Perhaps it’s common knowledge, but the seas to the south of the U.S. are filled with tales of colonialism – most of which occurred in the 16th through the 18th centuries. Islands were scooped up by European powers eager for outposts in the New World, leaving their language, architecture, and culture behind. The island of Martinique was one such colonial conquest by the French. These days, however, its quaint capital, Fort-de-France, is an idyllic getaway in the Caribbean. Here’s a closer look at this historic town:
Brief history of Martinique and Fort-de-France
Discovered by Christopher Columbus back when he was sailing the ocean blue, the island of Martinique remained largely within the purview of its native inhabitants, the Arawak and Carib Indians, until the French claimed it for the crown in the 1600s. Shortly thereafter, the landed French nobility took it upon themselves to build out the island – notably with a series of forts designed for defense.
Originally, the French dubbed the island’s now-capital city Fort-Royal, but this changed to Fort-La-Republique during the French Revolution and then to Fort-de-France sometime in the 19th century. One of two primary cities in Martinique – the second being Saint-Pierre to the north – it served as a great outpost for the French military.
The political and environmental history of the city was about as tumultuous as its naming, however; brief British occupations in the 1700s and 1800s, an earthquake in 1839, and a fire in 1890 ravaged the city. It was only when Saint-Pierre was effectively destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1902 that the city began to grow without competition – both in population and economic importance.
Today, the city of about 80,000 continues to serve the French military; Fort Saint Louis in the city is a naval base employing many French sailors. Additionally, tourism and transport have grown to be large contributors to the local economy. No wonder; the beaches and natural habitat are compelling for those tired of tourist-thronged spots elsewhere in the Caribbean.
General information for visitors
As an outpost of France, you’ll find that Martinique – and, of course, Fort-de-France – is very European. Be sure you have Euros at the ready here, though most restaurants and hotels accept credit cards. Also, predictably, virtually everyone on the island speaks French and the more local Antillean Creole. Given the site’s familiarity with tourists, however, you likely won’t have any trouble plodding along in English, punctuated with your high school French.
Expect warm, consistent temperatures in Fort-de-France – hovering around 80-85 degrees most days. It will likely be humid, so we don’t recommend spending full days outside. As always in warmer locales, bring a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen.
Getting there and getting around
There are a few ways to get to Fort-de-France. The easiest is probably by plane; you can catch an American Airlines or Air France flight directly from Miami, landing at the Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport just across the bay from the city. While small, the airport is modern, providing everything you may need, including business centers and WiFi.
If you’re planning on at least a couple of trips outside of the city during your stay in Fort-de-France, we recommend renting a car. A taxi ride to the city from the airport alone costs about 25-30€ ($28-33). An economy car rental, on the other hand, is about 21€ ($23) per day.
Oh – and don’t try to rough it with public buses. These “taxis collectifs,” as they’re called, cost upwards of 9€ ($10) one-way. You’re better off with a rental car.
Where to stay
Hotels, rooms, and short-term-stay apartments in the city range in price between about 80€ ($88) per night to upwards of 220€ ($240). The lower-cost ones pretty consistently get lower ratings, though, so we recommend going with one that is midrange and offers all the amenities you’re looking for – preferably on or near a beach.
To wit, our top pick is unquestionably the Apolline Martinique. Rooms start at 145€ ($159) per night and while it’s slightly more inland than we would otherwise care for, the hotel does put you away from a lot of pedestrian traffic. Plus, it’s got its own pool; a quirky, deep blue-and-wood design; sweeping views of the city and bay beyond; and a fun bar for meeting like-minded travelers. Rooms are set up with everything you need – including WiFi, a TV, a minibar, in-room coffee, and (most importantly) air conditioning.
For a cheaper option and more variety, go with Airbnb. Rooms are available for as little as 20€ ($22) per night while entire three-bed bungalows run only 145€ ($160) in some cases. Be sure to check reviews first, but spend some time sifting through Fort-de-France’s Airbnb options before booking a room anywhere.
What to see/do
As Fort-de-France is considered primarily a naval base, take time to tour the primary naval station in the city, Fort Saint Louis. Originally erected in 1638, it was expanded and reinforced over subsequent decades as France continued military campaigns across the globe, including in the west. During various spats with the British, the fort changed hands – a few times, actually – but it ultimately landed back in French hands in the 1800s. It was officially classified as a historic site in 1973, and you can now take a guided tour of the facilities; one is offered every hour.
When you’ve soaked in enough history, consider spending some time outdoors. Residents and tourists alike love to hike and kayak, and you’ll find many opportunities to do both in Fort-de-France. In fact, there’s a hiking committee in Martinique (Ffrandonnée) that curates hikes and organizes guided group outings. Some of these are free, but in most cases, an entry fee is required; be prepared to pay up to about 20 € ($22). Check the hiking committee’s website for a full roster of hiking events.
For adventures out on the water, head to Ile Aux Kayaks (“Island of Kayaks”) where you can arrange for some low-key paddling. Group outings can be arranged, though if you aim to go unguided by yourself, expect to pay 14€ ($15) for a half-day. Guided tours add about 5€ ($6) to the total cost.
If you’d rather just sun it up, Fort-de-France offers several popular beaches. On the eastern shore, you’ll find Plage De Madiana; lined with palm trees and blanketed with “dusty” gray sand, it’s a nice escape from the city. A little further south, you’ll find Plage du PLM – smaller, but quaint with its translucent blue waters and the background music of nearby Lili’s Café lulling you to sleep beneath the sun. Lastly – and much closer to downtown Fort-de-France – is La Française. Near one of the city’s forts and docked with coconut trees, it’s certainly a quaint stop, though can be busy given its proximity to the city.
Where to eat
As small as Fort-de-France seems, it has no shortage of delicious eats – many of them French, Caribbean, or a mix of the two. Casual cafés abound here; you won’t have any problems finding a deliciously quick breakfast before heading out for your day’s adventures. For more serious, sit-down affairs, however, we have (as always) our faves.
First on the list is La Reserve – not posh, but a stop for some of the most satisfying meals you’ll have on the island. This is Caribbean fare to a “C”; fluffy rice, fried plantains, jerk chicken, and heavy citrus salads tempt diners of every background. Heck, they even have vegan fare. Look for them at 7-32 Impasse des Aloes (their web presence is somewhat lacking, so you’ll have to trust our rec here).
Spice n’ Sugar, another Caribbean stop, is neck-in-neck with La Reserve. Comfort food – similar to the fare in the American South – is abundant on the menu. If you come, we recommend bringing a crowd and ordering the Seafood Boil: plump potatoes, sweet corn, oversized prawns, and tender plantains mix and mingle for a feast unequaled in Fort-de-France.
For a family-friendly spot, our nod goes to Restaurant Le Laurier on Rue du Cne Manuel. The menu is simple; get a plate for 9€ ($10) of the fish of the day, grilled or fried, along with an assortment of veggies and rice. You can also get roast chicken or pork for a little bit less. If your sweet-tooth is kicking in, tack on dessert for only 0,50€ ($.75).
Out and about in town, looking for a nightcap and buzzy vibe to close out your evening? Head to Garage Popular, a gnarly bar-restaurant downtown that will keep you fed and plied with good drink (pick something rummy; it’s the Caribbean after all). For a snazzier vibe – and views of the city beyond – head up to Cloud Rooftop Bar where your gin martini awaits.
Then head to that cozy hotel or Airbnb refuge and ready for yourself for another glorious day in Fort-de-France.
(Oh, and if you’re craving more Caribbean magic, head to another of our favorite destinations: Antigua & Barbuda.)