Travel to the crossroads of the Caribbean and visit the glorious island of St. Maarten. Once you go, you’ll never want to leave. It’s that kind of place.
The Dutch island of St. Maarten, comprises the southern forty percent of a gem of a Caribbean island in the Lesser Antilles. The northern portion, the French side known as St. Marten is larger, the locals are quick to inform you, because (according to legend at least) the position of the border was decided in an unusual manner. A Frenchman and a Dutchman were to start at opposite ends of the island and walk toward the middle. Where they met would determine each country’s portion. The night before this event the Frenchman got the Dutchman rip-roaring drunk. In his resultant morning-after state, with the tropical sun beating down on him, the Dutchman could not manage to traverse the same distance as the Frenchman, and therefore St. Maarten is smaller than St. Martin.
Questionable lore aside, St. Maarten is a glorious destination, with a stunning mixture of jungle and arid terrain, riotous flowers in super-saturated shades and exotic cacti. Swaths of candy-coloured houses seem to grow out of green hillsides. The waters surrounding the island seem almost unreal. Surely water can’t truly be this translucent, this turquoise?
My husband and I, and our dear friend Chris visited the Dutch Side for a week. When we returned home our friend was signing up for real estate e-newsletters and dreaming of retirement there. It’s that kind of place.
We stayed at the adult-only, Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort, Casino and Spa, within walking distance of duty-free shopping in Phillipsburg. A major cruise port, Phillipsburg is the capital of the Dutch Side, and a fabulous place for an afternoon’s wander looking at fine jewelry, liquor, clothing and various tchotchkes. Taxis are plentiful and well-marked, should you purchase more than you can carry. USD is widely accepted on the island, as well as the local currency, the NAF on the Dutch side, and the Euro on the French side.
The food at the Sonesta Resort was phenomenal: fresh breads and desserts, creamy Dutch style-cheeses, a nice variety of hot and cold dishes at the buffet. One night was ‘Caribbean’ night and the roasts, barbequed chicken, peas and rice and especially the macaroni pie rivaled anything I’ve had at any local Caribbean eatery, which is to say it was awesome. Macaroni pie is a must-try if you visit the Lesser Antilles.
After our indulging, the three of us required some activity. My friend and I went horseback riding at Lucky Stables, located in the Seaside Nature Park ($65 USD each per hour). When we arrived by taxi we were slightly confused; we found ourselves in the middle of an industrial park rather than a nature park. However, after a safety orientation and mounting up we were soon riding through breathtaking scenery. Instead of clop-clopping along nose to tail with the horse in front of you, this was real riding. We went up large foothills, affording us awesome vistas of neighbouring islands Saba and St. Eustatius and the sun sparkling on the waters below. After a gorgeous 45-minute ride we returned to the beach by the stable, where the guide dismounted to remove our shoes and give us a further safety talk. Time to head into the sea!
This was a once in a lifetime experience. We had ridden horses on the beach before, and while that was exciting, this was something else again. The feeling when the horse switched from walking to swimming was thrilling. The horses seemed to really enjoy themselves too, several of them making interesting chortling noises. Despite the dichotomy of arriving at a nature park next to a water treatment plant and industrial complex, it was an incredibly fun tour.
Next, we booked a day tour to snorkel and visit the nearby island nation of Anguilla. Knowing little about Anguilla except that it means ‘eel’ in Spanish, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Transfers brought us to Simpson Bay, where members of the Aqua Mania staff did passport checks. The Lambada, a 63’ catamaran, featured an open bar with rum punch, beer, and soft drinks. Due to windy conditions we did not visit Prickly Pear Island for snorkeling as planned, stopping instead at Maunday’s Bay. We anchored an easy 30-meter swim from the spectacular reef, where we saw Queen Parrot fish, Blue Tangs, Manta Rays and more.
After 90 minutes of snorkeling, we went on to Anguilla. On shore, we visited Roy’s Bayside Grill where our included lunch was served, a choice of chicken, fish caught on the journey, or ribs, along with salads and rice. The bar next door served excellent Piña Coladas for an extra charge. We didn’t see too much of Anguilla itself, beyond the pristine white beach and charming beach bar, but what we saw was beautiful and unspoiled. The return to Simpson Bay was made almost completely under sail, and our hotel transfers were waiting at the dock. $195USD per person.
There is more I could say about this ravishing island, but the last item that must be included is our visit to the Sunset Bar and Grill at Maho Bay. The Sunset is a sprawling open-air beach bar, made extraordinary by its proximity to Princess Juliana International Airport. Beside the ocean, there is a strip of beach, a narrow road, a fence covered in warning signs, and then the runway. Planes pass within 35 meters of the beach during takeoff and landings. It’s easy to tell when a jumbo jet is about to take off. If the crowds massing down the beach (many ignoring the posted warning signs and standing in the path of the engine’s blow-back) don’t tip you off, the sound of approximately 25,000 horses revving up should do it. Landings are a bit trickier to spot, but you get adept at it after wiling away an afternoon here.
While we were in St. Maarten we met people from all over the globe. The lady running the t-shirt shop at the Sunset Bar and Grill was from Italy. Our horseback riding guide was from the Dominican Republic. Our captain on the Lambada was Dutch; we had cab drivers from Jamaica and Trinidad; we met a couple from India. All seemed to have a similar story: they fell in love with St. Maarten the minute they arrived. Many of them came on vacation and rearranged their lives so that they could stay forever. It’s that kind of place.
Katherine Savage has been a bartender, a purveyor of adventure cruises to the Canadian arctic, a world traveler and, most recently, the author of the smoking-hot new erotic thriller, Sway. Savage and her long-time love – now husband – currently reside in Toronto, where they continue to worry that all of the books from her reading addiction will soon take over their home.