Thud. My red cheeks immediately tighten as the front of my matchbox sized car dove directly down into another pot hole. I grimace, my skin, taught from the slight sun burn on my face, stung a little as the Twingo car bounced into a divot amidst the rocky one lane road. This was, according to my trusted GPS, the road meant to lead me to the marina. I’m no boat owner, but I do know that no one would be towing a sailboat on this glorified farm path.
GPS is a funny thing. It’s so reliable, and then, when you need it most, it quickly morphs into your mortal enemy. It’s that boyfriend who’ve you been living with for years that you caught cheating but stayed together. It will be a life saver one minute, then you can’t trust it as far as you can throw it. As I braked for a cow grazing in front of me, I was ready to launch my phone out the window into the depths of the Caribbean Sea. I slowly circumnavigate the steers in the road and quickly glanced at the clock. The crimson numbers urgently flashed 2:50 and a wave of panic rushes over me. I have to find the marina, park my car and then find Patrick, the water taxi driver all within the next ten minutes. I decided to abandon the plan to follow the abandoned road and head back to where I started to see if I could find some signs to lead me to the marina.
As I barreled down the hill attempting to find a space wide enough to turn around, I saw a house on the other side of the valley. I slowed, hoping a driveway of some sort would facilitate a less than 300 point turn, and came upon two old men having a late lunch roadside. I rolled my window down, waved and as I put together sloppily crafted sentences in French they responded with what I had already feared. I’m on the wrong road. When I mentioned I needed to find a man with a boat named Patrick, their faces lit up with a smile, they knew Patrick and would give them a call to tell him I was running late. If I couldn’t find him, they said come back and we can give you a ride!
Small, safe, stunning & sustainable, the island is as friendly as her people who reside here. My road trip, but more specifically the detour to the marina gave me a chance to see how rural and green parts of Martinique are and when cruise ships come on a daily basis bringing thousands of tourists, it’s important for us as travelers to try and keep these islands how we’ve found them. With the intention of keeping islands in the Caribbean green, I’ve put together a few suggestions when planning your trip to give you a sustainable guide to Martinique.
Traveling all over the country can be taxing on my carbon footprint. I try to avoid airline travel if possible and stick to public transit while I’m visiting, especially if I’m in a region where it’s easy to get around with the rest of the country or to neighboring locations.
Norwegian Airlines began international flight from several locations from the US in late 2015. They are a low cost carrier that offer long haul flights and their new fleet of planes are more fuel efficient, making your trip a little less harmful for the environment.
On the ground you have a couple of options, but I’m certain after reviewing them all, you’ll decide to go with the same one that I had; car rental. The island is a windy mess of roads, but it is easy to navigate in a short time you’re there (it’s about 50 miles long and 22 miles wide).
Local buses are available on the island. In my week there I did see several on the road at various pick up and drop off locations throughout the island. Routes and schedule is limited so many people opt for taxis or rental cars. Also, it is helpful to note that public transit does not pick up or drop off at the airport so you are forced to take a taxi to and from Aime Cesaire International Airport.
Collective taxi. Car shares are a great way to be a more responsible traveler, however, I have a love & hate relationship with the group cab option. For those who aren’t familiar, there are several countries where you have taxi’s (either small vans or cars) that will pick up and drop off It is not only safe, but a day to day way that people get around. It’s a fun way to get to know locals and get a better sense of where you are without driving however, you occasionally have to wait for a ride, the drives can be longer if you are dropping off other passengers, and almost always you’ll have a full ride or be over max capacity. Hitchhiking isn’t uncommon, and if you’re going to give it a go, be sure to point with your finger the direction you’re needing to go, no one uses the “thumbs up” to hitch a ride.
I opted for a rental car, there are many car rental companies at the airport or around the island, I chose Jumbo Car and was happy with their services. Taxis are expensive and so using one to get around for the duration of your trip may result in the same price as a car rental. In addition to the higher rates, there is a surcharge for trips after 8pm and before 6am. Up until recently, there were very few automatic transmission cars and they are still far less available than manual vehicles so if you’re a typical American like me, you may not know how to drive a stick shift. Rent early to avoid not having a car available and for increase rates. Be ready for fast little cars zooming by you, round a bouts and serpentine roads. By the end of the week I felt like a Caribbean race car driver.
Maison de L’Ilet Oscar
Want to get away from it all and really experience island living on your island vacation? The Maison de L’ilet Oscar is the place for you. It is a 5 room guesthouse on a small island off the eastern coast of Martinique. You take a water taxi to get there, and you leave the rest behind you. Kayaks, snorkeling and good old fashioned island R&R are the only things left to do here. I spent two days on Oscar with only one other couple there during my stay so it made the dream of being marooned on my own private paradise a reality. This is true Creole-style living so you’ll have the island breeze in lieu of an AC, the clear blue waters to stare into instead of a television. The island has solar panel water heating & electric in addition to a rain water tank making your paradise environmentally responsible.
Residence Orcea – an eco hotel
Located in Sainte Anne, in the south of the island, Orcea is an example of not scrapping some luxury for an eco stay. With 6 bungalows, this property is quiet and serene, with just a short trip to the town or to several of Martinique’s famous beaches. Jessica, one of the owners is a massage therapist so you have the benefit of a spa on site. There is a pool, a fresh water jacuzzi and relaxing garden to fulfill your vacation vibes. Composting, recycling, solar energy and local resources on site will appeal to your environmental side.
When in doubt, stay local
Pick a smaller, local hotel or B&B to make it easier to keep your money on the island. When you stay local, the cost of your room & board goes back into the local economy, instead of out of the country to a large hotel chain. There’s no better way to give back than to stay locally, most of the time it is something quieter, more affordable and you can truly find some fantastic properties. La Maison de Clementine is just one of those places. The bed and breakfast located in Fort de France is one of the prettiest properties I’ve been. The decor rivals a five star resort, the attention to detail was spot on and the breakfast was delicious. Fresh baked breads, local fruits including some from her garden and helpful suggestions for site seeing were several of the many things about this B&B. I originally booked one night and ended up staying three! Check out their website to see some of the unique interior designs.
Climb a Volcano
In the early 1900’s Mount Pelee erupted making it one of the deadliest volcanic destructions. Saint-Pierre was the islands largest city at the time and was known as the “Paris of the Caribbean”, with a French influence in the cuisine, architecture and culture.
Mt. Pelee is a 4,500 foot mountain in the north of the island. Nearly 40,000 people perished after the eruption, leaving only 2 survivors, one being a man who had been placed in a dungeon like prison cell the night before. The story is an interesting one and there are still remnants of the destruction in town so you can have a quick history lesson after your hike.
Fog rolls in early & often here so if you want to have a good panoramic view of the island, leave EARLY for your hike. There are several hiking points to start from, the trip is several hours and not an easy trek, but really rewarding to see the island from an active volcano!
Walk a Peninsula or Climb a Tree
Caravelle Peninsula in my opinion is the hidden gem of the island. The small stretch of landmass on the upper eastern side of the island is void of large properties making it one of the quieter spots on Martinique. This sleepy part of the island has a protected land space with a scenic hiking trail. There are several loops giving you an option for full day or half day hikes and a great chance to explore the flora and fauna on the island. Deserts, dry forests, and coastlines are just a few of the landscapes you’ll uncover at Caravelle. The Balata Gardens are a way to see the green side of Martinique on a smaller scale. While there be sure to climb the tree top trail to take in the verdant landscape from high above. I’d recommend arriving close to opening hour as cruise crowds will descend on the gardens making your secret garden experience not so secret.
Eat & Shop like a local
There are many covered markets, spice markets and the Grand Marchee in Fort de France and surrounding towns for shopping for fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and souvenirs. Remember that this island is arguably as European as it is Caribbean so have Euros for all your transactions. Seafood is a staple here much like a typical island diet. Accra fritters, Colombo chicken or Boudin are some other local dishes to try, all having a tasty Creole/Caribbean flare. Buying locally is a great way to stimulate local economy and when buying souvenirs, be sure our wildlife stays in the water where it belongs, so avoid purchasing shells or starfish. Better to take a photo than to take part of an ecosystem.
Boat & Dive to Paradise
Book with a local to experience the best views of the island on the water. Simobey is run by a fisherman and wife duo, and they will take you on a half or full discovery day so you can swim, snorkel, enjoy the water and a fresh seafood lunch.
When the above the sea adventures are covered, go under. You can snorkel off most of the beaches, you may see some marine life and if you are lucky, sea turtles. Diving here is some of the best in the Caribbean and with Natiyabel they have small dive groups and are members of Longitude 181, an eco responsible diving organization.
Drink like a Pirate
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. In Martinique however, we drink Rhum, don’t forget the “h”. The island is the rum capital of the world, with the most distilleries of any other island. It’s agricultural rum which means it is made from sugar cane and so it gives it a sweeter, earthier flavor. Some of the best rums are made here in Martinique so be sure to pull over and have a taste test when you see a distillery sign. Some of the tastiest island drinks I tried were at Habitation Clement, Habitation Ceron and Trois Rivieres. For rhum bio, or organic rum, head to Rhum Neisson, the Caribbeans first organic rum producer. The French Caribbean doesn’t mess around with their spirits, as the island is the only producer of rum with their own AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) which is a fancy way to say the French have certified an agricultural product to be the best. The national drink is called a Ti Punch, a small “punch” made in a little glass with rhum, lime and cane sugar syrup. Cheers to your sustainable guide to Martinique!