My Trip to St. Martin & St. Barths
St. Maarten, St. Martin, Sint Maarten, St. Barts, St. Barths and Saint Barthelemy are all spellings I saw during my four days on the two almost adjacent islands. Throw in Guadeloupe and Martinique and you have a bit of France in the Caribbean. Several airlines fly from the New York area to St. Maarten. It is the smallest piece of land shared by two countries. Sint Maarten/St.Maarten is the Dutch spelling; St. Martin/Saint Martin the French version. The international airport (very modern and fully air-conditioned) is on the Dutch side with a regional airport at Grand Case, on the French side, where you can fly to St. Barths in 10 minutes. Dutch, French, Creole, Spanish, Papiamento and English are spoken here with both the Euro, Dutch Antillian Guilder and US dollar accepted. The Atlantic Ocean sits on the east and the Caribbean Sea on the west. The French side of the island (where I stayed) is 21 square miles with a population of 40,000; the Dutch side is 16 square miles with 37,000 people. The Dutch side has casinos, golf and a cruise ship port in Philipsburg, the Dutch capitol, located at the far south-east corner of the island. From the observation deck atop Cole Bay Hill one can view all the neighboring islands: Saba, Anguilla, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and St. Barths. Marigot is the French capitol and is located on the western coast where ferries leave for Anguilla every 30 minutes. That island is only 10 miles north and is part of the English Commonwealth. A block away from the Marigot waterfront is the craft market with the obligatory t-shirts, hats and jewelry. Major French designers can be found in shops here and on St. Barths. I took a 1 ½ hour ferry ride to St. Barths from the same terminal. There are no natural springs on the island making water very precious. Because the pipes run underground the water, at its best, tends to be on the warm side. The island is mostly volcanic (inactive). It never was an island with luxurious vegetation, due to a lack of rainfall and rivers. I was able to circumnavigate the entire island in less than two hours.
In 1493 Columbus discovered the island of St. Martin on his second visit to the “West Indies” and gave it the name of the saint of the day (Saint Martin of Tours). In 1627 the Dutch explored the island and in 1638 Spain threw out the Dutch. Spain left in 1648 and the French and Dutch shared the island. A wives tale is that a Frenchman and Dutchman were placed back-to-back and began walking in the opposite direction. Each country’s boundary was determined by where they met on the other side. In 1946 the French territories of St. Martin & St. Barths became the department of Guadeloupe and in 2007 both became independent (this does not apply to the Dutch section) of Guadeloupe but remained part of France.
I stayed at the Le Marquis Resort & Spa in Anse Marcel on a beach cove and hilly area to the north of the island. It was built overlooking a marina and the Caribbean Sea in 1992 by Gerard de Vion, the Marquis de Gaillon who owns a vineyard in St. Emilion. The hotel has only 18 rooms and suites all named after a Caribbean island. Breakfast is served around the pool and tennis, squash and a fitness center are available. There is original French art (by Francis Eck) in every room and the common areas. The shuttle will take you to the beach in a few minutes. The nearby town of Grand- Case is said to have the finest dining in the Caribbean (I think the folks on St. Barths would dispute that fact). I ate at Le Tastevin a seaside gourmet restaurant and a “lolos’ which are open-air eateries or grill huts with family style dining featuring grilled lobster and chicken. There are many beaches included one where clothing is optional. If tanning and eating are not your thing you can visit the Butterfly Farm, Mont Vernon Plantation (a former sugar mill) and Le Fort Louis in Marigot. There is no local rum produced here but I did enjoy Wild Sint Maarten Guavaberry Island Folk Liqueur.
I could have chosen the 10 minute flight to St. Barths but when I heard the 10 passenger plane landed next to a beach I decided to spend 1 ½ hours on the ferry. It was a beautiful ride going but a stomach turner coming back. Columbus discovered the island in 1493 and named it after his brother Bartholomeo. In 1648 sixty French colonists arrived and there is a story about their being massacred by the Carib Indians. In 1753 it was resettled by French mariners and was sold to Sweden in 1784. It was resold to France in 1878. In 1946, Martinique and Guadeloupe, including St. Barths, were given the legal status of a Department of France. This is analogous to the Americans conferring statehood upon Hawaii. The citizens were given French passports. In 2007 they became an independent Overseas Territory.
The 8.3 square mile rocky island (with 22 white sand beaches) has a population of 9,000 and has the toughest immigration laws of any of the Caribbean islands. There is no natural water source on the island so the glitterati that descend on St. Barths for the winter season drink Champagne. This is “Hampton South” with mega-yachts and mega-stars galore. Many of the top French chefs move their torques to St. Barths for the winter and everything has to be imported. The only budget priced restaurant I found was a classic- Le Select, “Hamburger in Paradise” open for lunch. The Super Marche at the airport has an impressive French wine selection as does Le Cave in Marigot and Le Cave du Port Franc near the harbor. Le Cave specializes in Caviar, Foie Gras, First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies.
I stayed at the Carl Gustaf, named for the present Swedish king (he gave his permission). In 1989 Jacques Laurent broke ground on his dream hotel. Because it sits at the apex of a hill overlooking Gustavia Harbor it took him three years to build. His daughter Emmanuelle took over management in 1998 and renovated the property in 2006. There are 14 one and two bedroom suites (and a 7 bedroom villa named The Golden Reef. Each suite has a private plunge pool. Two flat screen LCD TV’s, a DVD player, I Pod System, Bose speakers and a small kitchen. It is a two minute downhill walk to the beach (back up is a bit longer). Executive Chef Emmanuel Motte features Caribbean flavors and abstract gastronomic French Cuisine at the Sunset Restaurant. There is live music in the bar area and over 300 wines on the list. The hotel was voted #3 in the Caribbean/Atlantic region by 2005 Conde Nast Traveler Magazine and is on their Gold List. The hotel has a 52 foot Cayman boat available for rental by guests. It has two bedrooms, a kitchen, Jacuzzi and TV room. I asked General Manager Pierre-Alexandre Maillard for several restaurant recommendations (besides his own). “There are over 70 restaurants on the island and I enjoy the following: Maya’s for seafood; Hostellerie des 3 Forces for Creole eclectic; Le Gaiac, “French Inventive”; Francois Plantation which features Mediterranean cuisine.”
Besides food and the beaches a visitor should see: Municipal Museum- Gustavia Harbor near the Town Hall. The history of the island from the Indians to today. The Lighthouse overlooks Gustavia Harbor and has great views. St. Jean Beach sits right next to the airport. Watch the small planes come over the hills and straight down stopping a few feet from the sun worshippers. Inter Oceans Museum is privately owned but open to the public. The International Seashell collection has over 9,000 shells. Every February is the Mardi Gras parade and the end of March brings almost 30 sailing yachts for a three day race around the island.
Since the weather is mostly the same year-round going to the two islands in the “off-season” makes sense economically. The hotels and restaurants are not full and you can revel in reading the gossip columns during “the season”, realizing you stayed or ate at that place where the cognoscenti are seen and written about.
Before You Go-