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Caribbean Travel Roundup
Paul Graveline, Editor
April 1, 1995
| Contents CTR April 1995 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |
St. Martin by Elliott Berrin
(Ed. Note: Please note that this file is copyrighted 1995 by Elliott R. Berrin)
Several months ago, my wife and I began planning a short winter vacation to be taken during school holiday in February. When we discussed what we considered essential for the holiday, we concluded that we both wanted warm weather and a beach; over and above that, I wanted French cuisine, and Gloria wanted a casino. Of the several locations that fit these criteria, we chose St. Martin, in the West Indies. This is an island, the northern two-thirds of which are a part of France, and the southern one-third is a part of The Netherlands. The Princess Juliana International Airport is at the southernmost end of the island, in the Dutch section (there is a small airport at the very northern end of the island, l'Esperance, which services traffic to and from Guadeloupe). Once a visitor goes through the minimal Dutch immigration proceedings, there is no further impediment to free travel throughout the island.
Our travel agent suggested three resort hotels for our consideration; I opted for La Belle Creole. As it turns out, I made the right choice. This is a charming, sprawling complex of buildings, in an architecture that is reminiscent of an earlier era in the Americas. The low buildings containing the guest rooms are spread out over a wide area, with many court yards, palm trees, and accompanying foliage interspersed between the buildings. The facilities are modern, including air conditioning of the guest rooms, a beautiful pool, and an elegant dining room. During our stay on the island, we visited the other two resorts suggested by the travel agent, and decided that we had made the right choice.
Although we had a car reserved for us, it was held at the hotel, rather than at the airport; again, our travel agent suggested this procedure so that there would be no possibility of us getting lost on a strange island, on the drive between the airport and the resort. As it turns out, the transfer service leaves a lot to be desired; I recommend that the visitor pick up his rental car at the airport, and drive to his hotel. It is almost impossible to get lost on this island, where most of the civilization is along the shore line, all the way around, as are most of the roads. There is only one main road between the airport and our hotel, making it just about impossible to get lost. As far as the transfer service is concerned, we had to sit in a bus for over 45 minutes because the driver would not leave until the bus was filled. This meant that we had to wait for at least one more plane to land, and I suspect that it was really two planes that we waited for.
We checked in to our room in the late afternoon and learned that we were invited to the hotel Manager's reception at 7PM that same evening. This is a very nice way to meet other guests, as well as the manager and his staff. The hors d'oeuvres and beverages were plentiful and delicious. That particular night the hotel dining room was featuring a bar-b-que; since one of my reasons for going to St. Martin was French cuisine, we decided to forego the bar-b-que and go into the town for dinner. We went to a restaurant recommended by both one of the American guests at our hotel, as well as Frommer's Caribbean guide book. That restaurant was La Vie en Rose, on the shore line in downtown Marigot (the capital of the French side of the island). The food was outstanding, and it was classic French cuisine. I remarked to Gloria that I had not had such fine food since my last visit to Quebec City. Be forewarned: this restaurant is very expensive; however, if you are devoted to fine food, you will go along with the prices on the menu.
At this point, I should mention something about the use of French Francs vs. US dollars vs. credit cards. US dollars and US credit cards are widely accepted all over the island, on both sides of the border. My normal practice in a foreign country is to charge my dining costs to my American Express Card, in the local currency, and let American Express convert the money at a favorable exchange rate. Apparently, this is just about impossible on the island of St. Martin.
All of the restaurant owners state that they maintain US dollar accounts with American Express, and do the conversion themselves, at a lousy exchange rate. Later on in our trip, I discussed this matter with a waiter (at a restaurant that won't be mentioned here because I was not impressed with their food); the waiter indicated that they would not accept a charge on the American Express card in French francs because they maintain a US dollar account with American Express. I pointed out to him that the rate of exchange he was giving me was lousy, and he said that the US dollar price includes a "labor charge." I said "you mean the gratuity?" He said no, a labor charge. That labor charge amounted to approximately 15% of the cost of the meal. Since it was obviously the tip, I took that into account when I totaled out my American Express slip. The moral of this story is: bring French Francs or French Franc travelers' checks with you.
As long as we are on the subject of restaurants, I might mention that our last night in St. Martin included dining at a very nice restaurant named La Belle Epoque. It is located in an inner harbor area known as Marina Port La Royale (south east corner of Rue de la Liberte and Rue Kennedy). In this area are at least six fine French cuisine restaurants to choose from. For the new visitor in town, I would recommend going to Marina Port La Royale, and walk along the quay reading restaurant menus. All of the menus were French cuisine; some of them had additional listings for some Italian and some American dishes.
As it turns out, we did not eat in the dining room of La Belle Creole at all, because they run a different feature each night: such as bar-b-que or creole. Our interests were in French haute cuisine; thus we went into Marigot every evening for dinner.
To get back into chronological order, we arrived on Monday, went to the Manager's reception, went into Marigot for dinner, and then drove back toward the airport, crossing over to the Dutch side, and went to a casino. For those expecting the "glitz" of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, you will be disappointed. The casinos on St. Martin are very attractive, with a subdued charming decor, which I like better than the "glitz."
On Tuesday morning, we got into our rented car and embarked on a drive all the way around the perimeter of the island. This was a lot of fun. We stopped at the Grand Case Beach Club Resort, just to see what it was like; then we went on around the northernmost area, passing l'Esperance Aeroport, and continued to Orient Beach. This is the beach whose reputation is that of being a nude bather beach. Apparently the nude bathers restrict themselves to the southern end of the beach, whereas, we visited a more central point of the beach, where all of the bathers were dressed in "American style" suits. It is a very nice beach.
We then drove down the east side of the island, crossing back over into the Dutch portion, and went to Philipsburg. This city is the port of call for many cruise ships, and the day we were there, there were 15 such boats anchored off-shore. The narrow streets of the town were filled with American tourists visiting the many shops. There is a wide variety of shops here for jewelry, electronics, clothing, cameras, and much more. We found the prices were essentially equivalent to the prices found in New York City stores. From Philipsburg, we continued our clock-wise tour of the island, passing Juliana Airport, and stopping along the way for a beautiful view from a high point that the road passes through before one passes the airport.
After passing the airport, we were on the same road that we had taken a day earlier to get from the airport to La Belle Creole. This is an area that includes Mullet Bay, the various casinos, and Cupecoy. In this area, there is much development of new resorts going on, some of which include time- sharing units. We were approached several times, by various people, at various parts of the island, inviting us to attend a sales talk on time- sharing. In all cases, we politely declined the invitation.
This clock-wise drive around the island took the better part of day because we made several stops, as described above. When we got back to La Belle Creole, it was mid-afternoon, a perfect time for a swim in the ocean. Subsequent to that we went to Marigot for dinner.
Marigot is an area which resembles a French sea side village very well. It is a charming, charming town, with all of the shops and restaurants you could ever want on your vacation. In Marigot, overlooking the harbor, on top of a hill, is Fort St. Louis. There is quite a bit of history connected with this port, having to do with the French defense of the island against attacks by the British. The visit to the Fort is a quick and informative history lesson.
Between La Belle Creole and Marigot, there are several other resorts, including Nettle Bay and Royale Beach. Royale Beach is apparently a resort primarily for European French, because most of the guests there seem to be from France proper (l'Hexagon), and my travel agent here in the US had never heard of the resort. (Apparently it is not advertised to Americans.) The Royale Beach is set back from the road, along the Caribbean. Immediately adjacent to the road, in front of The Royale Beach, is a small "strip mall" (that is what we would call it here in the US). This small strip of one story shops is well worth visiting. There are three little breakfast/lunch shops, serving primarily French style food, and the customers are, for the most part, from the Royale Beach resort. This is a good place to have breakfast, if you wish to meet the local French speaking population, and European French people. In addition to these little breakfast shops, there is a gourmet food store and some souvenir shops. It is an enjoyable contrast from the hustle and bustle of Philipsburg.
Not being a fanatic gambler, I was let off the hook on Tuesday night. My wife said she would hop the transfer van provided by the Mullet Bay Casino, to do a little gambling. Although she enjoyed herself at that casino, the van never showed up to bring her back to La Belle Creole. Although she was 15 minutes early for the van ride back, no van or driver could be found. She complained to the management, who initially gave her a hard time, telling her she must have arrived too late at the pick-up point, but they wound up paying for her taxi back to our place. I might add, that on the third night, I drove her to a different casino, went back to La Belle Creole for a few hours, and then went back and picked her up.
Another word of explanation here is in regard to car rentals. The reason my wife did not simply take our rented car to the casino has to do with the usual car rental rules that you must be a designated second driver, listed on the rental form, in order to legally drive the car. Since we didn't want any problems with potential lack of liability coverage, or trouble with the French or Dutch police, she did not drive the rented car. This is something we had not thought about when we initially picked up the car.
In conclusion, we really loved our stay, and can recommend St. Martin as a wonderful place for a Caribbean vacation. I would certainly go again, and I would again stay at La Belle Creole. If you heed my advice, you will bring French Francs or French Franc travelers checks with you to pay for meals and miscellaneous expenses, without getting stung on the exchange rate; additionally, remember to sign up all of your drivers when you initially rent a car.
St. Martin by Bruce Farrington
Edie and I just returned from our 6th trip to the closest thing we have ever found to paradise. Before we left, a co-worker asked me if I ever get tired of going to the same place, seeing the same sights, doing the same things. The answer is a most emphatic "NO" for two reasons: First, after 6 trips we still are discovering many new places to see, new things to do and different great restaurants we've never been to before. The second reason is that things constantly change on the island. Several new attractions and restaurants have appeared since our last visit 6 months ago. More on that later.
First, several general observations: The island has "greened up" somewhat since last August, thanks to a fairly rainy fall. Orient Beach, outside of Club Orient seemed more clothed than ever. The roads seemed to be improving with more paved and are better marked (unfortunately the drivers haven't improved and still use the biblical "quick and the dead" methodology". Finally a number of construction projects are also underway on the island.
The rest of the report will follow my daily journal notes.
Arrived SXM around noon and was through customs in about 30 minutes. Not bad! Picked up our rental car from Budget and was checked into L'Hoste on Orient Beach. Our room was large with two king size beds (gosh are we expecting company?) and true to the European way, the toilet is a separate room from the bathroom. Although there are practical reasons for doing this I will go into the wrong bathroom for the rest of the trip. Something about being an old dog. From our ground floor patio, it is 150 feet to the sands of Orient Beach. I love to keep the patio door open at night and listen to the surf. The only negative I will mention about L'Hoste is that housekeeping was only fair. Sheets were not changed every day and the toilet was not scrubbed daily either. Maybe the maid also kept going into the wrong bathroom. Unpacked and were soon walking up Orient Beach to say "HI" to everyone at Club O. Felt like I was in a sand storm! Winds of 25 MPH were not only kicking up the sand but with 80 degree temperatures, Edie and I were actually cold on the beach. The winds had been that way for about a week and would not subside back to normal for another 3 days. I'm told these strong winds happen every once in a while usually around Christmas time. The best thing we found to do was to go over to the Dutch side beaches which are more sheltered from the wind.
That night we went to the Talk of the Town LoLo in Grand Case for goat ribs, chicken, rice and beans, Johnny Cakes and drinks for $13 for the two of us. I love to start out here because it gets me into the Island "feeling". Went over to Surf Club South for our get together with Bob and Sue Moylan, Steve and Deb Tucker, Clint and Emily Felker, and Emily's cousin Marj and her husband Fred. We properly harassed Marj about her 40th birthday and other personal data we had no right to know about (Thanks Clint!). We all felt personal satisfaction as she was so embarrassed she had to retreat to the ladies room.
Edie's 45th birthday! Wanted to make it a special day for her so I sneaked out early in the morning while she was still sleeping to go on a pilgrimage to a croissant lovers' Holy of Holies: Marigot. But which shrine to visit? Le Crossanterie or Cafe Masterdana (Zee Best)? On this day a higher power intervened. Le Crossanterie's croissants were not quite ready while Cafe Masterdana was just taking a batch warm out of the oven. Be still my heart, try not to show Danny that your hand is shaking as you make an offering to the Croissant gods. Danny is as personable as everyone as claimed and is somewhat amused and bewildered that we could know so much about him and his wife from an online computer system.
Arrived back at our hotel room and Edie and I enjoyed warm croissants and mango juice on the table on our patio while listening to the surf crash on the shore. It just doesn't get any better than this! Now as to whether or not I snitched any croissants on the way back to L'Hoste let me say this: "Forgive me father for I have sinned......"
Still windy and cool so we decided to go to the Butterfly Farm which is located next to the riding stables over by Orient Beach and has just recently opened within the last six weeks. Interesting place. "Butterflies are free" they say. Not so at the Butterfly Farm. At $10 per person it may seem a little pricey but we found it to be well worth the money. Many exotic and different varieties of butterflies in an area composed of Japanese style pools and waterfalls, tropical gardens and friendly knowledgeable staff who love to educate you about butterflies. I loved listening to R Carlos Nakai's Canyon trilogy (Native American Flute music) playing in the background. It gave it the perfect blend of beauty and tranquillity to compliment a relaxing vacation. They also give free admission for return visits which we took advantage of later in the week. I am told the best time to visit is during the morning when the butterflies are most active. Definitely bring your camera for incredible photo opportunities.
We then watched the sand grow at Le Galleon Beach which is a lovely beach right next to Orient Beach. This beautiful beach seems to be one of the best kept secrets on the Island.
Started chatting with an older couple at the beach who to our amazement lived about 15 minutes from our home. Making new friends in SXM is as easy as deciding to have another Pina Colada! Visited Jeff Miller's condo and decided to rent it for a month this summer. For Edie's birthday dinner we went to La Residence. A 3 course meal has a fixed price of $28. The ambiance of the restaurant as well as excellent service is thrown in at no extra cost. Smoked Fish of the Island, Salad, Filet of Beef in Cognac sauce, Roast Duck, Baked Alaska and Crepe Suzzettes for under $65? Its the way we were meant to live! Won $45 that night at the casinos.
Started the day with a good breakfast at Papagayos. All in all one of the more "interesting" meals of the trip. Spent some more time on Orient Beach relaxing and doing my favorite exercise: turning the pages of a good book. I always try to save special books for vacation and this year I was fortunate to have three! The first was Bob Marley by Stephen Davis. This book is a biography of the Rasta man himself, Mr. Reggae.
If you're interested in the man behind the music, or understanding his lyrics this is the book for you. You can learn the origins of reggae and catch a glimpse into Jamaican life that tourist never see. This book is NOT for someone with only casual interest as it can be long and drawn out. The second book was Caribbean by James A. Michener. I thoroughly enjoyed all 811 pages of this book. Caribbean carries you through 700 years of history from the 1300s conquest of the peaceful Arawak indians by the warlike Carib indians through the rise of Castro. 16 short stories show you the history of the area through the eyes of both fictional and non-fictional characters during historical events. After reading this, many cultural aspects of the Caribbean made a great deal more sense to me. After wading through 1400 pages of these two heavy weights I ended on a light comedy: Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. At 79 pages this one was for grins. Thirteen bedtime tales that we've all read to our kids have been "updated" for the politically correct 90s. A sample: The Three Codependent Goats Gruff (Three billygoats Gruff). Absolutely hilarious and makes you wonder about our culture. I dedicate The Emperor's New Clothes to the Club Orient gang. You'll guaranteed to love the slightly changed ending. Meanwhile back to our vacation....
Monday afternoon, Edie and I went to Philipsburg for our usual shopping expedition and found ourselves walking by the Orange School on Front Street. Jokingly, I asked Edie if she wanted to see if there were any openings for American school teachers. Fifty
feet down the sidewalk a local woman ran up to us and said that she had overheard our conversation and she knew of immediate openings for American school teachers. At this point, Edie saw something in my eyes she didn't like and politely declined the offer to meet with someone that very afternoon. Curiously enough, school teachers on the Island staged a one day walkout the very next day to protest the deplorable school conditions. It appears my chances of being a "kept" man on the Island slipped away.
That evening we met Sue and Bob Moylan and ate at Mary's Boon. Not thinking all that clearly, I had worn a tank top. The man who I took to be the manager/owner was quite rude to me and refused to let me eat there. Edie offered me her sweater but would I become a cross dresser just for a fine meal? I can report that the Chicken Cordon Bleu was excellent! However this same man was rude later in the evening to Edie and it has been crossed off our lists for future visits. Finished the evening by winning $45 at the Casinos and helping Sue Moylan become a match play coupon addict.
Had breakfast at the Cloud Room which is located at the scenic pull off overlooking Orient Bay. The food was only so-so but the view of Orient Bay is magnificent. This is a great spot to go for afternoon drinks. You can easily become intoxicated from the beauty. Spent the day at Cupecoy 1 and had drinks at the Cliffside. Frank and Nina are as hospitable hosts as was reported. I was surprised at the beauty and size of the beach. We seemed to have hit it at its peak.
Edie fell in love with the spot and wanted to live there forever. Found myself in the unusual position of reminding her of the kids, jobs, etc. That night we won $70 at the casinos and then headed for Lynettes for dinner. We had two grilled chicken salads, French onion soup and conch fritters for $35. The food was excellent. We were disappointed when King Beau Beau was canceled at the last minute without explanation. One thing dining at Lynettes that you notice immediately is the large number of families that come for the King Beau Beau show. Seems unusual to dine with quite a few kids in SXM.
Decided to go to Marigot for Market Day. Gee, we got there a little too early and the vendors are still setting up. I know, let's go to the La Croissanterie for croissants still warm from the oven. Now this begs the question are the croissants better at Cafe Mastanda or La Croissanterie? La Croissanterie croissants are bigger but Cafe Mastadana croissants are more buttery. I suggest taste tests to decide this issue. One of these, one of those, one of these, one of those.... Noticed several buildings are under construction in the center of the market area. They will be permanent shops to sell vegetables, meats and drinks. Got a picture of the construction men "at work". You never have to ask them to stop work and pose for a picture. By now Edie and I are in a panic that we cannot possibly hit all the restaurants we just have to visit. We decide to eat half meals to be able to visit as many as possible. We shared a very good fruit plate at Kontiki and rushed to the Cliffside in time to see a gorgeous sunset complete with the green flash. Two cruise ships were on the horizon leaving SXM with their horde of gawking tourist. I was hard pressed to decide which was the more beautiful sight. That night I lost $5 at the casino (my only losing night) and Edie and I shared a cheeseburger at Cheri's and people watched. I noticed the clock in the tower at Maho complex across the street was a little over 4 hours slow. Apparently Island time even affects the clocks.....
Started the morning with leftover croissants on Orient Beach reading the latest edition of The Chronicle. Would the paper let me down? Nope. There it was on Page 1. 80 YEAR OLD MAN CHARGES HE WAS RAPED BY HIS MAID. If only Benjamin Franklin had read The Chronicle he would have known that their was three things you could be sure of: death, taxes and a sex story on the first three pages of The Chronicle. A little known news item (probably not even reported in the Toronto paper where it occurred) takes on added significance on our island. While listening to the radio, I noticed three songs were very popular in SXM on this trip. One song dealt with a man composing a new song while on the toilet. "Ain't coming out to I finish it" is your typical bawdy SXM record with its clever play on words. Always popular in SXM. "Bumper to Bumper" is your popular dance song. A person could get pregnant doing these dances! "Bernie" was the most popular song even having the Bernie Band play live Friday night at the climax of Carnival in Marigot. You would need to have seen Weekend at Bernie's 2 to appreciate this song. Imagine a dead man (Bernie) being brought back to life by a screwed up voodoo curse that only works when the Bernie hears Calypso music. The competition was hilarious! If you think that a dead man coming alive when he hears Calypso music is pretty preposterous then you've never seen "Sand Gravity" tourists trying to do the lambada. That evening we went to the Fresh Air Feast restaurant located on the end of Marigot harbor. Edie and I had French Onion Soup, salad, chicken broquettes, and sodas. The food was good, the service was excellent and all for a very reasonable $24.50 for the two of us. After dinner on the way to the nearby parking lot, we stopped to listen to an authentic local band playing for donations. The instruments consisted of a beer keg drum, a conch shell, a potato chip container drum, a home made horn (made of a tube and cow horn, honest!), a snare drum, whistle and different size glasses. As I watched them I was reminded that Bob Marley and the Wailers started much the same way. I was happy to donate money to the cause and thoroughly enjoyed listening to them. For me, these are the most precious moments of the trip and a big reason why I love the island so much. Won $40 at the casinos that night and went to sleep a contented man.
Friday, 2/24/95 We ate breakfast at L'Hoste and it was OK. We needed an early start if we were going to let sand gravity run its course at Club Orient. Spent the day with two other couples who were now good friends and enjoyed our last full day in SXM while desperately trying not to think about it. For lunch we stopped in at Drew's Deli to say Hi and see how he was doing. I am happy to report that Drew and his family are doing well and he has recently began serving breakfast from 8 AM - 11 AM on Monday through Friday. We had a truly great cheeseburger, chef salad and shared a delicious cheese cake at his Manhattan style Deli. That night we ate dinner at Yvette's in Orleans. This simply was the best, most enjoyable meal we have ever had in SXM. I can not say enough good things about this restaurant. Yvette herself, is exactly the image you would imagine of a good natured local woman proud of her island and restaurant. Yvette's is authentic St. Martin cuisine and her staff go out of their way to make you feel welcome. The dining room (converted from her house) is very pretty. It has murals painted on the walls of beach scenes. She has lace curtains which match your napkins, Beautiful linen table clothes and mirrors along one wall to give the illusion of it being spacious. But the food really stole the show. Nothing is started until after you order to make it to your exact specifications. Edie had St. Martin style chicken stew. I had the combination ribs, chops, and chicken covered by an incredible sauce. The meat fell off the bones. We had johnny cakes warm from the oven, plantans which were fantastic and curried rice. After drinks it came to $27 for the two of us. My hands are shaking just typing this! Do yourself a favor and visit Yvettes. Afterwards we went back to Lynnettes for drinks and this time caught the King Beau Beau show. It was an enjoyable "touristy" show the whole family can enjoy and despite hearing it many times before, I found myself laughing at the end of "Shame and Scandal". Rounded out the evening by winning $30 at the casino. Saturday, 2/25/95 With a heavy heart, we packed up and headed for the airport. Just had to stop off one last time for (you guessed it!) a few more croissants in Marigot. Will they deliver to upstate New York? No? Darn! I idly wonder how much room is left in the luggage. Drop off Edie at the Airport and return the rental car. This trip we finally smarten up and spend the wait for the airplane upstairs at the airport having drinks/dessert and admiring the view. Unfortunately the time does come to board that plane and return to reality. As I take that last look at my favorite place in the world, I am saddened to leave as always. I'm also excited about my next trip this summer when we bring the kids for the first time and stay for an entire month. But that's another story.....
Saint Martin: by Rick Mollica
I traveled a sizable chunk of the world while serving in the U.S. Navy for 24 years, but I had never had the good fortune to visit Saint Martin. So with the wisdom garnered from the bulletin boards of America On Line and Prodigy (which at the time represented everything I knew about Saint Martin), my wife and I went to Saint Martin at the end of January 1995. For perspective, we are in our mid-forties, and traveled without our three children.
For $862 per person, we arranged a five-day package through Tourscan International which included: Round-trip-flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport on American Airlines (via San Juan) Transportation vouchers to-and-from Princess Julianna Airport.
Garden View double room at the Grand Case Beach Resort, which included free continental breakfasts each day
In retrospect, we think Tourscan?s package was an exceptional value, and the Grand Case Beach Resort is just about as perfect an introduction to Saint Martin as one could ask for. We requested accommodations that were neither ?economy? nor ? ? ?luxury?...something in the mid-range. I?ll devote a section of this report to the hotel, but for now, I?m certain that anyone who chooses the Grand Case Beach Resort will be very pleased.
The airport is a small zoo and we were the animals. Several flights arrived at about the same time, so the line at immigration took about 45 minutes. Passports were easy to use, but Immigration accepts birth certificates accompanied by a picture ID. The area outside is small and the transportation concession was only a dozen steps away. As I mentioned, we had vouchers for transportation between the airport and the hotel. We exchanged our vouchers for seats in a van, where we sat for 15-20 minutes while other voucher-holders finished their processing and filled the remaining seats; but the wait wasn?t unpleasant; we watched, smelled, and listened as Saint Martin started to fill our senses.
Many people pick up rental cars near the airport and drive themselves to their hotels. You can peruse the bulletin boards with your computers to get wise counsel on that process, but we recommend that first-timers use transportation vouchers or simply rent a taxi. Why? Because your flight arrives in the mid-afternoon, so why pay for a whole day?s car rental when you only have part of the day left? It?s your first time in Saint Martin, you don?t know what you?re doing or where you?re going; why not get the lay of the land by doing a reconnaissance of the area from the back seat of a taxi? No fuss, no muss, and much less arrival stress. The seeming drawback to using a transportation voucher is that the other passengers in the van probably have different hotels than you do - hotels closer to the airport than yours; so you might have to take a 90-minute tour of half the island to drop off the other passengers before you get to your hotel. Relax. This is not a bad thing. You are getting a 90-minute introduction to Saint Martin?s roads, traffic patterns, and resorts that will reward you later
You?re likely to be disappointed on your first ride from the airport to your hotel because there?s a huge standard-of-living gap between the USA and Saint Martin. You probably will be startled by the ramshackle poverty and dinginess you see, and you?ll wonder why so many Americans hail Saint Martin as a paradise. In a day or so you?ll become sufficiently acclimated to the poverty that it won?t be the only thing you notice, or even the first thing you notice. No social statement here; just an observation that I experienced in Saint Martin and in other third world nations.
We rented a jeep from Sommerset Car Rental (011-5995-54138) about a week before we left the States. The fellow at Sommerset just wanted to know our last name, the hotel we?d be staying at, the date we?d be arriving, and the type of vehicle we wanted; no mention of credit card numbers or paperwork. We showed up at the Grand Case Beach Resort to find the keys to the jeep we requested at the front desk (the jeep itself was parked in a no parking zone near our room). We checked in on a Tuesday and didn?t see a Sommerset employee until Friday. Vincent (the Sommerset employee) arrived at the hotel with paperwork (which he filled out) and a credit card machine. He chatted with us for a minute, told us where to leave the jeep at the airport, and where to hide the keys in the jeep. This was the easiest, most hassle-free car rental I?ve ever experienced.
The jeep had an automatic transmission which cost $65/day; a manual would have been $55/day, and I didn?t ask about a conventional car. You can certainly rent a car cheaper than we did, but let me pass this tip along: the jeep added a joie de vivre to this vacation that actually surprised me. It was perfect for the roads, and the convertible top and windows added a youthful, invigorating, wind-in-your-hair jubilance to island travel. I think the price was too expensive, but renting it sure was hassle-free and driving it was an absolute blast!.
More points about renting a vehicle:
Do rent a vehicle. There?s just too much to do and see around the island to waste time calling and waiting for taxis and buses.
Save a day?s rent by having your vehicle delivered to your hotel the day after you arrive. As we noted earlier, you?ll arrive at Saint Martin in mid-afternoon and could spend the rest of the day easily without a vehicle. ?
Gasoline stations don?t take credit cards. Gas cost us 24 francs/liter; at five francs to the dollar, we got about a quart of gas for almost five dollars. As I write this sentence, the cost seems enough to discourage anyone, but we spent a total of $20 on gasoline during the five days and used the vehicle a moderate amount each day.
Grand Case Beach Hotel
This delightful hotel is located at the north end of Grand Case Beach. It has a restaurant called Panoramic which sets on a nicely decorated deck overlooking the beach. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and an excellent menu at night. During the day a waiter walks among the sunbathers to take drink orders. There is ample shade and plenty of beach chairs. Sunbathers and swimmers wore swimwear within view of the restaurant (just to the north of the restaurant); topless sunbathing was common in front of the resort?s ocean-view units on the portion of beach to the south side of the restaurant (away from the view of diners); and topless and clothing optional was the norm starting at a point about 100 yards to the north of the restaurant. Grand Case Beach is a ?no-gawk zone? because the cruise ship passengers don?t get this far. Everything is very tasteful, discrete, and quiet. Nothing seedy or distasteful about it.
Our room at the Grand Case Beach Resort was spacious and spotlessly clean. It had an efficiency-style kitchen, air conditioning, Cable TV, and a phone. And our garden-view unit truly had an outstanding garden view. We did not feel at all deprived for not choosing an ocean-view unit.
Another very strong advantage of the Grand Case Beach Resort is that all the Grand Case restaurants you read about on the bulletin boards are just a pleasant 10-minute walk from your hotel. And I was thankful for the 10-minute walk back to the hotel after some of the meals we had!
One of my favorite moments at the Grand Case Beach Resort was the last hour we spent there. I laid in a hammock under some grape trees looking out over the beach and the ocean. The weather was perfect, the scenery was perfect...and our flight was leaving in three hours.
We tried several of the places discussed on the bulletin boards with good results (except for one). We also went to several no-name restaurants that happened to be in front of us when we were hungry. We ate in Philipsburg and Marigot, but did our best eating in Grand Case. Here is a sampling of what we tried in Grand Case during our five days, starting with the only complaint we really had.
Le Fishpot. The quality of the food was average, the service was pathetic, and the price was $133 for two (not including tip...what tip?). To give you an idea of what I mean: the lobster was overcooked and priced about $15-$20 higher than other restaurants we visited; portions were fairly small; the coffee showed up 25 minutes after we finished the meal; dessert, a tasteless mousse we ordered BEFORE dinner to allow for proper preparation, showed up 40 minutes after we finished the meal. We couldn?t get the waitress?s attention to save our lives. I normally am not a complainer, but for $133 I was compelled to complain to the manager. He ignored my comments about the food and blamed the service on the waitress. Other folks speak well of the Fishpot, but we think the place is considerably overrated. We would not spend that kind of money there when there are so many other places to try. Incidentally, this was the only downer on our five-day vacation...not bad at all.
El Nettuno. Now this is a great Italian restaurant. Make reservations or get there very early. The restaurant overlooks the Grand Case beach, so our view was postcard-perfect and the ambiance was great. The owner?s name is Ramon, and he is a real character - full of good humor and great personality. His waiters are also lively and attentive. The food and service were simply outstanding. The portions were so large that we had to take left-overs back to the hotel. They served us complementary glasses of Sambucco after-dinner drinks - a very nice touch. We paid $106 for two people, which included appetizers and drinks (who had room for dessert?!) and put a hefty tip on top of that. We recommend El Nettuno strongly and would spend our money there again.
Rainbow. A very good restaurant overlooking the Grand Case Beach. Make reservations so you can request a table closest to the beach. The sounds of the surf and the balmy breeze set the ambiance for this restaurant. We paid $90-something for a very good meal (including appetizers and drinks).
Alabama. We waited until the night before we were to leave to try this French restaurant...too late! The hostess said they were booked solid for two nights ahead. They must be doing something right in that restaurant, so I include it here so you can plan ahead with your reservations.
Panoramic. Very fairly priced restaurant at the Grand Case Beach Resort. As mentioned earlier, the restaurant is on an open-air deck overlooking the ocean, so the ambiance is very casual. There?s nothing casual about the food, however; it is as good as Rainbow?s and less expensive. Service is excellent
Rib Shacks (lo-lo?s). These are ramshackle, open-air, barbecue shacks clustered along the road in Grand Case. The food is great and inexpensive. You have to look hard to find the names of these shacks, but we liked Cheryl?s better than the others we tried. Which one is
Cherry's? Draw six boxes next to each other on a piece of paper (each box represents a rib shack); add the Grand Case main street in front of (below) the boxes on your paper. Now, starting from the left the names of the shacks are Talk of the Town, Cheryl?s Rib Shack, (missed the 3rd one?s name), Cool Out, Au Coin, and Jimbo?s. The Talk of the Town always seemed to be fullest (and it IS good), but we liked Cheryl?s better. Menus are on chalkboards and food is either cooking on a barbecue or spread out on tables right alongside the road. Prices are on the order of $15-$20 for two (including drinks) for a hefty plate of good food. Also, order some ?take-out? potato salad or pasta salads to put in the fridge at your hotel.
We only went to two beaches: Orient and Grand Case. We saw several others from the ocean as we traveled to Anguilla on a snorkeling trip. Cupecoy, Baie Longue, and Baie Rouge all looked good from our boat.
Orient Beach. Some say it?s a zoo and some say it?s great. We found it can be both. At 8:00-10:00 AM, the beach was quiet and uncrowded, and the weather and water were warm enough to sunbathe and swim. Starting at about 10:00 AM the late-sleepers started showing up and the pace of activity picked up, but not objectionably. The beach is in full-swing in the afternoon, so if you like the high energy levels, stay; if you prefer quietness, leave.
It was relatively easy to try nude sunbathing for the first time by doing it in the morning, before the crowds start forming. In the morning most of the people were topless or wore nothing, so one more naked person wasn?t anything to write home about; in the afternoon, most of the people kept their suits on. I suspect it?s a little difficult for most folks to ?get naked? publicly the first time when most of the people around them are clothed. So go at about 8:00 AM, find a relatively unoccupied spot on the beach, remove your clothes, sit on your towel for a while, head for the water when there are no strollers passing by, swim, and get back to your towel when there are no strollers passing by. See? It wasn?t so bad! If you become braver than this, fine; if not, fine. Consider going without your better half (or your kids) if you?d rather not deal with any other psychological factors than the ones you?ll be dealing with already.
I noticed a big difference in attitude between Orient Beach and Grand Case Beach. Orient is so famous that there are lots of folks who plan on spectating without ?participating?; so there?s a certain amount of apprehension built into the scene there. On the northern section of Grand Case Beach (and others, I?m told), I didn?t detect a ?spectator? mindset; or at least the spectators were also participants, which makes a difference in attitude.
Diversity is Saint Martin?s strength. It?s not just beaches; or shopping; or restaurants. It?s all that and more. Day trips to other islands are easy; snorkeling and scuba diving are readily available; casinos and nightlife are abundant. We didn?t have time in our five days to do everything, but here are some descriptions of activities that we enjoyed.
Grand Case Beach Resort (and others) offers snorkeling trips. We took a trip to Creole Rock, which is visible from the resort and is only a five-minute boat ride. The one-hour excursion cost $20/person and includes snorkeling gear. The snorkeling at Creole Rock is exceptional. Our guide was a young English-speaking Frenchman who led us through the coral formations and explained what kind of fish we saw. He also used our disposable Kodak underwater camera to take underwater pictures of my wife and me - what a nice memento!
The resort?s snorkeling gear was fine, but we brought our own from the States so we would be guaranteed of having properly fitting gear, and would have the option of snorkeling on our own when and where we wanted We were very pleasantly surprised by Kodak?s box cameras for underwater use. They don?t require a huge investment ($12 or so) or any unusual photographic expertise, and the pictures provide us with great memories. Anguilla
Whereas the trip to Creole Rock took about 90 minutes from start to finish, the snorkeling excursion to Anguilla took all day. We boarded the Santino, a 40-foot power cruiser, at 9:00 AM, at Pelican Resort?s marina on Simpson Bay (near Phillipsbug). We were back by 5:00 PM. The cost was $15/person if you went to the Pelican?s 90-minute timeshare presentation, or $70/person if you did not. We opted for the former, and yes, we ended up buying a timeshare (more on this later).
The trip to Anguilla took about 90 minutes. The first half of the trip provided great views of several resorts and beaches on Saint Martin, and the last half gave us a nice ?tour? of Anguilla. We had free access to the beer and soda throughout the trip. We stopped first in a small bay to announce our presence via radiotelephone at the British-controlled island and , more importantly, to place our lunch orders for Roy?s Place. We moved on to Crocus Bay, a secluded underwater marine park, where we snorkeled for about an hour. Snorkeling here was excellent, but not as good as Creole Rock. We reboarded the boat and headed for Roy?s Place, a great little restaurant on the beach. Whether you order the fish, chicken, or ribs, you won?t go wrong. This is one fine little restaurant (included in the price of the trip, by the way).
After lunch we headed to Sandy Island, better known as Gilligan?s Island. Honest, it actually LOOKS like Gilligan?s Island. I counted 14 palm trees and an open-air restaurant/bar on this little spit of land. You just have to go here. Oh, and the snorkeling? Magnificent! As you view the island from the boat, anchored in the tiny bay, there are coral reefs to the right and left; they are both outstanding, but the one to the left is absolutely fantastic (in my humble opinion).
We returned to the Pelican Resort, drinking beer and covering up from the sun all the way. It was an absolutely wonderful day.
This was the most expensive snorkeling trip we?ll ever take, given that we bought a timeshare in the process. Would the trip have been worth the $70/person WITHOUT the timeshare spiel? Yes, absolutely. For this price you get a day on the water, a guide who explains what you?re seeing, all the beer/soda you can drink, two great snorkeling spots, a super lunch at Roy?s Place, and an ocean view of another island.
We originally thought we?d just take a ferry from Marigot to Anguilla and do our own snorkeling...cheap, fast, but dumb. Turns out that the ferry doesn?t get you anywhere close to the good snorkeling spots, doesn?t take you to Gilligan?s Island, doesn?t take care of your time-consuming immigration/passport obligations, and doesn?t provide a guide with beer and soda.
Could we impose on you? If you DO decide to listen to Pelican?s timeshare spiel (which is not unpleasant, actually), and if you DO decide to buy a week there, would you please say that Rick and Pam Mollica referred you? (This is a blatant commercial announcement on our part because Pelican-owners are awarded a bonus week for each person they refer who ends up buying a week.) But what the heck? We?re nice folks, and writing this first-timer?s perspective is taking much longer than it will take you to write down my name!. Incidentally, we found out about the Pelican and the Anguilla trip by stopping at one of the Tourist Information booths in Philipsburg (which I think are actually low-pressure fronts for timeshare selling).
Marigot. Capital city of the French side and just a laid-back place to view the world from street-side restaurants near the marina or open markets. Marigot is supposedly the equivalent of Saint Tropez in the south of France. I believe it. More than anyplace else on Saint Martin, Marigot has the feel of French colonial rule on a Caribbean island. Don?t be in a rush. Feel free to speak English, but dare to try your high school French. Daydream about moving to Saint Martin, like some of the folks in the market have done. Get out of the big-name shops that advertise in the tourist pamphlets; shop in the back streets where you can buy shoes and fancy china in the same store...at much better prices than in the flashy places.
Philipsburg. Capital city of the Dutch side. We only spent a few hours in Philipsburg, but it had the ?feel? of port towns I sometimes visited in the Navy...a little heavy on where?s-your-wallet commercialism ...maybe because the cruise ships dock here? Still, it was a nice place to visit.
In addition to the activities we?ve talked about already, here are some fun things we would recommend to first-timers (you eleventh-timers don?t need any advice from us!)
Ladies, buy a pareso...or two...or three. Paresos are giant, colorful, silk scarves - ?body scarves? - that women wrap around their bodies. They can be tied several ways to become skirts or shirts. A French girl in a small sidestreet shop in Marigot taught my wife how to fashion at least six different shirts and skirts from the same piece of material. Who wears them? Women on Orient Beach who have nothing on underneath, but want to adjust how much they expose; woman who want to cover up from the sun;
or women who want to cover up their less-than-best parts. Hmmmm...men need something like a pareso! Men, smoke a Cuban cigar. You can?t import them to the U.S., but you sure can enjoy these superlative cigars while you?re there. Yes, there IS a difference between Cuban cigars and everyone else?s. Where can you find them? In convenience stores. In liquor stores. In tobacco stores. Everywhere.
Drive to the top of Paradise Peak. The view from Paradise Peak is spectacular. A jeep is not mandatory, but much more fun (and comforting). The view from the top is good, but not as good as the view from the first right turn on the way back down the mountain. Turn in, park your vehicle, walk the footpaths, and bring your camera. Wow!
Climb to Fort Louis (AKA Fort Marigot). Just above the town of Marigot is Fort Louis. You?ll see the fort from just about anywhere in town; follow the signs up the hill to the parking lot and then hike around the Fort. The view is terrific and the history is pretty interesting. Bring your camera.
Watch the world go by in the marina at Marigot. Have a glass of wine and smoke one of those Cuban?s at a table on the sidewalk in any of the marine-side restaurants or cafes. Watching this scene, try to stop your brain from working feverishly to figure out how you can move to Saint Martin.
Try the fresh-baked bread or croissants at one of the simple bakeries along the road. Even the convenience stores have fresh bread.
There?s nothing fun about leaving Saint Martin. We have only two observations based on our first experience:
Don?t postpone your shopping until Sunday if you?re leaving on a Sunday. Stores are mostly closed on Sundays.
DO arrive at the airport early. Lines are long because crowds are thick. Take the stress out of departure by arriving early enough to get checked in and processed through emigration.
Arriving two hours before your flight?s departure is not too early.
We liked Saint Martin enough to buy a timeshare there.
St. Martin by Ethel Volin
Tuesday 3/7 arrived in St. Martin from Baltimore through San Juan. A car was waiting from Somerset (no problems) and then checked into Sheraton to nice 1 bedroom suite w/full kitchen, dining & living room everything marble, just lovely over looking Simpson Bay with all the boat, a picture post card.
Dinner - Don Carlos : Jerry had Grilled Lobster I had Chicken & Shrimp Fajitas - free drinks with coupon, dinner w/tip & wine $46.50. Casino - Pelican did okay playing blackjack............. Wednesday 3/8 Breakfast - Zee Best (Masterdana) Marigot Had a basket with croissants nice conversation total $11.00
Lunch and Beach Orient - Kontiki $40.00 w/tip, beach chairs $5./per, and had a wonderful afternoon on beach.
Dinner - Paradise Cafe atmosphere nice, no drinks $58.00 w/tip.
Breakfast in suite
Lunch-La Riveria in Philipsburg lovely cafe free drinks w/coupon $19.00 w/tip
We paid Heeru at Touch of Gold a visit.
Dinner-La Residence in Marigot. Jerry had Grilled Lobster, I had Salmon. Set price of $28/per for appetizer, entree, dessert free champagne (your choice) service excellent atmosphere lovely wine w/tip $82.00 Friday 3/10
Breakfast in suite
Lunch-Cheri's-disappointed was not as good as I remembered $18.00 w/tip
Dinner-Lynettes-Clayton was friendly (Lynettes hubby) atmosphere nice food excellent- Jerry had salmon, I had Shrimp Brochette $56.00 without drinks or dessert, $8.00 cover for King Beau Beau show which was very enjoyable. Saturday 3/11
Breakfast Zee Best $12.
Lunch in Philipsburg - Callaloo Cafe across the street from Touch of Gold w/tip $18.00 a. A cloudy day and little windy so the afternoon we spent at the pool.
Dinner: Da Livio in Philipsburg excellent service and food nice atmosphere on Front St. wine w/tip $82.00
Breakfast in suite
Beach Orient & Lunch-Boo Boo Jam not as good as Kontiki w/tip $17.00 and if you have a drink or lunch free beach chairs.
Dinner-Le Espadon at Sheraton expensive w/drinks, wine shared dessert $132.00 w/tip. Nice atmosphere table over looking the bay.
The weather was cloudy & windy not a beach day.
Lunch: La Riveria free drinks w/coupon $16.00 w/tip
Dinner-Grill & Ribs all you can eat $26.00 w/tip free drinks w/coupon ribs were wonderful
Checked out of hotel checked luggage at airport and had lunch Turtle Pier food and service very nice $21.00 w/tip. The week went by so fast. Needless to say we had the best time ever in Paradise. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long to get back to reality.
Oh by the way we went by Bayside twice and they were closed. Could not find Bai Rouge Beach, and was disappointed. I don't believe that you can have a bad meal in SXM (french, dutch). It was wonderful.
St. Thomas / St. John: Incomplete Guide To Snorkeling by John Weiss
COKI BEACH: This is the best place for fish on ST -- number, variety, and tameness: they will not just eat out of your hand, they will poke at it if they think you have something tasty. The fish food of choice here is Alpo dog biscuits; they are so compressed they don't come apart easily in the water, and you can scrape of bits of one biscuit for a long time.
There is a great concentration of fish very close to shore, around the rocks on the right, with easy access into the water anywhere along the beach. Ample shade, picnic tables, and good people-watching make this a popular place to spend the day.
This is where the people from the cruise ships come for their snorkeling and SCUBA excursions; they are usually gone by 3:00. This is a public beach, with food, beverage, chair rental, dive shops, and other facilities right there. You can even get your hair braided and jeweled.
SAPPHIRE BEACH: Very pretty long, curved beach in front of the Sapphire Beach Resort. There is public parking outside the resort grounds, but we had no problems parking in the paved lots inside. (All beaches are open to the public, even at the resorts, but they can legitimately limit your access in various ways.) Walk between the buildings and you are right on the beach.
To the right of the beach is a large area of reef, running right up to the shoreline. The further out you go, and the further from the main swimming area in front of the resort, the better the snorkeling. Lots of individual or clustered formations of coral, each with its own colony of inhabitants. The fish population density is not as high here as at Coki, and they won't eat out of your hand. On the other hand, there are far fewer people out in the good viewing areas, so it is much more peaceful.
All facilities are available, but they all belong to the resort and are more expensive if you don't have a room number to give them: chair rental is $5.00, free if you're a guest, for example. Sunday afternoons are a huge party, with live music and big crowds of strange and beautiful people to rub sunburns with.
SECRET HARBOR: Also a resort beach, with relatively limited facilities. A beautiful place to sit and watch crabs running up and down the beach at sunset (bring lots of insect repellent), but skip it for snorkeling. The water is shallow and silty, and the fish are scarce.
MAGENS BAY: Beautiful, very large and popular public beach with spectacular views as you approach it. One restaurant/bar/store/takeout food/chair rental place on the entire beach, but prices were reasonable. The day we were there was relatively rough and we understood that the snorkeling is generally poor there. It's a nice place to hang out, but disappointing for fish fans.
One unique feature, for those interested, is a drop-dead gorgeous cocktail waitress who strolls up and down the beach all day long wearing a flowered bikini and a radiant smile.
CANEEL BAY: Another resort beach with limited public facilities. Very fine snorkeling: great variety of coral and many different kinds of fish. In addition to all the usual parrot fish, wrasses, yellowtails, groupers, etc.), we saw a sea turtle, a sting ray, a barracuda, and two squid. The best coral formations are in fairly calm, deep areas, so you can hover peacefully over your viewing area.
CINNAMON BAY: A National Park campground and public beach area. Tends to be windy in the afternoon. The best snorkeling is at the far right end of the beach, or around an island offshore (we didn't go there, just heard it was very good). This was the best
area for huge coral formations, with cliffs, holes, lots of variety and texture. Relatively fewer fish, however, than the other areas.
There are public facilities here commissioned by the Park Service, so they are relatively reasonable. A funky open-air restaurant serves American Plan meals to the campers and will sell you a large plate of food for a very reasonable price; live music and dancing make it a nice way to finish off the day before catching the ferry back to St. Thomas.
St. Vincent by Karl Eklund
I figure that St. Vincent is as close as I'm going to get to my ideal tropical island.
It may not be everybody's ideal. There is supposed to be a casino, but there was some question as to whether it was operating. There are only a few stores catering to upscale tourists, and they were less sophisticated than the ones on other islands. There are beautiful deserted beaches, but they are most easily accessible from a yacht. There are a number of excellent yacht anchorages, and a yacht is an ideal way to see the Grenadines, the group of small satellite islands that form the rest of the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but that's irrelevant if you don't own or charter a yacht.
The reason that there aren't more tourist facilities is that there aren't a lot of tourists. Which suited me, but it isn't everybody's ideal. But I said that.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is in the southern, or leeward, group of Caribbean islands west of Barbados, north of the Grenadines and Grenada, and south of St. Lucia. It has an active volcano , La Soufriere, (last eruption in 1979), and plenty of other peaks and ridges. It is only exceeded by Dominica in the extent of untouched rain forest.
Unlike most islands it does not have a road going around it, since about a quarter of the shoreline is only reachable by boat or on foot, and that includes one of the principal natural tourist attractions, a falls in a narrow cleft with a pool suitable for swimming.
The capital, principal and, to be truthful, the only city is Kingstown, on the southern end. From it a good road goes along the windward, or Atlantic, coast and a more difficult road goes along the leeward, or Caribbean, coast. Both roads climb steeply into hills and then rush just as precipitously back to the sea and to fishing villages. Along the windward road is a tunnel, dug by slaves in the 18th century to open up the northern slopes to cultivation. The area beyond the tunnel still constitutes an immense plantation. Now the crops are copra and arrowroot, destined for cosmetics and computer paper. The villages date from the time of sugar cane, which is very labor-intensive. Like other islands the decline of sugar created an unemployment problem that has never been completely solved.
Despite an obvious lack of prosperity in many of the small towns and villages, Vincentians are remarkably friendly. There seems to be less social tension, whether class, race or money is considered as a cause, than on other islands that had been English colonies. It would be interesting to speculate that this is partly because the aboriginal population, together with escaped black slaves from Barbados and shipwrecked slavers, provided longer and harder resistance to colonization than elsewhere. Whatever the reason Vincentians appear to be able to be themselves without being perpetually angry, and easy conversations are a common occurrence. This is not the case on all Caribbean islands.
There are a couple of upscale and expensive hotels: The Cobblestone in Kingstown, (for business until the former Mariner's Inn is rebuilt as Browne's) and Young's Island, which is accessible by a small private ferry. Young's Island has its own beaches, but most of the other hotels are in the vicinity of Indian Bay, Villa Beach or the Careenage. Of the three beaches, Villa Beach is the best for swimming since it is protected by Young's Island and its associated reef and most of the beach has a sandy bottom. Indian Bay is more rocky, and the Careenage more silty.
In many ways Villa Beach is the ideal recreational beach: it has not only a central portion with sandy bottom and mild surf, but one end of the beach extends into a rocky point which is an excellent snorkeling ground. With varieties of coral, many species of fish, squid and octopus, in sparkling clear Caribbean water, it is ideal for the novice snorkeler (like me!).
Of the three hotels on Villa Beach the Beachcombers would probably appeal to those who like a cheerful, noisy bar scene. The Sunset Shores has a meeting room that seats 100 and may attract business people. In any case few residents of either were seen on the beach. We stayed at The Paradise Inn because it had a housekeeping apartment at half the cost of a room at the Sunset Shores and one sixth the cost of a room on Young's Island. It also allowed us to have a cup of tea and a swim before most restaurants opened for breakfast.
Mentioning that reminds me of one of the few drawbacks of St. Vincent: a grievous lack of brewed coffee. You will get instant coffee in most restaurants and we were unable to buy a pot to brew coffee in. Next year we will bring along something like a Melitta filter funnel. In the meantime we did what we used to do in England, drink tea.
One restaurant, The Dolphin, did serve brewed coffee and excellent food. This may well have been because they had a new chef, so it would be wise to test any recommendation. We didn't eat in either of the other two of the three restaurants clustered at the mainland end of the Young's Island ferry, and we only drank a rum punch on Young's Island, so I can't report on the officially upscale cuisine. Brunch at the Cobblestone was all right, but they served instant coffee.
What made the stay at the Paradise Inn so pleasant was not just the ordinary comforts of a hotel but the extraordinary friendliness and good nature of the staff. Shirley Layne-Jones, the manager, was always cheerfully helpful, Abraham, the chef, cured my wife when she ran her foot into a sea urchin while snorkeling and, on our request, got a breadfruit from a tree outside the hotel and served it with dinner; and the rest of the staff went about their tasks with unforced smiles. We felt, when we left, like we were breaking up a family reunion. I have never felt so much at home in a hotel. To have that kind of atmosphere only a few steps away from the best accessible swimming beach on the island is a rare combination.
Incidentally, the only time Villa Beach was anywhere near crowded was on Sunday afternoons when the Vincentians have time for swimming.
As on many Caribbean islands the beaches are public- the trick is getting access to them.
The beaches at Mt. Wynne may be marginally better than Villa Beach: they are longer (there are two of them) and the snorkeling is a little wilder and more exotic. But they are most easily approached from the sea. The other leeward beaches that can be reac reached by road are a difficult two-hour drive from Kingstown. The beaches on the windward side are even more deserted, even those bordering the road, because of the heavy surf. We went into the water at Argyle Beach after we got an explanation of how to find the spots where the undertow was less vicious, but we couldn't be said to be "swimming". Wave-lashed was more like it and, after one wave, I barely held on to my bathing suit.
There is a beach called the Brighton Salt Pond where a reef tempers the surf, but it can be reached only through a "road" that consists of two wheel-ruts on the side of a steep slope. If one met a car (luckily unlikely) one might have to back up for twenty minutes before there was a spot wide enough for two cars to pass.
But these difficulties only add spice to the variety of beach recreation available and increase one's appreciation for the easy swimming at Villa Beach.
There was not much in the way of artistic or intellectual activity except for the botanical garden and ethnological museum. The botanical garden has a descendant of the breadfruit trees that Capt. Bligh brought back from Tahiti, and a pleasant assortment of other tropical plantings. There is even a miniature zoo with a couple of examples of the indigenous St. Vincent parrot. But the highlight is the museum exhibits arranged by Dr. Earl Kirby.
Many people know that the "Carib" in "Caribbean" is the name of an aboriginal people; some know that they were preceded by other American Indian peoples. But Dr. Kirby has collected the archeological samples so as to give testimony to the successive waves of peoples who came up through the Antilles from South America. He shows clear evidence of six cultural waves and, because stoneware does not easily support cultural differentiation, there may have been more. It is only our eurocentric attitudes that have allowed us to see the Caribbean aboriginal and mixed cultures as of little interest. The museum is open on Wednesday mornings and Saturday afternoons and "Doc" Kirby is often good for a fascinating conversation.
There are walking excursions of varying difficulty. One easy one is to the Falls of Baline, but the starting point is only reachable by a boat. A tour can be arranged at your hotel desk. Baline Tours. located next to the Paradise Inn, provides an inexpensive all-day excursion to the Falls, including snorkeling at Mt. Wynne beach, a lunch stop at Waliabou Bay and all the Rum Punches you can drink.
The markets in Kingstown offer a wide selection of foods and, if you have housekeeping facilities, the market offers a great selection of fresh vegetables and fish. Their swordfish and tuna are small by our standards, but the shark is very tasty. We didn' didn't look for blackfish (pilot whale). My special treat is fresh vine-ripened tomatoes in February! But the papaya (paw-paw), mango and tree ripened bananas have to be tasted to be believed.
There are cheap ferries and expensive air connections to Bequia, the largest of the Grenadines. It has a marvelous yacht harbor, a waterfront with tourist shops, and a notable scarcity of water. Water is plentiful and clean on St. Vincent, but it can be a problem in the Grenadines. The smaller of the two Bequia ferries can also give quite a choppy ride.
Information is available from the St. Vincent Tourist Office at 801 2nd Ave, NY 10017, 800-729-1726, or Box 834, Kingstown, St. Vincent, 809-457-1502 fax 809-456-2601. Be skeptical of the information in Escape the official magazine--we went in search of one boutique and were told "Yes, we told them we were thinking about putting one in".
We found that faxing a request to several hotels was a good way to select a place that had what we wanted.
The airport, between Kingstown and Villa, isn't large enough to land big jets, but LIAT has service to Barbados where you can get American to New York and Boston and several carriers to other islands, Canada and Europe. On the way back an American Airline Airlines flight was canceled due to equipment failure and they put us up in the Barbados Hilton, which was big, efficient, impersonal and reminded us of everything we weren't looking for in the Caribbean.
If what you are looking for in the Caribbean is a Club Med atmosphere, or an on-shore Cruise ship, you aren't likely to find it in St. Vincent. But if you are interested in a comfortable time on an island with a life of its own St. Vincent is ideal. Get there before too many other people do.
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