By The Nautical Mom
Officially, there are two sides to St. Martin/St. Maarten – French and Dutch – but in reality there are so many more facets to explore. There’s plenty to do whatever your interests, day or night. We visited as a family in December 2011 with two children (8 and 10) aboard our Jeanneau 43DS. After 12 days in the ocean, we fortuitously arrived just one hour before the Simpson Bay Bridge opened. This bridge is the Dutch gateway to Simpson Bay Lagoon, where most marinas and anchorages are, and it only opens twice per day. Once opened, passing through the bridge is a daunting task, since there are always a few knots of current, lots of closely packed traffic, and a seemingly very narrow opening. Arriving by airplane is much more straightforward, with a modern, well-organized, yet manageably small international airport centrally located on the island.
Once inside the lagoon, it’s like passing through the turnstile at Disneyland: so many marvelous attractions to explore, with international crowds (and in our case boats) mulling in every direction. We stayed a month at IGY Simpson Bay Marina, nestled between the megayachts and other seasonal sailors – the longer-term cruisers prefer the anchorages. There’s an active cruisers’ VHF net on the radio each morning that kept us all informed of local events and provided information on activities. From the marina, located in the center of Cole Bay, it’s an easy walk to several entertaining attractions, satisfying eateries and pleasant beaches. However, we also rented a car for a few weeks to venture further afield.
Two nearby family-friendly venues include the Seaside Nature Park and the Sint Maarten Yacht Club, both on the Dutch side of the island. The yacht club is fun day or night since it’s located alongside the entry bridge, making it a great location for yacht-watching over a beer and nachos. Having made it through the passage, it was fun to watch other captains struggle with tight maneuvers to join the inner circle or to admire the seasoned experts as they brazenly darted out toward new destinations. The yacht club also has a nice fleet of Optis and Lasers which can be rented. Our kids took private lessons from the local coach, which quickly got them comfortable with navigating small boats in crowded harbors. As my youngest described in his journal:
“Today we took a sailing lesson. Why? Well, because sailing is not really about maneuvering our big boat with its motor. It’s about balancing your weight in a tiny Opti while actually using the wind and a tiller to get where you’re going.”
At the Seaside Nature Park, they offer trail rides on horseback that culminate with an ocean swim with the horses. It’s a down-to-earth place, hidden behind the local power plant, with several acres of grazing land abutting the beach. During high season, they also offer a day camp for children, including arts and crafts, animal care, and sports. Since we were on-island a little longer, we enrolled the children in bi-weekly riding lessons. We also enjoyed the Seaside Nature Park’s Dutch Sinterklaas celebration on December 5, when a mythical man dressed in red arrived on horseback bearings gifts and candy for children.
With the car, we were able to explore Philipsburg, the largest town on the Dutch side. There’s tons of duty-free shopping with throngs of cruise ship passengers, and an attractive beachfront promenade along Great Bay. One special in-town venue we enjoyed was the “Yoda Guy Museum,” where Nick Maley, the creator of Yoda has tons of Star Wars movie memorabilia on display. Most surprising was how much he actually resembles his creation. We also found the Philipsburg Historical Society’s museum with its small but interesting display of local history a worthwhile stop.
Of course, St. Martin also has a lot of beaches. Each has a unique personality although all feature pristine sands, sparkling waters and snack shacks. In general, we walked to Cole Bay or Kim Sha beach in the late afternoon – it faces west and has good happy hours for sunset watchers. This became a bit of a ritual after each day filled with homeschool and boat chores, and the kids really enjoyed racing along the cooler sand at the end of the day.
For a real ‘beach day,’ we ventured to the French side’s Orient Beach. This crescent of powdery sand reminded me of the beaches in San Tropez on the French Riviera. There were rows and rows of tightly aligned beach chaises for rent, with waitress service and changing rooms, all designed for a high-end cruise ship crowd set on maximizing their time in the sun. At one end of Orient, there is a nude beach where we’re told brazen exhibitionists play volleyball – not something we needed to see.
For a completely different experience, we went up to Malo Beach, next to the airport runway. The draw here is the sand spray generated when the airplanes take off. We experienced the blast from a small jet, which was sufficient to blow our towels into the water, and our hats and sunglasses from our heads. It did leave our skin delightfully tingling and refreshed, which I think is the goal, but I would never have been able to withstand the excruciating sandblast from the 747s that fly out of there.
The Sint Maarten Yacht Club hosts one of the Caribbean’s premier events, the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, each year on the first weekend of March. Photo courtesy of Denis McBriarty
One of the most remarkable aspects of our stay in St. Martin was the ease with which we left the Dutch side to enter an entirely different world on the French side. After a short drive or dinghy ride across the lagoon, we landed in another country. Immediately the language, currency, and culture changed completely. Provisioning for the boat at the French groceries was a real treat: cheap wine, fresh paté and exquisite pastries. Fine French food was also abundant in restaurants at every price point, especially in the town called Grand Case. There is a scenic anchorage on the North side of the island, which is seldom crowded. Ashore there we found white tablecloths, sparkling crystal, polished silver and chateaubriand on par with any Parisian eatery, with prices to match. We also found the “Lolos,” beachfront shacks with smoky barbeques from which emerged the juiciest chicken I’ve ever tasted for only $4.
The French side is not just about food. In Marigot, the capitol, we found an impressive array of stylish boutiques and colorful souvenir stalls along the waterfront. Fort Saint Louis offers panoramic vistas of the island and some historical information to those willing to climb about 160 steps to the top. You can easily see all the boats in Marigot Bay, the marina and Simpson Bay Lagoon, as well as those transiting to St. Bart’s in the distance. Best of all the French side attractions was Coconut Trees Go Karting. There, drivers age 7 and up don the garb of a professional race car driver and are able to zip around the twists and turns at hair-raising speeds, especially for sailors who are more accustomed to seven knots.
Of course, with all its attractions, natural beauty, and boating accommodations, St. Martin tempted us to stay. If it had not been just the beginning of our journey, we probably would’ve stayed even longer than five weeks. Now, reflecting on all the Caribbean Islands and neighboring countries we have visited, we have to say it was one of the most welcoming, diverse, and comfortable places we went.
Nautical Mom continues adventures with her family in the Republic of Panama, where the sailing is a rewarding challenge and life on land is even more so. Stay tuned to WindCheck for more updates on their journey.