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Martinique, C’est Moi

Martinique, France

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Martinique is the flagship of French culture in the Caribbean and the verve of the French is ever-present. In the capital, Fort de France, a Parisian boldness quite at odds with the laidback attitude typical of the Caribbean prevails. You'll have the illusion of being in France: the style and chic is pure Paris, but look around you and the coconut palms and the sunshine will remind you that you're a long way from Europe.

Shoppers will appreciate the Parisian sophistication as they join the chic customers sashaying past shops filled with classic names from French couture: Yves St Laurent and Christian Lacroix are just two major fashion brands with outlets here – one thing that makes the island very popular with cruise lines is that it’s one of the best shopping destinations in the Caribbean.

The people of Martinique have remained loyal to French culture and consider other Caribbean peoples – even their near neighbors on Guadeloupe - to be a little wild and temperamental.

The name 'Martinique' is thought to derive from the Carib word 'madinia' which means 'island of flowers' - a beautiful name for a glorious and glamorous tropical destination. Myth has it that when Columbus discovered the island he believed it was inhabited by a tribe of Amazons as he was greeted only by a team of women shouting and gesturing. A moment's thought might have called the more prosaic truth to mind - the men folk were away raiding on other islands.

The north of the island is dominated by Mont Pele, a 4,656 ft volcano which destroyed the old city of St Pierre - the Paris of the lesser Antilles - in a catastrophic explosion. The central plains of the island are the site of the sugar cane plantations that provided the island with much of its wealth before tourism became important. Further south rolling hills rise up and the coral limestone on the southern peninsula contrasts with the dark volcanic stone of the north.

Martinique is endowed with beaches to suit every taste. Connoisseurs of fine sand will prefer the south as that in the north is hard and dark courtesy of Mont Pele. As well as sunbathing on beaches of the sheltered palm fringed coves you can enjoy wandering through picturesque fishing villages. If you want to explore more of the island full or half day tours are easily arranged and usually include a meal. You can appreciate the island from helicopter or small aeroplane with tour companies such as Airway and Alile Air Services.

To experience the island from a more intimate perspective hire a bike or explore on horseback - no experience needed. Mounts can be hired from La Gourmette, on the outskirts of Fort de France or from the Ranch de Trois Caps near Le Marin. The tropical vegetation is a major attraction of the Martiniquan landscape and the thoughtful, well-presented display of tropical plants and trees at Balata Gardens will appeal to the green-fingered.

There are plenty of more active pursuits to choose from. Sailboarding is popular all over Martinique but advanced sailors should head for Vauclin on the Atlantic coast for the best waves. Tartane on the Caravelle peninsula is the premiere location for surfers. If surfing and sailing aren't for you, but you still want to enjoy the waves to the full try kayaking. Martinique also offers superb deep sea fishing with trips leaving from Le Diamant.

Scuba diving is a fantastic sport, and although you'll need a certificate to venture out independently, teaching sessions can be arranged through hotels and tandem dives make the sport accessible even for novices. Some of the best sites are Diamond Rock and Sainte Anne in the south, from where you'll be able to view some very special colonies of corals. Not quite ready for strange thrill of marine life deep beneath the ocean surface? Snorkelling provides a dazzling view of some of the most colourful creatures. Head for Les Anses d'Arlets and see seafans and sponges.

One of the less attractive aspects of the island – though you can’t deny its popularity – is cockfighting. It may sound barbaric, but the atmosphere at a fight is electric and this most intense of spectator sports gives you a real glimpse of the passionate spirit of the people of Martinique.

If you want to mull the strange relationship this island seems to represent between civilization and barbarism, you would do a lot worse than to do so over a glass of imported wine of local coffee. Within easy distance of the cruise port you’ll find several very pleasant French-style cafés where you can do just that.

Martinique is a little bit of France in the middle of the Caribbean – a little bit, though it’s not completely French. This amazing island is a fantastic blend of cultures that you’ll want, someday, to return to.

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