A Tale of Two Countries—Visiting St. Martin/St. Maarten

by Nancy Bestor

There are many reasons to vacation on a Caribbean island. Beautiful white sandy beaches, clear, warm water with exotic tropical fish swimming just below the surface, and a laid back atmosphere, to name a few. But when that island is a 37-square mile patch of land governed by two nations, France on one side and the Netherlands on the other, it gets even more interesting. And the fact that jumbo jets practically land on top of your head is just icing on the cake.

Over spring break our family traveled to St. Martin/St. Maarten for a weeklong holiday that met all the requirements of a tropical vacation: eating, swimming and relaxing in the sun. It was a perfect place to enjoy all three activities, with the bonus of speaking French and eating delicious fresh baked baguettes on the quiet side, and heading over to the livelier and more developed Dutch side for a bit more action. St. Martin/St. Maarten really IS the best of both worlds, and its two nations really ARE different, even though they share the same small island.

The airport is located on the Dutch side. When we arrived, our jet plane practically clipping the hair of people on the beach just in front of the runway (more on that later), I was a little disappointed. St. Maarten has an uber Euro-party feel to it, with brightly lit casinos, discotheques and naked lady dancing parlors. But after picking up our rental car and driving just 15 minutes over the “border” into St. Martin, it felt like we were in the French countryside, albeit one with sandy beaches and blue Caribbean waters. This, I thought to myself, was more my speed. St. Martin is definitely the more laid-back side of the island, and I was glad we had chosen it. It turned out though that our family really enjoyed both sides of the island, exploring quiet beaches in St. Martin, and dancing the night away and gambling all our earnings on the Dutch side. Okay, really we just ate on the Dutch side, but we enjoyed our meals so much that we returned to a couple of the eateries multiple times. We also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get close and personal with the planes landing at Juliana Airport.

Maho Beach lies right at the end of the Princess Juliana Airport runway. At 7,152 feet, Juliana’s runway is plenty long for small and mid sized planes, but it’s the 747s and Airbus A340s that fly in from the States and Europe that create exciting, low altitude flyover landings, directly over Maho Beach. I had heard about the heart racing fun of watching planes come in right over your head, and I had seen pictures as well. None of this prepared me for the real thing.

We arrived in the late morning, ready for the big jets that begin coming in around 11am. The first planes to land were small to mid-sized, and people aren’t kidding when they say that it looks like they are headed right at you, propellers blazing. We took a few pictures, and chuckled with each other, as if to say, “Yes, that was fun, but not scary or anything. Bring on the big boys!”

And then they came. As the first big one appeared in the distance, pointed right at me, I was standing on the curb at the edge of the beach. As it got closer and lower, I stepped off the curb onto the sand. As it got closer and lower still, I sat down. And even then, it was far closer and way lower than I expected. Now I know jets land safely all day, every day here, but just this once, I wondered, was the pilot making a mistake? Its engines howled as it passed, and my hat blew right off, along with many of the hats of those around me. Almost instantly after it cleared our heads, its tires smoked and squealed as they hit the runway just a few yards away, and a loud cheer erupted from the crowd. My heart stopped beating furiously, and I found myself thinking, “Again! Do it again!”

Two other Dutch side favorites revolve around my favorite pastime: eating. The first is Hilma’s Windsor Castle, a food shack run by Hilma herself, and once featured in a New York Times article by Anthony Bourdain. Hilma opens at 9am and serves food until about 3pm, or whenever she runs out. She features just a few items, such as soup and fried chicken, but her johnny cakes were my favorite. Johnny cakes are a stuffed fried sandwich of sorts, filled with such delectable goodness as salt fish, barbecued chicken, or pulled pork. We tried a little bit of everything on our two trips, and it was all very good. Her “castle” has just four stools out front, where you can visit with Hilma while eating her delicious and inexpensive food. Both times we visited, some of the same folks were just sitting on the stools drinking beer and chatting. Hilma is delightful, and her food is not to be missed.

Another great, though somewhat odd, spot is The Carousel, an exquisitely restored indoor Italian carousel that also sells fabulous gelato. Frankly, their offerings were as good as any we had on our recent trip to Italy. The building and carousel are quite fancy, and oddly, both were mostly deserted on our two visits, but that just meant we could get our gelato that much quicker.

Sometimes things just work out, and on this trip we were lucky enough to be on St. Martin during the Harmony Nights of Grand Case. Every Tuesday evening from late January to the end of March, the town of Grand Case on the French side closes off its main street to car traffic and hosts a Mardi Gras celebration, complete with live music, roadside barbecue stands (called lolos) and even a Mardi Gras parade. My favorite part, you’ll be shocked to learn, was the food. Everything from delicious ribs and crab, macaroni salad and baked beans were all available and all prepared on outdoor grills.

There’s quite a bit of duty-free shopping available on St. Maarten, but it would be a huge understatement to say that we are not big shoppers. If you’re looking for designer perfumes and makeup, fancy watches and jewelry, or cameras and cigars, then St. Maarten will be a shopper’s paradise. We couldn’t even bring ourselves to spend any time walking through the booths of the waterfront market. The “handicrafts” and souvenirs were all pretty tacky, and I’m quite certain they weren’t made on the island. I really do love to bring back something for our home from every destination we visit, but I’m just not looking for the ashtray or shot glass that says St. Maarten. Call me crazy.

We stayed at a lovely beachside cottage-like condo on Nettle Bay. We rented the place, which had a full kitchen and slept four, on www.vrbo.com, for about $1400 for the week. The location was perfect, and the lodging great. We were both walking distance from an excellent boulangerie and patisserie, and right on the beach. What more could you ask for?

We booked our airfare with frequent flyer miles, so perhaps our 18 hour Medford, San Francisco, Newark, St. Martin routing was not the most direct. But let’s face it, getting anywhere quickly from the Rogue Valley International Airport can often be a bit of a challenge.

We rented a car on the island through Hotwire, for about $250 for a week, a pretty good fare in my opinion. A car really is necessary to get anywhere on St. Martin/St. Maarten.

There is no “border crossing” between St. Martin and St. Maarten, just an old beat up sign. The French side of the island operates on the Euro, and the Dutch side on the Antillean guilder, but on the Dutch side, we paid exclusively in US dollars.

—Nancy Bestor is the co-owner of Travel Essentials. In addition to watching planes fly mere centimeters above her head, the most daring thing she has ever done is.......well, she’s pretty sure she’s at least read about daring things. Does that count?