St. Martin/Sint Maarten, January 2013

smmanik

Scary mannequin says: Buy my citrus fruit, or I will eat your soul.

Marcia and I were married in the summer of 1989. Our work schedule precluded us from taking a long trip at the time, so we spent a weekend at Spicer Castle in Minnesota right after our wedding in Minneapolis, then made plans to visit St. Martin/Sint Maarten — the internationally unique dual French-Dutch island at the northern end of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles — for a proper honeymoon over our longer winter break. Unfortunately, a medical emergency a week before our trip forced us to cancel our plans, and by the time we were able and ready to travel again, we found ourselves looking in other directions for destinations, and never actually made it to our planned honeymoon locale.

Until last week, that is, when Marcia, Katelin and I rented a condo on Orient Beach in St. Martin, the French-administered half of the world’s smallest island to fly two flags; the southern half of the island is Dutch, as noted above, and thus is properly labeled Sint Maarten. We had a wonderful visit, all these years on from when we had first expected to be there. If you’d like to see some pictures of the trip with descriptions of what you’re seeing, then click the photo of the terrifying fruit selling mannequin above, captured in Phillipsburg, capital of Dutch Sint Maarten. Or if you just like the photos without the words, here’s a link to the slideshow. Or if you prefer words to pictures, then just read on . . .

Beaches: St. Martin and Sint Maarten are known for their amazing white sand beaches, and that reputation is truly deserved, as they are among the most beautiful and comfortable shores I’ve ever experienced.  Vacation culture on the island is largely based around the concept of “beach clubs,” which are full-service establishments on the beaches where you can basically go spend an entire day (and evening, at some of them), with easy access to food, drink, water sports, shade, massage, sun, boutiques and all of the other amenities you need when lolling around in the sand. Our condo was less than 100 yards from the Waikiki Club, which offers the Caribbean’s largest fireworks display on New Year’s Eve, along with booming big-beat dance club parties most afternoons. Be aware before you go, lest your deeply-seated Puritanical American upbringing cause you to react awkwardly in routine beach-side encounters: topless sunbathing is common on the French side of the island, and the south end of Orient Beach is home to the Caribbean’s most celebrated all-nude beach. We stayed on the north end, just for the record.

Critters: There are a lot of cats and dogs roaming around the island, and the natives seem to be fine with that. We had cats living under our condo patio, and had dogs join us while we were eating dinners in reasonably nice restaurants. Not really a problem in either case. At the other side of the animal spectrum, though, the island does have a vigorous “no-see-um” culture going on, so my legs are pretty well chewed to bits at this point with bites, since I wasn’t smart enough to spray bug repellent on myself for the first part of the week. I suggest you learn from my mistake, though it did make me nostalgic for my Low Country South Carolina upbringing, when legs covered with chigger and sand-flea bites were part of everyday life.

Dining: The French side of the island is acclaimed for its fine dining, and we were pleased to eat some really spectacular meals throughout the week, most of the best in Grand Case, “the Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean.” I ate fish at pretty much every meal, every day. The two best meals we had in Grand Case were at Le Ti Provencale and Le Tastevin, both of which offered excellent, eclectic, seafood-based French cuisine, that was delicious all round on all plates, in wonderful, open-air settings right at beachside. We had two dinners in the Orient Beach Place du Village (pan-Asian at Tai Chi, and French at Cote Plage), but I can’t really recommend either of them, as there were tons of kids running around the plaza playing soccer both nights we were there, and Marcia actually had a glass of wine smashed by an errant corner kick from an over-enthusiastic eight year old. Food was good quality, but that’s not quite the environment we seek for fine dining, needless to say. We rounded out the week’s evenings with Italian at Il Nettuno, Tex Mex at El Rancho del Sol, and French Fusion at L’Astrolabe in the Esmerelda Resort, all of which were very solid and enjoyable, but didn’t reach the heights that Le Ti Provencale and Le Tastevin scaled. For mid-day dining, we had fabulous lunches at La Semanna and Bacchus, as well as fun tasty little things made at our condo made from mysterious meats and cheeses purchased at the French grocery store in nearby Hope Estates. While we generally don’t drink a lot of French wine, we did so here, and all agreed that our favorites tended to be Margauxs.

Elsewise: We read books, sat by the beach, took walks, visited the Butterfly Farm, circumnavigated the island in our perky little car (which we dubbed “The Hyundai Ennui,” for the sigh it would emit as it crested each peak), and spent some time at Sint Maarten’s famed Maho Beach, where you can get impossibly close to airborne commercial aircraft, while having a beer from the beach bar at the end of the runway. Here’s a short film of an Airbus A-340 coming in to land, with Katelin and Marcia standing in its path. And here’s a short film of the business end of a Boeing 747 as it takes off, shot from far closer than one should be shooting. (If you don’t like watching a 747 sitting on the runway as much as I do, then jump to 1:50 to see what happens to my camera-holding skills as the jet blast hits me). Both movie files are larger than I’d like them to be, but if you’re an airplane geek, it’s worth waiting to see them. We had other adventures, too, but I recommend you click the terrifying fruit-selling mannequin above to see them, rather than reading about them here. Picture’s worth a thousand words and all that.

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