If you love hot dogs for lunch, a hotel room suitable as a backdrop for a Neiman-Marcus advertisement, high-priced entertainment and lots of high rises marching down the beach, don't fly here -- get off the plane in Miami.
However, if you love Paris in the springtime and want to combine the French "joie de vivre" with a winter tan while everyone else is shivering, you can't do much better than a week on these French islands.
Martinique and sister island Guadeloupe are both "departments" of France, which means you are in France when you visit these islands -- as much in France as when you visit Marseille, or Lyon or Paris. You'll see the tri-color flying from every street corner, gendarmes patrolling the winding country roads, street signs in French, French fashions with midcalf skirts swirling above high spike heels, and you'll hear nothing but French on the streets. This is France, certainly.
But you'll also see cascading clumps of bougainvillea, breadfruit and banana trees, lush tropical foliage, rain forests and gin-clear waters caressing beaches. This is the Caribbean, certainly.
This is the French Caribbean, where you can sit at sidewalk cafes like those on the Champs-Elysees sipping a potent rum punch, not pernod. Or, you can go to a fine French restaurant, like Chez Rozette on Guadeloupe, and have a three-star meal -- but one with subtle Creole touches. These islands are undoubtedly the most unique of the Caribbean, and among the most delightful -- especially if you speak a bit of French.
Martinique and Guadeloupe sit in the midst of the Caribbean, about a 2 1/2-hour flight from Miami. Although separated by only 120 miles and a 40-minute flight on Air Guadeloupe, the two islands are quite different: Guadeloupe more primitive and slower moving; Martinique more French, more sophisticated and more appealing to most North American tourists.
On both, you will be constantly confronted with the French determination to live the good life. This, mixed with the native Caribbean attitude of easy living, makes these islands among the most hedonistic in the area.
The races mingle well here, and have for generations, as you realize while studying the results of centuries of intercultural marriages. The people of the French West Indies are among the most beautiful in the Caribbean. This has been discovered especially by jaded North Americans who have already been to the American Caribbean (St. Thomas), the English (Barbados), the Dutch (Curacao) and the Spanish (Dominican Republic). But these islands are still relatively uncrowded and not plasticized. You can still feel the pulse of the old Caribbean, but a Caribbean without the racking poverty that greets you in Haiti and Jamaica and Dominica.
France has taken care of its islands, much better care than the English. The standard of living on Guadeloupe and Martinique is among the highest in the Caribbean. You won't see many of the tumbledown shacks so common on other islands and you won't see children in rags. Everyone dresses well here, looks healthy, and goes to school.
Martinique is known to more people than Guadeloupe, probably because it was the site of one of the world's great disasters: the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902, when 30,000 residents of St. Pierre perished as the volcano sent a wall of lava into the sleepy city. Today, you can wander among the ruins and climb the slopes of the massive volcano. You also should stop at the Musee Volcanologique and see the twisted clocks that stopped at the hour the volcano erupted. The one-time "Paris of the Caribbean" today is but a tiny village with a big history and an interesting museum.
Other than St. Pierre, there is not a lot to see on Martinique. The Parc Naturel on the flank of Mount Pelee has some spectacular flora and fauna worth seeing and the numerous fishing villages offer a coloful contrast to cosmopolitan Fort-de-France, where you can buy French goods at substantial savings from statewide prices.
Guadeloupe offers more to see, better beaches, and a different pace than bustling (for the Caribbean) Martinique.
Guadeloupe really is two islands, connected by a causeway. Shaped like a butterfly (or a bikini top; which most women doff when they arrive here), Guadeloupe's two parts are Basse-Terre (the greener and more spectacular) and Grande-Terre (flatter, but with better beaches and most of the island's hotels).
The island has its own volcano -- 4,813-foot La Soufriere en Basse-Terre -- which last erupted in 1976. The stench of sulfur will still sting your nose as you struggle up one of the footpaths to the summit, walking around huge boulders tossed like beachballs into the deep mountainside gashes etched by fiery lava.
Near La Soufriere is the spectacular Parc Naturel, a 74,000-acre reserve with some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the western Hemisphere. It takes a lot of walking to reach the more remote falls but it's worth the hike, especially if you take a bottle of wine and a bit of cheese and make a proper picnic out of it. You can eat by rumbling, churning mountain streeams cold enough to hold trout while tropical rain forest foliage drops cool water down your back. And this in the midst of the Caribbean.
On the other side of the causeway, in Grande-Terre, you'll find some dark sand beaches, not up to the standard of beaches in Jamaica but certainly suitable for sunbathing. And you can tan all over on Guadeloupe, as the island offers three nudist beaches, the most famous of which is Point Tarare. At virtually all hotels most women go topless, but keep the bottom on unless you are at one of the designated beaches.
Like Martinique, Guadeloupe has many small villages and you'll find the people generally friendly and helpful here. There is practically no tourist consciousness in the small villages and, judging by some of the looks you get at the more remote villages, you'll swear you are the first tourist they have even seen. But don't take pictures unless you ask first -- it's rude and can get you in a lot of trouble.
Hotels on the islands are usually small, and often quite good. In Martinique, the main hotels are in the Pointe du Boute area, a 20-minute ferry ride across the bay from Fort-de-France. On Guadeloupe, Gosier is the hub, where five resorts are strung out along the coast, but they avoid the bunched-together look that has ruined so many good beaches.
If you seek to be alone, you can choose an isolated but fully self-sufficient beach cottage inn like Auberge du Grand Large in Guadeloupe or Leyritz, a former plantation, on Martinique. But be warned: the further off the tourist track you wander, the more important it becomes to bring your patience and your French dictionary. And, of course, there is Club Med, which has two clubs on Guadeloupe and one on Martinique.
For devoted diners, this is perhaps the Caribbean's finest discovery. Good restaurants bound, although you will have to get away from your hotel to discover the best, most of which are tucked away in the small villages. Creole is king here and is delicious. Try "Colombo," a curried stew, "Crabes farci," a crab seemingly stuffed with fire, and "blaff a I'oursin," an aromatic sea urchin stew. And to drink: good French wine at reasonable prioes or rum.
If you insist on shopping here, you will find bargains on French perfumes, wines and yard goods. But stocks are usually sparse and you won't be overly impressed, compared to shopper's paradises like St. Thomas and Curacao. I recommend waiting to buy your treasures at the duty-free shops at the airports, unless you have time to go to Roger Albert's in Fort-de-France, which has the best prices in the Caribbean for French goods.
But shopping is not what Guadeloupe and Martinique are all about. Both islands are cultural experiences, unlike any other in the Caribbean. Just be sure to brush up on your French before you go, and you'll find them to be one of the most delightful destinations in the Caribbean.