Onsite Review: Martinique

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Martinique features stunning seaside hotels and villas.
Martinique features stunning seaside hotels and villas.

Blame driver-guide Andre Lahoussaye. After all, it was Andre’s comments and enthusiasm during a visit to the historic Habitation Clement distillery that made me do something uncool for a travel writer: Instead of taking my bag as carry-on when I flew home from Martinique, I checked my bag at the ticket counter because Andre had convinced me to fly home with a bottle of Martinican rhum vieux (aged rum).

Historic plantations, prize-winning rhum, beaches, Creole and haute cuisines, museums, gardens, rainforests, a dormant volcano, watersports, 20 varieties of bananas—Martinique hadn’t changed fundamentally since my previous visit. However, while it was once an also-ran in the North American tourism biz, this French department is suddenly seeing an uptick in arrivals from North America.

You may chalk that up to better marketing or to nonstops from MIA (American Airlines) or SJU (Seaborne) that didn’t exist less than two years ago. Yet another factor is Martinique’s discovery by foodies, for whom “this island’s French cuisine mixed with its Creole heritage offers a unique culinary experience,” says Isabelle Bujold, director of marketing and business development at Transat Holidays USA. But above all, she adds, Martinique’s joie de vivre has increasing appeal to “travelers who love visiting the Caribbean islands but feel that they’ve seen them all. I can assure you, they are never disappointed with Martinique.”

This reinvigoration of Martinique’s tourism industry has inspired hotel makeovers and the debuts of new accommodations and attractions.

Villa Isabella, Martinique.
Villa Isabella, Martinique.

hotel news
Exhibit A of the new optimism and energy is Le Domaine des Fonds Blancs’ 6-bedroom, 3-suite Villa Isabella. With a waterfront protected by reefs, this contemporary masterpiece features ocean-facing windows and terraces, a massive kitchen (the staff prepares breakfasts, and a private chef can be arranged for other meals), a pool, private spaces for various suites, watersports gear, a fitness center, a concierge, and even a swath of ocean floor that the staff keeps clear of seaweed. $18,000 a week in February; commission, 10-15 percent.

“One star free for you,” said the owner of La Pagerie Hotel, in the Trois-Ilets’ Pointe du Bout resort town. The 96-room hotel has neither beachfront nor lavish baths, yet it has upgraded enough to win a fourth star from the French Accreditation Committee. The bartenders rate five stars, and there’s a free-form pool with a swim-up bar and massages under palapas. But what’s with the ‘one star free’? This winter, La Pagerie is still charging three-star rates, so rooms cost just $168 a night. Commissions range upwards of 18 percent.

Is it a boutique hotel or an art show? La Villa Suite, a hillside haven in Trois-Ilets that was already one of the Caribbean’s best hotels, has installed even more whimsical works by Cuban artist Ricardo Ponce-Rodriguez, who spends a month there every year. This artist has decorated everything from walls to bathtubs to dishes—speaking of which, the hotel has also added a new chef at Zandoli, its restaurant. The mini-suite costs $265 for two during high season; a suite costs $315; and a villa, from $360.

new attractions
Fort-de-France’s stately Hotel de Ville, with its clock tower and white columns, has long impressed me, but last year it got even better by installing a museum dedicated to Aime Cesaire, an acclaimed 20th-century literary and political figure; his office, artworks, mementos, and letters from famous contemporaries are fascinating.

The Museum of Coffee and Cacao encyclopedic collection features early coffee and cacao grinders, processing equipment, pitchers, cups, and 19th-century posters and photos. The collection has long sat on shelves, but the owner/curator is about to redesign the displays to make them more interactive, and that includes tastings. Good idea.

The new Martinique Gastronomie offers visitors workshops and cooking classes in Creole cuisine so, as one employee told me, “When you go home you can recreate what you ate here.” A tall order, but I’m trying. This new culinary company also plans to offer agritourism-style farm stays with 15 percent commissions.

The biggest (literally) news about attractions is that Fort Saint-Louis (est. 1640), a sprawling, 200-ft.-high fortress in Fort de France that used to be off-limits, is finally open to visitors. This summer, I finally got to see its meter-thick walls, parapets, resident iguanas, and stairways to heaven up-close and personal. Worth the wait. A new audio tour in English is available Tuesday to Saturday at the tourism office and a tourism kiosk in La Savane.

the classics
Other Martinique attractions have not changed much, nor would you want them to. For example:

  • In Fort-de-France I marveled at La Bibliotheque Schoelcher, a 19th-century, semi-Byzantine library with a glinting tile facade. Its architect was Henri Picq, a colleague of Gustav Eiffel.
  • Picq also designed the Cathedrale (1890), with its Gothic verticality and earthquake-resistant metal girders.
  • Fort-de-France offers all sorts of shopping, but my favorite is Le Grand Marche Couvert (the Covered Market), where you can chat with women in traditional madras and buy crafts, exotic fruits, hot sauces and spices.
  • La Savane, the capital’s park, was redesigned a few years ago, but the statue of Empress Josephine remains headless. The backstory: Josephine reportedly talked Napoleon out of ending slavery.
  • Saint-Pierre, the former capital, continues its comeback from the volcanic eruption that destroyed it back in 1903. The volcano looks benign, but I was reminded of its power when I walked up the curved stone staircase to where a theater stood, now in ruins.
  • At Jardin de Balata, an immense, manicured garden on a hillside, I revisited myriad palm trees, red anthuriums, birds of paradise,
  • succulents, cupola-like porcelain roses, and darting hummingbirds.

restaurants and rhum
You cannot find a restaurant that won’t wow you in Martinique. I’ve eaten at three of the best:

  • At Zandoli (see La Suite Villa), I experienced two miracles: the Iberian black pork yakitori and a waiter who promised a diner with multiple food allergies, “We will make you something delicious.” And they did.
  • At beachfront Le Petitbonum, chef Hotpants’ tuna ceviche, lionfish, and crayfish were the best I’d ever eaten. Ever. I also love the rhum set-up.
  • I savored a leisurely lunch at Le Bredas, a breeze-cooled, hilltop destination owned by culinary demi-god Charles Bredas. I swooned over the duck liver with prune chutney and raspberry vinaigrette, and the mahi-mahi with ginger-orange butter sauce on a bed of squash.

Martinique also has 10 AOC-recognized rhum producers, so the tourism office has mapped out La Route des Rhums. Distilleries on La Route each make distinctive white rhum agricole and dark, aged rhums that are worthy of drinking straight up. I’d recommend Habitation Clement or Musee du Rhum Saint-James, because both producers have rhum tastings, fascinating displays of 19th century equipment, and restored plantation houses. Which brings me back to putting the blame on Andre Lahoussaye.

To learn more about this French-Caribbean destination, take Recommend’s Martinique Destination Specialist education course.

contact information
La Pagerie Hotel: hotel-lapagerie.com
La Villa Suite: la-suite-villa.com
Martinique Promotion Bureau: (800) 391-4909 or (212) 838-7800; martinique.org
Villa Isabella: domainedesfondsblancs.com (at press time the website was not complete, but agents can e-mail domainedesfondsblancs@gmail.com)

journese luxury travel
“Martinique offers travelers a unique Caribbean vacation,” says Kimberly Daley, senior v.p., sales strategy, Journese Luxury Travel. “This island features beautiful Caribbean beaches, but it also has French and local cultures, lush rainforests, and Mount Pelee. In addition, the cuisine of Martinique, with its blend of French-Creole, African, Indian and South Asian influences, sets it apart from its neighbors.”

Journese’s mission, explains Daley, is to make “each vacation an inspiring journey full of immersive experiences and world-class pampering. We at Journese pride ourselves in our boutique concierge service and an exclusively four- and five-star global portfolio.”

In Martinique, that portfolio includes Le Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa, whose villas “feature exotic woods and baca fabrics in a fusion of Creole and Asian influences,” says Daley. She also likes the fact that each of the 50 suites has its own pool. Journese books La Suite Villa, too, “the perfect place for family relaxation…. Its restaurant, Le Zandoli, offers original cuisine.”

She adds, “Journese Destination Specialists are experts who can handcraft exquisite vacations specific to each traveler’s desires. Journese also offers frequent incentives for both the travelers and travel advisors, in addition to its TRIP loyalty program, which earns travel advisors points redeemable for their own travel.”
(800) 837-0420; journese.com or journese.com/travelagents/secure_login.asp

classic vacations
“Martinique is for seasoned travelers who enjoy exceptional culinary experiences, a sophisticated French-Caribbean ambiance, and world-class accommodations and infrastructure,” says Federico Moreno-Nickerson, director of product development in the Caribbean and Mexico for Classic Vacations. “It’s for travelers who are comfortable in a non-English-speaking country—although most hotels and destination restaurants have English-speaking staff,” he notes.

“We feature Le Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa and Hotel Bakoua Martinique: MGallery Collection,” says Moreno-Nickerson. “The first is the undisputed luxury choice in the destination; the second is a ‘grand dame’ of the Caribbean that has undergone extensive renovations. We also provide transfers and access to local activities.” Classic Vacations is “a full-service resource for travel advisors, providing product expertise and superb customer care,” adds Moreno-Nickerson. “Whether discovering a destination’s natural beauty, architectural marvels, cuisine, spas, culture, or other attractions, Classic makes it easy for advisors to coordinate the myriad of details…and offers competitive rates for first-class air…and high-touch ground service.”
(800) 221-3949; classicvacations.com or classicvacations.com/travel-agent/login