Harmony and Great Food on the Caribbean’s St. Maarten / St.
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
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
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
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.