Several years ago, my brother and I, along with our wives decided we needed a trip to “The Islands,” that is islands in the Caribbean Sea, not on Lake Lanier. Usually, when we go, we charter a sailboat, but as he was in failing health, we rented a condo and a rental car on Saint Martin and did the touristy thing for a couple of weeks. It was a delightful time. We went everywhere there was to go and did everything there was to do.
Saint Martin is about 37 square miles and is the smallest island in the world that is governed by two sovereign nations. It was settled in the mid-1600s and went back and forth between French, Spanish and Dutch occupation until it finally wound up with the Dutch and French, who very wisely decided not to fight over it but split it. As the story goes, they both got their fastest runners and starting on the east of the island, ran around in the opposite directions until they met on the other side then drew a line across connecting the two points, and that was the international boundary! A much more civilized way of settling things than we do today. There are no checkpoints or passports needed to cross from one side to the other, just an occasional marker to tell you where you are. Language is no problem as everyone is taught Dutch, French, English and Spanish in school.
On the French side, Fort Louis sits at the top of a hill overlooking the harbor and offers a great view of the Caribbean Sea as well as neighboring islands. Below the fort is a typical village market with everything you can imagine as far as native crafts, local produce and the freshest fish, lobster, and conch you’ve ever tasted. There are also many restaurants known as “Lolos,” rustic open-air eateries with the tables located around the open kitchen. There are also the finest French breads and pastries I’ve ever seen. The aromas are amazing, and prices are very modest. As far as modern shopping goes, a little way inland is a supermarket that rivals any Publix or Kroger around here.
The Dutch side of the island has more upscale shopping, fancy restaurants, and casinos, as well as the airport. It’s also where the really big luxury yachts and cruise ships pull in. The town gets a bit crowded when two or three cruise ships, each disgorging several thousand passengers are in port, however, once they pull out, the place seems deserted.
Our condo was several hundred feet above sea level with a fantastic view of the island and ocean beyond. One day we decided to go exploring around our condo and headed up into the hills. The road was rather steep, but we didn’t think much of it until we had to come down. There is nothing so disconcerting as being in the backseat of a car going down a mountain, with a voice coming out of the dash repeating “Your brakes are overheating. Your brakes are overheating. Your brakes are overheating… .” With no guardrail and nowhere to pull off, we just kept going in low gear with the emergency brake on full and brake pedal pressed to the floor. All I could think of was that with all the “high risk” things I have done in my life, I would be really embarrassed to die falling off a mountain in a rental car!
For me, the most exciting thing was the old America’s Cup Twelve Meter racing boats. There are three of them, Stars and Stripes, Canada II, and True North IV. They race daily and you can participate as crew, grinding a winch, punching a stopwatch, calling tactics or just sit as a spectator enjoying the experience. The thrill of sailing on one of the “real” Americas Cup boats, before the sport was “modernized” to please TV audiences is unparalleled. These boats are similar enough to the ones we sail here on Lake Lanier that you can really get into it as if you were in the Cup Race itself!
One of the other things to do is go down to the beach at the end of the airport runway for what they call the “Big Blast.” The runway is rather short and the planes land and take off so close to you that you feel you could almost reach up and touch them.
There is a funny story that comes out of this: When the big Airbus planes first came out, only United and Lufthansa were certified to land at St Martin. After six months of training, Air France finally landed there for the first time, and took out the fence at the end of the runway! A crew from Lufthansa was flown in to ferry the plane home and the crew trained for another six months. Then they made their second attempt to land and took out the fence again! Ever since then, Air France has been known as “Air Fence” on Saint Martin!
As much as I love sailing in the Caribbean, I don’t think you can beat Saint Martin for an island-based adventure.