While sun-seeking vacationers flock to the southern resort town of Trois-Ilets and cruise ship passengers disembark in the capital city of Fort-de-France, the northern region of Martinique is relatively untouched by tourists. The main draw here is the volcano, Mont Pelée, but the scenic drive there is half the fun.
It’s easy: Norwegian Air now offers direct flights from Boston, Baltimore and NYC to the Caribbean island of Martinique (for as low as $69 each way!).
It’s not as far as you think: Flights from the U.S. are only about four hours long (and have free WiFi!). Once you arrive, Mont Pelée is about hour’s drive from Forte-de-France.
The History of Mont Pelée & Saint-Pierre
photo: Sébastien Avenet/Flickr
Saint-Pierre is located at the base of Mont Pelée, but the town you’ll see here today is nothing like it was originally built. Once known as the “Paris of the West Indies,” Saint-Pierre was the capital of Martinique. But in May 1902, the town was completely destroyed by the eruption of Mont Pelée. All 30,000 of its inhabitants perished – save for one person, the only prisoner in the city’s dungeon. Rumor has it that he spent the rest of his days touring with the circus as an exhibit in a replica of his prison cell.
One point of interest is the Church of Mouillage of Saint-Pierre, which was the cathedral of Martinique. Following the eruption of Mont Pelée and its destruction, it lost the title of cathedral to the St. Louis Cathedral in Fort-De-France, which became the capital of the island. In 1920, the church was rebuilt with donations and today it is called Notre Dame de L’Assomption Cathedral.
WARNING: Don’t Trust Google Maps in Martinique
A word to the wise if you’re attempting a road trip in Martinique: Google Maps cannot be trusted! We set out in our rental car from Fort-de-France in the morning and at first everything was fine: we drove past the scenic Le Carbet beach and picturesque town of Saint-Pierre. But soon, our attempts to reach Mont Pelée for an afternoon of hiking were thwarted by Google maps and we found ourselves potentially stuck in a corn field.
That’s right, Google Maps told us to drive through a cornfield. We figured we were nearing the point to start hiking from which is why we followed the direction to “turn right” in the first place, but after driving through corn for about ten minutes, we realized something was wrong. You know what’s not fun? Backing up down a dirt road in a cornfield for 10 minutes!
Anyway, we rerouted and stopped to ask someone for directions. Now about an hour behind schedule, we resumed our drive to Mont Pelée.
Tips for Hiking Mont Pelée
There are multiple spots you can start hiking from on Mont Pelée, but we chose the scenic overlook by the town of Morne-Rouge. There’s a parking lot and some picnic tables here.
On the day we went, it was actually pretty cloudy so we only made it about an hour of the way up before deciding that walking with almost no visibility wasn’t worth it. But during those moments the clouds parted, the views were gorgeous! The landscape here was also pretty unique and amazing.
Check the weather before you go, and if your trip is long enough, try to coordinate your hiking trip on a day that isn’t too cloudy. If you’re hungry, there is a grocery store in the town of Morne-Rouge (you can’t miss it) where we bought ingredients to make sandwiches.
Waterfall Adventure: Les Gorges de la Falaise
While we thought that hiking Mont Pelée would be the highlight of our adventure in the north of Martinique, it turned out that the best part of the road trip was Les Gorges de la Falaise.
We had no idea what to expect when we drove up to this site near the end of the afternoon, we only knew that we needed waterproof shoes and were going to see waterfalls. Well, it turned out to be quite the adventure!
After paying the entrance fee (7 euros each), we climbed down some very steep stairs for about ten minutes to reach a stream where a guide was waiting to meet us. When we realized the guide was in full scuba gear, we were a little concerned. We were trying to cross the water without fully jumping in, but he started waving at us impatiently. “Soon you’ll be up to your necks!” he said. Ummm, excuse me?? This was starting to sound a little more challenging than we’d originally planned.
He led us into the stream where we walked for a few minutes into the gorge, which is a narrow valley between two hills with steep rocky walls. As we walked, the water got deeper and deeper and yes: we were up to our necks! The waterproof shoes suddenly started to make sense as it definitely would not have been fun to do this trip in bare feet or flip flops. (I did it in sneakers because I don’t own waterproof shoes, so if you’re planning to do the same you’ll definitely want to do this part after hiking).
Parts of the gorge had a rope for us to hold onto and pull ourselves over various rocks, and at some points we had to climb ladders over waterfalls. I’m pretty sure our guide could stunt double for Spider Man: the guy was scaling walls with his bare hands and leaping over waterfalls like it was nothing.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of fighting against the current and wondering what was going to happen to us, we ended up at a beautiful waterfall. Some of the people in our group stood under it to feel the pressure (it looked pretty powerful!), but I was worried my contacts were going to fall out so I skipped that portion. If you can see without contacts, definitely don’t wear them on this adventure!
If you’re planning to visit Les Gorges de la Falaise, definitely heed the warning about waterproof shoes. You’ll also want to wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet and bring something to change into for the drive home. Leave your valuables in the car: there’s no way you can bring anything with you on this trip (we left the key at the beginning of the gorge). In terms of photography, you’ll want something waterproof but also something that you can attach to yourself so the current won’t steal it (like a GoPro).
Catching the Sunset in Le Carbet
On your way back south, make sure you pull over by Le Carbet, a volcanic black sand beach, to catch the sunset. There are a couple bars along the street across from the beach where you can grab a drink, but for the best views just plop down right by the water!