Rum, Recreation + R&R
Upon announcing plans for trip to St. Martin, a cultured colleague corrected my pronunciation and informed me that it’s actually St. Marteen (with a drawn out eee). As it turns out, both are correct, as the half-French, half-Dutch island hums with two distinct cultures, governments, and currencies.
Tucked between the Atlantic and the Caribbean oceans, St. Martin and is colloquially called the “Friendly Island” by Caribbean travelers. From airport security, to taxi drivers, tour guides, to passersby by, the locals consistently greet visitors with eye contact and a genuine smile. Most locals speak French, English, and Dutch, so stopping for directions ordering in restaurants and general communication is easy. With 80 different nationalities represented in the population today, St. Martin makes for an integrated, warm, and welcoming vacation spot for LGBT travelers.
Whether you’re craving some good old-fashioned rest and relaxation to recharge your battery and reconnect with your partner or wanting an active week of water sports, culinary adventure, gambling and exploration, this little island has it available at all price points.
There are numerous hotels and guesthouses for rent throughout the island, which range in price from $75 on up to several thousand per night. Radisson Blu (RadissonBlu.com/Resort-StMartin), which sits adjacent to the marina, on a cozy, private stretch of beach, offers a luxurious, pampering getaway for $275-$2100, depending on season and room choice. Rates include a tasty, daily breakfast buffet for two (with a mix of meats, omelet station, fruits, and cereals) a fitness room, business center, gardens, volleyball nets, and croquet sets. A gorgeous 300-foot infinity swimming pool sits above the beach, and cabanas are available for privacy and shade. For those wanting heaps of pampering, Radisson Blue also offers packages that include daily spa services such as facials, reflexology, manicures, body wraps, waxing, and poolside body massages from Paris-trained technicians.
As part of the island gaining autonomy from France, locals were encouraged through low land cost and tax incentives to purchase property in the 1980s and 1990s. They are now allowed to convert them to commercial use, and as a result, there is a large inventory of private rentals available throughout the French side of the island. Those looking for longer stays, full kitchens or multiple rooms for an extended family may be better served by sourcing these houses, apartments or villas (StMartinIsland.org).
Located in the Northwest of the island, the village of Grand Case is the gastronomic capital of the Caribbean. Numerous restaurants line the main street and offer traditional French cuisine mixed with Italian, Indian, and fresh fish specialties. Foodies will appreciate the subtle blend of flavors, which typically include the douceurs épicées (sweet spicy), annatto spice, and chayote squash. For those wanting more of the local flair, roadside Lolos (literally locals cooking in front of their homes) offer stuffed crabs and grilled lobster at a fraction of the price of restaurants. Located throughout the island, Lolos are sometimes simple one-person operations, while other times a team of family members are cooking together and offer seating and beverages to patrons.
Not a place to lose weight, St. Martin is known for rich dishes like oxtail stew, Johnny Cakes (fried bread), Jacks (fried fish), and pies stuffed with beef or fish. Snapper is abundant, along with tuna, marlin, lobster, and shark for those craving seafood.
Decorated with colorful Caribbean charm, Le Tastevin, located in Grand Case, also offers a beautiful, open-air contemporary French-Caribbean dining option. A local favorite since 1984, some of their decadent, must-try specialties include aged rum foie gras pate and stewed dry fig appetizer, followed by pork tenderloin in cider and mapuche spices, turnips glazed with honey and finished off with chocolate and Nutella crunch rolls. Owners Christine & José Manrique roam the floor and chat with guests. You are guaranteed to leave satisfied and full.
Dark or light, St. Martin offers hundreds of rum options, including refreshing fruit-infused light rum in flavors ranging from pineapple, coconut and ginger, to banana, and coffee, among others. Another popular island drink is Le Planteur Punch, a rum drink with fruit and grenadine. A holiday favorite, the Guavaberry is St. Martin’s traditional liqueur that is made from aged rum, brown sugar, and wild guava berries that grow in the hills in the center of the island. Locals sell bottles of the festive beverage wrapped with a colorful ribbon top in open air markets throughout the island.
With 37 beautiful, unique, white sand beaches, St. Martin offers numerous activities for the water-loving contingency. Boating, diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, fishing, jet skiing, and sunbathing in the warm, clear water provide a new daily activity for the adventurous set. The weather, water, and air temperature (averaging between 77° and 84°) and dependable trade winds provide ideal conditions for all types of water sports year round. Sailing charters are available with Captain Stephane Mazurier (Scoobidoo.com) on his 64-foot yacht. He offers various excursions, including half-day trips to Pinel Island, which consist of a freshly grilled halibut lunch in beachside thatched hut, while sunbathing with attentive cocktail waiters serving up cold beverages before heading home on a sunset cruise.
St. Martin teems with tropical treasures for undersea explorers of all skill levels. Local snorkelers encounter numerous small reef fish and extensive gardens of purple, long-spined sea urchins. Hidden in-between rocks, the more adventurous scuba diver will discover spider-like Arrow Crabs, Banded Coral Shrimp, Scarlet Ladies and abundant purple tipped Sea Anemone. Scuba dive boats operate from the marina, and offer half and full day packages through Scuba Zen (Dive-St-Martin.com). Choosing the full day package, we explored a 30-foot deep wreck dive, around a sunken tugboat and an exhilarating 40-foot deep cave dive, with the guidance of a dive master.
Venturing into the port town of Merigot, you’ll discover galleries featuring island painters and craftsmen, a local Mercado, and stellar duty-free shopping. Highlights include the Longchamps store, where everything is a good 40% less than in the U.S., and Cartier, where you save more like 20%. Artistic Jewelers (ArtisticJewelers.com), carries David Yurman, Mikimoto and Van Cleef & Arpels, among others. Many of the shops are full of tourist tchotchke; however finding the quality section (near the marina) makes it make it worth the hunt.
Merigot also hosts Eros (erosclub-saintmartin.com) the islands lone gay bar. Relatively small, this easy-going bar and club has a mixed crowd (gay, lesbian, bi) which attracts both tourists and locals, however check their schedule as they aren’t open every night.
Hiking trails of all levels offer a scenic activity through the less developed sections of the island. Group trips are available through SMX Trail Club (stmartintrails.com).
History buffs should stop by the historical Fort Louis, which was built in 1765 to defend the French population from foreign invaders. The stairs leading up are quite a work out, but the spectacular panoramic view of the city of Marigot and Simpson Bay Lagoon are well worth it. Open daily, the nearby Museum of Marigot (museesaintmartin.com) offers island history through a mix of artifacts from the island’s first inhabitants. Items on display include pottery dating between 500BC and 600AD, early survival tools and historical writings about the history of St. Martin’s colonization..
Water shuttle service is available to and from the airport for around $50 and takes only 20 minutes, however nighttime arrivals require a shuttle van instead. April through October are the lowest priced months, while the December to January holiday season is the most costly. Festivals, carnivals, regattas, and various cultural events happen throughout the year (StMartinisland.org). Direct flights are available from Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, San Juan and Washington DC through US Airways Delta Airlines, United Airlines, American Airlines, jetBlue and Spirit Airlines.