Rachel and I just returned from Saint Martin, a lush tropical island in the North Eastern Caribbean (or more properly known as the French and Netherlands Antilles) which is owned jointly by France and the Netherlands.
Saint Martin (Sint Maarten, if you’re Dutch) It is one of our favorite vacation destinations, as it offers incredible beaches, fantastic nightlife and shopping, and of course, the best fine dining in the entire Caribbean.
We stayed at the Geo Villas on the Dutch side of the island, which overlooks Guana Bay Beach which is known for bodysurfing.
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These photos show the mountain approach and egress to and from the Guana Bay Beach area in the southeast part of the island near Philipsburg, and to say that the YouTube video below doesn’t do justice to how scary it can be driving a small underpowered car down single lane, poorly maintained roads is an understatement.
As seen in this video which we took, driving on the island can be extremely challenging. We rented a small 4-cylinder Nissan but the next time we go, we’re going to opt for a small SUV, probably a Jeep Wrangler.
If that drive looked particularly scary to you, then you probably want to avoid driving all the way up Pic Paradis, which is the highest point on the island (424 meters, or 1,391 feet).
You can’t really tell from this photo but this is the incline which goes all the way to the top of Pic Paradis. I’d say that was about a 40 percent or more gradient. As you go higher and higher the road gets narrower and harder to drive on, and we barely made it up the mountain with the little Nissan.
If you do make it all the way up, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views.
The photos don’t really do justice to the beauty of the island.
Here is one of the scenic overlook areas on the French side.
After a scary drive like that in the morning, you might be a bit hungry. Head over to Zee Best, a breakfast/lunch cafe in Philipsburg.
Zee Best is known for its wonderful French pastries, crepes and omelets.
Breakfast Menu at Zee Best (click to enlarge)
Zee Best brings you an assorted pastry basket and charges you for the ones that you eat.
Now that’s some serious flaky pastry.
Rachel got the Eggs Florentine, with spinach and hollandaise sauce.
I went with “Le Roger”, a savory crepe stuffed with ham, cheese, mushrooms and a runny fried egg.
I could have easily kept going, but this big breakfast was our last meal of the vacation and we needed to head to the airport!
Happy Cooks make great breakfasts.
One of the beaches we greatly enjoyed was Friar’s Beach, which is on the French side of the island near Marigot. It has extremely calm surf and really good snorkeling with lots of interesting fish near the rocks. You need to be very careful and wear surf shoes, because there are a lot of sea urchins as you get farther out.
Friar’s Beach also has an excellent French cafe with a really nice menu and serves excellent food (click to enlarge)
Ah, now this is living.
If, for some reason you still need to take the edge off, a Ti’Punch will put you in the proper mood. It’s a simple cocktail made with Rhum Agricole, a cane sugar rum made on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe which has a very distinctive and different flavor from molasses-based rums. I had one of these at basically every bar we visited on the French side of the island and it kept me in a very good mood.
Here’s our lunch, coconut shrimp with a hearts of palm salad, and escargots.
Of course if you plan to do a lot of beaches, you can bring your own food and pack a picnic lunch. There are a number of supermarkets on the island, but if you want the really good gourmet stuff you need to go to US Market, which has branches in Marigot and near Grand Case.
The name US Market may sound American, but this place is all French. The cheese section of this place is incredible.
Want to cook breakfast in your villa? The “Lardons” (bacon) section. Ooh La La.
Le charcuterie. If you want Pate de foie gras or Jambon de Bayonne or whatever your heart desires, they have it. And of course, they have freshly baked French bread to go with it.
Perhaps you need some vin to go with your fromage?
They’ve got wine to fit every budget. Mmmm. Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2001. 341 euros. Might be a bit too rich for me. I’ll stick with the vin de table.
Another beach we really liked was Mullet Bay, which is near the Maho shopping district and Juliana Airport. Mullet Bay is on the site of a ruined resort that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1995, on land which is currently in legal dispute with the Dutch courts and the property owners which fled with the insurance settlement money. However, the beach is still pristine and is very popular with locals.
One thing to keep in mind while visiting St. Martin/Sint Maarten is that effectively, every single beach is considered to be topless, including the “family” beaches. There are also fully nude/clothing optional beaches but those are specially marked. There were times where literally half the women on the beach at Mullet and at Friar’s were wearing nothing on top, with lots of kids running around and American families having to explain to gawking 13 year old boys what was going on.
While I won’t deny being piqued by the bathing habits of the local fauna, it was pretty darned hot out and my primary interest was staying cool. Carib Lager, made in Trinidad, kept me from overheating. If you get hungry at Mullet, there’s a great “lolo” (BBQ stand) called Maria’s which serves inexpensive but very good grilled chicken and ribs.
The town of Marigot on the French side is the center of shopping activity during the daytime and also one of the two best dining destinations — the other being Grand Case, which is considered one of the best restaurant towns in Caribbean but is very, very difficult to park in during the evening. Just like France, it keeps European hours, so the shops are open in the morning until noon and close for three hours for lunch, after which the shops open for another two hours (3-5) and then the restaurants re-open at 7PM.
In addition to many European shops in Marigot there are also many street cafes where you can sample traditional French and Island fusion cuisine.
Rachel and I ended up at Chez Patrick, a local-owned cafe which serves French and Island cuisine.
This is a Vietnamese-style salad with Crab Springrolls and fried plantains.
Rachel had a savory crepe with chicken, mushrooms and cream sauce.
I opted for Poulet a la Colombo, a chicken dish with a butter/West Indian curry sauce. The Colombo curry spice is carried at all the local supermarkets if you want to bring some home.
Chef Patrick cooked himself up an Entrecote du Boeuf, a shell steak stuffed with goat cheese.
He brought us over a very nice Lemon Pie a la mode.
If you’re a cigar afficionado, the island has many shops where you can purchase cigars from the Dominican Republic, Honduras… and, uh…
The Front de Mer in Marigot is very pretty and boasts marinas and moorings for large yachts.
It’s also a nice place to catch a sea breeze.
Parking on the Front de Mer can be tight, especially in the evening. There are many waterside cafes and restaurants.
My favorite Marigot restaurant during the week was Claude’s Mini-Club, a 45 year old French restaurant on the Front de Mer which is built around a treehouse and serves a Price Fixe Caribbean buffet on Wednesday and Saturday nights for $54.00 per person, which includes wine, all the grilled and steamed lobster you can eat, dessert and cheese courses, and many other items including grilled fish, conch soup and roast suckling pig. (photo from SXM-info.com). It is an absolute bargain and you shouldn’t leave St. Martin without going at least once. Be very hungry when you arrive.
Not all French dining on St. Martin is expensive, however. Eden Restaurant in Oyster Pond, which is close to the Dutch side on the Eastern side of the island, specializes in Pizza and all-you-can eat Moules Frites (mussels with French Fries) for 15 euro per person, with your choice of White Wine, Herb/Garlic/Onion Cream, Roquefort Cream and Colombo Curry sauces.
If you get sick of French food, the island has all sorts of international cusines to choose from. The Maho shopping area near Juliana airport has Bamboo Bernies, which is a Sushi/Thai restaurant. Their sushi chef was brought in from New York, who used to work for Nobu Matsuhisa, Mr. Iron Chef Japanese himself.
This was called “Sushi Sandwich” and was a boxed/pressed sushi that had tuna, eel, fluke, salmon, avocado and tobiko.
I really liked this Passion Roll.
This is a vegetarian Thai curry, which Rachel ordered.
Both the French and the Dutch side of the island have many casinos if you are of the gambling persuasion. Maho has the Casino Royale, which lights up the street at night.
And when I say light up the street, I mean they light it on fire, with sexy showgirls doing a dance routine that stops traffic. Literally.
Cheri’s Cafe across the street from the Casino Royale has evening entertainment (show starts at 8:30) as well as fun tropical drinks.
Oh, and did I mention that Cheri’s show was performed by drag queens and Micheal Jackson impersonators?
If you’re up late and still feel a bit peckish, there’s always…
Which is dirt cheap. This Falafel Lolo is near the Grand Marche and the big ACE Hardware store in Philipsburg.
And mighty tasty. Made by a Israeli/Palestinian team of business partners who emigrated from Jersusalem three years ago to find a better life for themselves. Maybe we can’t have peace in the Middle East, but in St. Martin, we certainly can.
Gotta have your habanero hot sauce and garlic aoli with your falafel.