The Caribs called Martinique “Madinina” ~ Island of Flowers. It is the largest of the Windwards and, apart from a few short spells under the British, has been French since it was colonized. It is a part of France and feels it, with excellent roads and a thriving economy. Nearly every bay has a wonderful government-built dock, ideal for leaving your dinghy. Fort de France is a busy city, bustling with shoppers and cars. The smaller towns are quieter and some look so clean they could have just been scrubbed. That typically French smell ~ a blend of Gitane smoke, pastis, and well-percolated coffee ~ wafts from bars and cafes.

You can get almost anything done in Martinique ~ from galvanizing your boat to having stainless steel tanks made. The sailmakers are first rate, the chandleries magnificently stocked, and restaurants and boutiques abound. In short, when you have had enough deserted beaches and raw nature, Martinique is the place for a breath of civilization. And the island has enough excellent and varied anchorages for a week or two of exploring. Choose bays with fashionable resorts or a sleepy waterfront villages or visit deserted bays with excellent snorkeling. Well-marked trails make hiking a delight.

The Empress Josephine grew up in Martinique on a 200-acre, 150-slave estate near Trois Ilets. A strange quirk of fate links Josephine and Martinique to the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1804, Napoleon was master of Europe, but the British still had naval supremacy and largely controlled Caribbean waters. However, ships were always scarce and some bright spark noticed that Diamond Rock on the south coast of Martinique was just about where the British would station another vessel if they had one, so they commissioned the rock as a ship. It was quite a feat to climb this steep, barren, snake-infested pinnacle and to equip it with cannons and enough supplies and water for a full crew of men. But they succeeded and for some 18 months H.M.S. Diamond Rock was a highly unpleasant surprise for unsuspecting ships sailing into Martinique. Napoleon was incensed; this was, after all, the birthplace of his beloved Josephine. Brilliant as he was on land, Napoleon never really understood his navy or its problems and considered his men to be shirkers. Consequently, he ordered them to sea under Admiral Villeneuve, to free the rock and destroy the British admiral Horatio Nelson while they were about it. Villeneuve slipped out under the British blockade in France and headed straight for Martinique. Lord Nelson, with his well trained and battle-ready fleet, smelled blood and bounty and hurtled off from England in hot pursuit. However, poor information sent him on a wild goose chase to Trinidad, so Villeneuve was able to liberate the rock and return to France, prudently keeping well clear of Nelson.

Napoleon was none too pleased with Villeneuve because the British fleet was still in control of the high seas, so he was ordered to report in disgrace. Villeneuve preferred death to dishonor, so he put his ill-prepared fleet to sea to fight Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Ironically, Villeneuve, who wished to die, survived the battle, and Nelson died.

Martinique also has one of the most interesting historic monuments in the Windwards: the town of St Pierre. In the late 19th century, St. Pierre, with a population of 30,000, was known as the Paris of the Caribbean and was the commercial, cultural and social center of Martinique. The wealth of the island lay in the plantations and the richest of these surrounded St. Pierre. Ships would take on rum, sugar, coffee and cocoa and enough was sold to make several of the plantation owners multi-millionaires.

On ascension day, the 2nd of May 1902, the volcano erupted, destroying the town and its inhabitants. There were only two survivors in the town itself and a handful more on one of the ships in the bay.

Today many ruins remain. Post-disaster buildings have been built on to old structures so nearly every new building shares at least one wall with the past. Ruins also form garden walls, and many have been tidied up as historical icons. A museum in a modern building up a small hill, depicts that era and the tragedy. It stands on top of old walls that are artistically lit up at night, making an enchanting backdrop for those anchored below.

Today Martinique is very civilized. With the exception of clearing into Marin, you don’t really need to come head to head with a customs officer any more. Clearance in many ports can be done via computers in chandleries, marinas, restaurants and tourist offices.

While it helps to speak French, it is not absolutely necessary. Many more locals now speak English and they are generally helpful. If you want the help of a good phrase book, check out Kathy Parsons French for Cruisers.

Most restaurants and businesses accept Visa and MasterCard. However, one or two only accept French cards. Ask before that seven-course meal, or you may spend many hours washing dishes.