Sint Maarten is one of those places that comes immediately to mind when we think, Aaaah, Caribbean. It’s the Hubs’ immediate response to the question, “Which island would you like to go back to for a week, a month, a retirement?” In fact, we do go back often, with pleasure.
However, our first visit did not leave us longing for more of St. Martin. We quite missed the point. We were sucked into one of those tours that should be banned forever. I’m sure it was the Hubs’ idea.
The point, I thought, was a scenic tour of both the Dutch and French sides of the island. No. Turned out, the point was to take the island by duststorm. We rode for hours on 4-wheeled ATVs, slowly baking in the tropical heat.
Nearly the entire tour was bumping along on minimally maintained blacktop, when we weren’t dodging holes on a dirt trail; a long string of ATVs following closely, one after another. I could pity the residents, no doubt annoyed by the perpetual whine. Something like a giant, incessant mosquito?
We were at the mercy of understanding local motorists at each crossroad, most sans traffic lights or even stop signs. We felt pressed to move through uninterrupted, lest we sever the chain, irresponsibly losing the way for those following behind. Most of the time, they waited patiently for us to pass. (Tourists!)
At more than one intersection it occurred to me that this was dangerous. When the lead guide did not stop to intersect traffic, my heart pounded in my chest. What if a car came careening around that curve? I gunned it and sped across, knowing I would be furious to hear that any one of our children had been so foolish as to take this tour!
When we finally came to a stop at Orient Beach, my hand was numb from throttling. My white linen shirt was splattered with mud. My head ached under the hard, hot plastic helmet. My jaw, too — no doubt from clenching my teeth. It was not a joy ride, not by a long shot. The Hubs and I weren’t long finding a table under an umbrella and downing a couple of brews. I dreaded the return trip. And I had a bad, gritty taste in my mouth for St. Martin for quite some time.
The next time we visited, we decided to explore on our own. It was a good decision; we’ve done the same ever since. The island has become familiar, which makes for a very relaxing day. St. Martin provides a lovely mix, and not just of Dutch and French.
We watertaxi into Phillipsburg, still quiet in the early morning, and cab to Marigot, on the French side. We enjoy pastries and café au lait. We shop art and spices. Dona Bryhiel‘s artwork adorns our home to remind us of this place. I restock on French Vanilla and purchase Caribbean spices for friends. We wander the straw market and explore for a bit, enjoying the harbor views. We are neither hurried nor worried because we know our way. Easy peasy.
Eventually, we return to Phillipsburg. First, a bit more shopping. This is not the frenzied “outlet” shopping atmosphere of other ports. (Although there was some suspicious construction underway at the pier last year. Sigh.) This is an opportunity to buy fine Dutch products. Linens for certain; baby gifts and housewares. Sometimes cheese; Gouda is especially nice. Jewelry is also big here. We visit a family run jewelry on Front Street to chat with Sam, perhaps arrange for repairs. He attends to our modest needs as if we are old friends or important customers. Always a delight.
Our best visits involve meaningful conversations, often with a colorful cabbie, like Tony, whose stories entertained us for the half-hour drive to the French side. Another cabbie told of relocating his family from Aruba. Well, huh. We’ve enjoyed Aruba; isn’t that a paradise island, too? Turns out there are degrees of paradise when you live in the tropics. We learn a lot from cabbies, wherever we wander.
Finally, we land at Taloulah Mangoes for local fare and refreshing brews. It’s easy enough to take a swim; the boardwalk rims a lovely crescent of silky white sand. The sun is intense by then. We enjoy the live band and people-watch, older folk arm in arm, younger folk strutting their stuff, beach hawkers selling lounge chairs and umbrellas, drinks, beach activities. We dream of that time we will have a week, a month, a season at our leisure. Someday, maybe? For now, we are content with a small slice, just a day.
Next trip, perhaps we’ll mix it up a bit, find another adventure. Maybe the high speed ferry to St. Bart’s? Maybe a little beach, off the beaten path? But if we have friends along, perhaps we’ll give the grand St. Martin tour, our way. Whaddya’ say?
~ René Morley