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With its heady mix of Creole culture and French sophistication, there is more than a pinch of je ne sais quoi in Fort de France. The capital of Martinique, and by far the biggest city in the whole of the French West Indies, if you are looking for Paris in the Caribbean, you’ll find it in Fort de France.
The island has been under French govern since 1638 when the first governor of Martinique Jacques Dyel du Parquet commissioned a fort (from which the city takes its name) to keep out invaders. Not even an unsuccessful attack by the British in 1720, nor the French Revolution in 1789, has been able to shake the French govern of the island and today the city’s French and Creole heritage are impossible to untangle. The colonial past is everywhere, take a stroll down the narrow streets and enjoy the remarkable architecture of the Schœlcher Library, St. Louis Cathedral and the Old Town Hall. Among the many legacies Dyel du Parquet left on the island is sugarcane. A drive through the tropical forests will not only reward you with trees bending under the weight of papayas, mangoes and bananas, but will also afford superb vistas of the elegant plant swaying in the breeze. The arrival and subsequent export of sugar brought the French bourgeoisie in their droves and many of their mansions are still standing. Josephine de Beauharnais, the Napoleonic Empress of “not tonight” fame, hails from the island and those interested will find her childhood home, La Pagerie in nearby Trois Ilets.
Sitting on the north coast of this lush, tropical island, San Juan is the second settlement founded by European settlers in the Caribbean, and the oldest city under US jurisdiction. The stocky walls and watchtowers here have stood the test of time, repelling notable invaders – such as Sir Francis Drake – and the pirates who historically looted these islands. With massive fortresses, airy plazas and sheer Caribbean beauty, San Juan is a beach-blessed star of these turquoise waters. View less
With more than 500 years of European history, Old San Juan gleams In Puerto Rico’s sunshine, with sugar-almond painted facades and ankle-testing cobbled lanes. Decorative balconies and varnished wooden doors add everyday artistry to streets, dripping with history. Soak up the culture at rum-fuelled parties and salsa dances on this Spanish-culture infused island, or recline into afternoon relaxation sessions on sensational slivers of gleaming sand. Kick back on the beach, or satisfy a lust for adventure by exploring sprawling mangrove forests. The magic of sea kayaking after dark here is an experience you won’t forget. Break the waves with your oar, and watch as the waters illuminate with neon colour, as bioluminescence creates a mystical, peaceful spectacle. Pocked limestone cliffs and karst landscapes add rugged contrast to the serenity of the beaches, and you can walk into folds of the earth in sea-carved caves, or across cliffs to hidden views of the Caribbean’s expanse. Enjoy a taste of the island’s cuisine by sampling Mofongo – a local concoction of green plantains and chicken. Why not indulge and wash it down with an iced mojito, made from crushed mint and locally distilled rum?
Offering an island bounty of electric-blue Caribbean Sea waters, sensational scuba diving, and elevated viewpoints, Philipsburg revels in Caribbean beauty. St. Maarten is an unusual island of dual personality – partitioned into French and Dutch sides. Discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the Americas in 1493. A truce was eventually brokered in 1648, sharing the island between the French and Dutch – an arrangement that endures today. View less
A Caribbean mirage of soft sand beaches and perfect snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities – arrive on the south of this beautiful island at the Dutch side’s capital, Philipsburg. Squeezed between the bay and the Great Salt Pond, the town offers waterfront strolls in the gentle breeze, duty-free bargains, and plenty of room to sit and drink in the dazzling sea views. Clear, turquoise waters hold underwater worlds of colourful corals and fish, while glorious beaches of typical Caribbean beauty invite you to sprawl out beside the tempting shallow waters. Look out to see occasional jet skis skirting the waters, as you recline on sand flanked by lush vegetation on both sides. Tear into the fresh local produce and taste the island’s sensational seafood – from lobster to red snapper and conch cocktails. Don’t miss the opportunity to try out the island’s favourite tipple, either – guavaberry rum. Beautiful green peaks offer stunning hikes, amid the rich tangle of jungle scenery. Maho Beach may also be on the radar – the tranquillity of this small beach is regularly interrupted by the deafening roar of jet engines, as Princess Juliana International Airport’s runway comes perilously close to the sands. Huge planes skim just above the beach before touching down, and the blasts of departing jet engines blow violent gales out towards the waters.
To fully appreciate the island’s unspoiled beauty, a trip into the interior is a must. A good part of Dominica’s mountainous terrain is covered with dense evergreen rain forest, where rare plants and animals are still found that have long been extinct on neighboring islands. The Smithsonian Institute called the island a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years. Numerous hot springs bear witness to continuing volcanic activity. Dominica is truly a place to discover nature in all her splendor. But it is not an island for those looking for white sand beaches. Around the mouth of rivers and in sheltered bays, the beaches are pebbly and of dark color.
An almost mythical utopia of virgin beaches, rustic rum shacks and bays so scenic you feel like you’re intruding – Bequia Island is an island mirage of Caribbean perfection. This is the real, unspoiled experience – and with just 6,000 locals living here, you quickly start to recognise the same smiling faces, welcoming you with outstretched arms. Offering glorious – often deserted – beaches of pure golden sand, and hillside sweeps of forest and almond trees, Bequia Island is an extraordinary feast for the senses.
Unlike some of the flashier Caribbean islands, Bequia – a part of the Grenadines – is a rustic, unassuming and off-the-beaten-path choice. The staggeringly picturesque natural harbour, Admiralty Bay, greets you on arrival, and is peppered with day-tripping yachts bobbing on the gentle waves. The island’s tiny capital, Port Elizabeth, sits behind, with its bustling fruit and vegetable market, turtle sanctuary, and stalls selling hand-crafted model ships. This tiny, pretty island is ridged along the centre, and you can earn your beachside bliss with a gentle hike to the top of Mount Peggy, looking out over views of Grenada and St Vincent. At just seven miles long, you can discover the whole island in a few hours – but that would be to miss the point somewhat. Bequia Island coaxes you in to slow the pace and soothe your soul on blissful beaches, where you can revel in the uncomplicated joys of sitting, reading and swimming in heavenly shallow waters. The royally approved Princess Margaret Beach is one of the finest – an arching band of soft sand and cobalt-blue waters. As evening sets in, you may find you’re beckoned to share with communal barbecues of the day’s fresh catch with the locals, or to indulge in rum-heavy cocktails at beachside bars, lashed together from sea-blanched wooden limbs.
The largest of the Windward Islands, Martinique is 4,261 mi (6,817 km) from Paris, but its spirit and language are decidedly French, with more than a soupçon of West Indian spice. Tangible, edible evidence of the fact is the island’s cuisine, a superb blend of French and creole. Martinique is lushly landscaped with tropical flowers. Trees bend under the weight of fruits such as mangoes, papayas, lemons, limes, and bright-red West Indian cherries. Acres of banana plantations, pineapple fields, and waving sugarcane stretch to the horizon.
The towering mountains and verdant rain forest in the north lure hikers, while underwater sights and sunken treasures attract snorkelers and scuba divers. Martinique is also wonderful if your idea of exercise is turning over every 10 minutes to get an even tan and your taste in adventure runs to duty-free shopping. A popular cruise-ship excursion goes to St-Pierre, which was buried by ash when Mont Pelée erupted in 1902.
Bridgetown, the captivating capital of Barbados, combines faded colonial history, captivating tradition, and vivid white beaches plucked directly from your richest imagination of Caribbean perfection. Recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to its beautifully preserved colonial architecture, Bridgetown’s mask of modernity covers a core of complex history and fascinating culture. Sherbet coloured buildings line up to overlook the waterfront of the Constitution River at the ‘The Careenage’ – where gleaming ships bob on the blue water, and peaceful strolls along a wooden boardwalk await.
Stop for a sobering moment at the commemorative plaque honouring the people traded at this spot, when Bridgetown was the British Empire’s most important harbour, and first stop on the Transatlantic Slave Trade crossing. Just five minutes’ stroll from here is Carlisle Bay – a postcard-perfect place where you’ll find crystal-clear, turquoise seawater glowing in the Caribbean sun, and a mile of soft white powder sand. A treasure trove for divers, the shipwrecks scattered below the shallow water’s waves are now inhabited by turtles and swirling, rainbow-coloured tropical fish. Head to the backstreets, where street food vendors serve up spicy chicken soup, barbecued pigtails and thirst-quenching coconut water. There are bargains aplenty to be had on Broad Street, where duty-free malls and souvenir stalls cram together, vying for your attention. Roebuck Street is the spot where one of the Caribbean’s favourite drinks, rum, was discovered – having been created here from the by-products of the island’s booming sugarcane trade. Nowadays, it’s lined with bars splashing every variety of the deliciously spicy dark libation imaginable into glasses. For a touch more culture, visit one of the oldest synagogues in The Americas – Nidhe Israel Synagogue, which was built in 1654. The adjoining museum tells the story of Barbados’ Jewish immigrants, who were instrumental in the island’s development.