The park ranger Robert Régina and I were hiking along a ridge in the Caravelle Peninsula, high above the sparkling Atlantic Ocean, when he asked me, "What do you know about Martinique?" Then he answered for me with perverse Gallic pride: "Rien, je crois! Nothing, I think!" Well, not quite nothing. I once wrote a book involving Napoleon Bonaparte's romantic life, so I knew that his legendary amour — Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, better known as Empress Josephine — was born and raised on Martinique. But Régina was pretty close, which I knew after one look at the lavish beauty of this spectacular nature preserve, where lovely forest cascades down mountainsides to white-sand beaches. I had never heard of the Caravelle Peninsula before. My knowledge of Martinique was indeed almost rien.
Régina and I eventually made our way to the ruins of the Château Dubuc, an enormous sugar plantation and today a stark example of Martinique's complicated history. The French first settled on the island in the 17th century, and quickly set up many plantations like the Dubuc, all worked by slave labor. (Slavery was outlawed in 1848.) Currently an overseas department of France, Martinique remains closely bound to la patrie: in its language, its use of the euro, its cuisine, and its openness to progressive ideas unusual for the region. This Franco-centric worldview — and the fact that flights from the U.S. used to involve so many stopovers that it sometimes seemed faster to go via Paris — has long kept Martinique off the radar of most Americans.
All that changed over the past few years, when Norwegian Airlines started offering affordable direct flights from New York, Boston, and Fort Lauderdale. Some friends who had made it to Martinique told me about the dazzling variety of tropical landscapes that make the country feel much larger than its 436 square miles. The northern coast is volcanic, with dark-sand beaches, while the southern coast is scalloped with white-sand coves. The eastern, Atlantic shores are wild; the western, Caribbean waters stay serene. At the island's heart are mountains dense with rain forest where the adventurous can go hiking, canyoning, and rafting. And one can also retreat to villages that offer a relaxed, uniquely Creole charm.
And so I headed south for my own crash course on all things Martinican. Here are a few of the island's avant-garde charms I discovered along the way.
I've been accused of being self-absorbed before, but on my first night I was literally living in a bubble. The inventive Domaine des Bulles (doubles from $175) is an excellent example of how Martinique does things the unexpected way: these three transparent bubbles, set in the forest near the town of Le Vauclin, offer camping as Jules Verne might have imagined it. My high-tech globule was air-conditioned, with a huge bed perfect for stargazing. Outside was an open-air shower and a stone plunge pool replenished by a cool mountain stream. For dinner, I called on a walkie-talkie to have a fine French meal and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône delivered to my outdoor table. Exhibitionists may be disappointed, however: each bubble is kept private by fences and thick foliage. Martinique is very French, but there are limits to self-exposure.
People don't typically think of the Caribbean for contemporary art, but visitors to Martinique can see an impressive collection of works — all housed in a rum distillery. Habitation Clément , in Le François, comprises a historic plantation house, a 40-acre sculpture park, and a sleek gallery showcasing artists from the region. The works can be provocative: one of the most striking sculptures is the word blood in enormous red letters, a reference to slavery's brutal impact on the island. In addition to the art, most come here to taste rhum agricole, Martinique's signature spirit, which is made from pressed sugarcane instead of molasses, giving it a lighter, less syrupy taste. The original Clément distillery, which dates from 1917, is preserved like a site-specific artwork in itself, and the rum is stored in sweet-perfumed cellars. I was delighted to find that the last stop was an elegant tasting room.
It's a Gastronome's Paradise.
Food is taken seriously on the island, but the culinary style quotient was cranked up a notch with the recent opening of French Coco (doubles from $518; entrées $30–$35), a boutique hotel in La Trinité whose design is as bright and airy as any chic new Provençal inn. The dining room is its heart and soul: the chef, Michel Benaziz, a veteran of restaurants in Toulouse and St. Martin, gives his French dishes a Caribbean twist using organic herbs from the on-site garden. (His marlin confit with turnips and "virgin sauce," made from freshly crushed lemon, tomato, basil, and cilantro, was outstanding.) French Coco's urban counterpart in the capital, Fort-de-France, is the 24-seat Table de Marcel (prix fixe from $105), from Martinican chef Marcel Ravin, who recently came home after running the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel. One day, I headed for lunch at a cheerful beach hut in Le Carbet called Le Petibonum (entrées $21–$27) run by Guy Ferdinand, who likes to be called "Chef Hot Pants" because of his extra-short shorts. After a plate of fresh local crayfish by the lapping waters of the Caribbean, I raised a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to the French attitude to life.
This is one of the best Caribbean islands for renting a car. The French-funded A1 highway from the airport is so well maintained that it practically qualifies as a tourist attraction in itself. But take any turnoff from the A1 and one of the primary roads, and you will find yourself following a spiderweb of country lanes through lush farmland. When I reserved dinner at Hôtel Plein Soleil (doubles from $235), in Le François, the maître d' e-mailed me a page-long set of driving instructions, although the absence of road signs meant that it was easier to stop and ask directions from locals. It was all worth the effort: the rambling colonial estate has stunning views over the Atlantic coastline, inventive cuisine, and — best of all — a retro bar filled with sensual artworks, including a lavish nude presiding over the liquor bottles.
It's Steeped in History.
My growing realization that I had only scratched the surface of Martinique was confirmed when I visited the sites related to the island's celebrity daughter, Josephine Bonaparte. The remains of her birthplace, Domaine de la Pagerie (Rte. 38, Les Trois-Îlets; 596-596-68-38-34), are lovingly preserved, with gardens that display the dahlias, hibiscus, and camellias she introduced to Europe as empress. Boat tours from Le François, on the eastern coast, include visits to La Baignoire de Joséphine — "Josephine's Bathtub" — a shallow sandbar in the middle of the bay near where, legend claims, she holidayed as a child. Catamarans from Les Ballades du Delphis weigh anchor so passengers can eat Creole snacks and sip cocktails in the waist-high water. But the love affair is complex. The island's most prominent statue of the empress, in the main square of Fort-de-France, has had its head chopped off. The few Martinicans who believe the island should be independent see Josephine as a symbol of French oppression. It was she who convinced Napoleon to reinstate slavery on the island in 1802, locals believe, after it had been abolished following the French Revolution. In 1991, independence activists "guillotined" the statue. "The government has had another head carved for her, but they don't want to put it back on," an old gent in the park told me with a chuckle. "If they do, those coquins [rascals] have promised to chop it off again!" Obviously, I still had more hidden depths to explore.