Easy Escapes

Visiting Martinique During Carnival: A Guide to What's Fun and Affordable

by  Kelsy Chauvin | Jan 30, 2019
Martinique Carnival
Martinique Carnival / Photo courtesy of Martinique Promotions Bureau

Known as the Caribbean’s “Isle of Flowers,” Martinique is a unique tropical destination, not just for its vibrancy, but for its Creole tradition and French heritage. With vivid flowers that bloom across its hilly parks and botanical gardens, boats that bring fresh catch to open-air dining tables, and, come Carnival, Martiniquais celebrate in themed parades of color and costume. This year's events take place from March 2 to March 6. 

In Martinique, you’ll feel decidedly Gallic using the euro and speaking French under tri-color flags. But tropical breezes, soft sands, and African spices will anchor you in the sunny, relaxed tides of the Lesser Antilles. Here's our guide for Carnival and beyond. 

Where to Stay

On this bean-shaped island, the west coast forms a croissant-ring around scenic Fort-de-France Bay. Fort-de-France, the capital city, is located on the north side of the harbor, and is a growing cruise port. Check into one of its few high-rises properties, such as the modern Simon Hotel. The property boasts chic décor, pristine views, a prime waterfront location, and an indoor/outdoor restaurant, all of which have made the Simon a new favorite among travelers on the island. (Rates from $126 per night depending on the season). 

Across the bay in Les Trois-Ilets awaits a more homey experience at La Suite Villa. You can stay in one of the smaller rooms in the main house, or in cozy villas that can sleep up to six, each outfitted with their own kitchens, hot tubs, and sweeping hilltop views. (Rates from $255 per night, depending on the season). 

If you're craving a more lavish resort experience, head to Le Cap Est Resort & Spa on the eastern shore, which is about a half-hour drive from the airport. Its 49 suites are spacious and sophisticated, and most come with their own living room and plunge pool. The crystal-blue ocean waters outside invite you to swim, kayak, or take part in other resort activities. There’s also a spa and two restaurants on-site, both of which boasts dreamy views across the Atlantic. (Rates from $205 per night, depending on the season).

Where to Eat

In Fort-de-France, reserve a table at The Yellow on Rue Victor Hugo for classic French-Caribbean dishes and an excellent wine menu (entrées start around $20 USD). For a more informal bar-and-grill vibe, try The Crew on Rue Ernest Desproges, where you can sample Creole fare and feast on daily specials, including a three-course prix fixe for $30 USD.

Ferries across the bay are a lovely way to hop between Martinique’s big towns, which makes sampling local cuisines easy. In Les Trois-Ilets, restaurants hug the shore (which make for prime ocean views), and you’ll be able to lounge on the sand or drift into casual spots like Pignon Nouvelle Vague on L’Anse a l’Ane, a pristine, palm-lined beach.  It’s the ultimate spot for people-watching from the breezy terrace while sampling seafood right out of the water. Here, expect dinner and drinks for two to cost around $100 USD. 

Nearby, Le Kano is perched over the white sands of Anse Mitan and is a great spot for evening cocktails and bites, with entrées starting at around $25 USD. While you're here, be sure try a Plantar’s Punch or Martinique’s trademark drink, the Petit Punch — a lime, sugar, and rum libation that locals refer to as “ti paunch.”

Visiting for Carnival

This year, Mardi Gras (aka “Fat Tuesday”) falls on March 5. In Martinique, that means it actually kicks off the Saturday prior, on March 2nd, with jubilant parades commencing on Monday, March 4. 

The big celebrations are anchored in Fort-de-France, where Carnival brings parades of music and dancing in a continual loop around the city center. Spectators can either take it all in from the sidewalks or join in on the parades. 

Monday starts with a children’s carnival, followed by the parade of role-reversal “burlesque” weddings, when men dress as brides and women as grooms. Yes, it’s comical and kooky, but it also makes for some of the best photography — thanks to so many men proudly donning everything from fishnet stockings and heels, to wigs, makeup, and other feminine accessories.

Tuesday is the “Red Devil's Parade," which invites everyone to be a little naughty (at least symbolically) for the final day before Lent. Red and black are the day’s colors, and once the 4:00 p.m. parade sets off, the streets of Fort-de-France are streaked with scarlet-clad revelers. 

Ash Wednesday brings the grand finale, with the 3:00 p.m. black-and-white-themed parade that suggests mourning (despite the ever-celebratory vibes), and, at 6:00 p.m., marchers drift to the waterfront for the annual immolation of King Vaval. Vaval, also known as The Carnival King, is a giant satirical mannequin representing a local politician or public figure, and he’s set ablaze to mark the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent. But don’t feel bad too bad for the king — he’ll emerge like a Phoenix next season.

What to See and Do

Outside of Carnival, Martinique offers plenty of cool explorations. Learn about the island’s fascinating history at La Savane des Esclaves, a replicated Creole slave village with artifacts and locally-made art, with newly-expanded features opening this year (adult tickets cost around $14 USD, and children's tickets cost around $9 USD). La Savane is in Les Trois-Ilets, not too far from Le Village de la Poterie, is a historic village that’s still an active manufacturing site with small shops and galleries. Here, travelers can purchase handmade souvenirs, or even take classes to make their own.

At the enchanting Balata Botanical Garden in Fort-de-France, roam seven acres of lush gardens and traverse suspension bridges for lovely views across the hills (adult tickets cost around $15 USD, while children's tickets cost $8 USD). After, head to distillery Habitation Clément to learn about one of Martinique’s renowned rum makers. Don’t miss its new contemporary art gallery, Fondation Clément, which exhibits Caribbean-made art, as well as ancient west-African art and artifacts.

Getting Around

Martinique is gradually becoming a popular destination for American travelers, thanks in part to the direct flights offered on Norwegian and American Airlines from various U.S. cities. Because taxis are few and far between, plan to rent a car (around $40-50 per day), and expect to drive slowly on the island’s two-lane, often narrow and hilly roads. 

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