Martinique is part of overseas France, much like Hawaii is an offshore US state. The official language is French. Stores sell warm baguettes and fragrant pastries. Pharmacies stock the world-class French scents and toiletries so prized by women (and men) all over the globe. Supermarkets sell mostly French products. Shopping here is not much different from what you would expect of mainland France.
Other than fine wines, Martinicans are obsessed with the sweet, syrupy rums produced by the island's 11 rum distilleries. These distilleries make some of the world's best-fermented sugarcane liquor. Martinique boasts the only rum carrying France's prestigious Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) label. In mid-December 2004, the 24th annual rum festival was slated to kick off a special salute to the rums, dances and music of Martinique. The island's rum fete centres around the island's rum museum in a classic Creole house of 18th century vintage. Rum distilleries, as well as a banana museum, are located in the heart of the island's extensive banana plantings. And oh, the flowers! There seems to be no end of them, especially the conch-pink anthurium blossoms.
Martinique is known for its beautiful people, especially the women. The three Martinicans who ended up beauty queens with authentically royal crowns include: Josephine, Napoleon's first Empress; Sultana Valide, favourite of an Ottoman Empire Sultan and mother of a Sultan; and Madame de Maintenon, secretly married to French Sun King Louis XIV, he of Versailles fame. Josephine narrowly escaped a chopped-off head during the French Revolution. However, Martinicans didn't cotton to her pro-slavery stand and removed her pretty marble head previously topping a Fort-de-France statue. Nevertheless, Josephine's childhood home is a popular tourist magnet. And for students of Napoleonic mementos, the Empress' former home is a must-see.
As befits a French venue, Martinique has marvellous museums. They include a collection of Paul Gauguin artefacts at the very spot where he painted Martinican beauties and splendid seascapes as well as tropical landscapes. Gauguin's former studio provides a view of St Pierre, once the prettiest and busiest city in the Caribbean-and known as "Little Paris." That ended in 1902 when the volcanic Mt Pelee (Mount Baldy in English) blew up, and 30,000 people died in the space of just a few minutes. Only survivor was the lone prisoner in the city jail. Today a museum and excavations suggest that Little Paris is now the Caribbean's Little Pompeii.
Martinique, as a part of France, has a much higher living standard than in other West Indian isles. Martinicans have such mainland France benefits as five-week paid vacations, universal health and education plans, paternity as well as maternity leaves, 36-hour work weeks - the lot.
English is widely spoken but it is a plus to know at least high-school French. There are wonderful subtleties in island culture - such as the tying of special knots in Martinican head coverings. A single knot is said to mean "my heart is taken," two knots means "my heart is available," and a triple knot can mean "I am spoken for, but you may still have a chance."
Martinique's capital city, Fort-de-France is for the most part chic, classy and tres Francais. Take the local ferry to major tourist centres and beaches across a bay so beautiful it has been compared to Italy's breath-taking Bay of Naples.