Martinique — A French Caribbean Island with Great Hiking and More…
As a long-time colony and now an “over-seas region” of France, Martinique is a very unique Caribbean island — The Caribbean and French fusion results in a Euro-style metropolitan flavour to the Caribbean, with it’s restaurants, historical landmarks, art, museums and beautiful botanical gardens. The island also has one of the best highway and road systems I’ve encountered in the Caribbean.
With Dominica to the north and St. Lucia to the south, the 3rd largest of the Windward islands, Martinique is pretty much the centre of the West Indies’ Lesser Antilles.
Martinique has one of the largest networks of hiking trails that I’ve encountered in the Caribbean, including a number of “up-hill” hikes. At the north end of the island there’s about half a dozen mountains above 2,300 feet (700m) tall, including the iconic (semi-active) volcano Mount Pelee whose peak stands 4,583 feet (1,397m) above sea level. Other major peaks can be found in the Pitons du Carbet or Parc Naturel Régional de la Martinique areas.
The people of Martinique speak French along with Creole Patois. While it’s good to know some basic French so you can read road signs and restaurant menus, you’ll find a number of hotel staff and store keepers also speak English.
We visited Martinique at the end of March for one day as part of a cruise and it was a gorgeous 82˚ (28˚c) degrees. Based on the scarce resources I could find at home before the cruise, I chose to hike Piton Lacroix, as it is fairly tall at 3,870 feet (1,180m), is a relatively short trail (about 4 miles or 6.5km return), and is reasonably close to Fort-de-France, where the ship docks. That said, it turned out to be a fairly ambitious hike for a number of reasons.
I’ll start by saying that sometimes things just don’t work out as planned… While there are well over 2 dozen marked trails on Martinique, unbeknownst to me at the time, I chose to hike on an unmaintained trail. Not the best plan — However, it was an adventure, none the less!
Starting from Fort-de-France, we drove north along the west coast of the island, just past the town of Bellfontaine, then headed inland on some small roads that lead to our starting point. Driving on these narrow, winding roads, we got lost a few times before ending up at the east end of a road called Canton Suisse. Please note that Piton Lacroix is not shown in the correct location on google maps.
We parked the car on the side of the road near an old farmhouse, and walked up a steep paved road which turned into dirt/grass tracks before ending at a partly plowed farmer’s field. As we walked, we passed goats and cows wandering around — I don’t think they were used to many visitors. At the edge of the field, we could see a forested mountain. From this vantage point, we had beautiful views to the north/west of the island, towards Le Morne Vert and the Caribbean sea.
Did I mention that we were kind of winging-it? Well, as we were at the forest edge, I assumed that the trail must start here somewhere, however there was no marked trailhead of any sort. I walked the edge of the field/forest trying to find some hint of a trail. I never really found anything that looked like an obviously well used trail, however after about 20 minutes of searching, we headed up-hill on a path of some sort.
From the start the going was tough, not just because the trail was barely visible, but because the path was extremely steep and muddy — we were slipping and sliding all over the place. Eventually the trail was a bit more discernable and level, albeit strewn with fallen trees and rocks. This was a true rainforest hike, as the forest was very dense and dark in most sections, with the occasional rays of sun peaking through the canopy.
Our pace was fairly slow for a couple of reasons. One because there were a number of steep and muddy sections, but also because my hiking partner was concerned that we weren’t really on a trail — I have been known to veer off trails, accidently following deer paths, so we were wondering if this trail was taking us where we wanted to go, or were we just getting lost on a wild goat path? When you lack in confidence, you lack in conviction (and speed).
After about an hour, we eventually made it to some high ground where we could see where we were. As it turned out, we had just hiked to the top of a smaller peak, and were about half way to Piton Lacroix. We were about 2,526 feet (770m) high at this point and we could see that the trail descended into a gulley and we assumed that it took a seriously steep ascent of Piton Lacroix itself after that. It was already after noon, and with an estimated 3 more hours to complete the hike, we decided it wasn’t do-able with our time constraints, so we turned back.
We were covered in mud, tired and disappointed that we didn’t reach the peak, however it was an experience to get this far. We found out later, when I found a proper map of the trails on the island, that while this was an actual trail, it is not maintained and rarely used.
After getting back to the car, we ventured a little further north before heading back to the coast. As a result, we stumbled across the town of Le Carbet and found a beautiful quiet beach. When we were leaving town we also noticed a boutique rum distillery, so we stopped in for a visit. While most, if not all Caribbean islands have Rum factories, Martinique could be considered the rum capital of the Caribbean with it’s 11 distilleries and even more rum brands. That said, please note that French “Rhum Agricole” is made from sugar cane juice, not molasses like the rest of the rums of the Caribbean. Martinique rums taste really different than rum from say Jamaica or Barbados.
With the benefit of a proper map of all the trails on the island, the next time we go we would likely attempt to hike the following:
- Montagne Pelee — The island’s highest peak is a semi-active volcano. Departing from ‘Chateaux a Desiles’ in Macouba will take you on a 4–6 hours difficult hike covering 10 miles (16km) return, with a 4,000 feet (1,220m) vertical.
- Precheur — Grand Riviere is located on the north tip of the island. This is a popular intermediate level hike with a waterfalls and spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea. It will likely take 6 hours to cover the 12.5 miles (20km) return trail that includes a 2,560 feet (780m) vertical.
- Circuit de la Caravelle is located on the east point of Presqu’Île de la Caravelle. This intermediate level 5 mile (8km) loop through a Nature Reserve will take you 2–4 hours.
- Morne Larcher is located on the south-west tip of the island and offers spectacular panoramic views of the island and the Caribbean Sea. This intermediate level trail will take from 1 to 3 hours to hike the 2.5 mile (4km) long (return) trail with a 1,313 feet (400m) vertical.
There are of course other things to do on Martinique besides hiking. While the northern part of the island is rainforest mountains, making it ideal for eco-tourism and outdoor activities (‘canyoning’ is the big thing these days), the southern part of the island, with it’s palm trees, sand beaches and warm waters, is perfectly suited for beach goers and water sports like kite surfing, jet skiing, or kayaking. For snorkelers and divers, Martinique has unique man-made attractions under the water with a couple of subterranean sculptures, including the Yemaya — A 40 foot (12m) long siren, paying tribute to the power of the sea and the mythical female creature.
So, as you can see, Martinique is a really unique Caribbean island, great for hiking, sight-seeing and just hanging out. Personally, I can’t wait to get back there for a longer visit.
Originally published at www.urbancanairie.com.