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Destination Guide : Martinique France over the water

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Why go on holiday to Martinique?
French-controlled Martinique is part of a group of Caribbean islands known as the Lesser Antilles or Windward Islands. It offers a slice of cosmopolitan France in the heart of the tropics.

Modern towns, rainforest-clad interiors, volcanic peaks and gorges, sleepy fishing villages and remote beaches add up to an alluring mix. There are also plenty of activities to satisfy sports-lovers. The island receives few British visitors - most are either French or day-trippers from passing cruise ships - but it will appeal to holiday makers wanting a chic, sophisticated Caribbean beach holiday.

How much does it cost?
Prices vary in peak and low season, but flight-only deals in December start from around £600. Accommodation is available to suit all budgets but it's possible to stay a week in a four-star hotel from £300.

When should I go?
It's warm all year round with temperatures reaching 30C/86F. Rainfall is lowest in April but high in September so avoid the autumn, when humidity is also worse.

Where should I start?
Start in the island capital, Fort-de-France, a large and cosmopolitan city. It has a pretty harbour-front area and narrow, bustling streets lined with colonial buildings housing French cafes and designer boutiques. Give yourself a few hours to wander around.

Must-see attractions include Fort Saint-Louis, which dates back to 1640 and is still an active military base with excellent sea views. Book a tour here.

You can't miss Bibliotheque Schoelcher, an elaborate building with a Byzantine dome which was originally built in France in the 19th century and then shipped in pieces to Martinique and re-assembled. Today visitors can see antique books and period furnishings.

The city's archaeological museum displays Amerindian artefacts and although the exhibition is simple, it provides a good snapshot of local culture.

The big bang

Any other sights?
The Cathedral Saint-Louis boasts a 57-metre high steeple, while La Savane is a large central park which is good for relaxation and a peek at a statue of Napoleon's wife Empress Josephine, who was born on the island.

In the north of the city lies Parc Floral where a weekly Saturday fruit, vegetable and fish market makes a colourful spectacle.

Testament to Martinique's turbulent times is the old town of Saint-Pierre. More than 30,000 inhabitants were killed in just three minutes in 1902, when the volcano Montagne Pelee erupted. A small train takes visitors around the ruins. There's also a museum devoted to volcanoes.

Which are the best beaches on the island?
To the north lie black, volcanic beaches. Head for the south, which has the best white or tan-coloured stretches and most of the island's hotels.

The main place to stay is close to Trois-llets, a pretty little village with plenty of rural charm. Nearby are the resorts of Pointe du Bout, featuring a sleek yachting marina; cheaper and more casual Anse Mitan and compact Anse a L'Ane, which are both connected to Fort-de-France by a ferry.

Les Salines is regarded as Martinique's finest beach. Despite the throngs of sun-worshippers, it never feels too crowded. There's also good snorkelling here.

What about the rainforest?
Hire a car and follow Route de la Trace to the north of the island, which passes through gorgeous rainforest and along the eastern flanks of a volcanic mountain range, the Pitons du Carbet. You can go hiking in this area. Choose from easy trails through relatively low-lying areas of rainforest or harder, wetter versions. The coastal road to Saint-Pierre passes through quaint villages with brightly painted wooden fishing boats and the town of Carbet where Christopher Columbus came ashore in 1502.

Are there any sports/activities I can do?
Saint-Pierre is the gateway to one of the island's top dive sites, with wrecks, reefs and plenty of marine life. Grand Anse boasts calm waters and good coral, while Cape Enrage features underwater caves.

There are strenuous hiking trails leading up to Pelee - the shortest takes four hours. Another option is to join an organised tour to do the 20km hike around the undeveloped north-western tip of the island. Join outings from Grand-Riviere.

Other sports include horse riding, mountain biking, golf at the island's sole 18-hole course, and tennis in the resort hotels. You could also splash out on a yacht charter.

Are there any festivals?
Mardi Gras in the five-day period leading up to Ash Wednesday is a fun-filled occasion. Expect rum-fuelled partying, costume parades, music and dancing. Much of the action is centred around La Savane in Fort-de-France.

The biennial Jazz Festival takes place on odd-numbered years, while on a smaller scale, local villages have festivities to celebrate their patron saint's day.

The June Regatta is a four-day sailing event which is followed by another five-day extravaganza featuring local fishing boats in August.

Fish around for fantastic food

Where's good for nightlife?
Some of Martinique's night-time action is provided by the bigger hotels on the south of the island. Expect shows, dancing and steel-band music. Fort-de-France has a couple of clubs and there is a casino at Pointe du Bout. Ask your hotel concierge about local theatre performances.

What's the food like?
The island has around 150 restaurants, and most serve French or Creole food, with the emphasis on seafood. Red snapper, conch, crayfish and lobster are popular although the latter is pricey. Bear in mind that the best value restaurant meals are often from the fixed-price menus. Italian restaurants, bakeries and cafes are also sprinkled around the island.

The favourite local beer is Lorraine, but island rums are more popular. Sample ti-punch, a white rum and sugercane juice concoction served with a dash of lemon. Planteur punch, a cocktail of rum and fruit juice, is just as lethal.

There is a smart dress code in many of the hotel restaurants. Elsewhere, dress is casual but stylish.

What should I buy?
Fort-de-France probably offers the best shopping. Paris fashions, French perfumes, leather handbags, crystal and silk scarves are all up for grabs. The main boutiques are along Rue Victor Hugo. If you prefer local souvenirs, try vendors' stalls near La Savane selling wicker baskets, dolls, wooden carvings and rum. The Grand Marche sells exotic spices, while surrounding streets are lined with a myriad of markets selling everything from flowers to fruit and veg. Check out the Marche aux Poissons (fish market) where fishermen unload their daily catch.

What is there for children to do?
They'll love the beaches, swimming and watersports activities. But Martinique is probably best suited for couples rather than families.

Tourist office
Martinique is represented by the French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL.

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Destination Guide Martinique is France over the water

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