Monday, July 22, 2019

Returning to St. Martin after 16 years

Chairs set out in front of the Azure Hotel and Art Studio on Simpson Bay Beach
After two research trips to St. Martin in 2002 and 2003 as part of a project with Raíces Culturales, I had the chance to return to the island this year as a tourist with my wife. There are direct flights from Philadelphia, which didn't exist when I traveled there on my first two trips.

The island, as the smallest island shared by two sovereign states, is known by its two names: Sint Maarten for the Dutch side and Saint-Martin for the French side. Sint Maarten is an autonomous entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Saint-Martin is part of the French overseas department of Guadeloupe. Islanders who hope for unifying the two sides as an independent state prefer to focus on its common English Caribbean roots and use the English spelling of St. Martin to refer to the entire island, regardless of the current state of sovereignty. Out of respect for them and their heritage, I use their spelling unless I have reason to differentiate the two sides of the island.
Tortoises are among the guests at the Azure Hotel and Art Studio
On my first trip, I stayed at the Seaview Beach Hotel, a small hotel on the beach in Philipsburg. On my second visit, I rented a room with a friend who lived on a hill, in a section called Mary's Fancy. For this third opportunity, we decided on the Azure Hotel and Art Studio, a small, hospitable location on Simpson Bay Beach, close to Princess Juliana Airport. Though you can hear the planes take off while on the beach, it is not where the planes fly incredibly low as they approach the runway. That "honor" goes to Maho Bay Beach.

The beautiful blue water in Simpson Bay can be seen from the Karakter restaurant
Accommodations on the Dutch side (Sint Maarten) have a notable advantage to their French-side counterparts: potable running water as opposed to the well water that isn't safe to drink. We learned very quickly the value of having that option, especially because our room had a kitchenette, enabling us to eat in when we wanted.

I wanted to see how St. Martin had recovered from the massive destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma in 2017. By and large, the island looked open for business. The indicators of the hurricane's impact could be seen in damaged cars, a few buildings in partial or complete disrepair, and the second floor of the airport not yet open, but the rebuilding effort after such a devastating storm was a tribute to the hard work of the islanders. Some attractions such as the Sint Maarten Museum in Philipsburg, or artist Roland Richardson's gallery in Marigot, had finished their repairs only shortly before our arrival.

We accidentally went into a new branch of a popular supermarket chain, Super U, on the day of its grand opening in Hope Estate. (No, we didn't win the car) 
There was still plenty that I hadn't seen on the island, so it was worthwhile to return, rent a car and do some sightseeing. For example, I had never visited Loterie Farm, a nature attraction along the road to Pic Paradis, the highest point in St. Martin. Likewise, I wanted to sample the views from the Little Bay Hotel and what remained of Fort Amsterdam, both on a peninsula separating Little Bay from Great Bay.

The entrance to Loterie Farm in the center of the island

In terms of eating, St. Martin is an island that doesn't lend itself to all-inclusive resorts. Even after Irma, enough restaurants have come back to make the dining options considerable, from fast food to high end. We sampled quite a few without breaking the bank, such as a Latin roast chicken eatery called Pollos Hermanos, had coffee and baguettes for breakfast at a wonderful French bakery called Café Atlántico, and caught a soccer game at a small restaurant in the Simpson Bay area that made delicious Colombian empanadas. The town most associated with fine eating is Grand Case, which, while in the process of reopening some of its famed restaurants, still has its renowned "lolos" or seafood restaurants along the beach. Great food, generous portions.

My choice from the ample seafood menu of one of the "lolos" in Grand Case
Returning to St. Martin was wonderful. Not only did we relax and enjoy ourselves, but we were also able to meet with friends that I had made during my first two research trips. For me, St. Martin more than earns its name "The Friendly Island."