FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique (Money Magazine) -
Step foot on the Caribbean island of Martinique and you're in France, literally. This 425-square-mile, almond-shaped tropical island, part of the French Antilles, isn't a colony but rather the westernmost part of France. So if you're looking for some of the things that make France great -- its language, food and rich culture -- but long for a warm and relaxing Caribbean vacation, Martinique is the place.
The island offers a variety of landscapes including tall mountains, lush rain forests, rocky coasts, banana and pineapple fields, rolling hills, and Mont Pelee, an active volcano that erupted in the early 20th century, destroying the former capital Saint Pierre. But Martinique's beaches are the real, ahem, piece de resistance. Unlike those of most Caribbean islands, the beaches on Martinique remain largely unspoiled. For example, the 2.5-mile Le Diamant beach in the south is one of the longest, least developed beaches in the Caribbean and looks out on Diamond Rock, a rocky and picturesque offshore island. Other beautiful, pristine beaches are found around tiny Sainte Anne village, located near the island's southern tip.
Thanks to Martinique's rich heritage -- it is the administrative, cultural and social center of the French Antilles -- there's also plenty to see away from the beaches. Fort-de-France, Martinique's capital and its cultural and commercial hub, is great for shopping. Indeed, you'll find many of the same kinds of clothing and food stores that you'd see on the streets of Paris. Just south of the capital, across the bay, is the little village of Trois-Ilets, the birthplace of Napoleon's empress Josephine. The Musee de la Pagerie contains her life's memorabilia, including family portraits, antiques and a love letter from Napoleon. The nearby Maison de la Canne is a neat little museum devoted to the history of sugarcane production.
The only minor drawback of Martinique is getting there -- you have to change planes in either San Juan or Miami. But that's also a plus, as it stifles the kind of overdevelopment that comes with a major airport. Once there, the best way to explore is by car. A midsize model will cost you $40 a day at Jumbo Car. And if you're looking for a charming place to stay, try the Habitation Lagrange, a former plantation amid seven acres of lush vegetation near the town of Marigot.