We had done what research we could before our cruise, including reading up on Martinique in my Cruise Ports of Call book and reading this forum. We had settled on a few things we wanted to see and decided we'd try to do this on our own, for a customized tour that would cost less than an organized shore excursion with the cruise line.
We wanted to see the Sacre Coeur de Balata (a reproduction of the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris), the town of St. Pierre and the volcano museum there, and the Habitation Ceron (a sugar plantation).
We considered renting a car and even had made a reservation to do so, but decided we'd make our final decision about that once we got off the ship that day.
We were among the first to disembark that day because we actually docked early and we were ready. We walked off the dock and found exactly one taxi driver waiting for passengers. I assume this is because we were early and others would arrive later, but we did not wait around to find out.
This one taxi driver spoke no English, but with the help of a port security officer to translate, we showed him the things in our guide book that we wanted to do and settled on a price of $150US (this took some haggling and we walked away at one point, but he finally agreed- he had wanted closer to $200).
The driver's minivan was clean and reasonably comfortable and we were on our way. It quickly became clear how difficult communication would be, so we just decided to look at it as an adventure and hoped we got to see what was on our list. We smiled a lot and replied to our driver's question of "No problem?" by nodding.
He briefly stopped at a few spots that were not on our list, but that was "no problem". We were happy to see a bit of the island.
We were quickly at our first stop, the Sacre Coeur de Balata. Our driver (Lucien) parked and we walked around the outside, took a few photos, then stepped inside to view the inside of this church. The resemblance to the original Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris was in the shape of the building only, in our eyes. It is on a much smaller scale, constructed of different materials and the inside was not nearly as ornate, but it was interesting to see. Pretty views from the hill the church is on, as well. It started to drizzle, so we were on our way to our next stop.
We thought we were going to Habitation Ceron, but it turned out Lucien either misunderstood or had different ideas for us. Instead, he took us to a rum distillary called DePaz. It was not open yet for another 45 minutes, we eventually learned, so we went ahead to the little town of St. Pierre where we tried to negotiate an amount of time to see the museum, then stroll about the town. With the help of the tour guide/ticket seller at the museum, we asked for 45 minutes to see the one-room museum and wander about. I think the idea of us possibly getting lost or taking up too much time worried Lucien and he hung out very near the museum entrance. We stepped out after viewing the museum (which was a worthwhile stop, BTW) and walked around the corner to use the restroom and view the goods of a few vendors who'd set up on the small plaza next to the museum. Lucien seemed ready to go and we had no way of really communicating that we'd like to walk around a bit, so we dutifully climbed back into his van and he took us back to Habitation DePaz.
At the rum distillary, the gates were now open and he pulled right in. Fortunately, the lady at the information desk/cash register spoke fine English and we were able to discern that there was no charge for their self-guided tour and she told our driver how long to expect us to need for the tour.
It was an interesting tour, in spite of not being what we'd asked for. There was a printed guide to carry with us and signs along the way in English and French to point out what we were looking at. The weather was good and we enjoyed strolling the grounds and reading about the history of this place and how rum is manufactured there. Again, we noticed that Lucien seemed concerned either about losing us or taking too much time as we caught him looking for us from a distance. We were on track time-wise, so we paid no mind to his concern and continued our tour.
When we finished, we stopped in the gift shop and purchased a bottle of vanilla made on site and a sample sized bottle of rum (not being big drinkers and thinking of the packing). Lucien seemed relieved to see us ready to go, so we hopped back in the van and were on our way again. We were hoping we'd stop back in St. Piere (which was actually only about a 10 minute drive from the rum distillary and on the way back to the cruise ship) but he did not, so we took in what we could from the windows of the van.
We did drive along the coast and see a lot of sights along the way. Martinique is a very beautiful and tropical island with lots of flowers and very friendly people. I never encountered anyone I'd consider rude, and I was watching for this after having read about this concern on this forum.
Lucien continued pointing out sites to us, although we rarely understood what he was saying. We saw a black sand beach, men gathered around huge fish they'd caught, unusual houses (one shaped like a ship) and little fishing villages.
Overall, it was a fun adventure and I'm glad we decided on getting away from the pier area.
After Lucien returned us to the port area, we paid him and set out on foot looking for a small grocery store. At that point, we realized that, being Good Friday, almost nothing was open! There was a KFC where we purchased a drink and a craft market, but other than that, almost everything was closed. Streets and streets of closed up shops, so I really couldn't comment on the value of staying in Fort de France on a non-holiday, but I was sure glad we'd made other arrangements for ourselves.
If we had it to do over again, I'm not sure whether we'd rent a car or not, but I do want to add, for those with an adventurous spirit, that the roads were among the best I've ever seen in the Caribbean. They are well maintained with a center stripe and driving on the right and not very crowded. They are steep and winding along the way, but everyone seemed very courteous in their driving.
Martinique is among the most beautiful islands I've seen in the Caribbean. It is full of flowers and beautiful views. The people that we encountered were all friendly and tried to be helpful to us.
I hope this helps someone. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to try to answer them.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” ~ Mark Twain