Stepping out of Aimé Césaire International Airport is an experiment in vacation imaginations being allowed to run amuck. The road to Fort-de-France is fringed in a mess of coconut palms bobbing in a sky heavy with humidity; colourful Caribbean houses painted in pinks, yellows and pale blues teeter on the hilltops; and large French chain stores line the side of the highway.
What happens when you place France on a small Caribbean island? As it turns out, the result is Martinique. It made sense to get away for December, hide from Christmas, and wrap up a year spent in North America by dipping my toes back into some warm sand. Martinique had started as a bit of a joke destination – somewhere exotic and far-reaching, that I knew so little about.
Yet quickly enough, as these things tend to do, I found myself with a flight bound for Martinique, leaving from a very wintery Montreal.
Martinique is part of France
Martinique is a French overseas territory. This means it is not just French reminiscent, but by visiting you are entering the country of France on arrival. The official language here is French, and the currency is the Euro. Stepping into downtown Fort-de-France is a colourful and vibrant reimagining of mainland France where boulangerie meets coco rum punch, and market stalls are overflowing with mangoes and papaya.
Many airlines offer direct flights from mainland France each day, making Fort-de-France a uniquely popular spot for French tourism rather than the hoards of North American tourists who more frequently find their way to other neighbouring Caribbean islands. Cruise ships do stop by, bringing a frontline smattering of harbour-facing souvenir shops opening only when the ships dock, and leading to sporadic days of heightened tourist activity around the small downtown area of Fort-de-France.
Being France, this is one of the best spots in the Caribbean to find excellent French wines; and boulangeries laden with croissants and local breads with a coconut twist. Varieties of Bordeaux wines stock the shelves alongside an abundance of island produced rum, and if you look hard enough you will stumble upon the occasional typical French bistro serving entrecôte, ratatouille, magret de canard and creme brûlée.
More typical Caribbean food is a staple here too, with cassava and plantain dominating alongside Colombo de poulet – A chicken curry that arrived with Sri Lankans who were brought over to work on the sugar plantations. The food found here is a fascinating blend of traditional French, African, Creole, South Asian and a wide variety of local seafood.
December didn’t prove to be a great month for local fruit, with most of the delicacies of mangos, guavas and pineapples falling out of season. The markets still stocked fruit, however most varieties we got our hands on were under-ripe, poor quality and sadly out of season. However, if you come here during mango season (May to July) the island is heaving with an abundance of the fruit around every corner, and with most of the rural roads lined in mango trees, it makes for delicious roadside mango collecting by the armfuls.
Language Barrier – Do they speak English in Fort-de-France?
The information I’d found about Fort-de-France hinted at not a word of English spoken. Fine by me, my French is enough to get by and practicing the language was a large part of the reason for visiting. Yet, I found much more English spoken around than I’d expected.
While it’s true that French is very much the primary language of both locals and tourists alike, the experience of having people move to English where they could was accomodating and kind. I didn’t encounter any place where there was not even a word of English spoken around Fort-de-France, and I suspect an English speaker who attempted just a few words of French in practice would find themselves understood, and able to get by just fine.
I, on the other hand, wanted to practice my French while here and tried with great determination to avoid switching to English. I found most everyone I spoke with to be patient and understanding, helped with correcting my use of the language and the accent and dialect (to me, at least) felt very similar to mainland Europe French, so I could understand most people without great difficulty.
Fort-de-France shuts up shop in the evenings and on Sundays
Just like on mainland France, supermarkets close on Saturday midday and stay closed through Monday morning. Fort-de-France although lively and bustling during the day, becomes a ghost town at night.
Spending time in this city is much like many other European small towns, and involves some time and planning to get groceries in advance of the weekend, and learn which spots will remain open and when.
Most restaurants also close in the afternoons from around 3 – 7, with many not opening beyond lunch at all. Eating out in Fort-de-France was a careful lesson in always checking opening hours, and never assuming anything.
Where we slept & where to eat in Fort-de-france
We stayed at Patio Gallieni who offered a lovely, clean and very central apartment with cooking and laundry facilities in the apartment (a rarity in this traveling life!) It’s far from a tropical beach resort, but is an awesome option if you want to be central in Fort-de-France and not require a car for the every day.
Grenade et Basilic was the highlight of French food in Fort-de-France. Various review sites place this charming restaurant far down the ranks from where it deserves to be. The owner is delightful, the food is very French, and I especially loved the house made ratatouille, entrecôte, and the varying daily crème brûlée flavours. Extra bonus points for being open on Sundays when most things are closed, this restaurant became a weekly tradition during my time here.
Some other honourable mentions for Fort-de-France food were Le Taj for being a lovely change of scenery and pretty good Indian food, Hasta la Pizza for being open frequently, with affordable good pizza and cold wine looking out to the harbour, and Design Pastry for being a reliable source of delicious pastries, decent coffee, friendly faces and a sunny space to sit in the mornings.