For hundreds of years, the Dutch and French have shared St. Maarten, an island snuggled between St. Barth and Anguilla, just east of St. Thomas, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and only a 3 1/2 hour flight from JFK, making it an easy getaway.
I had visited St. Maarten over 20 years ago and I was startled to see it that not much had changed.
The 21-mile Dutch side has multiple-story buildings closely constructed with cruise ships coming into the busy shopping town of Philipsburg. The 33 1/2-mile French side has only two-story buildings with more vegetation and tinier towns. Both have multiple beaches. There are several casinos on the Dutch side and many restaurants.
Interestingly, there is nothing but the two countries’ flags, on a gentle hill, to separate the independent nations, and goods travel freely between them.
I landed on the Dutch side at the new Princess Juliana International Airport on a smooth JetBlue flight with friendly, helpful staff. I went directly to the French side where I stayed with my friend at a villa on the Caribbean Sea.
Being a beach lover, I had fond memories of my time on Orient Beach on the French side and it was where I returned to and spent my days while on the short but sweet getaway.
There are multiple “beach clubs” along the soft, white, sandy Orient Beach (that is famous for its nude beach). I chose Coco Beach Club, whose owner will not rent her 150 soft blue lounges and umbrellas to cruise ship visitors. It’s been owned for over 20 years by Sophie, a single mom who has brought top flight chefs to her little piece of heaven on earth and offers breakfast, lunch and dinner served on the beach. The thin-crusted, crispy vegetable pizzas that we ate for lunch each day were the best I ever had!
After a picture-perfect day of swimming, sunning and shopping from vendors walking the beach with hand-crafted items, we were off for dinner and the casinos.
Each night we ate at restaurants on both sides of the island. One, Mario Bistro, is in the charming square on the lagoon in Porto Cupecoy. Walking into the square reminded me of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, but a smaller version (and no pigeons). Mario had recently moved his fine Italian food to this location. My friend shared with me that it was necessary to make a reservation weeks before you were to arrive to assure a seat. But then there were only 50 seats. Now, there is indoor and outdoor seating and we had no problem getting a table. With Mario still in the kitchen, the food is superb.
I loved the thick, rich gazpacho and a sumptuous baked pistachio-crusted mahi-mahi. Fresh fish was done simply and superbly.
Since I came for the beach, we had dinner at two restaurants where I could hear the lapping of the waves as we ate at candlelit tables set on the beach. Mezza Luna and Beaches fit the bill with menus serving fish of all kinds, and the lamb chops were a big portion ordered from the grill menu.
My favorite memory was my visit to La Samanna, an exquisite hotel nestled on the white sands of Baie Longue on the French side. It was always the best quiet, luxury getaway on the island, and after having dinner there this week, it lives up to its reputation for fine food and service. Fortunately, some things never change.
Oh, yes. I almost forgot. I had the crispiest croissant and breakfast at La Croissanterie on the marina in Marigot.
The food and atmosphere of the island is a perfect peaceful getaway calling for a return. I hope to!