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 wasn't for decades, but it's now coming up fast. The bay has received the designation One of the Most Beautiful Bays in the World. An ambitious redevelopment project, still under way, hopes to make it
one of the most attractive cities in the Caribbean. Already done are 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. At this writing, hotel progress has been stalled. However, a new hotel/residence, Fort Savane has opened on rue Liberté, right across from its namesake. Near the mall is the former Hôtel de Ville (mayor's office), in a gorgeous and ornate Italianate building. Aimé Césaire, the statesman, playwright, and civil rights leader, for whom the airport was renamed, maintained an office there for more than 50 years. One of the best-preserved examples of neoclassical architecture in the Caribbean, its construction spanned from 1884 to 1901. It now houses a museum dedicated to art exhibits and cultural performances held in the courtyard and theater.
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. Also, Kiosk number 1 in La Savane is another location for the helpful tourism people; one can now arrange a tour to Fort Louis at that kiosk.
The 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 Malecón, which now has a half-mile wooden boardwalk, has swings, trampolines, benches, and grounds for playing pétanque. The urban beach between the Malecón 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).
The Martinique cruise sector has registered a 524% increase in cruise passengers since 2010. Widespread improvements in the island’s overall product, including capital improvements at the cruise ports in Fort-de-France, new and renovated attractions, and the redoubled efforts of the Martinique Tourism Authority are among the factors of this success.
The Tourism Authority is forecasting a strong 2015 cruise season, as all of the major U.S. and European cruise lines will make port in Fort-de-France this winter, including Royal Caribbean’s celebrated Quantum of the Seas in her inaugural season. Carnival’s Splendor and Norwegian’s Pearl made their first-ever stops in Martinique this winter. A projected 218,000 cruise passengers will arrive among the 158 port calls scheduled for 2015.
As more U.S. cruise lines have committed to Martinique, many local merchants have started accepting U.S. dollars. (This is indicated by a sign on the door.) Also, more than 200 staffers from local stores enrolled in English classes over the summer of 2014. The island is rolling out the proverbial red carpet for American cruise passengers. Visit www.martinique.org for more information on cruising.
Just across from the Savane, the downtown landmark Hotel L'Impératrice, a product of the 1950s, had a major renovation a few years back. It is a good option to overnight downtown (its 23 boutique guest rooms have a colonial look with creole furnishings like four-poster, mahogany beds). It is walking distance to the interisland ferries and closer to the airport than the resort properties. 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 some refined creole cuisine. 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. Le Foyaal, a tri-level restaurant complex featuring a bar, brasserie-patisserie, 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. Hiring an English-speaking driver to take you on a club-crawl is wise.