Until recently, most travelers to the French island of Martinique in the West Indies zeroed in on its capital, Fort-de-France, the volcanic rock of Le Diamant on the east coast and the soft, sandy beaches of the south. But the recent announcement by UNESCO that the Mount Pelée volcano, its rain forests and the dense area that surrounds the lava pitons in the north have been added to the World Heritage List may shine new light on the northern region.
When Mount Pelée erupted suddenly, in the early morning of May 8, 1902, above the town of St. Pierre, then the economic and cultural capital of the island known for its cafes and theaters, the volcano exhaled what would become known as a nuée ardente, a thick, deadly cloud of steam that incinerated 28,000 people in a matter of minutes. Only two inhabitants survived, a carpenter on his boat who watched the cloud engulf the town and jumped into the sea, and a prisoner whose underground cell protected him. There have been small eruptions since, but St. Pierre was rebuilt—many buildings still show marks of the terrible burning cloud— and even though it never regained its capital status, life has returned to the town and its mountainous landscape, now a crucial witness to history and volcanic processes.
Since my first visit to Martinique at 15 on a sailing jaunt with my father, I’d been intrigued by the dense, humid forests of the north, but it wasn’t until I wrote about the poet, author, and politician Aimé Césaire that I discovered his native town of Basse-Pointe with its black sand cove and the lush but ominous landscape around Mount Pelée. Guided by some of his verses about the island, I’d driven along the coast, from west to east.
It took several tries to hike Mount Pelée and not find myself shrouded in fog and humidity, but from the tip, 4,500 feet above the seaside town of St. Pierre, I admired the resilience of nature while wondering at the incredible vitality of the local population. Césaire often visited one famous Kapok tree, on the side of the road. Spent by the fateful ashes of the volcano, it had somehow awakened and revived a few decades later. Over the years, the poet admired its resilience, and in a way, UNESCO’s nod does the same, recognizing the historical significance of the volcano as well as the biodiversity of the surrounding valleys.
Further south, the twelve Pitons du Carbet are part of an older volcanic range with unique flora and fauna. The towering lava spire named Piton Lacroix culminates at 3,900 feet above sea level and offers a wide variety of tropical forests. Trails and hikes abound but some are quite steep and may be treacherous.
In 2020, UNESCO inscribed the traditional “yole,” an ancient sailing skiff, as an example worth for safeguarding, and only a year later, the whole island was recognized as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Today, the institution goes even further as it celebrates the geological, vegetal and historical heritage of Martinique.