Saint Martin/St Maarten is a tiny French and Dutch island — only 85 square kilometres — nestled in between the Atlantic and Caribbean. You can drive the perimeter in less than an hour.
First inhabited by the Ciboney Indians this tropical island is without a river, but has plenty of salt ponds. Christopher Columbus named Saint Martin in 1493, and in 1648 a treaty signed on the lush Mount Concordia had the French claim 60 per cent and the Dutch 40 per cent. It took a few centuries of squabbling before the border was finally set in 1817. Today the island offers a cruise-ship port, casinos, fine restaurants, over 35 beaches with plenty of water sports, and island hopping via boat or puddle-jumper to neighbouring Anguilla, Saint Barthelemy and Saba.
We stayed on the French side of the island far from the casinos and cruise ships. In our Hyundai Fox rental car we drove half the island (30 minutes) to the old-world Esmeralda Resort. It is located on the quieter section of Orient Bay with 18 pastel-coloured Creole-styled villas with private dipping pools. Petit dejuener is included, and is served in L'Astrolabe, which in the evening transforms into a fine dining restaurant. The fresh bread and croissant baskets made us feel like we were in France, as did the unisex string bikinis and toplessness on the beach.
Our boys (11 and nine years old) were prepared, as we discussed beach nudity before our arrival; however there were some giggles and finger pointing when male G-stringers passed us by. A section for full nudity is at the south end of the bay.
The first three days were ideal beach days, as the surf was calm enough for beginner body surfers with modest-size waves. We remained at the resort's Coco Beach with the matching blue umbrellas, lounge mats, and striped towels. Many people reserve their beach chairs on St. Martin. We never did, and we were never front row to the water. If you care, reserve.
Brown pelicans, the national bird, entertained us, as did the kite surfers along the bay. Pelicans plunge-dive to stun their prey before scooping the fish up in their bills. Kite surfing and wind surfing are popular water sports. An eastern wind whips up a variety of water conditions in a shallow open area ideal for the novice, as well as the expert.
The Coco Beach restaurant is excellent for lunch. With juicy burgers and frites for the kids, local mahi mahi, and daily specials like tagliata beef with arugula, and roasted duckling with ginger bread, there is no need to venture far. Another nearby restaurant we enjoyed was Café Antoine — try Gigi's chicken, a local favourite.
On our fourth day we expanded our horizons to explore Ilet Pinel. The ferry, a modestly sized wooden flat boat, is docked at Cul De Sac only a five-minute drive from Orient Bay. Arrive early to secure a free shade spot; otherwise be prepared to pay for chaises and umbrellas. It cost us $50 (US) plus the ferry, which is $12 (US) per person. Keep your eyes open for sea turtles; we spotted one on the ride over. Also, bring your snorkel gear — we couldn't find any to rent on Pinel, although Ferry Captain Mike was kind enough to lend us his only mask. The food at Yellow Beach Restaurant was unimpressive, although the iguana feeding area was in perfect view of our shaded hut-like table.
Three coves away in Grand Case, an old fisherman's wharf, is the gourmet capital of the Caribbean. We did not make reservations, but we arrived early (6:30 p.m.) to explore our options along Boulevard de Grand Case. Our boys empathized with the local Caribbean lobsters displayed in the restaurant tanks — they were ready to set them all free, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come. Le Cottage's chef David Hanquer offered a special four-course lobster menu, and we splurged on a bottle of Pierre Grandet Champagne. A children's menu is available, but our boys split the Caesar salad and beef tenderloin instead.
Our United flight was delayed an hour, so after checking in at Princess Juliana International, we hoofed it over to the Sunset Bar & Grill, the infamous take-off-and -landing bar. It was packed, so we opted for the Driftwood Boat Bar a few metres away. We wondered what the fuss was all about. People stood next to the runway while a plane's jet blast pelted them with sand.
A few hours earlier our vista was the kite surfers catching air, while our boys tossed their football along a pristine shore. Orient Bay had cast her spell upon us. I promised myself that my family and I would return. Maybe next time I will try riding the waves.