SAINTE ANNE, Martinique -- Its France with palm trees, Gallic to its soul, and it is the Cote dAzur of the tropics. A melange, Martinique has bistros, baguettes, bougainvillaea and beaches, flowers, flame trees, a famous volcano, madras-clad townspeople, codfish fritters and Creole coffees.

And, for the first time, Martinique has nonstop American Eagle service from San Juan four days a week and a reinvented and renovated Club Med resort. It has also launched a $1.2 million branding and promotion campaign targeted at the U.S. market.

This petite Creole corner of France, a stepping stone between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, blends cuisine, art and ambience with rum and its own brand of joie de vivre.

Known as the Isle of Flowers, Martinique, an overseas department of France, was the birthplace of Napoleons Empress Josephine and served as the inspiration for Paul Gauguins first tropical scenes, painted during a stay in 1887, just before the artists departure for Tahiti.

The island welcomed more than 444,000 visitors last year (mostly French), a slight increase over 2004. Officials are optimistic regarding 2006.

The American Eagle flights and Club Meds return have had an effect already, with U.S. arrival figures in January well above the same month last year, according to Muriel Wiltord, director of the U.S. and Latin America for the Martinique Promotion Bureau.

American Eagles entry into Martinique and Club Meds reopening will put us on the map as never before, she said.

Tourism is not the islands lifeblood. Martiniques economy depends primarily on bananas, pineapples, sugarcane, rum and fishing -- followed by tourism.

Although Martinique has never figured heavily into the travel plans of Americans in the past, due in part to a lack of air connections from the U.S. mainland and within the Caribbean, all that is beginning to change. Several hotels are offering U.S. tour operators an equal euro-to-dollar exchange rate on their programs this winter, a very clear signal that Martinique is ready and willing to work with U.S. operators, Wiltord said.

Theres a range of accommodations, from budget to deluxe, with more than 6,000 rooms in outlets as small as the tiny inns called relais creoles and as large as restored plantation houses.

Set your sights

Martinique, nestled between Dominica to the north and St. Lucia to the south, offers far more to see and do than a weeks time allows. Some suggestions:

" Saint Pierre/Mont Pelee: Rent a car (reserve in advance for an automatic-transmission vehicle) or book a guided tour to St. Pierre, the martyred city whose 30,000 inhabitants perished when Mont Pelee erupted on May 8, 1902. Climb the volcanic cones to view the rebuilt town, once designated as the islands City of Art and History.

" Ajoupa-Bouillon: A short drive east of Mont Pelee is the 17th-century village of Ajoupa-Bouillon, the jumping-off point for several sights, including Les Ombrages, a botanical garden on the site of a former rum distillery; hiking trails; a 40-foot waterfall; and a river gorge for swimming.

" Fort-de-France: Gallery-crawl through Fort-de-France, now undergoing an ambitious redevelopment program that includes renovation of La Savane, a 12-acre park, and the construction of a waterfront promenade, a new business and tourist center and a shopping mall.

" V. T. Tilt: Hire Jacques at V. T. Tilt in Les Trois Islets on the southern tip of Martinique. His nature-adventure firm has been in business for 16 years, offering mountain bike tours to Grande Anse des Salines beach, across the parched flats of a former salt lake, through the savannah grasses and melon fields to the Petrified Forest, once a swampland.

" Le Marin: Book a ride on a yole, a hand-carved boat found only on Martinique, at Le Marin. Yoles resemble long canoes with sails and a rudder. Balance is maintained by riders who perch precariously on long, wooden sticks. Hotels in the area, including Club Med, can arrange yole excursions.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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See related article: Multimillion-dollar makeover updates Club Med on Martinique

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