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Port of Call Spotlight: Fort-de-France, Martinique

Special Correspondent

In the Carib language of her first inhabitants, her name means "island of flowers." And Martinique's landscapes of seaside villages, green-clad volcanic mountains and hills are indeed adorned with a profusion of blossoms: bougainvillea, hibiscus, bird of paradise, anthuriums and more.

In colonial times, France and Britain vied for Martinique, but in the 20th century, the island became a department of France -- thus Martinique is as French as the Riviera --visitors will find gendarmes on the streets, baguettes in the bakeries, and Lancome and Louis Vuitton merchandise in the stores in the capital of Fort-de-France. African influences, most of present-day inhabitants are descendants of slaves, and New World roots have created a vibrant Creole ambiance, evident in the cuisine, music and traditions of the island.

Most ships dock at the Pointe Simon Cruise Dock in the heart of Fort-de-France. Highlights within walking distance include La Savane Park, with formal gardens and a marketplace of handicrafts, at the eastern edge of the city; the Bibliotheque Schoelcher, named for a revered abolitionist, an elaborate structure by French architect Henri Pick, across from the park on 21 rue de la Liberte, and Cathedrale St-Louis, also by Pick and dating from the 19th century, on rue Victor Schoelcher at rue Blenac. Fort St.-Louis, on a promontory east of La Savane, is another must-see, dating from the 17th century and protecting Fort-de-France from Dutch and British attacks.

Beyond Fort-de-France are two landmarks for which Martinique is best known: La Pagerie, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte's Josephine, and St. Pierre, "the Pompeii of the Caribbean." Visitors can tour La Pagerie at the village of Trois Islets, where Josephine, Napoleon's "Petite Creole," see her family's estate and plantation, and view in the museum her personal effects including a passionate love letter from Napoleon. What remains of the town of St. Pierre, is another must. Once known as the "Paris of the West," the town was destroyed by the eruption of the volvano Mt. Pelee in 1902.

The eruption killed all but one of St. Pierre's 30,000 inhabitants (the sole survivor was saved because he was incarcerated in a dungeon). The ruins of St. Pierre and a small museum with exhibits chronicling the disaster are stops on many island tours of Martinique sold onboard ships. Stops on island tours also include the church Sacre Coeur de Balata, inspired in the Sacre Coeur church of Montmartre, and offering views of Fort-de-France. Nearby, the Jardin de Balata is a botanical garden with 200 species of plants and blooms. Independents who are art lovers may wish to check out the Musee Paul Gauguin, on Anse Turin, near the hut the French painter occupied during a five-month stay on the island in 1887.

Other popular shore excursions on Martinique include tours to rainforests and plantations, visits to a rum distillery, hikes, horseback riding, and beach sojourns (one of the best beaches is Grand Anse des Salines, south of Fort-de-France).

Island flavors include the luscious fruits including mangoes and papayas, French cuisine in such restaurants as La Belle Epoque on route Didier in Fort-de-France and Creole dishes at such restaurants as La Ville Creole on Anse Mitan.

Cruise lines that visit Martinique include Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea and Star Clippers.

IF YOU GO -- For additional information on Martinique, visit www.martinique.org.

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