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Cruising St. Martin/Sint Maarten

by Dave Marx, Author of PassPorter Travel Guides

Is it possible to know a place too well? Normally, I'd have to say no --  discovery is one of life's greatest pleasures, especially when you're discovering something new right in your own backyard. But when you're responsible for guiding others, as I am, you run the risk of overloading your readers with more information than they can possibly make use of. Is this necessarily bad? No, but you do run the risk of sending readers on a hectic, see-it-all-in-one-day rat race--hardly the way to spend a rewarding vacation.

We work very hard to keep our port-of-call advice in PassPorter's Field Guide to the Disney Cruise Line and its Ports of Call attuned to what's practical for a single-day visit to the island. Here, however, I'm going to stretch out a bit for those who might be spending more time on the island or simply want to know more.

Of all the islands visited by the Disney Cruise Line, Sint Maarten is the one I know best. My parents started visiting the island about 30 years ago, and have been part-owners of a house there for nearly as long. While I haven't been there annually as my parents have, I've spent many week-plus vacations enjoying the pleasures of this half-French, half-Dutch island. (I refer to it as Sint Maarten, the Dutch spelling, rather than St. Martin, the French/English spelling, as the Disney Magic docks on the Dutch side.) This intimate knowledge is an advantage and a problem for me. Every place changes over time and my memories of a much quieter, less popular island blend with the current reality, so I have to take care that my advice is really up-to-date. But it also means I'm more confident in my advice than I can possibly be for other islands, something I hope you can all benefit from.


JenniferandDaveonPeak.jpg (10235 bytes)
Jennifer and Dave on Pic Paradise on St. Martin


We paid a one-day visit to my family's "home island" aboard the Disney Magic in May of this year, and a month later we returned for an 11-day celebration of my father's 75th birthday with my parents, my brother's family, my daughter Allie, and of course, Jennifer. With a group this size, we couldn't stay at my parent's place (and besides, it was rented for the off-season). Instead, we rented Casa Boco http://www.villalady.com/wfcasaboco.htm, a five-bedroom waterfront villa on a rocky peninsula near Juliana Airport. The house met our needs beautifully, with a large patio perched on the edge of crashing surf, a delightful view, lots of room for family togetherness, comfortable bedrooms, and a generously-sized pool that kept the kids very happy. At off-season rates, we got a lot for our money.

My parents normally vacation around Thanksgiving time, but we chose to celebrate closer to Dad's July 5th birth date. Friends on the island tried to discourage us from coming, as late June is nominally part of hurricane season. Statistically, though, bad weather is a long shot this early in the season, and we had no weather problems during our stay. My parents had never visited the island at this time of year, and were pleasantly surprised. While temperatures were a bit higher than we're used to in Michigan, the cool island breezes and moderate temperatures were a relief for the rest of our New Jersey and Georgia-based family.

CAR RENTALS
If you do rent a car, reserve in advance and be sure to bring your reservation documents with you. We found the one-day rates for walk-up customers at the cruise ship pier were about $20 higher than the rate we had reserved just days earlier (but the agent had to be reminded that had the lower rate). There are five rental agencies with offices at the cruise ship pier. We booked online through http://www.stmaartencarrentalguide.com and bought low-cost insurance at the same site. Our car was new and in good condition (you can't always count on that with the bargain rental firms).

PHILIPSBURG
The Disney Magic docks at the east end of Philipsburg. In PassPorter's Field Guide to the Disney Cruise Line I give the town pretty short shrift. My personal preference for a few hours of in-town shopping and lunch remains Marigot, on the French side of the island, but Philipsburg deserves better than I gave it. Recent upgrades have made this port town far more pleasant than it used to be, although the main shopping district on Front Street will still be a tangle of fellow cruisers.

You still won't find much of interest on Back Street and other areas away from the waterfront, as those cater to the local population who come into town for business and government-related activities. What is very pleasant is the new outdoor market behind the landmark courthouse on Front Street. Each attractive stall is chock-full of colorful clothing and souvenir items, and the market area isn't too large to feel overwhelming. Not surprisingly, the shops and restaurants on Front Street are progressively more up-scale as you get closer to the cruise terminal. However, it's worth walking beyond the name-brand shops, past the courthouse and local elementary school. Here, you'll find several charming beachfront restaurants connected to Front Street by long, shady alleyways, and locally-run shops offering appliquÚd Antillean linens alongside more typical goods. Along the way, jewelry hounds may want to pop into Little Europe, a large luxury goods shop that's a favorite with my parents and their friends. Great Bay Beach, which parallels Front Street, is more attractive than ever. Its close proximity to the ship and the pleasures of downtown, and the lack of significant crowds make it a good choice for a quick beach break. We had a delightful lunch at Kangaroo Court, a fairly new addition on a side street next to the courthouse. It has a very pleasant bar area and indoor seating, but the rustic, open-air courtyard out back is the real treat. I can personally vouch for the grilled fish sandwich.

MARIGOT
The capital city of French St. Martin continues to grow. The government completed a large waterfront redevelopment several years ago. Landfill has pushed the town's long row of waterfront restaurants one block inland, and a new open-air market area and generous (free) parking facilities occupy the new turf. There's also a cluster of new restaurants alongside the market, competing heavily with the older establishments for the tourist lunch dollar (or euro). You'll have no problem finding a very attractive lunch special at around 8 euros ($8-9, depending on exchange rates) anywhere near the waterfront.

daveinmarigot.jpg (15635 bytes)
Dave at a lovely waterside cafe in Marigot


At the north end of the waterfront is a very upscale indoor mall. It's worth a visit, if only for the air conditioning. You have to be in a real spending mood to actually shop there. The shopping on Rue de la Republique, the broad street running inland from the harbor isn't what it used to be. Some of the luxury-goods shops are gone, and others, like Little Switzerland, have relocated on the side streets. The avenue's sidewalks used to be home to the weekly native market, but I suspect business for the full-time shops suffered when the market was moved to the waterfront. While I'm sure the waterfront-area restaurants will serve you very well, I still stand by my recommendation of the bistros around Port la Royale marina. The location is charming, as is the dining. We ate there three times during our visit, each time at a different restaurant. Count on being shmoozed and cajoled into choosing each restaurant you pass by their business-hungry staffs. Just smile, relax, and make your own choice.

BEACHES
With the exception of a lunchtime visit to Orient Beach and some quick visual inspections, every beach we visited was new to me. Oh, I knew they were there, but with 30-some beaches to choose from, there is still a bunch I've yet to enjoy. So I didn't visit my personal favorite, Rouge, to see how it has (or hasn't) changed. Mullet, formerly part of the now-defunct resort of the same name, is very convenient to the airport-area resorts. The surf is moderate, and local entrepreneurs run snack bars and rent lounges and umbrellas. This is also one of the few beaches with public restrooms. Beach erosion has brought the surf at nearby favorite Cupecoy right up to the cliffs, leaving only one beach area easily accessible to bathers. Old standby Maho, right at the end of the airport runway, offers two very popular beachfront bars/snack bars, along with the spectacle of landing and departing aircraft. Jet blasts whip the sand about at painful velocity, and fascinated shutterbugs are constantly on hand to photograph the comings and goings. For the first time we visited Prune, way out on the west end of the island. It's a very pleasant crescent of sand with occasional rock outcroppings, and a nice sandy bottom that drops away a little too quickly for non-swimmers. Bring everything you'll need -- there are no concessionaires, just a scattering of bathers. As Jennifer mentioned in an earlier newsletter, we paid a very enjoyable visit to Pinel Island, just offshore on the northeast corner of French St. Martin. While it's part of the island's nature reserve, there are also a number of concessionaires offering water sports, good-quality souvenirs, and a beachside French bistro (another restaurant was shuttered, but may reopen during high season). It costs $5/person for a roundtrip boat ride from the fishing pier in the village of Cul de Sac. All the development is on the sheltered side of the island, facing the mainland. The view is delicious, and barely a ripple disturbs the warm, shallow waters. This is an excellent beach for small children, if you don't mind them being exposed to topless sunbathers (this is a European outpost, after all). The restaurant is charming and the food enjoyable, with as relaxed a dress code as you can imagine. It's not cheap, though -- budget about $15 per person to be safe. The more adventuresome may enjoy walking around to the wilder side of the island. Try to stay on the footpaths to help preserve the fragile vegetation, and make your way to the rocky Atlantic shoreline. There's a beautiful empty beach with crashing surf (I don't suggest swimming there, though), and lots of rocks to scramble over. The last boat returns to the mainland at 4:00 pm, so plan to arrive reasonably early. Each boat is independently operated, but nobody seems to care which boatman ferries you back ashore. I'm sure it all averages out for them in the end.

EXCURSIONS
As you already know, we recommend a trip to Pinel Island. We also took several excursions that operate out of Pelican Marina -- a sunset catamaran cruise, and a snorkel excursion. This particular tour operator doesn't work with Disney Cruise Line, but similar trips are possible through Disney, too. Pelican is located on the south coast of the island, on Simpson Bay. We had a very pleasant late afternoon cruise on Lambada, the kind of big party catamaran that's so common in Caribbean waters. We sailed a few miles towards the sunset, skirting many of the beaches I mentioned earlier in this article. The crew passed out generous amounts of beer and rum punch (alcoholic beverages are cheaper than soda pop here), and we even got to admire our Casa Boco residence. Alas, the boat had to be back in port before nightfall, so we really didn't see the sunset at all. Still, it was a very pleasant, well-run trip. Two days later Allie, Dad and I took a snorkel excursion by the same operators. About ten guests and one skipper boarded Sand Dollar, a small powerboat, and headed up the coast to Creole Rock, off the island's northwest shore. I enjoyed seeing Sint Maarten from this perspective, and while the snorkeling wasn't spectacular, we did have an enjoyable three-hour trip. This trip is more rewarding and a better value than the brief "sunset" cruise.

TRAFFIC
There was a time when the drive from Juliana Airport to the main body of the island was a quick zip. Over the years, though, this long sandbar that separates Simpson Bay Lagoon from Simpson Bay has become clogged with shops and restaurants. While this makes life convenient for folks living and vacationing in this part of the island (as we were), two-lane Airport Road hasn't grown at all. Even a small disruption can bring traffic to a standstill for more than a mile, and matters can get even worse three times a day, when the two-lane drawbridge guarding the entrance to Simpson Bay is raised. This is still an island with only two traffic lights, and speed bumps instead of radar traps. The latest traffic control innovation is traffic circles ("roundabouts") - and they have untangled several formerly-unruly intersections (I put a few other intersections on my roundabout wish list). Still, give me midtown Manhattan any day of the week!

RESTAURANT ROW
Grand Case, http://www.grandcase.com, the seat of fine dining on the island's French side, is still going strong. We chose to enjoy our last night's dinner there. Should we dine at the classic Fish Pot, trendy Alabama, or elegant Tastevin, none of which I'd ever sampled (and all clustered on a single block in this restaurant-rich community)? Finally, after considering Allie's kid meal options (I wish she were more adventuresome), we crossed the street to old standby Auberge Gourmande, once the island's gustatory crowning glory. My parents were greeted as old friends, and we all had a thoroughly enjoyable meal. If it's no longer #1 (Alabama is supposed to have that honor), it's not because anything has slipped at Auberge.

Sint Maarten has grown and overgrown over the years, and you have to look a lot closer to find the kind of rural, Creole charm we first fell in love with, but some things never change: Top notch croissants and pain au chocolate for breakfast, fabulous fromage and charcuterie in the French supermarkets for happy hour (a perfectly ripened brie for 6 euros a kilo - or less than  $3/lb.!!), $1 Heinekens, and agonizing decisions over the choice of the day's beach and the evening's dining. Life (and a vacation) could be much worse!

 

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Updated 01/07/07 



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