With Norwegian Air starting direct flights from Baltimore, New York and Boston to Martinique and Guadaloupe this winter, and with fares as low as $49 each way, the opportunity to take a quick getaway in the sun just got a lot greater.
We were lucky enough to be on the inaugural flight from Baltimore’s BWI airport to Fort-de-France in Martinique, and we can confirm that it is an easy flight from one of our favorite international airports.
The international terminal at BWI on a Friday morning has very little traffic, so there was no line for TSA screening. At all. As it was the first flight, there were a few kinks in the boarding process, but I’ll bet they have those worked out by now.
The plane itself was a brand new one, with plenty of leg room. The overhead bins seemed a little small, and as this is a low-cost carrier, they are a little stingy with carry-on bag size anyway, so plan appropriately.
Before you go:
- Remember your passport. Martinique is part of France.
- Bring a converter plug for your electronics. France, and Martinique, uses 220V, and a plug with two round plugs.
- Bring some Euros. (See: France)
- Call your bank to let them know you’re traveling internationally so that they don’t freeze your credit or debit card.
- Don’t forget the sunscreen. You know this. Nothing ruins a trip like a bad sunburn.
Where to stay:
Forget the all-inclusive luxury resort idea. Other than the aging Club Med on the island, most of your options are hôtels de charme – small, independent hotels with fewer than 20 rooms. As the name implies, they are often quite charming.
There are some larger resorts that are closer to the luxury standard:
La Bakoua – beachfront resort with a sweet tiki bar on the water (which for some reason closes in the evening). This is where airline staff stays. The beachfront rooms are worth the price ($200-300 per night).
Le Cap Est – beachfront resort facing a turquoise lagoon on the East Coast of the island.
La Suite Villa – quirky but high-quality suites and villas on the hillside overlooking the bay. Outdoor bathtubs and jacuzzi up the romance factor.
Le Domaine St Aubin – A gorgeous estate house hotel in the center of the island but not far from beaches.
On the island:
- Speak French! Or smile when you speak English. The people of Martinique are French citizens, and they do speak French. Many of the tourist-oriented places will have English-speaking staff, but if you find yourself at a language impasse, just be friendly and make an attempt to communicate. The Martiniquans are extremely friendly people. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish with hand signals and a smile.
- Rent a car, but be prepared for traffic. The roads are fairly well-marked around the island, and having a car will allow you to explore more beaches and inland trails, but be aware that the traffic around Fort-de-France can rival the gridlock in any big city.
When you leave:
- Duty-free rum. The rhum agricole produced in Martinique is some of the best in the world, and you’ll want to share memories of your Martinique joy with jealous friends back home. The duty-free shop in the airport opens early enough for your early flight out of Fort-de-France, and they conveniently make you walk through it on your way to your gate. They do offer many local rums in the shop, and many that are not available in the U.S., at reasonable prices.
- Go ahead and book your next trip. At this price, you know you’ll be back.
Now that the low-cost airline Norwegian Air is offering direct flights from Baltimore, New York and Boston, Martinique can be an affordable family getaway. Flights as low as $49 each way mean it might even be cheaper to spend the weekend in Martinique than at, say, a germ-infested water park lodge. I know which envelope I would choose.
I am very much anti-cold weather, so I would go anywhere in the Caribbean for $100, and I suspect I am not alone in this. And a direct flight? Come on.
If the price and convenience don’t sway you, then how about this: not only is it a jewel of the Caribbean, Martinique is a region of France, so imagine everything you love about France, but place it in a tropical climate with friendly people. They use the Euro there, and you can find fine French cheeses and wines if you care about that kind of thing. If you do care about that kind of thing, the food and the culture of Martinique are formidable. And the rum, or rhum… but we’ll leave that for another article.
So what is there to do in Martinique with kids?
Martinique is a very family-friendly island, which is not to say that it caters to kids. You won’t find many amusement parks or kids clubs or all-inclusive mega-resorts (other than the 1970’s-era Club Med). It is perhaps more of a European-style parent-focused family-friendliness. Kids are not pandered to, but they are more than welcome just about everywhere. It is quite refreshing, really.
Ride horses by the home of Empress Josephine
Martinicans, or Martiniquais, have mixed feelings about being the birthplace of Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine. Though proud of the royal connection, they are not so proud of the fact that she worked to reverse the abolition of slavery on the island when she ascended the throne, which would benefit her aristocratic family’s business interests.
You can visit the site of Josephine’s birthplace, La Pagerie Museum, in Trois-Ilets, to see many artifacts from her life. Though the main house was destroyed in a hurricane in 1766, you can get a sense of the size of the plantation and the nearby sugar refinery.
Though it might not hold the attention of younger children, middle- and upper-grade students who like history will enjoy La Pagerie. But you might convince your kids to give it a try if you are on your way to horseback riding at Ranch Jack down the street. Even true beginners can enjoy a ride on one of the Créole horses descended from the Spanish horses that arrived on the island in the 16th century. Ride through the rainforest or on the beach. Younger children ride horses led by hand.
Hike a volcano
Mont Pelée in the north of the island is a popular hike offering a rocky but not strenuous climb to the top of a semi-active volcano. The hike is best made early in the day before the clouds arrive so that you can best enjoy the views from the top. There are several hikes of varying degrees of difficulty. Check to see which will be most appropriate for your group.
Take a stroll through nearby St-Pierre, a city virtually obliterated by the volcano’s eruption in 1902. Only one person survived in the city – a prisoner protected from the burning ash by the thick walls of his prison cell. Today St. Pierre is a charming town to wander, with streets full of history. Visit the majestic staircase of the once-stately theater destroyed in the 1902 eruption, the “dungeon” just behind the theater where the sole survivor rode out the eruption, and the church once known as the “Pirates’ Church.”
Snorkel just about anywhere
The waters are clear in Martinique, and healthy coral reefs are found just offshore in many parts of the island. With warm waters and gentle surf, it’s a great place for families with even small kids to try snorkeling.
A great place for beachside snorkeling is at Grande Anse d’Arlet. Rent a chair and umbrella on the beach at Ti Sable for 7 euros, with access to the restaurant, showers and changing rooms.
Free Local Music and Dance Performances
The music and dance traditions of Martinique have been influenced by African and French culture, as well as other Caribbean cultures.
The Hotel La Pagerie in Trois-Ilets hosts local dance schools for free performances every Saturday night. The dance is joyful and the bright madras and floral costumes are phenomenal. Arrive early for a seat in their open air lobby.
See how escaped slaves lived at la Savane des Esclaves
The Savanne des Esclaves is a superbly detailed recreation of a farming village as it might have existed in the days just before and after the abolition of slavery. The creator of this living museum, Gilbert Larose, wanted to teach local children about the history of the island, so he began inviting classes to visit his rural farm to hear stories and see reenactments of the life of freed and escaped slaves in the 1850s.
If you visit on the weekend, Gilbert himself may be behind the large stove making manioc (cassava) cakes. If you speak french, he can describe the many herbs growing in the medicinal garden nearby. Though few signs at the Savane des Esclaves are in English, visitors can pick up an English-language brochure when you purchase your admission.
Best reached by rental car or taxi, as it is rather far from the main road.