Thursday, May 29, 2008

One Week In St. Martin

St. Martin is only 37 square miles and is divided into two parts: French and Dutch (the Dutch part is called Sint Maarten). The promise of the European influence was a main factor in my choice of this particular location, and I wasn't disappointed. The French side is very French. The Dutch side, while definitely having a Dutch influence, is somewhat more typically Caribbean with a fairly strong American flavor, complete with Burger Kings and other icons of US culture.

The weather was close to perfect, with highs in the low 80s in the day and the evenings cooler and quite breezy. The sun is very intense. I used a heavy sunscreen constantly and still got quite tan, with some sunburn in a few spots that I missed. It rained a bit during the last two days of my stay, but it was very localized and brief. Actually, I enjoyed the brief rain showers. The crowds deserted the beaches and the cool air and rain felt good.

I booked the trip with Travel Charter, through a local travel agent. I chose to stay at the Blue Bay Resort, based on mostly positive things I read both online and in travel books. The Blue Bay recently changed to (mostly) all-inclusive format, and with it came a name change from Mont Vernon. (Travel Charter literature still lists it with the old name). The airline was supposed to be Laker Air but in fact was actually ATA, nonstop from the always pleasant Detroit Metropolitan Airport (avoiding Northwest at DTW does make it considerably more pleasant) to Princess Julianna Airport in St. Martin, with a stop in Antigua on the way back. The ATA staff was very professional and courteous, with the only glitches being a delay in Detroit because a flight attendant was called in on short notice and hadn't arrived by the scheduled departure time, a drunken idiot and his luggage which had to be thrown off the returning flight just as we were about to depart (the airline did the right thing here in correcting a problem that should have been avoided had the airport staff been paying attention), and a very chilly L-1011 on the returning flight. Apparently only the rear of the plane was freezing: the front was too hot and they were having problems balancing the temperature. It was somewhat amusing to see big, thick clouds of condesation spewing out of the overhead air vents and down into the cabin.

Princess Juliana Airport, located on the Dutch side, is small but quite busy. The approach to the airport is interesting because a popular beach is right at the runway threshold. Planes pass very low overhead and land at just the other side of a fence. A sign on the beach warns of physical danger from landing planes and the possibility of jet blast from planes taking off. I briefly visited the beach later in the week and saw several planes land. Air France has 747 service from Paris and it would have been really spectacular to see one of those pass a few feet overhead.

After quickly going through customs and immigration and not so quickly picking up my luggage, a Travel Charter rep directed us to a waiting bus.

The bus trip from the airport to Blue Bay gave me a good chance to get a quick look at the island, since they are on pretty much opposite sides. I saw a bit of the countryside and some towns (we went through Marigot). I hadn't arranged to rent a car but I decided it would probably be worthwhile to get one at some point.

After arriving at Blue Bay, I checked in and was given the option of upgrading to all-inclusive for an additional $40/day and did so. Overall, I'm quite happy that I did, mostly because it was extremely convenient and the buffet-style meals were very good. I didn't think I'd be able to consume $40 worth/day but I'll bet that I did. For me, the main downside of all-inclusive is that it would have been fun to sample some of the by all accounts very fine restaraunts on St. Martin. At least for my non-gourmet tastes, though, the food at Blue Bay was excellent. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served buffet-style, with two sittings for dinner (7 and 9 PM). Despite only having recently switched to all-inclusive, things went remarkably smoothly. The staff was always very attentive and polite and I ate better than I have in a long time.

After checking in, I was directed to my room and, after having a bit of trouble unlocking the door (until I discovered The Trick), unpacked, checked the progress of the Yugoslavian bombing on CNN, and pretty much collapsed. I was very pleased with the room. Big, bright, and very pleasant. A bit later I went for a walk down to Orient Beach, decided I had made a good choice in vacation spots, and got very lost trying to find my room again. Blue Bay consists of many buildings and it took me a bit of time to get my bearings.

After a good night's sleep, my vacation proper really began and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Orient Beach is a mile long, with Blue Bay on the Northern end, Club Orient on the Southern end, and lots of things going on in-betweeen. The entire beach is clothing-optional, which adds some interest, and gets rather busy mid-day. Early mornings are a good time to take a walk and I did so every day, after a good breakfast. Actually, I typically walked the entire length of the beach at least a couple of times a day. The sun, the sand, the water, and the people-watching are excellent. There are a number of stands along the beach where food and trinkets of various kinds can be purchased. I discovered that if you attempt to use a chair and a beach umbrella in the beach area of a hotel where I wasn't a guest, it usually didn't take long for someone to come out and ask me to pay (typically) $5 each for use for the day. Not bad, except it gets annoying if you only plan on spending a short time in one particular spot and move on to another. The beach itself though is public, as are all beaches on St. Martin.

People are in general very friendly and it's an international crowd. There seemed to be a lot of French Canadians staying at Blue Bay, and Italian, British, French, and Spanish people are common. I enjoyed the diverse group. There also were some American cruise ship types who seemed to relish their self-appointed role of clueless rubes ("Look Martha, she's topless! Wait 'till I tell the guys at the Moose Lodge!"), but in general it was a good group. One particular positive is that, despite the time of year, I didn't see any evidence of the Spring Break crowd that plagues some vacation spots.

I ended up renting a car for the second half of my one-week stay. This proved to be a good idea because it was fun to get out and about and see the rest of the island. Car rental is pretty cheap: I got a Kia from Hertz for $49/day. I vistited Marigot, which looks very much like a town on the French Mediterranean. There's lots of good shopping there and I picked up some gifts to bring back. Supposedly the prices are quite good, though I don't have much basis for comparison, not having bought Baccarat crystal or a Fendi purse in the US recently. The selection certainly is outstanding. I spent some time in a jewelery store ogling the Ebel and Breitling watches.

I also took a quick look at Grand Case, a small village on the northwestern side of the island. It appeared that at least every other building housed a good restaurant. I plan on investigating further on the next trip.

On my last night there, I was treated to an incredible moon rise over the Caribbean and a pretty spectacular fireworks display on the beach. I don't know what the occasion was for the fireworks but it was a fine ending to a very pleasant and relaxing trip. I look forward to going back sometime soon.

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