Tuesday, April 22, 2008

15 things I like about St Maarten

As I shoot around the world a lot, I thought I'd start a regular feature listing the 15 things I like about the places I visit.

Let’s start with St Maarten, which is where I spent Easter weekend.

1. Room 100, the Baie Rouge Suite at La Samanna. For a start, it has a wrap around balcony with outdoor shower, shaded area and seating/party space for probably 20. It also overlooks the Baie Longue and sits right on top of the pool. From there all you can see is the Caribbean, palm trees and beautiful golden sands.

2. I discovered La Samanna 10 years ago. It is one of the world’s hidden treasures and has now expanded to around 80 rooms. Recently, its barefoot bar has been replaced by a very modern Mondrian-like structure 100 yards down the beach. The perfect getaway.

3. The brand new airport terminal at Juliana. There is a great Philippe Starck-like mural saying, "Sand, Sea and Sun" which certainly sets the theme. Also, something that’s becoming increasingly rare, your bags are delivered within minutes and everything works.

4. It’s one direct flight away from wintery New York.

5. St Maarten is an island that is half French and half Dutch. So you get the Dutch value around Phillipsburg and French flair and cuisine around Marigot and Grand Case.

6. Music. The island is full of Calypso and Reggae. Check out Radio Calypso on 102.1 FM when you arrive. Non-stop flava.

7. Carib Beer. Brewed in Trinidad and Tobago, it’s 5.2% alcohol and tastes like the most refreshing lager in the world. The perfect drink to enjoy at sunset around 5:30pm, barefoot in any beach bar.

8. Johnnie Cakes. Deep-fried treats served from open air stalls, on beaches or from roadside vans. Made of nothing but sweetness, flour, salt, baking powder, butter and water, they are bit like the beignets of New Orleans - the perfect hangover chaser.

9. Cricket. It’s a Caribbean religion. The recent Cricket World Cup saw the game take hold in St Maarten and now there are clubs all over the island. Go to Carib Lumbar Park in Phillipsburg to watch the locals go at it.

10. Dominoes. Who hasn’t played dominoes? The game originated in China, spread to Europe and then, via Britain, to its colonies. Backgammon is the national game of Greece and Egypt, poker is the national game of the US, and chess of Russia. In St Maarten, wherever you look you can see old men sitting around domino tables in the evening, cracking hands, banging dominoes down and getting pretty excited.

11. Tuesday nights in Grand Case. Every Tuesday, Grand Case turns into a great big cultural street show with singers, dancers, painters, sculptures, poets, storytellers and steel bands all out on the street. Carnival time every week. Bring it on.

12. Marigot Market nights are every Wednesday and Saturday morning on the seashore. In St Tropez, where I have a summer home, we have a great weekend market which travels all around Provence selling the flavors and scents of the region. So does Keswick in the Northwest of England, 15 miles from my Grasmere home. In Marigot, the Caribbean comes to life with spices, sauces, fruits, all in incredible colors and sold by smiling locals dressed in colorful local fabrics. Real sensuality.

13. Shopping. St Maarten is totally duty free. Jewelry, designer brands, fashion, are all available at prices way below Europe and much of it even below New York.

14. Great French restaurants. All of the restaurants are French family owned. They bring in high class French wines directly from the mother country and great local fish and produce prepared with the magic that French chefs infuse. Try Le Cottage, Bistrot Caraibes, L’Hibiscus, Le Pressoir and Le Tastevin. If you want to eat right on the beach, go to La Cigale.

15. Windsor Castle. Anthony Bourdain of Les Halles in New York has written a bunch of articles about adventurous places. One of them is Windsor Castle. It’s a trailer in Simpson Bay with no menu and not much of a sign on the trailer, but it’s worth the effort. They make salt fish, Johnnie cakes, fish patties and great fish steaks. You’ll be the only non-local there.