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Hooked On St. Martin and St. Barths
After 30 years, the perfect blend of European luxury and Caribbean climate beckons
By: Karla Bove
Apr. 14, 2004 12:00 AM
Two friends revisit the islands they fell in love with 30 years ago, and find that the essential pleasures remain. From the finest cuisine to the ultimate in shopping to the incredible beaches, everything takes on new meaning when experienced from aboard a charter yacht.
String bikini, one piece? String bikini, one piece? That was the hardest decision I faced when preparing for my midwinter trip to the Caribbean. The full-piece suit was the instant winner as the tiny crocheted string bikini was just a mere relic from my former life in the West Indies 30 years ago, when my best friend, Dana, and I, fresh out of college, decided to spend a few months "hitchhiking" on yachts.
In those days there were only a handful of charter boats, and even fewer large motoryachts, but we managed to find rides all the way from St. Thomas to Trinidad on many a beautiful boat including the famous Ring Anderson. Now we were headed to the Caribbean again to relive our adventures - this time without a backpack, bikini, or a baby oil-induced tan. This time we were going to do it in style, armed with the perfect Caribbean apparel, lots of sunblock, Cliff Notes to the South Beach Diet (never looked at), and two suitcases of camera equipment so that Dana, now a professional photographer, could document the metamorphosis of the islands we remembered.
We booked a charter on the l02ft motoryacht Barbarina, and proceeded to get pretty excited about escaping the record-breaking Vermont winter, cruising the Caribbean aboard a luxurious yacht, and meeting up with some old friends we had left behind.
Two of the crew of Barbarina greeted us at the arrival area at Julianna Airport in St. Maarten (the Dutch side of the island; St. Martin St. Maarten is the smallest piece of land shared by two countries - Holland and France). Drew Avirett, the captain, is a Norwich University graduate, PADI Rescue Diver, as well as Designated Medical Care Provider for ships. (This made me feel quite confident about being resuscitated in any situation - let the party begin!) First Mate, Richard (Dickie) Hart, not only has a 6-pack captain's license, but has an MBA from Florida Atlantic University.
We had only to cross the street to be transported by tender to Simpson Bay Marina where the yacht was docked. It felt great to fly over the waves, even the salt water on my face was a treat after the biting winter I had just escaped. I was absolutely struck by the number of giant luxury motoryachts that surrounded us. We were told that St. Maarten is the new hub in the Caribbean for charter yachts and, unlike other islands, you could get anything you want right here. Now this is a refreshing concept as I remember it used to be a nightmare when I had to go to four supermarkets to make one pan of lasagna.
Planning for the Week Ahead
Over cocktails and appetizers, we met with Captain Drew, and discussed our upcoming week of activities. On Barbarina the crew prides themselves on not only providing their guests with great personal service but on making the cruise as entertaining as possible. They want to make their guests feel at home and get to know them quickly so they can plan activities accordingly.
Just as I suspected, Ditty put together the most spectacular of feasts that evening. On the aft deck, with a view of all the megayachts, Naomi served us a marine extravaganza of bouillabaisse and crostini, aioli and bourride, and an incredible platter of local fish and shellfish accompanied by roasted vegetables. Never one to pass up dessert, even when completely sated, I was thrilled when the apple tartlette with crème anglaise surprised us at the end of the meal. Yummm. Upon retiring to my elegant stateroom, I thought, if this was any indication of the culinary treats we were going to encounter, perhaps I'd stash the South Beach Diet under my pillow for any subliminal information it might impart.
Finding the Perfect Beach
We chose our beachhead carefully for the best people watching. After renting a chaise and umbrella, we proceeded to start our roasting process, tempering it with a #15 sunblock. After just a few minutes it was clear that this was not a Victoria's Secret runway show and that every imaginable size, age, and shape was represented - people in various states of undress, down to absolutely no dress at all. I'm also glad to report the "naturalist" campers are, to this day, alive and well and flopping down the beach at Orient.... As I drifted off to sleep, watching the cellulite parade in front of me, I momentarily grieved for my thwarted string bikini opportunity, and mourned just a tiny bit for what may have been my final chance to be "best in show."
Trying to decide where to eat in the lineup of way-too-cute beach bars turned out to be easy, as the first thing we spotted on the Bikini Beach menu was nems, my very favorite appetizer on the planet and pretty hard to find where I come from. For anyone who hasn't had the pleasure, these little beauties are Vietnamese egg rolls, wrapped in lettuce and fresh mint leaves and dipped in fish sauce. After a long day of baking in the sun, we took a taxi back to Marigot and climbed to the top of Fort Louis to enjoy the stunning view overlooking the harbor. The strenuousness of our day topped by a hike had made us famished, so we focused on the next important task.
Thinking About the Next Meal
In our opinion, our day was complete. However we were told that the night was just getting started in St. Maarten and that if we were feeling up to it, there were casinos to hit and after-hours discos to check out, so we could basically stay up all night if we wanted to. Yep, back in the old days that would have been our route, but we chose to take the very short walk up the dock to our comfortable cabin, get in bed, and pore over the multitude of guidebooks describing what we might be missing.
Avoiding the Traffic
When we were firmly anchored out in the bay, Dickie offered to take us to Philipsburg in the tender so we could avoid the traffic congestion around Simpson Bay. Once in Great Bay, we zoomed ashore and sorted through the multitude of trinket shops to unearth a couple of treasures that were out of the ordinary and "schleppworthy." The new boardwalk from the main pier along the waterfront was great for power walking when we were finished with shopping and needed to get down to the Pasanggrahan immediately for a drink and a swim. This is one of the original guest houses on the island and one of the most charming tropical locations to just sit and chill out in Philipsburg. We did just that until Dickie appeared and whisked us back to Barbarina.
An Evening On Board
After dinner the guys were eager to show us a thing or two about their passion, fly fishing, so off we went on a mini adventure to catch tarpon, in the dark, no less. Drew claims there are a large number of them here, as the locals think of them as "junk fish" because they are inedible. As an avid fly fisherman, Drew claims, "It does not get much better than sight-casting to a 50lb fish that explodes with flips, leaps, and bounds when hooked. Best of all, the fish are released and live to fight another day." With enthusiasm like that, it was easy for us to get hooked as well.
Cruising to St. Barths
Lunch took place on the flybridge, while anchored outside the Gustavia harbor. Megayachts were lined up stern to at the dock, sailboats surrounded us, and the charming village of Gustavia was nestled in the background. After the mahimahi was caught, Ditty worked her magic in the galley and "poof" it appeared: the freshest grilled mahimahi that I had ever tasted.
Traveling around the island has not gotten any easier, since there are larger cars and more of them to duel over the tiny winding roads. Back in the "old days" mini mokes gave the atmosphere of a bumper car amusement ride at a giant theme park. Today, real automobiles vie for space on the road and getting to the beach can be a scary proposition. Luckily, we had arranged for an old friend, Melanie, to meet us at the dock and give us the grand tour. Melanie Smith of Destination Management Service is an agent for superyachts and operates one of the best VIP assistance and event organizations on the island. Melanie tooled us around with ease and we checked out all the beaches from Shell to Saline. The island was still breathtakingly beautiful and has retained the same charm that seduced me so many years ago.
Of course, after all that touring, we had worked up a large thirst, and what better place to quench it than Le Select. Probably the most famous of establishments from the old days, it is still one of the most popular - and the place that everyone comes to have that "Cheeseburger in Paradise." We sat down and reflected on all the people who had passed through here. Vagabonds, sea gypsies, old salts, drug smugglers, lawyers, movie stars, rock stars, shooting stars, trust funders, and no funders. Looking around the patio that afternoon, most of the clientele looked a little more subdued and predictable, but after all it's still St. Barths so it's probably only an illusion. We ended our day dining seaside at Maya's Restaurant.
After a traditional French breakfast of croissants and rich coffee, we gave the next morning to exploring the shops in Gustavia, which wasn't enough time, considering how many places there were to discover. There were many designer shops, unique boutiques with beautiful pastel cottons and linen, exotic home accessories, art galleries, and the occasional T-shirt shop. Everything that had been newly built was done in the old style but usually with a quirky twist or two to make it interesting. Everything was so charming - even the T-shirt shops!
Finding a parking place at lunchtime in Baie St. Jean proved to be quite the challenge, but the moment we walked into the restaurant, Nikki Beach, we knew it was worth the effort. What a breathtaking location and calming atmosphere. The designer made a great choice in using all-white canvas seating with huge pillows, and wooden tables and chairs that appeared as though they had endured many a season on the beach (the restaurant was opened only last year.) One of the best features was the beautiful canopy-covered beach beds that could be reserved for lunch or a short nap. This place could have served me dog food and I know it would still be one of my favorite ever visited. We had wonderful Salad Nicoise with fresh tuna and, as luck would have it, they even had my favorite nems for starters. I would have liked to live at this restaurant. We stayed and swam in the turquoise water for the rest of the day.
After a good night's sleep, we thought we'd start the day and wake up our senses by jumping overboard. The water felt great and we decided to lounge, take it easy, and sit on deck and watch the harbor activity. When we started getting hungry we ventured back to the yacht club for lunch. We ordered those wonderfully sweet French mussels and dipped slices of a crusty baguette into the creamy broth while we indulged in piles of French fries and a crisp bottle of Rosé. In case that wasn't enough carbs and fat for one day, we ordered profiteroles to, shall we say, "round out" the meal.
Shell Beach is within walking distance of the yacht club, so after lunch we did just that. The walk was short but distilled any lingering guilt over the lunch choices we'd made and after our swim we started thinking about our next meal. We decided to invite a few old friends back to Barbarina for a full-moon celebration.
That night we pretended to be "real tourists" and drank piña coladas as we scrutinized the sky for the infamous green flash at sunset. An incredible full moon hung over the harbor as we dined on yet another delicious meal on board. The aft table seats 10 comfortably and the crew made all of our guests feel welcome.
The Last Day
Drew is a dive master and Dickie and Naomi are both extremely adept at showing you how to do it all. Being a total novice, I viewed a vivid undersea world that I had never seen before and Dana, being more experienced at snorkeling, learned even more from the crew.
Our final evening was spent at the Rainbow Café in Grand Case, dining on exquisite parmesan-encrusted red snapper. The restaurant is co-owned by two of our old friends, David and Fleur. They started the Rainbow back in the days when there was a small handful of places to eat in this area. We reminisced about coming to Grand Case in the '70s and going to a local restaurant where it would take forever to eat because the owner/chef/waitress/dishwasher would make each dish to order, clear the table, wash the dishes, and then wait on the next table. A far cry from the lineup of efficient and beautiful restaurants serving international cuisine that exists today. I couldn't help but think what huge changes will take place in these islands over the course of the next 30 years.
The year will be 2034. That will put my age somewhere in my early 80s. Hmmmm. Let me think, string bikini or one-piece bathing suit?
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