This tiny island is the smallest land mass to be shared by two nations: France and the Netherlands. Does it show? Yes. While St-Maarten offers lively casinos, pubs and is oriented towards mass tourism and fun, St-Martin wants to show itself like a tiny St-Tropez or a more democratic version of St-Barthélémy (the stars-studded island of the French West-Indies) with its upscale boutique and fine dining. When I wake up, we are just approaching the island. The scenery is not as dramatic. The island is drier than St-Thomas and a little more flat. Just by the sea lies Philipsburg, St-Maarten’s capital. But the sea has such a beautiful hue and I cannot wait. This time, Justin and I will rent a car. This will be the best decision we made on our adventures ashore. It’s not cheap but it’s worth it! The island is small and you can circle it in an hour. The first beach is really not far away (it’s just in front of Philipsburg) but the most beautiful beaches are on the French side so…
First of all, we had to buy some supplies for the day. On our way to find a supermarket, we cannot help but notice the KFC’s, Burger King and McDonald’s… sad. We come in contact with out first foreign money: the Netherlands Antilles Guilders. Euro is the official currency of the French side and US Dollars are accepted everywhere. We only had a glimpse of Philipsburg but, nothing spectacular stood out. After figuring out which way was were, we ended up going counter-clock wise. Passing the Simpson’s Lagoon that was full of boat, You barely notice you go through the French-side (only a monument and a sign tells you you’re in another country). Soon, here is Marigot, the French Capital, which looks very pleasant. We will have to come and visit. Then, the road goes up with lots of twist and turns and beautiful scenery, passing by Savane (Savanna) which looks like a little corner of Africa, I was expecting to see a lion coming out. Then its Grand Case with its restaurants and… here, signs for Orient Bay, the place we wanted to go. After a drive through the beautifully laid out gardens of the holidays villas that are filling Orient Bay, here we are. How can I describe the color of the water? I have never seen a blue so intense it was literally glowing, like a fluorescent blue. The sea was much ore agitated than at Magens Bay, which definitely made our day. The beach is probably a mile long, soft on the feet (so soft that while in the water, my feet were buried up to the ankles in a few seconds) and dotted by cool beach clubs. A change from the secluded atmosphere from Magens Bay. We rented loungers and an umbrella (15$) and off we go to the sea. The temperature of the water was probably in the higher 70‘s, lower '80's (never had experienced such a warm sea water). Now, Orient Bay, besides being one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beach, is also renowned for its clothes optional area. Yep, naked people casually strolling around the beach, even out of Club Orient, the nudist part of the beach (after all, anybody can take a walk, no?). As a European, it’s not a big deal to me but for some fellow passengers, their reaction was either a big laugh (mix of unease and surprise) or a consternated look. We had a great time there but once again, it was time to leave after a few hours. We decide to carry on toward Philips burg to complete the circle around the island and go back to Marigot. The first impression of Marigot is… to really be in a small provincial French Town. Knowing France quite well, the impression is even stronger: the street signs, the stores, the cars (lots of Renault). Marina Port-La-Royale is a lovely yachts heaven with cafes and restaurants overlooking the boats. The market square (financed the European Union) is empty but seems convivial, above the harbour, on a cliff, stands Fort-St-Louis, which was constructed to defend the island from aggressions. The houses are along the water are really pretty and gives a cachet to the town. Upscale boutiques are all around, beautiful houses with lush front yards… After more than an hour walk, we decide it is time to go check out Philipsburg and those famous "sweet deals" this duty-free part is supposed to offer you. Well… if you are not into alcohol, cigarettes or jewels, you might find it hard to find something worth bringing back. The prices are similar to the US, sometimes even more expansive but you don’t pay any taxes. One thing I did bring back was my favourite brand of Belgian chocolate which is impossible to find in the US so, I’m not complaining *s*. Apart from the Courthouse and an old church, Philipsburg is quite a bland town, sorry to say but strangely, the population is more mixed than the French side with Arabs, Indians, Blacks, Dutch, Americans, Latinos living there. The French side is more "white". The Dutch side is livelier too and I wish I could’ve remained longer to see the stretch Along Simpson Lagoon coming alive at sunset. After our little walk, it was time to drop the car back and go back to the ship.
In short: I loved St-Martin, especially the French side and I definitely recommend it. This island has a lot of things for everyone: beautiful beaches, fine dining, good entertainment… And every time I’m looking at Orient Bay picture, I am still amazed at the colour of the sea. It has two very different flavors: the sophistication of the French-side and the laid-back attitude of the Dutch side. I would definitely come back.
St-Martin/St-Maarten has another advantage: it is close from a lot of islands like Anguilla, St-Eustatius, Saba, St-Kitt's ans Nevis and St-Barths and boat trips (sometimes taking only a few hours which is great for a day trip) can be easily arranged. I cannot wait to swim in those waters again.