of low-impact, sustainable farming, while eco-tourism thrives in the inland forests and mountain slopes, and even in the waters offshore.
To some extent, many Caribbean islands can claim a similar eco-tourism scene because of their lush, underdeveloped interiors. Martinique is certainly one of the more diverse eco-tourism destinations as far as landscapes are concerned, but its green traits aren’t confined by dense jungles and volcanic peaks. Businesses, including the Caribbean branch of French carmaker Citroen, are involved in building a more environmentally friendly culture on the island. In addition, a superior infrastructure of roads and well-maintained trails makes it easy to get to the Martinique’s natural spots.
Those who want to sleep green on Martinique simply need to pitch a tent. Camping is highly regulated by local government officials, but there are plenty of places where you can assure yourself the experience of waking up and opening your tent flap to see a dewy forest or seaside sunrise. The Office National des Forets can give visitors the lowdown on campgrounds, fees and regulations. The downside of this form of travel: Some campgrounds are open only during the summer months, not during the winter high season.
But this is the Caribbean after all, so it’s no surprise that the island is littered with all-inclusive resorts. Fortunately, there are an equal number of Relais Créoles, small, family-run inns and guesthouses that don’t require massive amounts of electricity and don’t produce excessive waste. Some of these places are located inland and operate more like bed-and-breakfasts than hotels.
The simplest way to see the green side of Martinique is to start walking. There are 31 trails that crisscross the island. They are maintained well by the Nation Forest Division. The most popular and scenic — but perhaps not the most accessible for casual strollers — is Route de la Trace, a trail that winds its way up Mount Pelée, passing through jungle and mountain landscapes that characterize much of the island. Now maintained specifically for recreational trekkers, in its past incarnation the road was used for transportation between the city of Fort-de-France and the inland commune of Morne Rouge.
Billing itself as a farm/inn, Le Domaine de la Vallee is a unique alternative to the standard eco-resort. It sits in the interior highlands in the shadow of Mount Pelée and offers visitors a chance to see sustainable agricultural practices up close. Le Domaine also boasts a low-impact system for irrigation and utilizes solar panels as its main power source. A less structured (less expensive) taste of rural farm life is available for those who want to travel the back roads of the island and experience the traditional small scale farming that takes place in the many Creole Gardens that Martinique is famous for.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, but in general Martinique’s beaches are, if not completely deserted, quite uncrowded. These unpeopled stretches of sand are relatively easy to come by. Also, there is no need to don scuba gear and board a motor boat to get a glimpse of the underwater landscapes near the island. There is plenty of marine flora and fauna on display for anyone with a mask, snorkel and a map to those beaches that feature shore-side reefs.
Martinique’s cuisine is arguably one of the most diverse and flavor-filled in the Caribbean. French-influenced Creole cooking takes the best aspects from both European and Caribbean styles. Locally grown ingredients, especially tropical fruits and spices, are a mainstay for kitchens throughout the island. Even the beachside sorbet stands make their products fresh with locally grown fruits, such as papayas and coconuts. And classic French restaurants (which are not in short supply) alter their dishes to take advantage of the island’s produce and spices.
The problem that many visitors have with Martinique is the price of its food. A decent dinner will cost 20 Euros or more, with the price seeming even higher for Americans when the dollar is weak. The best value for food (and the kitchens with the most locally grown ingredients) can be found at Martinique’s family owned Creole restaurants.
French carmaker Citroen makes some of the lowest-emission (and most compact) cars in the world. The company has arranged to have shopping centers around the island reserve parking spaces for those driving the Citroen AirDream, a low-emission car made from recyclable materials. The carmaker has also promised to donate a portion of the profits from each auto sold on the island to local conservation organizations. These are welcome efforts, especially considering there are more cars per person on Martinique than in mainland France, and public transportation on the island is next-to-nonexistent.
The diversity of Martinique’s attractions makes it a great destination, especially if you are concerned with low-impact travel. However, the eco-tourism infrastructure and sustainable farming practices make this one of the better choices in the Caribbean for people who want a unique vacation experience to go along with their environmentally friendly desires.
MNN homepage photo: c-photo/iStockphoto