Boasting a distinctive blend of French and West Indian influences, the rugged Caribbean island of Martinique is an enchanting destination full to the brim with activities and attractions.
From the steep, scenic hills and winding, narrow streets of its largest town, Fort-de-France, to its pristinely-maintained gardens, to the sun-kissed beaches that encircle the island, Martinique’s appeal knows no bounds. If you’re considering visiting this Caribbean jewel and would like to pack your itinerary with unique things to see and do, check out our list below to help kick-start your planning.
Head to the beach
Of all Martinique’s mesmerising beaches, one crops up in conversation with seasoned visitors to the island more than any other and that is Grande Anse des Salines. Located on Martinique’s southern tip, the impossibly perfect arc of golden sand shelves gently into the crystalline sea, helping attract some two million visitors every year. But fear not, it’s possible to avoid the crowds by coming on a weekday when it’s notably quitter, offering the chance to explore its coves, coconut groves, and wild, unspoilt beauty in relative seclusion. For wildlife enthusiasts, there are also observation points where you can spot exotic local inhabitants including tropical birds, crabs and lizards.
Explore a lush botanical garden
The island’s idyllic beaches aren’t the only places where you can appreciate Martinique’s breathtaking natural beauty. Created by the poet and horticulturalist Jean-Philippe Thoze, the Jardin de Balata botanical garden just outside Fort-de-France, is home to a remarkable assortment of plants, including begonias, bromeliads and bamboo, as well as about 300 different types of palm trees. Privately owned, the garden also features a traditional Creole house at its centre, and offers stunning ocean and mountain views. For the ultimate souvenir, you can even purchase some tropical flowers during your visit and have them delivered to the airport so you don’t have to tend to them for the remainder of your stay.
Rte de Balata, Fort-de-France / Mon-Sun 9am-6pm
Take in some culture at a museum
As evocative a living museum as you could hope to find, La Savane des Esclaves takes visitors on a captivating journey back in time. Spread across three hectares of parkland in the countryside of Trois-Ilets is the recreation of an ancient Amerindian village with its traditional Creole houses once typical of Martinique. In each hut are objects, furniture and titbits of information that help you imagine what daily life was like for residents some 400 years ago, shining a light on the traditions and customs that were once commonplace. Particular focus is placed on the many slaves who worked here, including the story of Neg Marron, who fled his master’s property to take refuge in nature. You can visit the museum independently or as part of a guided tour.
La Ferme, Les Trois-Îlets 97229 / Mon-Sat 9am-1.30pm Sun 9am-11.30am
For a somewhat quirkier – and lighter – cultural experience in Martinique, the Banana Museum offers insights into one of the main staples of Martinique’s agricultural industry. Spread over more than four hectares in Sainte-Marie, in the heart of the Habitation Limbé Fourniols estate, the working plantation is entirely devoted to the yellow tropical fruit, teaching visitors about the various stages of banana production from harvesting through to packaging and showcasing depictions of the banana in pottery and art. Outside in the museum garden are around sixty varieties of banana trees, while next door you can sample the fruit for yourself at the Bananeraie.
Quartier, Fourniols, Sainte-Marie 97230 / Sun-Fri 9am-5pm Closed Sat
Protected from trade winds by its mountainous massifs, Martinique’s Leeward Coast is home to a large population of playful dolphins who are partial to rearing their heads – and fins – to the delight of onlookers. There are a number of dolphin-watching cruises available that take visitors along the coastline before venturing further offshore where dolphin-spotting opportunities are at their most abundant. Many of these trips also include onboard refreshments such as traditional Creole snacks with traditional salt pies, planter, homemade juice and fresh fruit.
Attend a fun-packed carnival
Sharing many similarities with its counterparts in Trinidad and Rio, Martinique Carnival has one key difference: length. Each year as revellers in other carnival hot spots wind down with the close of Shrove Tuesday, the party in Martinique keeps going. The action heats up on “Fat Sunday” featuring parades with costumed characters, before “Fat Monday” brings burlesque parodies with men dressed as pregnant brides. Next up, Mardi Gras sees children decked out in red costumes and terrifying masks, followed by Ash Wednesday, the bonus “Day of the She-Devils”, which sees thousands of revellers mark the end of carnival with flames lighting up the sky amid an explosion of exotic dance, mirth and rum. Officially, carnival ends at the close of Ash Wednesday, but in the island’s inimitable spirit, it’s revived three weeks later with a second bonus day of colourful costumes and parades.
Hike to the top of a sleeping volcano
At some point during your time in Martinique, it’s possible – though unlikely – that reclining on picture-postcard beaches might lose its appeal and the urge to do something a touch more adventurous might come over you. Gratefully for such occasions, the island offers a large number of hiking trails that, range from the easy to the arduous. Among the most popular takes you up to the summit of Montagne Pelée, a dormant volcano – known for its cataclysmic eruption in 1902 – that rewards hikers with sensational views over Saint-Pierre bay and the Atlantic Ocean from its peak. The trek isn’t for those with low fitness levels due to its steep incline and takes the average hiker around 4.5 hours to reach the top and walk down again. The weather can be unpredictable, so be sure to pack a raincoat and a windbreaker.
Watch a famous sailing regatta
The waters surrounding Martinique make for some of the best sailing grounds anywhere in the Caribbean. Held every summer for the past four decades, the Tour des Yoles sailing regatta sees around 20 ‘yoles’ (light, narrow wooden boats also known as ‘skiffs’) competing against each other in pursuit of the coveted red jersey handed to the winning team. The participating vessels – which are designed to be propelled like rowing boats – are watched by a large numbers of eager spectators who congregate near the island’s beaches, making for a fun and action-packed occasion full of quintessential Martinique joie de vivre.
Pay your respects at a sculptural memorial park
In April 1830, a ship carrying 300 slaves ran aground in a storm on the rocks of the Martinique coastline. Because the slave trade had already been made illegal several years earlier, the boat was completely destroyed to remove any evidence of its nefarious use. Hundreds died and only six bodies were recovered, each buried near the shore. Located in front of Rocher du Diamant, a 175-metre-high basalt island just off the Martinique coast, the Cap 110 Memorial Park honours the anonymous victims of the slave trade, featuring 15 busts made of reinforced concrete and bleached with sand, all depicting the same worn, distressed face that symbolises these horrors of the past.
FX73+MCP, Le Diamant / Open all hours
Visit a historic rum distillery
Martinique and rum go together like jelly and ice cream, and at the heart of the island’s rich rum-making heritage is L’Habitation Clément. Originally a sugar plantation, the 43-acre site is located in the town of Le François in southeastern Martinique and attracts huge numbers of visitors throughout the year. The venue comprises three main parts: the old distillery, which is now a rum and industrial heritage interpretation centre where you can learn all about the rum-making process; the rum ageing cellars, still used to this day; and the residential buildings, including the magnificent main house that serves as a remarkable example of traditional Creole architecture. There’s also a beautiful botanical discovery trail that takes you through 16 hectares of gardens. Self-guided tours of the site are available daily.
Domaine de l’acajou, Le François / Mon-Sun 9am-6.30pm
Swim in the slipstream of an empress
In the southern fringes of Martinique, on the Atlantic coast, François Bay is sewn with eight islets, in the midst of which are several shoals reachable by boat, known as the “white shoals” because of the brilliant sand that allows beach-goers to walk in knee-deep water, despite being far from shore. The most famous of these shoals is Josephine’s Bath, so named because legend has it that it was the favourite swimming spot of French empress Joséphine de Beauharnais. In the tepid water, swimmers emerge, immersed up to the waist, while a steady stream of devout rum enthusiasts line up for their ‘rum baptism’, a rum-drinking ritual that takes place on boat excursions that depart from the shoal each day.
You can book on to a day trip at Josephine’s Bath through Viator
Step inside a 19th-century cathedral
Situated in Fort-de-France, a short walk from the waterfront, St Louis Cathedral is the place of worship for Martinique’s sizeable population of Roman Catholics. Originally built in the late 19th-century in the Romanesque Revival style , it was reconstructed on the site of the previous cathedral destroyed by a cyclone in 1891 and features a frame made entirely of metal and designed to withstand natural disasters. Inside, stained glass windows and Roman-Byzantine architecture tell the story of the city and the life of St. Louis. The cathedral is open to the public daily.
Rue Victor Schoelcher, Fort-de-France