Harmony and Great Food on the Caribbean’s St. Maarten / St. Martin Island
Text by: Barney Brantingham Photos by: Sue De Lapa
The world, beset with border battles and simmering national rivalries, could learn a lesson from a little island in the Caribbean shared by two nations. St. Maarten, ruled by the Dutch, and St. Martin, a French possession, have lived in peace for over 350 years. A border between the two sides roams this hilly, 37-square-mile dot of land in the West Indies, but you’re hardly aware of passing from one nation to the other. There are no gates, guards, or passport-checking officials. Residents I met say the two governments cooperate smoothly and efficiently, especially when it comes to luring tourists. The island’s economy depends on it.
Although nearly half the 600,000 non-cruise visitors come from the U.S., about 150,000 come from Europe, in search of pristine beaches, water sports, and, of course, the gambling dens. High season is about mid-December to April. “When the temperature is low in other places, that’s our high season,” one islander told me. (Santa Barbarans tend to forget that at certain times of the year and in certain non-Southern California locales, snow falls, freezing rain pelts the populace, and global warming has not been noticeable.)
But aside from the weather and getting a passive civics lesson, why go there? The 1.4 million cruise ship passengers who annually swarm ashore in Phillipsburg are typically most interested in the duty-free shopping for electronic gear and jewelry. Phillipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side, is considered one of the best places to shop in the Caribbean. But Sue and I were not there to shop, shed our clothes at the nude beaches (the island boasts 37 beaches), or try to win pots of euros and guilders at the gambling casinos. Nor did we arrive via a mega-passenger cruise ship, racing retired Canadians down Front Street for camera bargains. We flew in (and what a long haul it is from Santa Barbara) to sample the famed food and hit as many of the 400 restaurants as possible. St. Maarten/St. Martin considers itself “The Cuisine Capital of the Caribbean.”
We were there in early winter and while it was indeed warm, it wasn’t beastly hot, and the evenings were delightfully balmy. The water was perfect. We had the good luck to meet a woman named Linda, whose family has lived on the island for generations, if not centuries. Linda, like most of the islanders, depends on tourism for a living. St. Maarten/St. Martin does not produce anything and therefore shows a friendly face to keep the tourists coming.
The island boasts a mix of at least 70 nationalities and cultures, including West Indian, Asian, American, and European; all those regions have brought recipes and passions to those 400 restaurants. But the first one Linda led us to was French, Le Chanteclair, an open-air spot at Marina La Port Royale. Cecile Briaud-Richard presides over the kitchen and was named chef of the year in the 2006 Fête de la Cuisine competition. It was as good a French meal as I’ve had outside the culinary cathedrals of Paris. Her specialty: roasted local lobster crusted with herbs.
The best place to stay on the island is one of the Orient-Express’s luxury resorts, La Samanna, overlooking a splendid beach. It has a low-slung Mediterranean look to it and an open-air (de rigueur) dining terrace where you can gaze out at the sun setting over the azure sea when you gather for drinks and dinner. The pool shares the dazzling ocean view and has a sign posted: “Pool is Not a Topless Area.” There’s also a Moroccan-style bar. But as luck would have it, we didn’t spend a night there or have dinner, although we did a little tasting in the wine cellar, which boasts 10,000 bottles. We had already arranged to stay on the far side of the island, at La Esmeralda, a collection of island-style cottages a few steps from Orient Beach. It’s on the affordable side of five-star. I plunged into the warm sea, then whiled away the afternoon with Sue sipping local beer and munching.
Another night found us dining with Linda at perhaps the island’s most elegant restaurant, Temptation, the brainchild of owner-chef Dino Jagtiani, the first St. Maarten-born graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He won the 2006 Fête prize for restaurant of the year on the Dutch side. But you can eat cheaply too, as we learned at the Kangaroo Court, near the old courthouse in Phillipsburg, where new owner Julo recommended the bleu cheese burger heaped with sautéed onions, with fries and cole slaw on the side. The place was a 19th-century salt weighing station. A mango smoothie goes for $4.50 and pizzas for $13. It’s a fun, bustling place on one of the shopping lanes near the cruise ship dock.
If you go, check into the airport early and head for the Sunset Beach Bar at the end of the runway. It’s a multi-deck affair where the bikini crowd gathers for burgers and beer and to watch the passenger jets come lumbering in over the bay to glide just feet over bathers at the nearby beach and land across the road. Keep your camera handy. It’s one heck of a shot.