Leaving Bellefontaine, an 8km (5-mile) drive north will deliver you to Le Carbet. Columbus landed here in 1502, and the first French settlers arrived in 1635. In 1887, Gauguin lived here for 4 months before going to Tahiti. You can stop for a swim at an Olympic-size pool set into the hills, or watch the locals scrubbing clothes in a stream. The town lies on the bus route from Fort-de-France to St-Pierre.
Set in 4 hectares (10 acres) of tropical gardens, Aqualand Martinique, Route des Pitons, Le Carbet (tel. 596/78-40-00; www.aqualand-mq.fr), lies on the road to St-Pierre, about an hour's drive from Fort-de-France. It features eight nautical attractions, with three especially designed for children. The big hit is a wave pool that can go from almost unnoticed sways to real breakers. Other attractions range from super slaloms to water slides, water beds, and even a minipark for kids to experience the adult attractions but on a smaller scale. Fast-food options here, including crepes and freshly made salads, are the best on the island. The park is open daily June, July, and August 10am to 5pm; admission is 20€ for adults, 16€ for children 3 to 12.
At the beginning of this century, St-Pierre was known as the "Little Paris of the West Indies." Home to 30,000 inhabitants, it was the cultural and economic capital of Martinique. On May 7, 1902, the citizens read in their daily newspaper that "Montagne Pelée does not present any more risk to the population than Vesuvius does to the Neapolitans."
However, on May 8, at 8am, the southwest side of Montagne Pelée exploded into fire and lava. At 8:02am, all 30,000 inhabitants were dead -- that is, all except one. A convict in his underground cell was saved by the thickness of the walls. When islanders reached the site, the convict was paroled and left Martinique to tour in Barnum and Bailey's circus.
St-Pierre never recovered its former splendor. It could now be called the Pompeii of the West Indies. Ruins of the church, the theater, and some other buildings can be seen along the coast.
Musée Volcanologique, rue Victor-Hugo, St-Pierre (tel. 596/78-15-16), was created by the American volcanologist Franck Alvard Perret, who turned the museum over to the city in 1933. Here, in pictures and relics dug from the debris, you can trace the story of what happened to St-Pierre. Dug from the lava is a clock that stopped at the moment the volcano erupted. The museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is 2€, free for children 7 and under. About a kilometer (1/2 mile) away, higher up the mountain and clearly signposted, is a modern-looking museum, Le Centre de Decouverte des Sciences de la Terre (tel. 596/52-82-42), containing exhibits about the region's seismology and geology, replete with public-service warnings about what to do in the event of another explosion. It's open Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm September to June, and 10am to 6pm in July and August. Admission is 5€ for adults, 3€ students and children 6 to 16, and free for children 5 and under.
From St-Pierre, you can continue along the coast north to Le Prêcheur. Once the home of Madame de Maintenon, the mistress of Louis XIV, it's the last village along the northern coast of Martinique. Here you can see hot springs of volcanic origin and the Tombeau des Caraïbes (Tomb of the Caribs), where, according to legend, the collective suicide of many West Indian natives took place after they returned from a fishing expedition and found their homes pillaged by the French.
A panoramic and winding road (Rte. N2) takes you through a tropical rainforest. The curves are of the hairpin variety, and the road is not always kept in good shape. However, you're rewarded with tropical flowers, baby ferns, plumed bamboo, and valleys so deeply green you'll think you're wearing cheap sunglasses.
The village of Morne Rouge, right at the foot of Montagne Pelée, is a popular vacation spot for Martiniquais. From here on, a narrow and unreliable road brings you to a level of 750m (2,461 ft.) above sea level, 480m (1,575 ft.) under the round summit of the volcano that destroyed St-Pierre. Montagne Pelée itself rises 1,373m (4,505 ft.) above sea level.
If you're a serious mountain climber and you don't mind 4 or 5 hours of hiking, you can scale the peak, though you should hire an experienced guide to accompany you. Remember, this is a real mountain, rain is frequent, and temperatures drop very low. Tropical growth often hides deep crevices in the earth, and there are other dangers. The park service maintains more than 150km (93 miles) of trails. Although the hikes up from Grand-Rivière or Le Prêcheur are generally the less arduous of the three options leading to the top, most visitors opt for departures from Morne Rouge because it doesn't take as long to finish the trip. It's steeper, rockier, and more exhausting, but you can make it in just 2 1/2 hours versus the 5 hours it takes from the other two towns. There are no facilities other than these villages, so it's vital to bring water and food with you. Your arduous journey will be rewarded at the summit with sweeping views over the sea and panoramas that sometimes stretch as far as mountainous Dominica to the south. As for the volcano, its deathly eruption in 1902 apparently satisfied it -- for the time being.
Upon your descent from Montagne Pelée, drive down to Ajoupa-Bouillon, one of the most beautiful towns on Martinique. Abounding in flowers and shrubbery with bright yellow-and-red leaves, this little village is the site of the remarkable Gorges de la Falaise. These are minicanyons on the Falaise River, up which you can travel to reach a waterfall. Ajoupa-Bouillon also makes a good lunch stop.
After Basse-Pointe, the town you reach on your northward trek is Grand-Rivière. From here you must turn back, but before doing so, you may want to stop for a bite to eat.
Heading south along the coastal road, you'll pass Le Marigot en route to the little town of Ste-Marie. Musée du Rhum Saint-James, route de l'Union at the Saint James Distillery (tel. 596/69-50-37), displays engravings, antique tools and machines, and other exhibits tracing the history of sugar cane and rum from 1765 to the present. Guided tours of the distillery are offered daily from February to June at 10am, 11:30am, and 1:30pm. Tours cost 5€ per person. Admission to the museum (daily 9am to 5pm, regardless of whether the distillery is functioning) is free. Rum is available for purchase on-site.
From here you can head out the north end of town and loop inland a bit for a stop at Morne des Esses, or continue heading south straight to Trinité.
Passing through Morne des Esses, continue south, then turn east; or from Ste-Marie, head south along the coastal route (N1), to reach Trinité. The town is the gateway to the Caravelle peninsula, where the Caravelle Nature Preserve, a well-protected peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean from the town of Trinité, has safe beaches and well-marked trails through tropical wetlands and to the ruins of historic Château Debuc. It offers excellent hiking and one of the only safe beaches for swimming on the Atlantic coast. It would hardly merit an actual stop, however, were it not for the Domaine Saint Aubin.