THE GREAT AMERICAN VACATION
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With its historic fort and superb location beneath the towering Pitons du Carbet on the Baie des Flamands, Martinique's capital—home to about one-quarter of the island's 400,000 inhabitants—should be a grand place. It hasn't been for decades, but it's now coming up fast. An ambitious redevelopment project, still under way, hopes to make it one of the most attractive cities in the Caribbean.
Already done is the renovation of the park La Savane and the construction of a spectacular waterfront promenade. Also on the radar is the Pointe Simon Business and Tourist Center, which will include a 100-room hotel and luxury apartment building. The apartments are now being heavily advertised for sale, but the hotel will take some time to open. The striking 215,000-square-foot Cour Perrinon Mall, bordered by rue Perrinon, houses a Carrefour supermarket, a bookstore, perfume shops, designer boutiques, a French bakery, and a café–brasserie. Near the mall is the Hôtel de Ville (mayor's office), in a gorgeous and ornate building.
There is a small Office of Tourism de Fort-de-France at 76 rue Lazare Carnot. It has some brochures in English and helpful, English-speaking staffers. They can organize English-language tours with advance notice. Walking tours are scheduled for Wednesday and Friday at 9 am. They take in a number of historic sites in about an hour and 45 minutes and cost €12. Another Point d'Information Touristique is near the cathedral, at the junction of rues Antoine Siger and Victor Schoelcher.
The new Stewards Urbains, easily recognized by their red caps and uniforms, are able to answer most visitor questions about the city and give directions. These young gals and garçons are multilingual and knowledgeable. When a large cruise ship is in port, they are out in force, positioned in heavily trafficked tourist zones and at the front entrance of Lafayette's department store.
The most pleasant districts of Fort-de-France—Didier, Bellevue, and Schoelcher—are up on the hillside, and you need a car (or a taxi) to reach them. But if you try to drive here, you may find yourself trapped in gridlock in the narrow streets downtown. Parking is difficult, and it's best to try for one of the garages or—as a second choice—outdoor public parking areas. Come armed with some euro coins for this purpose. A taxi or ferry from Pointe du Bout may be a better alternative. Even if your hotel isn't there, you can drive to the marina and park nearby.
There are some fine shops with Parisian wares (at Parisian prices), including French lingerie, St. Laurent clothes, Cacharel perfume, and sexy stiletto heels. Near the harbor is a lively indoor marketplace (grand marché), where produce and spices are sold.
A playground on the Malecon, which now has a half-mile wooden boardwalk, has swings, trampolines, benches, and grounds for playing pétanque. The urban beach between the Malecon and the fort, La Française, is covered with white sand that was brought in.
An inviting oasis of nature and serenity amid the hustle and bustle of Fort-de-France, La Savane is a prime spot for walks, picnics, and meeting up with friends. Freshly squeezed juices, cocktails, sandwiches, pizzas, panini, pasta, cassava cakes, deliciously flavored homemade ice creams, creole, Indonesian, and vegetarian food, sushi crepes, and locally made candies are all available from vendors here; street merchants sell everything from jewelry to human hairpieces. A tourism kiosk on the historic Place de La Savane is open from 9 to 4:30 Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 4 on Saturday (0596/74–41–44).
Cruise-ship traffic has greatly increased here. There were more than 100 port calls between early November 2011 and late April 2012. This translates to more than 125,000 passengers. Club Med, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Costa Cruises, Windstar Cruises, and Silversea are just a few of the cruise lines that now stop here.
The downtown landmark Hotel L'Impératrice, a product of the 1950s has small elevators and hallways as well as an expansive terrace served by a bar. After a major renovation in 2009, its 23 boutique guest rooms have a colonial look with creole furnishings like four-poster, mahogany beds. Le Josephine, the in-house restaurant, offers superb views of the Savane to go with its own elegant and eye-catching decor—dark-wood furniture, crisp white linens, and napkins in jewel tones of green and purple. Its outdoor café, which serves only drinks, spills out to the sidewalk.
Fort-de-France is patrolled by about 20 civilians, on foot and on bikes, easily recognized by their blue-and-orange uniforms. They complement the presence of the police. Alas, the heat and exhaust fumes still exist, so by day, dress to stay cool, and rehydrate often. There are some piano bars, hot jazz venues, new late-night restaurants, and younger-crowd bars like Le Gossip—a restaurant, boutique, and art gallery that hosts fashion shows, poetry readings, wine tastings, and even speed dating. New also is Le Foyaal, a tri-level restaurant complex featuring a bar, brasserie-patissiere, and Le Césaire, a gastronomic restaurant, that serves until midnight.
If you plan to go into the city at night, it's still best to go with a group, even better if you can go with some Martinicans.