Despite being a reasonably well-traveled person, I'd never see so much as one Caribbean island. The siren song of sun, sable sand and sea breezes doesn't hold the same sway over me as some others, and so I've more often channeled my wanderlust toward more urban — and food-driven — destinations. But then I found myself in possession of a timeshare in St. Maarten, the final detail to shake out of my father's estate. When the universe hands you a ticket, you take it.
The timeshare is in the sprawling Pelican resort in Simpson Bay, the largest resort on the island. It's a simple one-bedroom affair, but we upgraded to a suite in the newer Pelican Marina Residences so our friends Nick and Russ could join us. Bonus prize: All the rooms are waterfront. That's our view, above. Not shown: Pelicans and terns diving for fish immediately in front, and frigatebirds swooping overhead. Oh, and airplanes. That's the airport across the bay.
For the unitiated, St. Martin/Sint Maarten is unique among the West Indies in that it is occupied by two countries: St. Martin is an overseas collectivity of France, and Sint Maarten is one of the Netherlands Antilles. There's no real crossing between the sides, just a border market with flags and a marked change in road quality. The roads on the Dutch side are alarming even by San Francisco standards. There are spots where there isn't anything but potholes.
We'd been repeatedly told that there was no good food on the Dutch side. I am here to tell you that is a lie. In a structure literally surrounded by, but not technically part of, Pelican are two small restaurants. On the ground floor is a more-than-serviceable French bakery and patisserie called, unimaginitively, Bon Appetit, whose croque monsieurs became a mainstay of Russ's diet. But the real attraction here is upstairs, the humble little Alexander's. At the top of the stairs, you walk through a kitchen devoid of character but full of good aromas, out onto the open-air patio dining area that maybe seats maybe 20. Alexander's serves authentic, home-style island food. My one lunch there netted a chicken curry that was fragrant and delicious, but breakfast is where it's at, especially for a real West Indies delicacy, salt fish and johnny cakes.
The johnny cakes were steaming hot, fresh from the fryer, with a crisp outside and fluffy interior. The salt fish is reconstituted and stewed with sauteed peppers, onions and tomatoes. We added eggs for good measure. On counsel of our very charming waitress, we split the johnny cakes open, like pita bread, and stuffed the goods inside. A dollop of the ubiquitous Matouk's, made with scorchingly hot Scotch bonnet peppers, completes the effect. But get there early. Johnny cakes are available all morning, but the salt fish sells out fast. You'll see why. I had this three times in one week, and I have every intention of making it at home. Did I mention it was cheap? It is.
At the end of Simpson Bay there are a cluster of tourist-grade restaurants that we would have otherwise skipped, but on advice of our pool bar's bartender we hit up Lee's. Yes, there's a schlocky but not-untalented cover band playing soft rock hits of the 70s (don't get me STARTED on the music on the Dutch side), and the place is occupied more or less exclusively by tourists, but get the ribs and you'll forgive it all. After, we sauntered across to La Bamba Beach Bar, which lives up to its name. A Puerto Rican salsa band blared on the stage as we stood on the cool sand in bare feet and did shots of tequila. Any rumors you hear of three gay men giving a lap dance to a Jamaican woman are without foundation.
Laziness prevented us from doing too much dining on the French side, but we did make one special excursion on Thanksgiving Day proper. Since the holiday is not celebrated on the island, and there's nary a turkey to be found, we used that as an excuse to hit up one of the island's more esteemed eateries, Ti Bouchon. The restaurant occupies a quaint cottage in Cul-de-Sac. The interior is entirely kitchen, with seating out on the covered patio. Momo, the gregarious, affable owner, flits about, chatting with tables, or pops his head out of the shuttered windows to converse with guests or harangue his sole waiter. The food is undeniably French, with a specifically Lyonnais bent: We had starters of perfectly tender escargots in a bleu cheese-infused gravy with vegetables and a puff pastry croûte, almost like escargots pot pie, and a goat cheese mousse lighter than air, accented with tapenade, pesto and balsamic reduction. My John Dory was simple, with just a cream sauce to elevate it, and DPaul had a chicken thigh stuffed with lobster meat that was also delightful.
Bar none, however, the highlight of the trip was a day at Ilet Pinel, a small islet off the northeastern shore of St. Martin. Small boats ferry groups of 25 or so at a time across the narrow channel, all of two minutes. All that's there are three beach bar/restaurants, an unbroken stretch of yellow sand and a long, shallow shelf of calm, warm water. It is the platonic ideal of tropical beach paradise.
Go early; catch the 10 am ferry to nab the best chairs right on the water. Then park yourself down and soak it in for the next six or seven hours.
The website and other media make it sound like the three places on the island are very separate, but it's a small stretch altogether. Folks we talked to on the island preferred the side around the corner near Karibuni, but we preferred the calmer waters on the dock side. By noon or so, restaurant staff head out to harvest the first lobsters of the day.
Which are then weighed on order.
And consequently cooked and consumed. I craved some crustacean, but at $8 per 100 grams, or about $45 per pound, I found that a bit cher, so I opted for one of Karibuni's fish of the day, the trunkfish. The name is apt: Trunkfish have boxy, triangular bodies with a thick, leathery skin that hardens to a carapace when cooked. The mild, creamy meat steams in its own fleshy oven.
No trip to St. Maarten is complete without a visit to the bars and beach at the end of the runway of Princess Juliana International Airport. And I mean at. The. End.
People gather on the beach for the opportunity to be blown backwards by jet engines into the surf. We preferred to hang out at the Drift Wood Boat Bar, aptly named since it is made from a boat. Less jet fuel fumes, and surprisingly the best rum punch we had all week.
There's plenty we didn't get to do. I wanted to follow up on recommendations of goat curry at Enoch's and the spice market in Marigot, and BBQ chicken at Talk of the Town, one of the lolos, or barbecue stands, in Grand Case. There's plenty more fine dining as well (Momo recommended Auberge Gourmande in Grand Case). I suppose I'll just have to go back. Good thing I've got that timeshare.
So long, paradise.