The French island of Martinique is the hidden gem of the Caribbean. Well, hidden from resort loving Americans anyway. The vast majority of visitors to Martinique are French, with only 3% being from the United States. So, most of the travel resources (including hotel reviews) are written in French, making planning a trip to this gorgeous island a little challenging – but trust me when I say that the time on Google Translate is SO worth it!
Jason and I spent a week in Martinique a couple of years ago and now that Trip Advisor has named Martinique the #1 Emerging Destination for 2021, I wanted to share what we learned with you. If you have an adventurous spirit and are looking to spend a few days in paradise, Martinique should be on your short list!
Why Visit Martinique?
Martinique is a truly unique experience in the Caribbean. You won’t find posh resort chains or huge commercial centers (outside of the capital, Fort de France). What you will find are lush tropical forests, breathtaking white sand beaches on the south end of the island, dramatic black sand in the north, world-class French Creole cuisine, numerous rum distilleries, and warm hearted locals.
Martinique is not for tourists. Martinique is for travelers.Unknown
A visit to Martinique is about experiencing all that this island has to offer, and that means exploring. It is not uncommon to start the morning on the sparkling white sands of Les Salines in the south, have lunch on Diamant Beach at Pam Snack (the best food truck on the planet), and then to watch the sunset from the black sands of Anse Ceron on the north end of the island.
To be honest, Martinique is not the island for vacationers expecting 5 diamond resorts with beach chair service. In fact, the island has only two all-inclusive resorts, the largest being Club Med Buccaneers Creek. The beaches are mostly public and vary in size and features, so there is something for everyone. Some are small inlets of black sand, while others stretch out white sand as far as you can see.
LOCATION AND GEOGRAPHY
Located just north of Saint Lucia in the French West Indies, the island of Martinique is roughly the size of New York City at 436 square miles and is roughly 50 miles long and 22 miles wide. There is a rugged beauty to the island that is different than other Caribbean islands you may have visited. Martinique is a working island of 400,000 people and its natural beauty has not been spoiled by sprawling resorts. There are only a few large resorts on the entire island, so you won’t find a lot of manicured / corporate looking landscaping bordering the beaches.
Martinique is wild and untamed, but truly has something for everyone. If you are looking for adventure head north to hike the active volcano Mt Pelee , brave the mountain roads to visit the spectacular black beaches, or explore the ruins of St Pierre destroyed when Mt Pelee erupted in 1902. For a bigger rush, head east to the Atlantic side of the island where adrenaline junkies fly above the waves kite surfing.
The southern tip of the island is all about the white sand beaches. With palm trees stretching toward the crystal blue water, every picture you take looks like a postcard. The best part is that there are no high rise hotels along the beaches to spoil the view. Instead, you will find amazing open air restaurants serving fresh seafood, small markets with local treasures, and plenty of room to stretch out on the sand.
The Western coast of Martinique borders the calmer Caribbean Sea and here you will find the busy capital city Fort de France, the tourist center Les Trois Ilets, and countless picturesque fishing villages to explore.
As a French island, the currency of Martinique is the Euro. Credit cards are accepted most everywhere, but you will want to have some cash for smaller restaurants and local businesses. Get cash from the ATM at the airport when you arrive for the best rates.
LEGAL VISITATION REQUIREMENTS
Visitors from the U.S must have a valid biometric or electronic passport and ESTA Authorization. Plan ahead, as passports can take 4-6 weeks and the ESTA Authorization takes up to 72 hours. Visitors must also have a return plane or cruise ticket and proof of solvency, which is essentially a credit card or other method of payment that you plan to use while on the island.
Flights from Paris land in Martinique daily, but Americans are limited to American Airlines flights once a week from Miami. We were lucky enough to be able to fly Norwegian from Fort Lauderdale, but they have since discontinued that flight. I am hoping Norwegian adds Martinique back to their route map soon! There is only one airport on the island – Aimé Césaire International Airport (FDF), located in Lamentin, about 10 minutes outside of Fort de France. There is also a daily ferry service from Guadaloupe if you choose to fly into this neighboring island.
Note: As of March 2021 Martinique is currently closed due to COVID restrictions. When flights resume, I will update the post with the latest information.
If you are going to Martinique, you are going to want to explore the island, so I strongly recommend renting a car. Public transportation is limited to small areas of Fort de France, taxis are extremely expensive and there is no Uber-like service. Drivers must be 21 to rent a car and don’t expect to rent a large SUV for the fam. Cars in Martinique are small European models and most are manuals – so brush up on your stick shift skills.
Driving in France is much like here in the States. Yes, the French drive on the right side of the road, so you don’t have to worry about that. But, be prepared for some narrow, winding roads in the northern mountains. I mean really narrow. And really winding. Chalk it up to the adventure.
Jason was a little nervous the first day of driving, but by the end of the week, he was driving like a local with the speeding ticket to prove it. Yep. Traffic cameras are located along the major routes, so unless you want to receive a ticket in the mail after you get home pay attention to the speed limits!
BEST TIME TO VISIT
With steady trade winds, temps in Martinique hover in the 80s most of the year, with the exception of June and July when highs are likely to hit closer to 90. But rain and crowds also play into the decision of when to go.
December through April is the high season with moderate temperatures and minimal rain. But, along with the great weather, expect higher prices and more people. If you are looking for a party and don’t mind crowds, Carnival is held each year during February or early March (depending on Lent). Book early if you want to experience this unique festival, because accommodations fill up fast!
Mid June through mid November is the rainy season, with the possibility of tropical storms highest during September. During hurricane season, expect the temps to be higher and the weather to be wet. Also, many hotels and restaurants close during this time since tourism is slow. July through October are the wettest months with up to 10″ of each!
Late April to early June and late November to December are shoulder seasons and are my preferred times to travel to any destination. During these months, the temps are in the low to mid 80s and the rain is spotty. Prices are lower and crowds are way down. We spent Thanksgiving week there and it was absolutely perfect.
WHAT TO PACK
A visit to Martinique is like a “choose your own adventure” book. You can spend your days lounging on one of the beautiful beaches, surfing the Atlantic side of the island, touring Rhum distilleries, exploring the historical ruins, hiking the picturesque mountain trails, or sipping Ti Punch at a local restaurant. Life and style on the island is casual, but in true French style, there is an air of subtle sophistication. Lightweight dresses, sun hats, sun protection and sandals are perfect for every situation.
- Cover up
- Turkish Towels – For beach and hotel use. These towels are easy to pack and can be used as a wrap when then weather is cool.
- Toiletries – Check with your hotel. Many provide only the toiletries needed for the first day.
- Hiking Boots / Sandals- If you plan to go hiking, you will need sturdy, waterproof shoes. We wore our Chacos everywhere.
WHAT TO EAT
Oh. My. Word. The Food. The food in Martinique deserves its own post, or more realistically…an entire book. After all, it is France…smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean. The cuisine on Martinique is a blend of African, French, Caribbean, and Creole. We love seafood, so we picked restaurants specifically for the fresh catch. However, wherever you go, you can be assured that accras will be on the menu. Accras are cod fritters that Martinicans serve as appetizers, snacks and sometimes even for breakfast.
Whether stopping at a food truck on the beach or sitting down to fine dining, ask your server for recommendations and be willing to try some new dishes. I tried squid ink risotto for the first time in Martinique and I still dream about it! Don’t forget that this is France and bakeries offering fresh baguettes and delicious pastries are abundant!
Most restaurants require reservations, although since we were there during off season, we were able to walk in most anyplace. Restaurant are generally open for lunch from 12-3 and don’t open again for dinner until 7:00. Also, the French savor mealtime, so don’t expect your meal to be rushed. Dining in Martinique is an experience to be enjoyed, so relax and enjoy a glass of wine or Ti Punch. We had Thanksgiving dinner on the beach at Caribbean Food in Saint Luce and it was amazing! And, by on the beach, I mean literally on the beach.
A trip to Martinique would not be complete without visiting one of the 14 rhum distilleries on the island. Not to be confused with rum which is produced with cane or beet sugar, rhum agricole is only produced in a few places worldwide and must be crafted to unique specifications. The juice of freshly pressed sugar cane gives rhum agricole its distinct flavor. Much like only sparkling wines made in Champagne, France can carry the name Champagne, only rhums made in Martinique on Creole stills are certified Rhum Agricole Martinique AOC. Each distillery is unique, but our favorites were Depaz, Habitation Clement, and Trois Rivieres.
The official drink of Martinique is Ti Punch, which is made of rhum agricole, lime, and cane syrup. The ingredients are often served individually so you can mix the drink to your taste.
Martinique is a very safe island. The crime rate is low, with most of the crime being petty theft. We explored the entire week, and never once felt unsafe. In fact, the people of Martinique were so gracious and kind. There were many times that locals went out of their way to help us navigate our trip.
French is the official language with many speaking a local Creole dialect. With most visitors being from mainland France, few people speak any English, so be prepared with some basic French phrases or plan to use Google Translate. Our week in Martinique definitely tested my college French, but we never felt like we faced a huge language barrier.
Locals appreciate when you at least attempt to speak their language. Several tried to meet us in the middle with very broken English and we all shared some laughter as we stumbled through our painful conversations. One of my favorite interactions came when we were walking in St Pierre. We passed a gentleman with his head down not paying us any attention. My first thought was that he looked a little cranky. When I greeted him with “Bonjour” his whole face lit up and as he passed us he called back “Avez un bonne vacance”! Kindness is a universal language.
WHERE TO STAY
Booking accommodations was the most challenging part of planning our trip. Not because there aren’t plenty of options, but because there are no familiar American chains and few large hotels period. That and the fact that most of the hotel reviews are written in French! So, it took a little more research to find our hotel. But, that is precisely what gives Martinique its unique charm.
There are several AirBnB and VRBO options, plus countless small hotels all across the island. If you are looking to be close to the airport or cruise port and want lots of options within walking distance, Fort de France is the capital and a very bustling city. The resort town of Les Trois Ilets is less business centered and more touristy, while still offering numerous hotels and restaurants. We chose to stay at Les Cayalines Residence, an apartment style hotel in Saint-Luce at the southern end of the island because we wanted to be a little more removed from the crowds. Our room had a queen sized bed plus a separate twin and a small kitchenette on the balcony.
If you are not familiar with European hotels, it is important to know that they are not at all like what you see in the States. To start with, the star ratings are very different. To find a room that resembles the standard American hotel room, you will need to find a 4 or 5 star property in Martinique. Does that mean that you should avoid 2 and 3 star hotels? Absolutely not! Just know that things will look a little different than they do at the neighborhood Holiday Inn. European hotel rooms tend to be much more simple, with fewer amenities and may look somewhat dated. The focus is more on cleanliness and friendliness and that is what really matters to us. After all, you aren’t in Martinique to stay in the hotel room!
Check the resort’s policy on toiletries and towel service. We had to bring both. I bought these Turkish towels for our trip and they were perfect. They are super lightweight, pack easily, and can be used as a wrap or swim coverup. Also, the electrical outlets are 220 with European style prongs. You can pick up adapters, but make sure that your hair dryer can stand that kind of power or you will melt it. If you need one that will stand up to the more intense current, try this one.
There are some basic differences in American and French culture that you need to know in order to avoid some awkward situations.
In the States, you can’t walk into a store without being greeted with a cheerful ‘hello’. We would feel awkward to walk around a store if no one speaks to us. But it works the opposite way in France. When entering a shop in Martinique, it is customary for the customer to greet the sales clerk first. A simple Bonjour or Bonsoir (after 6pm) is all that is required to be polite.
You will want to learn a few essential French phrases before your trip. Martinique does not get many English speaking visitors, so unlike mainland France, there has been no reason for locals to learn English. Most locals speak only French or the local Creole dialect.
Even though Martinique is a laid back island in the Caribbean, it still maintains an air of formality the French are known for. By formality, I mean a sense of decorum and politeness. Greet others before asking a question or making a statement. Jumping into a conversation or asking a question without first saying Bonjour or Bonsoir implies that the person is not worth greeting and is seen as rude. When speaking to a stranger, always use the formal Vous rather than the informal Tu and always use Monsieur / Madame / Mademoiselle.
Expect the possibility of some nudity on the beaches. It is a common practice in France and as a visitor to their country, it would be rude to act offended.
Never, ever use the term Garcon to get a server’s attention. It is equivalent to yelling “Boy” and is incredibly inappropriate.
Service is generally included in the bill, but tipping is always appreciated for great service. A modest 5% is fine. Definitely tip tour guides and excursion leaders.
I can’t say enough about the people of Martinique. We only encountered one person who was less than friendly…and she was working a bakery counter at the airport at 5am. I’m pretty sure I’d be cranky if I had to be at work that early too!!
HOW LONG TO STAY
We were in Martinique for 5 days and didn’t see nearly as much as we wanted to see. That being said, even a long weekend would be enough time to visit at least one distillery, spend some time on the beaches and experience some amazing cuisine!
Our week in Martinique was one of our favorite experiences and we can’t wait to go back to explore some more. The island is rich in history, beauty, and culture with the kindest people we could have ever hoped to meet. At the end of our week, we went back to one of our favorite restaurants for a repeat dinner. We had the best time chatting with the chef and her husband on our first visit and wanted to end our week with a special night out. She teared up when we told her we were leaving for home the next day.
She hugged us both and made us promise to come back to Martinique. And that is one promise that we fully intend to keep.