Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Caribbean gem with a little European touch: St. Maarten-St. Martin

My love affair with St. Maarten-St. Martin, a Caribbean island nestled in the heart of the Leeward Islands, began some 30 years ago. I made landfall there during a sailboat charter with the Moorings, a yacht charter company based in Clearwater.

My arrival coincided with the staging of the Heineken Regatta, which was in its infancy. Since then it has become one of the premier sailing events in the world, attracting some 300 sailboats from around the globe. While, yes, it is a sailing competition, it can best be described as a gigantic party that brings together locals and tourists in a four-day festival of fun. In fact, the regatta's motto is "Serious Fun."

The regatta, held the first weekend in March each year, showcases both sides of the island, which is shared by two nations: the Netherlands and France.

St. Maarten-St. Martin is the smallest island in the world to have dual nationality. St. Maarten is the southern half of the island, with its capital Philipsburg. St. Martin is the northern half, with the capital Marigot.

At 37 square miles in area, it is a small island, but it has a big appetite for pleasure. Sadly, the activities slated for the French side and centered in Marigot were suspended in 2015 due to the lack of funding. But the Dutch were not deterred, and in Philipsburg the party rages on, featuring local and international bands and top-name acts at outdoor venues, as well as varied entertainment at the bars and pubs located in and around the boardwalk meandering along the beach. On Sunday, the last day of the gala, the scene moves to Kim Sha beach for one gigantic, exhausting finale featuring the headliner act and concluding fireworks.

My modus operandi lo these many years has been virtually the same: Check into my hotel on Thursday as early as possible, since the first party is that evening at Port de Plaisance resort and casino, where live music, food and souvenir vendors, Heineken Regatta memorabilia and much more help kick off the events in grand style.

There are excellent hotels on both sides of the island, ranging from all-inclusive resorts like the Sonesta Maho Beach in Maho Bay and the luxurious Sonesta Ocean Point resort, to small boutique hotels such as L'Esplanade on the French side. In between, there are family-oriented hotels, including Oyster Bay resort on the border between the Dutch and French side, which was my base in 2016, and Great Bay, a newly remodeled resort near the heart of Philipsburg.

The Sonesta Maho Beach and Sonesta Ocean Point resorts are two of my favorite hotels because this lively quarter is home to a great casino, disco and specialty shops and restaurants like Bamboo Bernie's and Cherri's Cafe adjacent to the hotels. The parking garage also is a plus if you rent a car. The Maho area is so popular with tourists that parking on the street is next to impossible.

After attending festivities at Port de Plaisance, well into the early morning hours, Friday is a day to experience one of the many magnificent beaches in order to get some rest and prepare for the celebration on the boardwalk in Philipsburg. Two of the best and most visited strands are Cupecoy and Orient Bay. Orient Bay is a clothing optional beach that is generally clogged with Europeans who are extremely fond of the lax rules regarding nudity. The French portion of the beach is sans clothing while the other half is not. Other options include Baie Rouge (Red Beach), Friars Bay and Mullet Bay, the latter within walking distance of the hotels.

Cruise ships also dock at St. Maarten, the leading port in the Caribbean, giving their guests an opportunity to soak up some vibrant atmosphere ... with a little European touch, as the island likes to boast.

For many visitors, including myself, it seems more sensible to stay on the Dutch side of the island and sample the French-owned territory on day trips. In Marigot, you'll find boutiques filled with the latest fashions from Paris, the finest in French perfumes, exquisite jewelry and, of course, many restaurants majoring in delectable French cuisine. Grand Case, just a few miles north of Marigot, is famed for its street filled with a variety of restaurants. Café Calmos is always on my list for lunch or dinner.

For a grand adventure, hike Pic du Paradis, the highest peak on the island at 1,492 feet, and do the zip line, one of the longest in the Caribbean. Views from the mountain include all of St. Maarten-St. Martin and the surrounding islands of Anguilla, Saba and St. Eustatius.

An especially good day to saunter over to Marigot is on Saturdays, when the market along the waterfront opens. It is jammed with vendors selling everything from fruit to wooden carvings to island music. Scattered among all the trappings of booths and tables are locals cooking tempting barbecue chicken, fish and beef on outdoor grills the size of small Volkswagens. There also is an air-conditioned upscale mall nearby if you need a break from the sun.

Even without the Marigot leg of the regatta and accompanying festivities, the event is still a compelling three-day affair worth planning a vacation around. Visitors who want to get more immersed in the happenings can go out on sightseeing boats for a few dollars to get a closeup view of the sailing. But at the end of every day and into the wee hours, there is that commitment to serious fun.

"In the States and elsewhere, a lot of regattas are very serious," said Robbie Ferron of the St. Maarten Yacht Club. "Here, it is very simple: You get up in the morning and go race. Then you go party. Then you go to sleep. Then you do it all over again."

And that's why I keep coming back.

Tom Wuckovich, a former travel editor for AAA Going Places magazine, has written about travel for 35 years.

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