Sint Maarten, Netherlands Antilles: It’s French. No, it’s Dutch. No, French...
We exchanged 60,000 frequent flyer miles for a midnight red-eye to a random Caribbean island. After inconvenient stops in Dallas, Miami and San Jaun, we arrived 14 hours later in balmy Sint Maarten, Netherlands Antilles (or is it Saint Martin, French West Indies?) for a week of R&R: rum & reclining.
The Oyster Bay Beach Resort, were we stayed, was a large, modern, but uninspired multi-structure painted light teal. But what the OBBR lacked in old-world charm — and that was plenty — it made up for with clean rooms and nice amenities. On-property perks included a good-sized infinity pool, a faux-waterfall cascading down into a hot tub, a bar and restaurant, a weight room, a general store. The rooms weren’t huge, but they were sufficient considering no one comes to the tropics to watch TV or order room service.
Despite our best intentions and a blinding tropical sun, we never got up before 11am, and since the sun set emphatically at 6pm, our days were shorter than we would’ve liked.
So we didn’t waste any of our precious daylight. We did all the sitting-around-the-pool, sun-tanning, book-reading and Carib beer drinking possible. The constant breeze off the Caribbean Sea made the 84-degree temperature quite pleasant. Hanging one’s beer off the edge of the infinity pool, one could look over to St. Bart’s, a smaller, but reportedly more snooty, island full of expensive shops and bloated celebrities, one imagines. Several other unidentified land masses dotted the azure horizon line, fading off into the distance like so many…uh, half-submerged big rocks. Or something. Hey, it’s hard to come up with good similes after a few Caribs. Besides…I’m on vacation.
Located on the Dutch side, but just barely, the OBBR lay on the far eastern side of the island, away from the noise and commercialism of Phillipsburg as well as the French-ness of Marigot. It made for a relaxing sense of isolation, that surely would have driven us insane in a “The Shining” sort of way had we not rented a VW Golf for $200 a week (only later did I realize that we could’ve rented my favorite non-US vehicle, the Smartcar).
On our first day, we stayed “on property” to recoup some sleep lost between SF and Miami. The second day, we decided to explore outside the resort’s bar. We hopped into our 1.6L econocar and headed inland. Finding places on the island seemed daunting at first, but once we discovered that there was only a grand total of about six roads on the whole island, it soon proved pretty simple.
At the end of the resort’s driveway, there’s a sign that says French side/Dutch side with accompanying arrows. The roads are typical of islands — barely paved, single-lane roads with no shoulders, twisting up mountains dangerously close to steep cliffs without warning signs or guard-rails. Despite how fun that sounds, driving in St. Martin is seriously dangerous. And that’s what keeps the accident rate low. On this island, you have to pay attention. And when people pay attention, people don’t crash (something we in America have yet to discover). People drive slow around here because they have to. But traffic flows pretty good despite this. We averaged 15-20mph, which sounds slow, but gets you around the tiny 35-square mile island in no time. In fact, the only time we encountered gridlock was when two locals — headed in opposite directions — stopped to chat. With no way to drive around them, traffic backed up for two miles in each direction.
Following the arrow labeled “Dutch Side” sent us through Phillpsburg, and had we kept going, the airport. Phillipsburg, the Dutch “capital” of St. Martin, is a town so overdeveloped and tacky, it may have well been in the U.S. (In fact, if no one had told us it was Dutch, we would’ve had no way to know as no one ever spoke Dutch and there wasn’t a single Dutch word on any signs.)
The area had all the typical tourist stuff you find at all cruise ship port cities, short of a Planet Hollywood. One notable exception to the fast-food and tourist-traps was the Kangaroo Court Caffe, a Fodor’s-recommended place that didn’t disappoint. If you’re going, stop in.
Following the “French Side” sign sent us north along the water to Orient Bay, an adorable residential beach town with what we took to be expensive-looking winter housing for rich, French people. Oddly, none of the roofs on the houses were the same color, those crazy French.
Further up the road, you arrive at Grand Case whether you want to or not (see earlier comment about number of roads). Grand Case consists of two one-way roads running in opposite directions along a sweet stretch of white, sandy beach. Nearly every structure on the beach-side seemed to be a killer restaurant with a view of lapping waves and the British island, Anguilla, while the inland side seemed to be all vacation rentals.
Continuing counter-clockwise around the island, the road leads into Marigot, the largest town on the French side. The Dutch influence in Phillipsburg was far less evident than the French influence in Marigot. Here, people spoke French first, and THEN English if you stared at them blankly long enough. There were numerous high-end shops offering vacationing Parisians all the comforts of home, duty-free. Needless to say, Amy wiped out shelves in a frenzied buying spree that raised the island’s GNP a full percentage point for the year.
The best restaurants on the island were, not surprisingly, on the French side. Grand Case, in particular, had amazing restaurants such as Claude Mini-Club, Le Pressoir (The Press), and The Rainbow. But there were some good places inland, too. Like the quirky Yvette’s, which was located in a converted house. “Converted” may be a bit generous since it looked like they merely removed all the furniture from the living room and replaced it with a bunch of tables. The decor was bright, yet shabby, but the food was impressive. Once again, had it not been for Fodor’s, we would’ve certainly missed it.
One thing that I found extremely odd about St. Martin was the island motto, visible on most license plates: The Friendly Island. This struck me as ludicrous and the height of over-promising (especially after some message-board postings I’d read that cast the island’s safety into question). But then we experienced it first-hand. Repeatedly. Never before have I vacationed anywhere more genuine and accommodating. (In fact, the security guys at the OBBR front gate were so friendly they let everyone in, rendering their jobs more than a little superfluous). And it wasn’t just folks in the service industry. Nearly everyone we talked to or encountered was happy and helpful. Even on the French side. Yeah, unprecedented. I was stunned.
In the end, St. Martin was a great choice. It was nice to visit a foreign country that didn’t hate Americans for a change. We had little difficulty dealing with the cultural differences of the two sides because almost everyone spoke English. Right down to the French-side waiters, a nice change from the hoity-toity ones we dealt with in Paris making St. Maarten a sort of “France-Light” (all the food, half the attitude). In only one small market did we run into women who didn’t speak English (or at least pretended not to). Still, we were able to purchase rum, a sausage pastry and éclairs with nothing more than pointing gestures, pleading looks and cold, hard American cash. Money proved not to be an issue either. Both sides happily took US cash and most Dutch places gave it back as change. But you had to use exact change on the French side if you didn’t want to get back a handful of Euros. In all, it was a great place that I would heartily recommend over Jamaica. Unless you’re looking for drugs, I guess.