Go Gallic on Martinique

1. Where to Stay

A bedroom inside one of the villas at Plein Soleil.Photo: Courtesy of Plein Soleil

Wear your walking shoes when checking in to Plein Soleil ($155/night), which sits atop remarkably steep hills in the eastern port of Le François, where you’ll find white-sand beaches a short drive from the airport. Five colorful, Creole-style villas house sixteen uncluttered, bright rooms and suites overlooking bougainvillea-rich tropical gardens and a leafy banana plantation. For added luxury, book one of the four Master Pool rooms with swimming pools on private patios shaded by palm trees.

Sleep in style at La Suite Villa ($225/night), located on the Caribbean side of the island in the village of Les Trois-Îlets. Run by a French expat who’s an avid modern-art collector, the property is filled with bold paintings and sculptures in its six suites and nine villas, all of which have large picture windows, multicolor throws, and the occasional silver lamé armchair. Get to know your neighbors over a glass of rhum agricole at the convivial lobby bar, which has oversize, Picasso-esque oil paintings and plush couches.

Splurge on the island’s only five-star resort, Hotel Cap Est Lagoon ($400/night), which has a secluded location and carefully landscaped garden walls to maximize privacy. More than half of the property’s 50 suites feature personal plunge pools, and all sport casually elegant interiors with polished hardwood floors and burgundy abaca textiles, and direct access to a private beach on the Atlantic coast. Treat yourself to a massage at the on-site Guerlain Spa, which you’ve earned since you’re spending a lot less than you would on St. Barth’s—its ritzy Hotel Le Toiny, for example, starts at $790/night in October.

2. Where to Eat

The preferred tables at Le Zandoli.Photo: Courtesy of Le Zandoli

Reserve at least a week in advance to nab a poolside table at Le Zandoli, where stylish locals go for inventive French-Caribbean fare by chef Benoît Dang, who trained in three Michelin-starred restaurants in France before coming to Martinique. Order a glass of lightly chilled red from the mostly French wine list, and enjoy the three-course tasting menu ($57), which changes daily but might include melon gazpacho or a delectable passion-fruit flan.

Take a quick dip in the Caribbean between lunch courses at Le Petibonum, a local institution in Le Carbet. Beachgoers come here for French-Creole fare like pan-seared marlin with mango sauce ($21), duck breast with local citrus ($26), and fried whole prawns with spicy green chiles ($16), not to mention punches made with local rum. Afterward, head a few blocks north and join the line of locals waiting patiently outside of Ziouka Glaces, an unassuming storefront serving hand-spun ice creams ($7 for three scoops) in seasonal flavors like guava and cinnamon.

Ring a doorbell to gain entry to La Cave à Vins (124 rue Victor Hugo; 596-596-70-3302), an intimate, two-room French restaurant hidden within a wine shop in Fort-de-France’s commercial district. Pass through the bottles of Bordeaux and Lillet in the retail space until you reach the dining area, which has tropical plants, oversize murals of French vineyards and a large, domed skylight. The best dishes blend classic French cooking with local ingredients, as in chicken breast stuffed with conch and foie gras, or crème brûlée spiked with shrubb, the Martinican orange liqueur (dinner from $55).

3. What to Do

A variety of sweet confections at Chocolaterie Frères Lauzéa; Musée de la Pagerie was formerly a sugar plantation.Photo: Courtesy of Chocolaterie Frères Lauzéa (L); courtesy of Musée de la Pagerie (R)

Call two weeks in advance to book a tasting at Chocolaterie Frères Lauzéa, the classiest spot you’re likely to ever find in a strip mall. At this confectionery, two local brothers use French and Belgian techniques to turn Martinican ingredients like cocoa, passion fruit, and red chile into world-class chocolates, which you can taste paired with local rum (from $25). If you’re in a rush or didn’t make a reservation, you can still stop into the roadside workshop and take home a box of five custom-picked sweets (from $8).

Avoid the cruise-ship crowds along the waterfront in Fort-de-France and detour a few blocks away to the island’s largest covered market, the unimaginatively named Le Grand Marché Couvert (daily, 6:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.). Dating back to 1901, the market is filled with vendors at card tables selling local spices (curry and cinnamon from $1.50), jarred vanilla (from $7), and extraordinarily potent bottles of homemade rum punch ($16). At the rear of the market, stop for lunch at Chez Carole, an excellent Creole café with an open kitchen.

Rent a car from Avis (from $95 per day) and drive twenty miles from the capital to Les Trois-Îlets, a Caribbean coastal village and the birthplace of Josephine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon I. Her family’s sugar plantation is now the Musée de la Pagerie (tours from $7), an open-air museum that explores her rise to power and uneasy local legacy, a result of Napoleon’s prolonging slavery on the island. The multilingual guides are frank about the mix of feelings their local-girl-made-good stirs in Martinicans, and exhibits affably highlight some of Josephine’s idiosyncrasies, like how she doctored her own marriage certificate to hide the fact that she was six years older than her beloved.

4. Insider’s Tip

Seaborne's new service makes it easier and cheaper to get to Martinique.Photo: Courtesy of Seaborne

Traveling to the island used to mean multiple connections and lofty rates, but this year two new airlines have quietly debuted direct service from the U.S. Caribbean airline Seaborne now has four weekly flights out of San Juan, Puerto Rico (from $200, one way). And American Airlines’ new weekly service between Miami and Fort-de-France (from $350, one way), which launched in April, will become twice-weekly on November 27, 2013. For the best rates, book two round-trip tickets – one from New York to MIA/SJU, and another from MIA/SJU to Martinique.

5. Oddball Day

A pier on the tiny island retreat of L’Îlet Oscar.Photo: Courtesy of La Maison d' Hôte de l'ilet Oscar

For a rustic break from the Gallic elegance, ditch your shoes and get your Robinson Crusoe on at L’Îlet Oscar, an island retreat off of Martinique’s Atlantic coast. Call the manager of the eponymous four-bedroom Creole guesthouse at least one week in advance to schedule a fisherman’s boat pickup at Le Francois Marina (round-trip transfers are $68). On the way, stop for café au lait and croissants at Le Grand Trianon (quartier Eucalyptus centre cial ancienne usine, 596-596-77-4601), a bakery a few minutes from the marina (breakfast from $5). The ten-minute ride to L’Îlet Oscar sails through Josephine’s Bathtub, a popular snorkeling spot and a good place to snap surfside selfies. When you arrive at Oscar, sip a complimentary ‘ti punch on the teak dock, where stools made out of old Clement rum barrels sit alongside nineteenth-century antiques. The staff can help arrange kayaking, canoeing, diving, or fishing expeditions through the area’s white lagoons (rates vary by activity), but be sure to be back on the island for the guesthouse cocktail hour. As the owner D.J.’s Martinique’s sultry zouk music from his laptop’s iTunes, cold planter’s punch and steaming baskets of carrot-rich accras make fast friends of flip-flop-clad visitors from France, South America, and nearby Guadeloupe. Tuck into tasty Creole fare like freshly caught tuna tartare and fried snapper over coconut-scented rice in the outdoor dining room (meals from $68, excluding alcohol), then wish your new friends au revoir and sail back to the main island. Request your return to Hotel Cap Est Lagoon’s private dock, so you can ease back into civilization with a nightcap and live jazz on the terrace of the swish Cohi Bar, which has over 100 rums by the glass (from $20).

6. Links

Uncommon Caribbean is an English-language blog with text and video posts about Martinican food, attractions, and travel tips.

Regional newspaper National Weekly is based in South Florida but covers Caribbean culture, entertainment, and travel news.

Ti’Ponton is a maritime blog about popular ports of call in Martinique, plus helpful travel tips about shopping, drinking, and dining.

For general information and helpful news about airfare and cruise travel, check the website of the national tourist board.

Go Gallic on Martinique