St. Martin: Paradise With a French Twist
St. Martin: France in the Caribbean
By Kent E St John
Senior Travel Editor
The ‘Bienvenue á Partie Francaise’ sign was the only way I truly knew I had crossed from the Dutch side, St. Maarten, to the French side, St. Martin.
The nuances between the French and Dutch sides of the island became evident. Could amazing French food and wine really be found as easily as in France’s gourmet city of Lyon?
This is important if you are snorkeling to build up an appetite, or just lounging on a beach barely moving — that also builds my appetite.
While the Dutch side handles massive numbers of casino-loving visitors, St. Martin caters more to the lover of all things French, done here in a slower Caribbean mode.
Small villages and gendarmes dressed with kepis fit with the tri-colored French flags that dot this French paradise. The towns have names such as Marigot and Orleans, yet strong African and Creole flavors are a wonderful addition to the mix.
St. Martin is the more natural and quieter side of the island. If needed, the gambling and late nights were not far away, but I never felt any need for them.
My Creole Base
As a reminder that spoken French is long and languid, I checked into the Domaine de Longvilliers located on a wonderful cove named Anse Marcel
The waterfront bar and restaurant La Veranda indeed looked promising, and the next morning my hot fresh croissants were a success.The European-style hotel is done with Creole design and the beach is wide and white and located on 150 acres of lush tropical gardens.
Later, as the night fell, I walked along the beach and watched the light from the stars and from the nearby island of Anguilla appear as if set up on the same power line.
After a blissful glass of wine from Burgundy, I headed up to my spacious room and soaked in the pool-sized tub; adventure waited early the next morning.
I started the day with some mobile power, a buggy, painted a bright yellow, perhaps to help others stay out of my way.
St. Martin is open, and unless you plan on doing nothing but resorting, transportation will be needed. The buggy just might be the answer.
With blue sea on one side of the road and hilltops on the other side, St. Martin calls out for exploration.
Following a small road up one of the island’s tallest mountains led to a whole different kind of zipping: Loterie Farm offers some of the scariest ziplining in the world.
This challenging course is no simple tree-to-tree lark. Obstacles abound as swaying logs and wires take you both up and down in the greenest part of St. Martin. The farm was once a sugar plantation and it’s still surrounded with the original slave walls.
After my strenuous session of zipping, I chilled with an amazing planter’s punch at the Treehouse, definitely a fine place high above the trails where thousands of different plant species flourish; monkeys, mongooses and birds will keep you company.
The little town of Grand Case has a big reputation in the culinary world, and it is well deserved. This is the Caribbean’s Main Street of food and wine. Better yet is its laid-back Creole look and style, and the beautiful beach is a bonus.
A highly recommended place called The Cottage was our spot. The soufflés are known around the world, so order even before your first drink; they are made from scratch. It was a struggle to make it through some of the finest foie gras and tender tenderloin, but I struggled, and not a morsel of soufflé was left behind.
Dinner was just an appetizer for the rest of the night: small cozy beach bars with romantic flare surround the culinary temples.
The Calmos Café was sublime with its beach chairs and tables lit with hurricane lamps, the music from a larger place down the beach provided entertainment without mayhem, le paradis de la relaxation.
Pirates of the Caribbean
I cannot claim that Johnny Depp was ever on Isle of Pinel, but I was and that was just fine by me. Take a small boat over from Cul de Sac over one of the clearest lagoons this old salt ever saw.
The astounding white beach and fragrant beach shacks will satisfy both eyes and nose. There are no residents except for some goats, none in Speedos, and all cooking is done with charcoal and gas.
Featured on the menus are lobsters caught just off the beach that can be delivered right to your lounge chair.
The view of St. Martin from Pinel across the lagoon is perfect, and it’s a great place to rest before hitting the fast paced Orient Beach, just across the water.
Orient Beach (Baie Orientale) is lively and sports minded; windsurfers and kitesurfers fill the panorama as do the surf riders, engines buzzing.
Marigot the Magnificent
The capital of French St. Martin is Marigot, one of the most charming towns anywhere, enhanced by gas lights and the Fort Louis above. It is here that the markets can be found, both food and crafts.
It also happens to be the place to get an inexpensive lunch that is strictly Creole and amazing; fresh snapper with spices and peppers proliferate, colors fill the plate. Of the many stalls in the center of town, Enooh’s was my top choice.
After that great meal a hike up to Fort Louis for the amazing 180-degree view was in order, followed by shopping the craft market.
The ending to a perfect day was a colorful cocktail on the Port la Royale marina and a sumptuous dinner at the famed La Sammana Resort, one of the island’s best. The wine cellar itself would make a Frenchman burst into tears.
Out to Sea
I could tell immediately after boarding the catamaran that this was no ordinary ‘pack up tourists and sail’ operation. It is rare that you will find a rotisserie complete with suckling pig in the islands, but hey, this was St. Martin.
Just as alluring was the fresh coffee and pastries laid out for us. Soon we were sailing out of Marigot and headed to the nearby island of Anguilla, lifted by the clear breeze.
Lunch in St Martin, even on a sailboat, isn’t plastic glasses and paper plates. A full table is set, and flowers are placed on the tablecloth.
Laughter fills the air and jovial banter fills the long delicious meal. After the last chance to sooth one’s soul in picture perfect waters, we gather at the bar for a sundowner. The captain assures me that an overbooked sail isn’t to his liking and it isn’t the St. Martin way.
A Paradise with a French Twist
My summary of a visit to St. Martin is two thumbs up and two big toes also. The blend of Gallic and Caribbean is worthy of an appellation of its own. The island also offers a combination of beautiful beaches, great food and adventure. It is rustic sophistication and gracious living, a Caribbean that is fast disappearing.
As always, I recommend beginning your journey at the tourism website of a destination and St. Martin has a fine one. It well covers lodgings, dining and places to see. The pictures are also wonderful.
The Domaine de Longvilliers was wonderful with its Creole style and beach front setting. The rooms open and the balconies blissful in the Caribbean breezes. The included breakfast at the waters edge started each day in just the right way.
La Samanna is the grande dame of St. Martin and the honor is well deserved; people return year after year. Even if the lodgings are out of reach, the restaurant is the perfect place for that splurge meal. It has an elegant yet comfortable setting and the waves roll on the beach below. The newly refurbished wine cellar alone would be a point of plunder for pirates.
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.