StMartin Trip Report: 13-19 May 07
Our fourth St Martin visit, always staying with VERY kind friends: VKFs) who have a villa (and cars) in Terres Basses (niiiiiiccce!) Flew a fairly full American flight from Miami. On time, no issues, no food, but that's now par for the course. First experience with new air terminal, which does not seem particularly handicap friendly, since you climb down a flight of stairs from the airbridge. There must be an elevator somewhere, but we didn't spot it. Large immigration area, plenty of stations, very friendly agents. Quick baggage claim, and easy exit, but you have to cross the main road to reach the parking lot.
They are building like crazy around Cupecoy Bay, and the new super-marina is moving slowly forward. There is now even a traffic roundabout and banners for Sotheby's, so you can guess the price range. Speaking of which, MAJOR sticker shock on the French side with the Euro in the high 1.30s. Means your greenbacks are worth 30-40% less. Even our French buddy, who gets paid in Euros, does all his shopping, restauranting, etc, on the Dutch side, which is dollar denominated and welcomes US credit cards at 1 to 1. ATMs on Dutch side also dispense dollars, and they are plentiful along the Simpson's Bay "strip."
We were accompanied by our 31yo son, his girl friend, and three other pals (did I mention our VKFs have a BIG house and a van to go with the Suzuki minicar?) They naturally wanted to head for Orient Bay right off, so off we went along the Marigot waterfront, took a left by the market in front of the West Indies indoor mall, and took the waterfront "shortcut" to the roundabout. This saves all the traffic by the Match supermarket. We like to hang at Kon Tiki at Orient. Plenty of parking, adequate toilets, comfy lounges and umbrellas, friendly service. The restaurant is pricy but snacks on the beach are not unreasonable. Two lounges plus one umbrella 15 Euros, which they round to about $16-a real bargain for all day. In '03, with all the nasty xenophobia/franophobia going around somebody on this board accused Kon Tiki of flying a US flag upside down, but we never saw that then. This time they had two US flags AND a Maryland State Flag flying (go figure.) They rent jetskis, parachute rides, etc. It's a good spot from which to watch the extremely tan folks from Club Orient doing their constitutionals. If you stroll right along the beach toward Club Orient you'll discover a mini-price-war with folks advertising lounge/umbrella/AND a drink for $5. There are also some neat little beach shack restaurants. We had a great cheap lunch last May, but this year things were pretty dead and both seemed closed. The "kids," two of them competitive swimmers, swam out to Tintimarre island, reporting starfish, rays, etc. We were just happy they all made it back.
Another day we hit Isle Pinel. Round trip ferry is $6 per person, but the guy didn't have change, so seven of us was $40. Seven lounge chairs and three umbrellas for $57, but the waiterguy was preoccupied all day by the two supertanned topless French girls next to us, so service was minimal. Dear wife and I shared a very generous rib platter at the beach restaurant for about $15. In the last couple of years there's been a building boom on Pinel, so there are now a couple of restaurant shacks as well as the little French shop. They charge for toilets, but the ocean is free. The ferry supposedly runs on the hour until 4pm, but the 3pm ferry departed at about 2:50, so we had to spend an extra hour on the island. Oh the tragedy!
Another nice beach is Bay Rouge, with a snack shack and ratty lounges/umbrellas. Most folks just spread out their beachtowels. St Martin is not a great snorkel island, but the cliffs along the right have some fish, and a couple of neat little hidden beaches connected by a tunnel through the cliff. Great fun.
Ordinarily we would have gone home through Grand Case and hit the "lolos" for ribs and chicken, but a bunch of the kids were vegetarians, so we didn't check out the bbqs this time. And we also passed on the Grand Case restaurants, which in past years offered $1to 1E to entice the Americans. Per our local friend, no longer. Similarly, where last year we enjoyed Ma Ti and Layla's beach restaurants on Nettle Beach, this year we stuck to the Dutch side. We didn't exactly suffer, though, because we had a terrific dinner at Montmartre, a very romantic French restaurant by the Atlantis Casino in Mullet Bay. Very warm, friendly service, excellent food at Washington, DC prices (entres in the $20-30 range, with wine very reasonable with lots of decent $20-40 bottles. $345 for four.) The owner, Karen, also has L'Auberge Gourmande in Grand Case, so we got Grand Case quality for a 40% discount. Had another very nice dinner at the Moulin Fou behind Cheri's next to Casino Royale. They have outside tables, which are OK if you aren't bothered by the raucous floor show at Cheri's. Again, not cheap, but warm and friendly service, and good, high quality food. We used to hit Cheri's for burgers at lunch, but that has gotten old, so we didn't hit them this time. One very reliable cheap joint is however Capuccino's, an open-air shack on the ocean side of the road in Simpson's Bay near Pelican Bay condos. Nice ribs and other stuff, and may be open all night .
For in-home eating, there is a nice little grocery store right at the roundabout by Casino Royale and the Caravanserai Resort. They're open til midnight, and have a buffet with chicken, other meats and sides for $5. a pound to go-sort of a small "salad bar." Mostly American grocery products. The old Ram supermarket in Phillipsburg has closed, but there's another huge grocery store at the roundabout as you enter Phillipsburg from the airport. Big wine selection, again, mostly US products, all in dollars. If you can't survive without your croissant fix, there's a small grocery called "Royale" in Nettle Bay.
As noted, the island was pretty quiet in mid-May, but we hit Bamboo Bernie's in the Caravanserai Resort area by Maho Bay for Wednesday ladies night. Alas, Mudslides are not free--$6. per. Bernie's has been under construction for a while, so you need persistence to get to the bar/restaurant. Terrific sushi. Bliss, which also has good sushi, was also pretty dead, but the kids did run into the two Isle Pinel nymphs-still being pursued by our Isle Pinel beachboy. We tried our luck at Casino Royale, which struck us as a humorless money vacuum cleaner. When our 21 dealer "allowed" too many wins, she was yanked in favor of a cold-eyed expressionless dude who dispatched us in short order. Atlantis was` slightly more subtle, and the pitboss even gave each player a couple of $5 chips-which only slowed the bankrupty by a few minutes.
Departing from the old airport used to be a third-world, sweaty, downer end to a wonderful vacation. The new checkins are spacious and airconditioned, and American was quick and painless. US Airways, on the other hand, tried to replicate the old third world ambiance with few agents and long, slowmoving lines. There are a few small snackbars in the checkin hall selling pizza, subs, and stirfry, but the real action is after you clear immigration/security. Upstairs is a large duty-free hall with lots of shops-don't be suckered into buying booze because, remember, you have to re-enter security in the US and they'll confiscate your liquids. They have a nice bar with a great view of the runway, which shows that, on Saturdays at least, the brand new airport is already TOO SMALL. Four airbridges, and we had an AirFrance 340 jumbo, and seven US planes from US Air, Delta, Continental, and American all parked every which way. So downstairs to a cramped holding pen, out to the buses, and a long hot trudge across the tarmac and up the stairs to the plane. Sigh. And then of course there's the fun of clearing immigration at Miami and re-clearing TSA security. No wonder going down is so much more fun than coming back. Still, all in all, its worth the money and travel for the genuinely laid back and live-and-let-live atmosphere.