The Euro-Centric Island Charm of St. Martin

December 11, 2019

Rain begins to faucet from the sky minutes after I’ve landed on St. Martin. It’s light at first, then steady enough that at the car rental agency I don’t bother walking around the vehicle to inspect for damage. “Don’t worry, it never rains more than a few minutes,” says the rental agent. My few days on this Caribbean island won’t be what I expect, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s still pouring 30 minutes later when I reach my Inspirato villa, a whitewash, 4,600-square-foot, plantation-style man- sion with a red tile roof and huge infinity pool that peers out over a cliff to the Caribbean. Though the views from the patio are painted in slates and grays, it’s stunning nonetheless, and I muse to my Inspirato concierge, Steven Calder, that one could probably happily spend an entire week on the patio eating seafood and watching the water.

“Never mind that. There’s plenty to do,” Steven assures. He describes top-notch snorkeling on Pinel Island, near St. Martin’s northern tip, and catamaran trips around the island.

St. Martin Destination

There’s shopping in Philipsburg and Marigot, nightclubs on the Dutch side, idyllic beaches on the French half and countless dining options in the sleepy fishing village of Grand Case. “And the forecast is better tomorrow.”

I’ve come for here for the island’s perfect, crystalline beaches, quaint bistro-style restaurants with Michelin stars and a healthy dose of vitamin D for the early winter doldrums. The beaches, the food, the tax-free shopping, the nightlife—that’s why you visit this little drop of land at the head of the Leeward Islands. That plus, in a space about half the size of West Palm Beach, Florida, you can tick off not just one, but two European countries.

By some strange historical machinations, the island is divided. To the north is French St. Martin, a collectivity of France with the same status as, say, Alsace or Burgundy. And Dutch Sint Maarten sits to the south, an independent country that, together with Aruba, Curaçao and the Netherlands, forms the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Few places can boast so much exotic bang-for-the-buck, especially just three hours from Miami.

Belmond La Samanna, the resort where the villa is located, is situated on Baie Longue, a ribbon of silky white sand that curves to the horizon. The villas, eight of them in all, perch atop a milky white, limestone promontory at the southeast end of the beach. Once the storm moves out, iguanas materialize from the rocks and alight in my villa’s back- yard, a grassy verge as neatly manicured as a polo field. I notice them as I explore the property. Eventually I take the iguanas’ lead and switch my internal clock to languid island time and sit down in the gathering sun. Slowly, my American-bred need to “do something!” melts away. For hours, these prehistoric-looking beasts, some as long and thick as missiles, loiter motionless. I, too, begin to nod in and out of consciousness, easing down from the stress and frenetic work routine, and it feels good. Nothing like life lessons from small-brained reptiles.

Later, I head down to the beach, Baie Longue, and continue my reverie, loitering in the sun. It’s a stunning strand. Except for a few guests snoozing under hotel umbrellas, the seaside is empty and broad and pristine, and it feels like my own private paradise.

In the evening there’s a rum tasting at La Samanna’s cave, which houses the biggest wine collection in the entire Carib- bean, some 12,000 bottles. But I’m not here in the dark, cool cellar for the wine. Instead, sommelier Christian Mirande lines up bottles of rum from light to dark and pours snifters of the sweet nectar as he explains the differences in the casks and aging processes. When I ask him about the best rum from St. Martin, he laughs. “We have no sugar cane,” he says, though he adds that there’s a local woman named Ma Doudou who’s gained notoriety for her rum infusions. “But the Caribbean’s finest rums come from Martinique.” He pours a taste of the La Samanna-branded rum, produced by Martinique distillery Habitation St. Étienne. Aged in port casks, the spirit is sweet and spicy and tinged with cherry over- tones, and it finishes like good bourbon.

I dine at La Samanna’s Trellis restaurant that evening, where chef Gil Dumoulin prepares French classics with modern and Caribbean influences. The marinated herring appetizer, for instance, is a hearty, comfort-food mainstay of Alsace and northern France, but here it’s deconstructed into tiny bites of tart, succulent fish offset by creamy, bright periwinkle Vitelotte potatoes. And the foie gras, some of the richest and smoothest I’ve ever tried, is balanced by a surprising mango chutney.

St. Martin Woman swimming underwater

“The French take influences that we find in these places, like conch and lobster and creole spices, and we make them our own,” Dumoulin tells me after the meal. I ask him where he would suggest for some distinctly local Caribbean cuisine, and he mentions a few French spots in the north shore town of Grand Case: l’Estaminet, Auberge Gourmande and Ocean 82. “As for the food of St. Martin … Bof!” he says, with that typical cheek puff. “There’s not so much tradition here.”

Three days after I arrive, I venture to Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch side and the island’s only anchor- age for cruise ships. Steven says there’s not much more to see than a bit of shopping, but it feels important to see the island’s first city. The visit, however, is short-lived. Back Street is a patchwork of colorfully painted but run-down Caribbean tenements, while Front Street is dominated by curio trinket shops catering to the cruise ships that dock in the marina at the east end of town. The stores are worse: There’s the Yoda Guy Movie Museum, the Dirty Sanchez Crew Bar and Tees By The Seas, where I watch a man buy a T-shirt that reads, “My parents said I could become anything, so I became an asshole. — St. Martin.” On the way out of town, a threadbare Rasta with salt-and-pepper dreads on a Segway with a license plate that reads “We Be Jammin’” circles me twice. Philipsburg, check. I can’t get back to French St. Martin fast enough.

On Steven’s advice, however, I stop at Sunset Bar & Grill on Maho Bay, halfway between Philipsburg and La Samanna. It’s set on the beach at one end of the airport runway, whose proximity to the water jangled my nerves when I arrived. The place is a tourist dive, crawling with snockered holiday makers, and I can’t really understand why Steven suggested it. Then a Boeing 737 buzzes the beach at around 50 feet off the ground, the entire place erupts with cheers like it’s New Year’s Eve, and the good, unpretentious humor of the place sinks in. I order an icy Presidente and one of the island’s specialties, BBQ chicken, which turns out to be pretty good, and settle in for the show.

I order another beer and watch the parade of planes come and go, so close and so loud that I feel like I’m on the open deck of an aircraft carrier, albeit one with a bar. It’s fun, but somehow I can’t help but think that Dutch Sint Maarten got the short end of the island division.