Travel, Etc. --> St. Martin
A Visit to St. Martin
Bistros on the Beach
Well, here we are back from vacation, batteries recharged, and ready to face the long, slow transition to spring. Last week we paid our second visit to the wonderful Caribbean island of St. Martin, thanks to our favorite travel club, Ambassadair. We have been using them for almost all our vacations for over ten years and I am still amazed at their ability to get you in and out of exotic places, non-stop, while maximizing your vacation time. It's not always perfect, but when they can transport you 2,000 miles in time to have lunch on the beach the first day, and then get you home by 9:00 pm after having had lunch on the beach on the last day, it does make you wonder about the poor souls on commercial flights who are still laying over in Miami while we're home in bed.
f you love good food, good wine, beautiful beaches and tropical nights, St. Martin may be the perfect combination. The island is split between Dutch and French sovereignty and while the Dutch have the best harbor and all the Cruise ships, the French side certainly has all the charm. I really think it has something to do with the way the French ran their colonies. All the islands that were British colonies still show the sharp division between the governors and governed. The French, on the other hand, created little pieces of France wherever they went by embracing the native population (both literally and figuratively, based upon the look of the population).
It's not just a French run island; they are French, right down to some of the more arrogant French traits. For example, the inability to make any cultural compromise carried right across the Atlantic. We stayed at the Le Meridian, and were amazed every morning watching American guests trying to obtain "coffee to go" at the restaurant. The concept of "to go" just doesn't exist in the French dictionary, not in Paris and certainly not in the colonies. Those asking for coffee would first be stared at stupidly. If they became insistent and used sign language, they would be finally given 1 single cup of scalding black coffee in a thin lidless plastic pool drink cup. Then, as the heat quickly began to blister their fingers, the restaurant manager at the door would insist on $2, not payable in cash, but charged to their room on a dinner check.
Most of the other French ambiance was fortunately much more charming and the contrasts between the American and French tourists makes for marvelous people watching. One of our favorites was a young French couple who were seated near us at dinner the final night. The young lady was a striking blond with a Bridget Bardot pout, wearing an elegant extra wide black rubber band as a top and 18 square inches of black lycra for a skirt. She and her very "left bank" escort settled in as our appetizers were served and were still working on a 2 course meal of very expensive Champagne and cigarettes when we left.
The restaurants are, without a doubt, the finest in the Caribbean. From the beach bars to the wharf side cafes of Margiot, to restaurant row in Grand Case, there are over 150 on the French side of the island and you will have to work to find a bad meal. Air France runs a 747 round trip from Paris each day to St. Martin, and I can only assume that it has become the favorite destination for disaffected young French chefs who take their girl friends and move to St. Martin to open their own restaurants. Wine is taken seriously, with even the humblest wharf-side cafe displaying a 300 bottle plus Vino Temp wine keeper unit. The wine lists are all French and the prices very good with most bottles, 25% to 40% less than would be found on a typical American wine list.
The culinary world of St. Martin is broken into a couple of primary areas. The main town of Marigot centers around the Marina, the beachside town of Grand Case (that may have more restaurants than houses) and the Orient Beach area, famous for it's clothing optional beaches and miramid of beach bars. The highlights of our quick culinary and beach tour include the following:
We were told that the L'Alabama in Grand Case was the best restaurant on the island, and they were right. Fine French cuisine with a Creole twist, fabulous duck and escargot... The village of Grand Case is still the best place for dinner with Le Tastevin and The Fish Pot certainly worth a try, depending on how many versions of lobster bisque you are willing to sample.
The Marina in Margiot is ringed with ten open air wharf-side cafes, all of them good. We tried La Maine A La Pate and La Brasserie De La Gare - best lunches on the island. Margiot is also famous for Mario's Bistro, but no one we talked to was ever able to get a reservation. We were later told by a local that Mario has to recognize your voice when he answers the phone. Oh well...
The BBQ Ribs, French Fries and a small Heineken are all you need for an afternoon of great people watching at Pedro's Beach Bar on Orient Beach. Just remember that the beach is not just topless (like the rest of the island), but clothing optional. Trust me - it will make you understand why most people should wear clothes. Frankly, we are kind of an unattractive species and Orient beach makes me realize that God may have done us all a disservice by not giving us a thick coat of fur. The taxi drop for the folks from the cruise ships is just behind Pedro's, so the most fun is watching their expressions when they wander onto the beach and realize that they're not in Kansas any more.
The ten minute, five dollar boat ride to the deserted island of Pinel is not to be missed. Warm water, a long finger of a beautiful beach sticking out into the shallow, blue water, and very good snorkeling.
The view at the top of Fort St. Louis in Margiot is worth the climb, just don't forget your camera.
Compared to the nearby islands of St. Barth and Anguilla, St. Martin is the low rent district. If you decide to visit the haunts of the rich and famous, Anguila is a quick ferry ride away. However, the trip to St. Barths (or St. Barfs to those who took the boat ride we were on) can be a very rough ride - take the plane...
If you go, or if you've been, let us hear what you liked or disliked because we plan to go back again.
More Bistros on the Beach
Last week's St. Martin travelogue certainly elicited a lot of response from our readers. We also received some inquiries from folks who had never heard of the Ambassadair travel club - you can check them out at http://www.ambassadair.com/. Here are three of the most interesting stories and suggestions for travel to the French Caribbean.
First, from fellow Zionsville expatriate Steve Russo. Steve and I went to grade school at St. Matthews together in the 1950's and our paths didn't cross again until I opened my store here in 1999. I had known him by reputation over the years, since he had a high profile in the advertising agency business in Indianapolis. We were reacquainted when I met him and his dog, a long coat German Shepherd named "Boudreaux Mozart Von Feuerstrum," while getting coffee one morning at the Perc. It seems that, like me, Steve found the Zionsville cure. Now he and Boudie can be seen walking back from the Perc each morning, to his office in a restored home on Oak street, where he, Boudie and the staff of one, take care of a few key clients between trips to St. Martin.
Very much enjoyed the Sint Maarten/Saint Martin travelogue. We've enjoyed your list of restaurants many times. For some reason, Mario knows my voice, too. (He was originally the chef at The Rainbow, another Grand Case bistro). La Brasserie is our favorite bistro for lunch/brunch. Your mention reminded me of a personal Brush with Celebrity experience I had one idyllic afternoon on the Marina.
I'd hunkered down at La Brasserie in one of the big-backed rattan chairs tucked under a potted palm tree, looking out over the tourist flow with a fine Monte Cristo, a glass of wine and a day-old copy of the NY Times (you take what you can find in the islands). Part of a group wandering by, a very large man dressed in a sports coat and shorts came over and asked if that was a Monte Cristo #2 I was smoking. When I answered Yes, he asked where I got it as Mr. D loves those cigars. When I asked who Mr. D was, the man directed my gaze to Robert DeNiro, standing just a few feet away.
I directed him to Casa del Cigaro (you know the place) and told him to tell Yves, the owner, that I sent him. A few minutes later, I observed the man (I found out later was Mr. D's Bodyguard) exiting Casa Del Cigaro with sacks filled with boxes of cigars. The group came over to my table and joined me for an afternoon libation, whereupon Mr. D. (Call me, Bob) thanked me for the referral and gave me a wonderful double corona Especiale for my information.
I found out later from Yves that they purchased over $4000 in cigars – which is impressive when you figure Cuban cigars go for $350-$500 a box. Yves now treats me with extra deference these days in the hopes I'll send more of my big spending friends in to shop.
Yes, just hangin out at La Brasserie on a sunny Saint Martin day with my new friend, Bob and Lou the bodyguard.
And, some Orient Beach suggestions from reader Lisa T
Thank you for the suggestions and reviews of some of the restaurants on the French side of St. Maarten. On our trip last October we didn't get to spend as much time in Marigot as we had hoped due the unfortunate debilitating bad back of one of our traveling companions. However, we did spend a few days on Orient Beach. The beach chairs are very comfortable - at least that's why our husbands insisted we go there. While I agree that the ribs and fries are good at Pedro's Beach Bar, all four of us agreed that Baywatch on the Beach won the vote for best American food. The proprietor Andy and his wife Cheryl are as spicy as the homemade Italian sausage and peppers. They made us feel as though we were guests in their home, even though that home is thousands of miles away in New Jersey and probably would not have nude middle aged couples sitting three feet from you. Andy's heart is as big as his stomach, which is large, to say the least.
Another restaurant that my husband and I were glad to see still there and prospering was Cheri's Cafe at Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island. Our condo was right across the street at the Royal Islander Club La Plage. It made it nice that we could go somewhere close that we could walk 'home' after enjoying a few tropical drinks. Cheri's has a full menu of mostly American fare served in large portions and reasonable prices. The highlight of open air dining or cocktails is the nightly cabaret show performed by an all male group complete with a knockout Tina Turner impression, comedy skits and audience participation.
In general, we never had a bad meal anywhere we ate on the island and we are very excited to be able to go back this November.
One last thing that is kind of fun, on the way into the main shopping area in Phillipsburg (Dutch side), is an old plane that has been painted to look like a Heineken bottle and it's insides have been converted into a restaurant and bar. We never ate there but the food will try this next trip.
Thank you for letting me share some of our experiences on "The Friendly Island".
This one comes from former Ambassadair tour director. We had a number of people tell us that La Samanna was the best resort on the island and She certainly makes the case for it. However, since the rates I checked start at $930 a night, I'm going to have to sell a lot more wine and cheese before we visit. You can check it out at http://www.icfar.com/hoteldetails.asp?ahotelid=11242136
I was a Tour Director for Ambassadair for a year (my family has been members of Ambassadair since the 70's) I have traveled to St. Martin as a Tour Director and on family vacation. If you want to stay at a true 5 star resort, try La Samanna (I have stayed at Le Meridian). It is on the French side. On a private beach, voted top #10 in the Caribbean...I cannot say enough about this resort. It is rather pricey, but the accommodations, food, service, and property outshine all the rest. From the day you enter the small, quaint lobby, you are formally addressed by all staff, you are served sorbet and fruit while laying on the beach...the complimentary breakfast buffet is outstanding! You will not find scrambled eggs and sausage, but wonderful delicatessence like lox and cream cheese, various quiches, candy-like fruit, etc. The restaurant is truly out of a movie! It hangs over a small cliff along the water; therefore, you have the most beautiful view while dining! The rooms are heaven...hand painted tiles adorn the bathrooms, ceiling fans throughout with air-conditioning, plush beds, Spanish tile in your living room...a small kitchenette...and balconies that overlook the beautiful bay. Not only is the beach pristine, but you soft sand at the bottom. Not only did we receive fruit and sorbet while laying on the beach, we also were constantly provided with cool, moist towels. Bill Cosby had just left when we arrived! Did I mention they have a beautiful pool, fitness center, 24 hour room service, 55 acres of lush gardens, and watersports included?
I encourage you to use Ambassadair for their chartered, non-stop ATA flights, but also look into other properties. Air-only is a wonderful option, especially to get away from all of the "Indiana vacationers". Ambassadair chooses their properties to satisfy the "masses"...be adventurous!