Fort-de-France, Martinique

Despite its French flavor, Martinique is classic Caribbean. Part of the Lesser Antilles, it sits serenely between Dominica and St. Lucia, and is every inch as beautiful and relaxed as its neighbors.

Fruit crops flourish in the rich volcanic soil surrounding Mt. Pelée. This semi-active volcano devastated former capital St. Pierre in 1902 and a tour of the ruins is a fascinating day trip.

Martinique was originally home to the Arawak people, then the Caribs. Almost two centuries after Columbus’s first visit, French settlers arrived in the mid 1600s. They have remained ever since, despite the island briefly changing hands with the British several times. Their legacy is reflected in both the culture and the architecture. On one of the main northward roads out of Fort-de-France stands the domed Balata Church, which may look somewhat familiar. It’s actually a scaled down version of the Sacré Coeur in Paris; construction began on the Caribbean church in 1915, the year the Parisian original was finally completed.

Martinique was also the birthplace of Empress Josephine, and you can visit her childhood home at La Pagerie Estate, now a museum containing, among other things, love letters from Napoleon.

Fort-de-France is one of the larger Caribbean cities. One of its earliest European buildings is Fort St. Louis, whose imposing outline has guarded the headland on which it stands since the fifteenth century. Another landmark building is the Schoelcher Library, designed by Gustave Eiffel, and topped with a distinctive dome.

Nature often takes center stage on Martinique, and the Balata Botanical Gardens provide one of the best snapshots of the flowers that bloom across the island, with hibiscus, orchids, heliconia and bird of paradise flower among the specimens on display. The Habitation Anse Latouche makes for an interesting discovery too, with rows of cacti among the ruins of a former plantation that was destroyed during the eruption of Mt Pelée.

For those who wish to head out onto the water, it’s also possible to explore mangroves on nearby islets by kayak. Finally, rum punch is most definitely on the menu since Martinique produces some of the Caribbean’s finest rum, as you may discover on a distillery visit.