- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique Ah, Martinique, so near, so far, with so much to offer. The island easily represents the best of everything in the Caribbean. Plus, it’s French. Tourism officials rightly dub it the island of flowers, of dreamers and of the “revenants” — the returning ones. Paul Gauguin briefly made his home here for good reason — and he is just one of many cultural notables who have left their mark. Until recently, however, airline schedules handicapped efforts for Washingtonians and most other East Coast visitors to get here without hassle. With a new American Eagle connection out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, it has become possible to leave in the blurry dawn and be oceanside for a late lunch. There also is a convenient late-day hop to the capital, Fort-de-France, from nearby St. Lucia on a new airline called Take Air, operating under the auspices of Air Caraibes. Air France has a morning flight out of Miami and, of course, a nonstop flight to and from Paris. According to figures compiled by the local tourist bureau, just 3,000 land-based Americans came to stay in Martinique for any length of time in 2004. Cruise ships still call in great numbers, at least to Fort-de-France, but it is rare to hear any English spoken elsewhere. It hasn’t helped, either, that much of the homegrown travel literature available to date has been in French only. One reason for the relatively small number of American tourists has been the value of the euro against the dollar. Last spring, the island started fighting back. Many hotels have begun to peg their rates in dollars for a savings to Americans of nearly 30 percent. (A hotel room normally advertised at 130 euros, or about $160, would be $130.) Only a limited number of hostelries offer this deal, so it is best to inquire ahead. There are plentiful Web sites for exploration in addition to www.martinique.org — and a bewildering number of accommodations “categories.” These range from B&Bs;, known locally as “gites,” to luxury resorts such as Club Med’s newly renovated Buccaneer’s Creek and Cap Est Lagoon, part of the Relais & Chateaux hotel group. Cap Est has Asian-flavored decor, seaside bungalows and a reclusive and exclusive tone. The majority of offerings are family-friendly places such as the Hameau de Beauregard in the southeast, a functional complex of rooms and apartments centered around a swimming pool. For people seeking quieter, more picturesque surroundings, there is, by way of example, the serenely quiet family-run La Fregate Bleuewith its magnificent view and antiques-enhanced decor. The charms of this 425-square-mile island, located midway between Puerto Rico and Curacao, make it easy to forget unfavorable exchange rates and time lost in travel — and not just because of postcard-quality beaches. The topography is endlessly varied; the standard of living is high. Outdoor activities include the usual water sports as well as canyoning, which is cascading down water basins on ropes in the rain forest. It’s not to be attempted by neophytes without professional guides. A number of manoirs, or former plantation houses, conjure up romance and historic associations in abundance. Even if some of Martinique’s past plantation life doesn’t merit embracing to the full, a stay in these treasured estates is bound to be memorable. The buildings in most cases have been restored to 21st-century standards, and day trippers as well as overnighters are welcome. Count among excursion highlights a visit to Plantation Rhum Clement, a rum factory and museum, the largest among 17 distilleries on the island; a working banana plantation that offers tours and also has a museum on site; and a walking trip through the magnificent Jardins des Balata in the north, a tropical landscape with hundreds of varieties of vegetation humbling even to botanical wizards. Renting a car is essential to get around with any efficiency, but beware the other drivers. Traffic is abundant on main arteries, and the natives are famously aggressive on the road. Though roads are well-maintained, it is impossible to drive the entire circumference because of mountainous terrain in the northernmost border. Count on several days to enjoy, even superficially, both the northern and southern sections. In the northwest, make a stop in the fabled city of St. Pierre, which was devastated by the Mount Pelee volcano in 1902. The event was celebrated in an elegiac novel by British author Patrick Leigh Fermor called “The Violins of St. Jacques.” The town, newly restored after a fashion, has a tourist trail around the remains. Apart from an abundance of physical and culinary pleasures, what remains most memorable from a weeklong trip is the welcoming attitude encountered everywhere. Stumbling efforts to find the right sign or road were met only with kindness. Feeble French proved no obstacle to a courteous exchange.

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