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East meets west in Martinique, where French sovereignty since the 17th century has helped form the island's Creole culture. What has emerged is a unique French styling of Creole tradition. Early 20th century Parisian-style architecture, a dominance of sophisticated French fashion, and French patriotic pride intersect with the sounds of Afro-Caribbean dance, zouk and the flavours of Creole cuisine.
This fascinating culture is laid out against a backdrop of graceful Caribbean beauty. The elegant Parisian-tinted capital, Fort-de-France is nestled comfortably between the Baie des Flamands and the volcanic peaks of the Pitons du Carbet. Further inland, lush unspoilt rainforests make for excellent hiking opportunities.
The island was originally inhabited by Arawak and Carib peoples. Circa 130 AD, the first Arawaks are believed to have arrived from South America. In 295 AD, an eruption of Mount Pelée resulted in the decimation of the island's population. Around 400 AD, the Arawaks returned and repopulated the island. Around 600 AD, the Caribs arrived. They exterminated the Arawaks and proceeded to settle the island over the next few centuries.
Christopher Columbus sighted the island in 1493, making the region known to European interests, but it was not until June 15, 1502, on his fourth voyage, that he actually landed, leaving several pigs and goats on the island. However, the Spaniards ignored the island as other parts of the New World were of greater interest to them.
During the 17th century, the French took over control of the island. Britain captured the island during the Seven Years' War, holding it from 1762 to 1763. Following Britain's victory in the war there was a strong possibility the island would be annexed by them. However, the sugar trade made the island so valuable to the royal French government that at the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years War, they gave up all of Canada in order to regain Martinique as well as the neighboring island of Guadeloupe.
During much of its history, Martinique has been hit by severe hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruption, the major one being the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée, killing almost 30,000 people!
In 1946, the French National Assembly voted unanimously to transform Martinique from a colony of France into a department, known in French as a Département d'Outre-Mer or DOM. Along with its fellow DOMs of Guadeloupe, Reunion, and French Guiana, Martinique was intended to be legally identical to any department in the metropole. However, in reality, several key differences remained, particularly within social security payments and unemployment benefits.
Part of the archipelago of the Antilles, Martinique is located in the Caribbean Sea, about 450 kilometres northeast of the coast of South America, and about 700 kilometres southeast of the Dominican Republic. With the total area of 1100 km2 Martinique is the 3rd largest island in The Lesser Antilles after Trinidad and Guadeloupe. It stretches 70 kilometres in length and 30 kilometres in width.
The north of the island is mountainous and lushly forested. It features four ensembles of pitons (volcanoes) and mornes (mountains): the Piton Conil on the extreme North, which dominates the Dominica Channel; Mount Pelée, an active volcano; the Morne Jacob; and the Pitons du Carbet, an ensemble of five extinct volcanoes covered with rainforest and dominating the Bay of Fort de France at 1,196 metres.
The highest of the island's many mountains, at 1,397 metres, is the famous volcano Mount Pelée. Its volcanic ash has created gray and black sand beaches in the north (in particular between Anse Ceron and Anse des Gallets), contrasting markedly from the white sands of Les Salines in the south. The last two major eruptive phases occurred in 1902: the eruption of May 8, 1902 destroyed Saint-Pierre and took 28,000 dead in 2 minutes; that of August 30, 1902 caused nearly 1,100 deaths, mostly in Morne-Red and Ajoupa-Bouillon.
The south is more easily traversed, though it still features some impressive geographic features. Because it is easier to travel and because of the many beaches and food facilities throughout this region, the south receives the bulk of the tourist traffic. The beaches from Pointe de Bout, through Diamant (which features right off the coast of Roche de Diamant), St. Luce, the department of St. Anne and down to Les Salines are popular.
Martinique consists of four arondissements
La Savane is an urban park in Fort-de-France. The large central park boasts grassy lawns, tall trees, bamboo and plenty of space to relax and enjoy the views. The harborside of La Savane has souvenir stalls, a newsstand and statues dedicated to early settlers and fallen soldiers. At the northern edge you can find a statue of the Empress Josephine holding a locket with a portrait of Napoleon. The park is the main focus of the action during Carnival and other major events in the capital.
Les Ombrages is a beautiful botanical garden. It is located at the site of what once was a rum distillery. It makes for a great break to stop here for a while and wander around the well maintained gardens. There is also the option of taking a trail where you will pass bamboo, tall trees with buttressed roots, torch gingers and the ruins of an old mill. It's a very pleasant and lush jungle walk which doesn't take to long and you can refresh with some fresh juices sold here afterwards.
Martinique has a hot and humid tropical climate with average daytime temperatures between 28 °C and 30 °C and average nights around 23º. Most rain falls between June and October with a change of hurricanes from August onwards. Therefore, the drier (and slightly cooler) December to April period is the best time to visit weatherwise. Unfortunately prices rise sharply during this period and the months of November and May still have good weather. So budgetwise these latter months may be a good option as well.
Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport (FDF) is located near the capital Fort-de-France. Take Air has flights from Guadeloupe, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia and Antigua, among a few others. Air France has direct flighs from Paris. Several other airlines in the Caribbean region all have fligts, connecting most islands with Martinique.
L'Express des Iles has 3 weekly services between Dominica and Martinique at 10.15am Wednesdays and Fridays and 12.15pm on Sundays, travelling between the capitals Roseau and Fort-de-France. From Martinique they leave on Mondays at 1pm and Saturdays at 11.30 am. It takes about 1,5 hours in both directions. Brudey Freres (french only) has services as well between the two islands.
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Wednesdays and Fridays at 1.30pm and Sundays at 3.30pm, L'Express des Iles travels from Fort-de-France to Castries on Saint Lucia. In the opposite direction, ferries leave 5 times a week. Both crossings take about 80 minutes.
Express-des-Iles has services between Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe and Fort-de-France, Martinique at least five times weekly (Monday, Wednesday-Sunday) during low season, but six more during high season and school holidays. All ferries except the ones on Mondays stop in Dominica en route (see above) to Martinique, the other way around they don't stop on Fridays.
You might be able to charter helicopters with Air Martinique, but it's expensive.
There are many international and local car rental agencies at the airport and Fort-de-France. An International Driving Permit is recommended, but a national driving licence is enought. You need to be 21 and have at least one year of driving experience. Driving is on the right and roads are generally in a very good condition. Bikes and motorcycles are also for rent.
Many minibuses ( taxi collectifs) depart at frequent intervals from Pointe Simon in Fort-de-France to almost anywhere on the island and provide a good and inexpensive way of getting around between the main towns on the island, especially to Saint Pierre. There are less services on Sundays.
Taxis are plentiful as well, especially in and around Fort-de-France, but not much of an option if you want to cover large distances.
Several companies offer ferry services between Fort-de-France and several resort areas. Somatours Vedettes runs a ferry to Pointe du Bout taking about 20 minutes and leaving every hour or so. Vedettes Madinina travels there as well. Matinik Cruise Line goes to the village of Trois-Ilets every 75 minutes or so.
Being an integrated part of French Republic, Martininque is considered as European as Paris politically, therefore European Union immigration rules apply. In short, EU citizens and citizens of many other industrialized nations can visit Martinique visa-free, others need a Schengen Visa.
See also Money Matters
As an overseas department of France, Martinique has adopted the Euro (ISO code: EUR, symbol: €) as its official currency. One Euro is divided into 100 cents, which is sometimes referred to as eurocents, especially when distinguishing them with the US cents.
Euro banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, €500. The highest three denominations are rarely used in everyday transactions. All Euro banknotes have a common design for each denomination on both sides throughout the Eurozone.
The Euro coins are 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2. Some countries in the Eurozone have law which requires cash transactions to be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. All Euro coins have a common design on the denomination (value) side, while the opposite side may have a different image from one country to another. Although the image side may be different, all Euro coins remain legal tender throughout the Eurozone.
For European people coming from an EU country, working in Martinique isn't a problem. If you're from outside the EU, you will probably need a work permit - check with the French Embassy in your country. Do not forget though that the unemployment rate is high. But if you work in the health sector (doctor, nurse), it will be much easier.
French and Creole patois are spoken on the islands; English is known by some inhabitants. They speak very fast so tell them that you do not know French well.
The abundance of both Créole and French restaurants reflects the predominance not only of French tourists in Martinique but also of the island’s status as a French DOM. There has been a growing interest in the traditional dishes of the island, and therefore, a more recent profusion of the number of Créole restaurants. Many of the restaurants tailor their menus to cater to both Créole and French tastes.
Camping is available in both mountain and beach settings. Setting up just anywhere is not permitted. For details call Office National des Forets, Fort-de-France, (33) 596 71 34 50. A small fee is charged.
In addition there are hotels, bed and breakfasts (French: gites), villas and even private islands, Ilet Oscar and Ilet Thierry, for rent.
As in France, water is safe to drink from the tap, and restaurants will happily serve this at no extra charge (l'eau du robinet).
Fresh fruit juices are also very popular on the island along with jus de canne which is a delicious sugar cane drink which is often sold in vans in lay-bys off the main roads. This juice does not stay fresh for long, so ask for it to be made fresh while you wait and drink it as quickly as possible with some ice cubes and a squeeze of lime. Try their sugar cane juice, it is quite refreshing. Don't hesitate stopping on the side of the road to buy a drink off the locals who will make it in front of you.
Martinique is famous for its world class rums and the island today still hosts a large number of distilleries inviting tourist to explore its history. Production methods emphasize use of fresh juice from sugar cane to produce "rhum agricole", rather than molasses widely used elsewhere.
Although rum is far more popular, the local beer in Martinique is Bière Lorraine.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Martinique. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Martinique) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Martinique. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Martinique in general is a safe Caribbean Island destination. There are few problems, though Fort-de-France has its fair share of petty crime. Just watch your belongings at busier places like markets and public transport areas, as well as elsewhere on beaches.
Keep hydrated and use sunscreen. And watch out for the Manchineel tree on beaches. It is poisonous and when it is raining don't stand underneath it, or you can get skin problems. Finally, there is the poisonous Fer-de-Lance snake. Watch out while hiking some areas, though it usually will hide before you even see it.
See also International Telephone Calls
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