The Route de la Trace (known more prosaically on maps as the N3) winds up into the mountains north of Fort-de-France. It’s a beautiful drive through a lush rainforest of tall tree ferns, anthurium-covered hillsides and thick clumps of roadside bamboo. The road passes along the eastern flanks of the volcanic mountain peaks of the Pitons du Carbet. Several well-marked hiking trails lead from the Route de la Trace into the rainforest and up to the peaks.
The road follows a route cut by the Jesuits in the 17th century: the Trace de Jésuites. Islanders like to say that the Jesuits’ fondness for rum accounts for the twisting nature of the road.
Less than a 10-minute drive north of Fort-de-France, in the village of Balata, is Sacré-Coeur de Balata, a scaled-down replica of the Sacré-Coeur basilica in Paris. This domed church, in the Roman-Byzantine style, has a stunning hilltop setting – the Pitons du Carbet rise up as a backdrop, and there’s a view across Fort-de-France to Pointe du Bout below.
On the western side of the N3, 10 minutes’ drive north of the Balata church, is one of the island's best non-beach attractions: the Jardin de Balata, a mature botanical garden in a rainforest setting. After the garden, the N3 winds into the mountains and reaches an elevation of 600m before dropping to Alma River, where a river runs through a lush gorge. Make sure you have a picnic to enjoy on the boulders before tackling a couple of short trails into the rainforest.
Beyond the gorge the Route de la Trace passes banana plantations and flower nurseries before reaching a T-junction at Morne Rouge, which was partly destroyed by a Mont Pelée eruption in August 1902, several months after the eruption that wiped out St-Pierre. At 450m, it has the highest elevation of any town on Martinique, and it enjoys some impressive mountain scenery.
About 2km north of the T-junction, a road (D39) signposted to Aileron leads 3km up the slopes of Mont Pelée, from where there’s a rugged trail (four hours round-trip) up the volcano’s south face to the summit.