Fort-de-France, Martinique

Photo: Martinique Magnifique

Martinique, here you come. The island sounds like paradise. Black- and white-sand beaches are bordered by lush rainforests and a still-active volcano. The tropical setting is mixed with French culture. You’re already dreaming about visiting designer shops and little bakeries after a day in the sun. But hold on. You must stop in Fort-de-France first.

The island’s capital is often overlooked in a rush to find the beaches. It’s a common, but beginner’s, mistake. First of all, the city is stunning. Fort Saint Louis, a still-active naval base, sits on a rocky peninsula guarding Fort-de-France Bay. It has a view of La Savane. The 12-acre park features a marble statue of Empress Joséphine, the Martinique-born first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte. The statue’s head was lopped off years ago and never replaced as proof of what her countrymen still think of her. Bibliothèque Schoelcher (a gorgeous library) and other colonial buildings surround the park. The grand St. Louis Cathedral, designed by Gustave Eiffel, towers over them all. While the volcanic Pitons du Carbet rise behind the city.

Fort-de-France grew around Fort Saint Louis. The seaside fort was captured, destroyed, and rebuilt numerous times after it was created in 1638. It took the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, courtesy of Mount Pelée, for the fort and the city to overtake Saint-Pierre, the island’s oldest city, in importance, though. It’s now one of the most influential cities in the Caribbean.

Photo: Simon Hotel

Yet few visitors took the time to explore Fort-de-France. The few who did would check out the fort, the cathedral, the park, and a few stores before moving on. New hotels and restaurants are finally starting to change that.

Simon Hotel, near the cruise terminal, was the city’s first new hotel in more than 15 years when it opened in 2016. The stylish hotel features brightly colored rooms, water views, and, since you’re on a French island, espresso machines. Business travelers immediately loved it. But it’s the hotel’s restaurant, La Table de Marcel, that’s finally keeping tourists in Fort-de-France—at least for one night.

Marcel Ravin is a classically trained chef who earned the Blue Bay in Monaco its first Michelin star. With La Table de Marcel, he’s bringing fine dining to his homeland. The small restaurant—it seats just 24 people—is as bold as the rest of the hotel. Dark brown furniture sits atop a black-and-white floor. A gold tapestry, dotted with pineapples, hangs on the wall. But the boldest moves are in the food. French dishes and techniques are now paired with local produce and Creole flavors. Arancini are filled with queen conch. Beef carpaccio is served with creamy avocado mousse. Passionfruit brightens truffle eggs. While bouillabaisse now comes with spicy plantains. Only the wine, which is imported from France, has remained untouched. The result is a meal that you won’t soon forget and a city that you’ll never again overlook.

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