Introduction

This trip to St. Martin, from April 26 until May 14, was the longest of our four consecutive annual visits and was by far the most diverse in terms of the experiences we planned and enjoyed there.  It also was the earliest in the year that we had undertaken any of the trips with the previous ones being concentrated in the late May to early June timeframe.

With regard to the activities we pursued, some were not necessarily what most visitors would consider to be "vacation" related and, in fact, our agenda was inordinately busy which we recognize would hold little appeal for many.  Our motivation was more a reflection of our increasing involvement with and interest in the island, and consequently our determination not only to enjoy ourselves, but to delve deeper into the current state of affairs there and possible directions for the future.  We especially were interested in developing further understanding of the business climate, views of tourism and tourists, worthwhile philanthropic opportunities, and ways to constructively assist and promote efforts on the island intended to enhance its well being.  The results were quite revealing and we felt our objectives were well met.  Consequently, though we in no way consider our investigations to be sufficiently comprehensive to be authoritative, we easily could write a book, a controversial one we might add, about our conclusions.  No, that's not what you will find in this travelogue, but we have decided to include a few vignettes of some of the meetings we had, some of the people we met and some of the views that were expressed.

We think it important to note in our introductory comments that the weather was an unusual factor this visit and we certainly want to stress the word "unusual" - not at all typical.  Throughout the trip there were occurrences of unusually strong winds, gray skies and many storms with heavy rains at times.  It certainly severely curtailed our beach time activities and caused us to be constantly shifting about other things we wanted to accomplish.  Highly unusual, particularly for such a protracted period.

From our perspective, one of the joys of St. Martin is the exceptionally good and diverse dining experiences to be had.  We can't put our finger on what's causing this perception overall, but it seems every year we visit the island the dining just keeps getting better.  We know it certainly hasn't been the result of any lowering of standards and expectations on our part.  We encountered only one restaurant which we definitely would not bother to visit again and we must say we were quite surprised at our experience there since we had read so many favorable comments about it.  On the very positive side of our dining experiences we find ourselves faced with somewhat of a dilemma - our rankings and ratings are very crowded at the top end of our scale and we're beginning to wonder for the first time whether we need to modify our system to allow more differentiation among so many excellent restaurants.  That, of course, is a very pleasant dilemma and we think a significant indication of the excellent fare widely available on the island.

For our new readers we are probably past the point where we should have dealt with a small editorial matter, that we think is important to emphasize.  You've noticed we're using the term "St. Martin" and hopefully already recognize we mean it to include the entire island:  Sint Maarten and Saint Martin.  It's just a preference we have to apply the term in an all encompassing, generic sense.  Where a distinction needs to be made between the two countries, we'll make it obvious.

There's another matter, essentially a disclaimer, we think is especially important to address in our introductory comments since we wish to be forthrightly and abundantly clear on the issue and leave no doubt in anyone's mind.  In no way do we represent what we are sharing about our overall experiences and the manner in which we go about them as being typical for most tourists nor are we recommending such for others.  It's simply our intention to share this information and our perspectives for whatever benefit our individual readers may derive from them, regardless of whether that be useful, applicable data, entertainment or reinforcement of one's conviction that they're glad they do things differently when visiting St. Martin.

Now, with all those particular preliminary notes and observations out of the way, we'll make one additional, customary comment, a word of warning.  Out travelogues are notoriously lengthy and detailed - this one most definitely is no exception.

Contents

Though our write-ups are quite lengthy, we do try to structure them in a manner which provides coherent organization to the subject matter.  Consequently, if you find a particular topic not to be of interest, it's a simple matter to scroll down to the next major blue heading and determine if it has value. Also, there is a complete outline of all the major subject matter at this link Table of Contents which will allow you to click on a topic and move directly to it.

Please keep in mind the small pictures you subsequently see can be "clicked" to view a larger version.

USAirways

As usual (but that may not be the case going forward) we flew First Class on USAirways between Charlotte Douglas International and Princess Juliana on St. Martin.  We must say the First Class flying experience, at least to the Caribbean, continues to deteriorate and we rather strongly suspect this is the case with all the major carriers serving St. Martin and it is not something unique to USAirways.  Essentially, the benefit has been reduced to nothing more than comfortable seating and as many "free" drinks as one might want.  That makes the value received somewhat questionable when consideration is given to the high cost in actual financial outlay or utilization of frequent flyer points accrued.  Some of the other benefits most in the past would associate with this mode of travel such as special check-in attention and privileges, and expedited access to Security screening are now available to those who have the Black Signature card or have qualified for upper tier frequent flyer status, without incurring the cost of First Class passage.

Generally speaking about our flights this trip, we found the food awful, the service just "OK" in terms of what we would like to expect, and the miniature snacks and bountiful drinks quite decent.  Another difference we found was that the number of seats in the First Class cabin has been greatly reduced to only eight and we understand one of those is reserved for the flight crew.  With the reconfiguration to accommodate this change we really are quite incorrect to use the term "cabin" and are dating ourselves to earlier days of more refined travel.  There is no appreciable physical separation (even the courtesy curtain has disappeared) and we observed Coach passengers helping themselves to the area, including utilizing its luggage space and restroom facility.  Our point is not to be disparaging about those flying Coach, but rather to emphasize they may be the smarter passengers considering the loss of value in flying First Class.  It certainly has reached the point where we're having to question seriously our own priorities and judgment.  That combined with the reduced seating available, which most likely we will find already booked because we normally are not able to schedule trips greatly in advance, may well mean we will find ourselves writing about the Coach experience in future travelogues.  At this juncture, we anticipate our only serious regret will be the loss of the reasonably spacious seating and not being jammed in among other people - sometimes painfully so.

We won't bother detailing the food we were served on the flights - it was pretty grim.  We did notice that choices of dining selections are still offered - sort of speaking.  Apparently, for each meal there are two different types, but the total number of them equals the number of passengers.  Consequently, as happened on the return flight, Sandra received the last of the mystery chicken which was at least edible and Ed was left with the only other thing available.  We said we weren't going into all the details, but Ed's remaining serving of pasta was so extraordinarily awful it deserves a special note (fortunately, Sandra shared her chicken).  The entire entree was nothing but dry, hard, way overcooked pasta with a few tiny flecks of what we guessed to be ham and coated with a miserably thin, dried out cheese sauce (at least we hope that's what it was).  Awful, awful, awful - not edible.  Our recommendation would be to bring a McDonald's or BurgerKing hamburger on board.  You will find it infinitely preferable.

Apart from all the preceding, USAirways did accomplish what we expected - moving us to and from St. Martin safely.

Our most significant irritation was not with USAirways, but rather with a couple of the passengers boarding for the return flight.  They were the type who are extremely anxious to be among the first on the plane and then proceed to block totally the aisle as if that were the appropriate place for them suddenly to have a prolonged chit chat among themselves discussing such earth shattering events as whether they might want a pillow for the trip and what the weather might be like in Charlotte.  Over the intercom the flight attendant was imploring everyone and them in particular to please take their seats and let others pass.  These folk were completely oblivious with passengers lined down the stairway unable to move.  Ed finally broke the impasse by growling rather sternly at them "You're causing a problem - please move!"  That seemed to get through to them and the logjam was broken.  Some people.

Airports and Security

We had some very anxious moments making the drive on the Interstate from our home to the Charlotte airport.  No, we're not speaking of our anxious anticipation of being on St. Martin again, but rather the horrible traffic moving at a snail's pace or slower at times for at least 20 miles of the trip.  The roads to and from Charlotte are notoriously congested in the vicinity of the city during "rush" hours, but this was worse than usual and when we finally cleared the slowdown realized we had seen absolutely nothing which could account for it.  We had left home with an extra hour allowed in our travel time and consumed every bit of that plus a good bit more.  It was the first time ever we could remember being tardy for airport check-in.

The next fun event was after Ed had dropped Sandra and the luggage when he proceeded to the daily parking lot only to find it full.  Already being late he decided against venturing out to the remote lots and instead went to the close-by hourly parking deck.  That little snap decision subsequently only cost us $307.  Valet parking would have been a lot cheaper!  Hmmm, maybe we need to consider staying in Charlotte the night before our trips, but that's kind of ridiculous since the normal, non-rush hour drive time to the airport for us is only 45 minutes at most (this trip took well over two hours).  Oh well.

We discovered a good thing this time about the check-in at the USAirways counter.  While Ed was busy parking, Sandra was able to complete totally the check-in process for both of us and Ed's presence for identification purposes was not required as has been the case in the past.  All of the identity certification is now incorporated in the subsequent Security screening process.  Another good thing about this particular check-in experience was we were not charged for the baggage we had beyond the allowed limit.

Security itself was interesting as seems to be normal for us.  The large camera bag attracted the expected attention and Ed was called aside for an inspection.  The agent was extremely polite and professional, and was primarily wanting to see the large Nikon telephoto lens.  He carefully removed it and was doing fine with the inspection when he commented "This must be expensive?"  Ed told him how much it cost and with an "Oh my god!" he hastily put the lens back into its compartment.  Meanwhile, Sandra had the joy of being pulled further aside into a partially glassed cubicle affair where she was repeatedly "wanded" and "patted" as she removed successive articles of adornment. Ed was beginning to wonder how much further they were going to proceed with the striptease before taking her to a more secluded area.  The female agent finally was satisfied Sandra presented no consequential risk with her jewelry and the various metal ornamentation on her garments, and allowed her to reassemble herself.

Arrival at Juliana including Immigration processing and baggage collection was extraordinarily easy - you'll learn why in a subsequent section of the travelogue.

The departure process from St. Martin has become somewhat of a ritual for us.  Arrive at the airport several hours early, check in at the USAirways counter, pay the departure tax, go to SunSet Beach Bar, do lunch and drinks (also known as pre-flight tranquilizers), return the rental car, go to Cafe Juliana for more drinks, clear Immigration and Security, board the plane, and wistfully and regretfully waive goodbye.

Ed made an incredible blunder in driving from Grand Case to the airport.  He went to Marigot and on to the Simpson Bay area rather than through Sandy Ground and the lowlands as was intended.  He must have been daydreaming about the many wonderful things we had enjoyed on our trip rather than concentrating on the task at hand.  The traffic was moving unbelievably slow and as a consequence we easily lost half of an hour of our planned SSBB time.  Each of our bags was hand checked by Security at Juliana.  Perhaps we should emphasize the word "hand" a bit more since it was more or less a perfunctory feel around without really looking at what they were doing.  We did find we had to watch rather closely and intervene when they were zipping shut the bags - paying absolutely no attention to whether they were about to snag garments in the process.  Following that, Sandra was about to "lose it" with the USAirways agent who could not seem to comprehend why our St. Maarten Immigration card showed us arriving from St. Kitts and now we were checking luggage.  Apparently, he just couldn't get it through his head, even with the arrival date showing on the card and Sandra's explanation that it had been an earlier daytrip.  Guess he would have been even more confused if he had realized our last arrival on St. Martin actually had been from Anguilla and not St. Kitts.  We'll digress long enough to note that the requirement of the St. Maarten authorities for the presentation of the Immigration card stub at departure makes no sense to us since one could have been all over the world since arriving on the island as long as they departed and arrived on the French side.  It leaves us wondering what they expect of those travelers who first arrive on the island via the French side and have no St. Maarten Immigration departure stub.

Anyway, our confused USAirways agent wasn't the least bit confused about baggage allowances and proceeded to charge us $80 for the extra one we had with us.  The only other consequential point we wish to make about the departure process was the terrible people jam between the Immigration kiosks and the final Security screening point before the boarding lounge area.  It was chaotic with far too many passengers for the small space available.  That definitely needs some attention well before the new airport expansion can relieve the problem.

On a lighter note, as we stood at the gate doors about to board the waiting bus for the short ride to the plane, a person arrived with a collapsible table and began erecting it.  Ed had to laugh when Sandra said "You know, I don't think that's a massage table he's putting together there."  She was right - it was a surprise Security check.  We think the officer heard Sandra's comment because he was grinning hugely as she approached the table and waived us on.

Caribbean VIP

Now we want to explain how in contrast to prior years' arrivals at Juliana with long lines, occasionally surly Immigration officers and less than pleasant efforts trying to retrieve bags, this time it was a quick, easy non-event and a great start for our visit to the island.

Prior to our trip, arrangements were made by Hotel L'Esplanade for us to utilize the services of Caribbean VIP, which is owned by Mr. Bevan Payne (he's also the Managing Director).  The staff were waiting for us as we disembarked from the plane shuttle bus and introduced themselves - a very professional group including their manners, articulation, attire and general presence.  Later, we also had the pleasure of meeting Jerome Durand, the Sales Representative for Caribbean VIP.  The staff immediately relieved us of our hand luggage, engaged in a few pleasantries that made us feel most welcome and appreciated, asked for our travel documents, and then escorted us past the lines awaiting Immigration clearance and directly to one of the Immigration stations where they handled the formalities. In less than two minutes from the time we first stepped into the long hall of the arrival terminal we were through the entire Immigration process and into the baggage receiving area.  There the VIP staff asked for our luggage receipts and a description of the bags, and then suggested we might like to go outside, relax and enjoy the fresh air while they attended to securing our things for us.  We cannot emphasize enough the courteousness, efficiency and helpfulness they provided - outstanding service.  The service is not inexpensive, but from our viewpoint well worth the cost in terms of making the entire arrival process a very hassle free, pleasant one with an absolute minimum of time required.

Although the type service we arranged with Caribbean VIP is a comparatively new offering at Juliana, for the past two years they have been providing personalized assistance to passengers using St. Maarten as a transit point for St. Barths and Anguilla where they also maintain offices.  A particularly nice feature they provide as part of their service, which fortunately we didn't need, is lost luggage tracking and delivery.  They handle every aspect of it including keeping their customers apprised of their progress.  In addition to the particular service we chose to employ, they also provide chauffeured cars to one's villa or hotel.  For departing passengers they can provide transportation to the airport where their clients have been pre-checked in with the airline and departure taxes paid which reduces any waiting to only a few minutes.  Outbound passengers are then escorted through Immigration, flight Security screening (wish they had been with us then!) and finally to the boarding gate.

Hotel L'Esplanade http://www.lesplanade.com/lesplanade.php 

We continue to find this fabulous little hotel situated in Grand Case to be perfect in every respect for our particular needs and expectations for accommodations on St. Martin.  We've enthused at considerable length in our travelogues for the past three years about all that L'Esplanade has to offer, what makes it so special and why we find it so very appealing.  Those that are interested should review those comments because nothing has changed except for the lushly landscaped grounds becoming even more beautiful and work is in progress to upgrade kitchen counter tops with Corian surfaces (very attractively done).  Well, now that we think about what we've just said, we realize there is a new feature.  Free computer and high speed internet access have been added in the reception area for use by the guests.  The intention was to have WIFI access available for each suite prior to the beginning of this past high season.  However, in spite of the considerable effort and encouragement on the part of the owners of L'Esplanade, Marc and Kristin Petrelluzzi, including the offer of land on which to situate transmission equipment that would benefit all of Grand Case, the various companies involved in providing the service are moving with typical island time speed.  We know that Marc, who has been spearheading this matter, has been quite frustrated over the situation, but remains resolute to have internet access in all the suites at the earliest possible date.  It was noticed the computer and internet access devoted to guests' use in the reception area were proving to be quite popular and appreciated.

This stay we had a different one bedroom suite from that which we enjoyed the past two years - we're going to stop mentioning suite numbers because too many people are specifically requesting the ones we've cited - they're all great.  We should note there are interesting variations among the various suites - even among those of the same type.  We actually found we liked the layout of the one we had on this trip the best of those we've experienced.  Apart from it having the newly installed Corian kitchen counter tops, there was not a divider / bar between the kitchen and the dining and sitting areas.  It at least gave the illusion that the total floor space was even larger.  Another feature we most definitely liked was a large, quite large alcove off the separate bedroom, which contained a desk and chair.  And there was something newly added - a cabaña style wardrobe.  That special addition warrants some special comments.  Marc and Kristin are keenly aware of the rather significant amount of clothing we bring on trips (Marc and the staff having lugged the luggage for us on more than a few occasions) and wanted to ensure we were not inconvenienced by the built-in closets in this particular suite (quite adequate for most people's needs).  That sort of thoughtfulness and consideration is a hallmark of the incredible, personalized attention devoted to the individual guests at L'Esplanade.

Another aspect of this particular suite we really liked was that it is situated on the end of the building nearest Esperance Airport.  Glass walls with framed sliding glass doors in both the sitting area and the bedroom open onto a huge balcony which wraps around a corner.  Not only did it provide that exquisite view  of Grand Case and the bay that we are so accustomed to enjoying at L'Esplanade, but also the best view possible for the small, often brightly colored planes arriving at the airport.  No, there was no airplane noise inside the suite and when on the balcony the sight was something we found fascinating and more than a little fun entertainment.

Speaking of the balcony and personalized attention, the folk at L'Esplanade know well of Sandra's great love of birds and they ensured there were a feeder in place and a stock of brown sugar and grapes in the kitchen for her to use, which she did soon after our arrival.  At first a few beautiful yellow and black sugar birds quickly made an appearance and as the days slipped by their numbers grew until at times we could see as many as two dozen - quite a sight!  They also were joined by small bullfinches which the lovely, but greedy sugar birds didn't always warmly welcome to share in their feast.  They became so accustomed to Sandra providing nice treats that by the end of our trip in the early mornings while Ed sat at the large table on the balcony drinking coffee and making notes, they would line up on the arm of an adjoining chair and peer through the glass wall into the suite and chirp among themselves as if to say "Where's Sandra and our breakfast?" When she would finally rouse herself late morning and step onto the balcony there was a sort of frenzied excitement as she offered brunch to her feathered friends.

Just as an interesting aside, we briefly glimpsed two humming birds zipping around the beautiful flowers at L'Esplanade.  That was the first time we've seen any on St. Martin.  Our inquiries revealed that the hummingbird population is slowly making a comeback after being decimated by a hurricane several years ago.  Watch for them - they're lovely to see.

As you may have gathered from our other travelogues, Ed is an incurable, compulsive romantic when it comes to Sandra and he never tires of and enjoys continuing to find ways to surprise and please her on our trips.  As is customary, he arranged with Kristin to have flowers waiting in the suite for Sandra but there was a special insistence that they be unusually spectacular and out of the ordinary.  Of course, Kristin rose to the challenge and the display was beyond remarkable - not in size or ostentatiousness, but rather in terms of sheer beauty.  The primary emphasis was on orchids with many stems of different varieties ever so artistically and tastefully arranged.  Though Sandra is never surprised at having flowers waiting to greet her, this display literally took her breath away and the tears began to fill her eyes.  Wiping them aside, she saw a message from Ed which Kristin had placed in a frame she had made herself, adorned with shells and sea glass from Baie de Grand Case.  While Sandra struggled to focus through her tears, Ed placed a CD on the player residing on the etergeé and selected the song from which he had borrowed and modified the lyrics for his sentiment to her.  Then the tears really began in earnest.  Makes a terrible mess of one's mascara.   Kristin later confided Sandra was not alone with her tears of happiness because it had become an annual event for she and the office staff to gather their tissues and have a big cry together when Ed's greeting messages for Sandra would arrive.

A feature of L'Esplanade's grounds about which we frequently comment is the pool area.  We always have thought it was absolutely wonderful with the interesting way the top quality lounges are situated around the upper and lower pools, snuggled among the great variety of fabulous trees and flowering shrubs.  Perhaps this visit it was even more poignantly reinforced to us since we were able to compare it to the one at La Samanna.  It was no contest - L'Esplanade's is far nicer.

We had the pleasure for the first time of enjoying the pool bar which is normally operated only in high season.  Gal Bessy was the bartender and, in addition to plying us with libations of various sorts, provided interesting conversation and suggestions for a number of activities, he introduced us to Kubuli Lager brewed in Dominica which we found similar to Presidente, but more to our liking.

While on the subject of the pool area at L'Esplanade, we most assuredly need to note what a welcome, sheltered refuge it offered on those days when the unusual wind was making beach time less appealing.

We'll summarize our thoughts about Hotel L'Esplanade by offering the observation that it continues to be one of the finest, if not the finest, boutique properties we've ever enjoyed in the Caribbean.  It's an absolute jewel.  And that recognition and our endorsement are not because it has the finest of fittings and furniture, but rather because of the intense comfort and pleasure we derive from the total experience  - beautiful architecture, lovely spacious suites, magnificent grounds, totally gorgeous pools, a serenely stunning view, and management and staff completely attuned to and genuinely interested in unobtrusively making sure their guests are comfortable and that their needs are met.  Frankly, it's no surprise to us that the yearly occupancy rate is phenomenal compared to most hotels on the island and it's increasing to the point that we're receiving periodic correspondence from readers of our travelogues expressing disappointment that they were not able to secure accommodations.

We can build your anticipation a bit by saying there are some planned additions on the L'Esplanade property, the construction for which should be completed by October 2006, that will be decidedly upscale with all the suites having multiple separate bedrooms.  Just a thought for those of you who want the very best and would like to plan ahead.

Ground Transportation

Limousine Service - Ed had decided in his quest to provide nice surprises for Sandra to have a different stretch limo waiting at Juliana to transport us to Hotel L'Esplanade.  Though totally satisfied with the service previously provided by Julio Rooi at Top Quality, he arranged to employ a super stretch from Prestigious Limousine Service.  Literally the day before our departure Kristin at L'Esplanade sent Ed an urgent email indicating she had just been in contact with Elton "Bigs" Sam at Prestigious and he had revealed to her his largest limo could not navigate the small dip where the hotel's drive intersects Esperance Road.  And to her dismay she further learned he had planned on substituting a much smaller, less nice vehicle for the trip without asking if that were acceptable.  Kristin knew Ed would be quite put out about the situation since he specifically had raised the question months before whether the requested car could in fact negotiate the turn into the hotel drive.

As is so very typical of Kristin, her email not only detailed the problem but offered alternatives she had developed on her own initiative.  Most appealing was the option of potentially using a Hummer limo which was offered by Jerome Durand at Caribbean V.I.P.  Now that would have been a hoot - definitely something different for Sandra!  Unfortunately, it proved to be booked for earlier in the day of our arrival and it would be cutting the time too close for when it was wanted to greet us at Juliana.

Consequently, Ed did what he should have done in the first place and asked that Julio at Top Quality meet us with his stretch limo.

As it turned out, Sandra was hugely and most pleasantly surprised (maybe "overjoyed" is a more descriptive word) when Julio approached her in the baggage area at Juliana and gave her a hug and a kiss.  He really is a great guy and, as we've said in the past, a truly consummate professional (not at giving hugs and kisses, but rather with his limousine service).  We both really were most pleased to see him again.  He escorted Sandra to the waiting limo where he had the chilled beverage of her preference waiting for her - no, not champagne - Coors Light!

The drive via the lowlands, Sandy Ground, Marigot and then Grand Case was wonderful - most romantic as memories of previous visits and the prospect of new adventures flooded our minds.  Among his many attributes, Julio must either be a mind reader or a psychic because for the drive he had a video on the TV featuring some of our favorite music.  Sandra was one very happy, relaxed lady.

If you would like to surprise someone special, Julio Rooi with Top Quality can be contacted at his telephone / fax number 599 542 3835 or 24x7 on his cell phone 599 557 5804.

Rental Car - For this trip we made our arrangements directly with Hertz on St. Martin (no middlemen - we were getting disgusted trying to work through a company offering rentals from Hertz).  The vehicle was to be a Ford Explorer SUV which was to be delivered to Hotel L'Esplanade the afternoon of our arrival and then returned at the airport office.  Much to our delight the Hertz delivery agent was none other than Pierre Richard whom we had met on two prior trips to St. Martin.  Pierre has a terrific personality and we prolonged what could have been a very quick event (the delivery and paperwork) because we wanted to chat with him.

The SUV was a 2004 model with very low mileage and it sported a handsome dark metallic gray color.  It certainly served our needs well including transporting the considerable amount of luggage to the airport on our departure day.  Lest we leave any doubt in our readers' minds, there is no compelling reason to use a full size SUV on St. Martin - it's just our preference in terms of the type vehicles to which we're accustomed, they're spacious and comfortable, and, as we've noted in the past, they provide superior road armor on St. Martin.  The disadvantages, of course, are greater fuel consumption and the occasional tight parking spots we elected to forego.

We definitely were glad we had the Explorer when several times we found ourselves in sudden torrential downpours that heavily flooded some of the streets and roads.  Other cars were having difficulty negotiating the deep water and in more than one instance we saw other vehicles with the water level well above their door sills and some of them stalled.

The return of the car to the Hertz facility near Juliana was uneventful and efficiently handled.  Very good service.  From there we were shuttled to the airport terminal - about a minute's ride.

Driving on St. Martin

We should make the point that the flooding we encountered a number of times was highly unusual in terms of our previous driving experiences on the island.  Mind you, much of the weather and its consequences we encountered on this trip was highly unusual.

Perhaps the most notable aspects of driving we experienced were the incredible traffic jams in the Simpson Bay area and in Marigot proper (essentially grid lock there) on frequent occasions.  We could tell the number of vehicles on the roads had increased and can only imagine (we would rather not) what it must now be like in high season.

With respect to the Simpson Bay traffic, apart from the increased number of vehicles traversing that road, we would speculate the growing number of businesses there are aggravating the problem.  We also had local residents tell us there were more unannounced bridge openings to allow the mega-yachts to pass which was complicating the matter.  Only having a tourist's perspective of the situation, we can't fully appreciate the day in and day out aggravation local residents and workers in that area must feel.

For the past few years we've more or less availed ourselves of the Galis Bay route regardless of whether we are transiting Marigot to the lowlands or to Philipsburg.  In the past, if going from Grand Case to say Port de Plaisance, we would take the road along Galis Bay (which has been nicely improved including resurfacing - no more "Rue de Bumps"), continue by the West Indies Mall, turn right at Rue de Liberte and then left onto Rue du President Kennedy.  We soon realized that last intersection noted has become a nightmare.  Even though it is a greater distance we did much, much better by turning right on Boulevard de France, continuing to the last roundabout, exiting to the Sandy Ground road where we turned left and approached the intersection with Rue du President Kennedy from that direction.

One would think such slowdowns - well, dead stop with occasional creeping forward would be a more accurate statement - would only occur in the day time.  Not so if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself late at night behind le garbage truck on Rue de Hollande where it is one way in the direction of Grand Case.  Not exactly what we wanted for additional entertainment after a fun evening of fine dining.  It turned what normally would have been 4 or 5 minutes of driving through that stretch to something more on the order of half an hour.

One St. Martin driving custom we will not regret to see pass is where two drivers going in opposite directions stop in the middle of the road to have a prolonged chat.  In days gone by that would be considered "charming" and typical of "island time."  Unfortunately, with the heavily increased traffic it's contributing significantly to the overall congestion and noticeably longer drive times to reach one's destination.  Even the locals are becoming irritated with some of their fellow residents.

The new, twisty road leading from Cay Hill roundabout to the Great Bay Beach Hotel end of Front Street in Philipsburg was never congested and proved to be an excellent route to that part of the town.  We used it more than a few times.

Parking also is becoming more and more of a headache (nothing to do with the size of our vehicle) in the central part of Philipsburg, in the main part of Marigot and at the Howell Center on the outskirts of Marigot.  We found no easy solutions to the Philipsburg situation.  A practice which further aggravated the problem was allowing cars to enter the municipal lot even when there were no spaces available - extremely congested there.  For shopping in Marigot proper we found it best to grab the first available space in the new parking areas by the harbor or to go to the lot beside the cemetery (across from the Tourism Office) and hike to our destination with stops for refreshments along the way.  The parking situation within the paved areas of the Howell Center is just awful.  Frequently there were cars lined around the Center waiting for a spot to open.  One day in particular we waited (were trapped is a better way of putting it) for about 20 minutes before abandoning that idea and instead drove along the street bordering the Center on the Grand Case side until we finally found a place we could stow the Explorer.  We did notice people using a dirt lot on the right hand side of the Howell Center which looked like a good alternative, if one had the presence of mind and foresight to turn into it.  Note:  It cannot be accessed by car from within the Howell Center.

We don't mean to paint an unnecessarily bleak picture, but the problems we've noted are considerable and most definitely warrant the attention of the appropriate governmental authorities.  If they are not addressed soon, the businesses of Philipsburg and Marigot will suffer the consequences of lost opportunity.

Though nowhere near the significance of the preceding, we would like to see all of Boulevard de Grand Case be made one way for vehicular traffic.  The two way traffic section between Bistrot Caraïbes and Domaine de L'Amandier is becoming very difficult to negotiate in the evenings when people are wandering about and cars are parked in every available place on both sides of the street.

We did notice the number of pigs, goats, cows and other beasts roaming the roads was significantly less this time with the roadside fencing in much better condition.  However, we did encounter a largish herd of goats making an escape from their confinement by the roundabout where Walter Nisbeth Road intersects Illidge Road.  They assumed they had the right of way.

The only other especially memorable driving event was the night we finally escaped le garbage truck in Marigot, had negotiated the roundabout and at last had a clear road to Grand Case - so we thought.  A large dog decided to take a stroll across the road when we were much too close to it to stop in a reasonable manner.  However, Ed managed to bring the Explorer to a halt inches from this suicidal canine.  The new digital camera which had been peacefully reposed on the rear seat went ballistic under the inertial force and at the end of its trajectory banged around the passenger compartment before coming to rest on the floor.  We will attest to its hardiness - it still worked fine afterwards.  Even though it had demonstrated its ruggedness, thereafter for every drive, Sandra made certain the camera was held securely on her lap.

Restaurants for Dinner

We need to begin this subject by saying it's nothing short of a miracle that each of us only gained two to three pounds and we were able to shed those soon after returning from the trip.

We've always enjoyed the many varied and excellent dining opportunities available on St. Martin which range from the simplicity of lolos to exceptional haute cuisine.  It does seem each visit to the island our overall dining experiences just get better and better.  In fact, as we briefly indicated in the Introduction, we do have a problem with our rating system (a explanation of it can be found here:  Ratings ) in terms of ranking the restaurants we patronized on this trip.  Let's just say there are a large number of restaurants receiving our higher ratings and we're not satisfied the criteria for our scale allow enough latitude for subtle nuances and distinguishing characteristics among them.  On the other hand, it's a delightful problem to have and it is reflective of the fact that it would be unlikely one could "go wrong" with any of those restaurants receiving ratings from the mid-point to the top end of our scale.

The following is a bird's eye view of our conclusions - each of the restaurant names is "clickable" to take you directly to its write-up, if you so choose.

(5.0) Le Gaïac
(4.5) Le Montmartre
(4.5) Spiga
(4.0) L'Auberge Gourmande
(4.0) Le Cottage
(4.0) Le Pressoir
(4.0) Rainbow Café
(4.0) Temptation
(3.5) Peg Leg Pub and Steakhouse
(3.5) Le Piccolo Café
(3.5) Poulet d'Orleans
(3.0) Antoine Restaurant
(3.0) Hideaway at La Vista
(2.5) La Marine
(2.5) Restaurant du Soleil
(1.0) Los Gauchos

We'll be surprised if at least some of you are not surprised at the preceding!  Please do keep in mind and we want to emphasize that (2.5) at the middle of our scale represents a very acceptable and worthwhile experience.  Anything less than that we would be very reluctant to patronize again, unless we believed there were extenuating circumstances, especially since there are so many excellent options from which to choose.  We will say things do change for the better and sometimes for the worse.  An excellent source of continuing information about the restaurant scene on St. Martin is the newsletter http://www.sxm-info.com/newsletter.html published by Eric Kranz whose views and opinions we greatly value.  We also should add they are inordinately well communicated.

Now, let's proceed with our detailed reviews.

(5.0)  Le Gaïac, West Indies Mall, Marigot - Extraordinarily superb in every respect!  It was a truly fabulous experience enjoying the best of St. Martin's haute cuisine in a beautiful setting with exceptionally good service.  Le Gaïac had earned our highest ranking the prior year and we were both looking forward to the evening with anticipation and with an element of dread, being fearful it might not measure up to the high praises we had previously lavished upon it.  We need not have worried in the least.

Manager and maitre de, Laurent Cartier, was waiting for us.  With his impeccable continental flourish we were welcomed and escorted to the specially reserved table that was requested when our reservation was made.  Laurent wasted no time in letting us know how profoundly appreciative Le Gaïac was of the commentary in our previous travelogue and how frequently it was mentioned by their guests.  He then insisted we partake of a celebratory champagne cocktail specially prepared for our visit which proved to be remarkably nice - so much so, we succumbed to having a second one (most unlike us).  After giving the menu a perusal we were faced with the enjoyably difficult task of selecting a wine from among the top flight ones offered.  A wine cart with each bottle displayed and at the right temperature was wheeled tableside to facilitate the selection.  Laurent broke into a large smile and said "No Puligny Montrachet for monsieur."  We all had a huge laugh about that - he clearly remembered our lack of enthusiasm for it the prior year (as the evening progressed, we found he remembered an incredible number of things from our earlier visit).  An especially nice Mersault priced at 107 euros was chosen and Laurent concurred with "Excellent, very excellent choice."  It was indeed.

Then began our culinary odyssey.  The first presentation was an amuse gueule of cold asparagus soup with lobster - divine.  This was followed by another amuse gueule comprised of - are you ready for this? - foie gras with mango crème brulée.  After the first exquisite spoonful, Ed thought Sandra was going to totally lose her composure.  Only Le Gaïac could have melded these most favorite ingredients into such a sinfully delightful dish.  The taste was unimaginably good and Ed could read Sandra's mind:  "Should I cancel everything I just ordered for dinner and beg the chef to make more of this?!"  But, she behaved herself.  As we sat dreamily contemplating what we had just consumed and sipping the Mersault, Laurent arrived at the table with that certain smile and announced "Something special just for you."  It was a third amuse gueule - beautifully arranged, thinly sliced sections of scallop - very, very good.  Clearly Chef André Morel was inspired and seemed intent upon assaulting our taste buds with his finest creations.  He was definitely succeeding and we could only marvel at the creations that would follow.

The only tiniest disappointment was with Sandra's appetizer, the pan-seared duck foie gras coated with gingerbread and a sauce of sweet vinegar and slices of mango.  Now one must keep this in perspective - it was exceptionally good and Sandra's reaction well may have been somewhat the result of over anticipating this delightful appetizer she had so hugely enjoyed on our prior visit.  In Ed's case it was his turn to declare an appetizer as being literally off the rating scale.  Not a single tiny bit of the confit of duck foie gras pâté in muscat wine with pear and banana marmalade was applied to the accompanying toast.  He just slowly took small bites, pausing to savor the scrumptious taste each time.  Absolutely wonderful and such unique flavor!

We don't customarily comment on bread served with a meal, but that's because it usually doesn't warrant such.  However, that at Le Gaïac was indeed notable - very simple whole wheat rolls with grains - ever so good.

Sandra decided to experiment a bit and had selected the Filet d'omble chevalier aux asperges vertes et morilles which is Artic Charr with green asparagus and morels.  Before doing so she had discussed the charr at length with Laurent who brought a presentation of the filets to the table for her to see.  Subsequently she found it to be quite good with no hint of oiliness.  In fact, she thought it significantly better than salmon or tuna.  Ed's medallions of Caribbean lobster were, without a doubt, the best we've had anywhere.  No question - definitely the best.  The light sauce of truffles and the stewed tomato and basil were perfect accents which didn't mask in the least the delicate taste of the tender lobster.

We were quite prepared at that juncture, being overly sated with fabulous food, to cease dining and move to some nice after dinner drink.  But before we could make our intentions of good behavior known, Laurent appeared again with what he termed "nothing special":  a plate of fresh raspberries, strawberries, blue berries and mint in coconut milk with anis flakes.  "Pre-dessert" he said as he left us to consume those sweet calories.  Thinking we were done, we ordered Muscat over which to contemplate this fabulous culinary experience.  You've guessed it - we weren't finished and indeed were about to have our biggest surprise of the evening.  As we lingered over our Muscat, we observed Laurent enter the terrace dining area and he proceeded toward us with what could only be termed a mischievous look about him.  To our great astonishment he delivered crème brulées which we learned are not on the menu and which were prepared by Chef André just for the occasion of our visit.  Even as stuffed as we were, how could we possibly resist such a gesture and it was, after all, crème brulée.  Chef André could not possibly have prepared a more stunning climax to our feast at Le Gaïac - this was the finest crème brulée either of us had ever tasted anywhere.  It was total perfection with unbelievable richness in vanilla bean and beautifully done caramelization.  What a finale!  We can only suggest that you make a special request (begging might work) for this incredible treat when you make reservations at Le Gaïac and hope they will recreate it for your enjoyment.

Afterwards we took more than a little time in the very comfortable sitting area to congratulate Laurent, his capable assistant Emmanuel, and Chef André, and to thank them for making such a fabulous dining experience possible.  They earned and deserve every one of those 5 's and possibly more.

 

  (4.5)  Le Montmartre, Atlantis Casino complex http://www.lemontmartre.com/  - This restaurant was a new one for us and high on our "must do" list because of what we had read about it and the fact it is managed by Pascal Narm's wife, Karen.  The Narm's have always provided exceptional fare at L'Auberge Gourmande and Sunset Cafe in Grand Case, and we expected no less at Le Montmartre.  With the experience behind us we can easily say it was the best "new find" for us on this trip.  Excellent and, all things considered, we even give it an edge over L'Auberge Gourmande.

Upon arrival we were immediately impressed with the lovely decor of Le Montmartre - very Parisian and very tastefully done.  The charming and capable maitre de, Olivier Tillionbois de Valleuil, who was born in Algiers, lived in Dijon, France and has resided on St. Martin the past eleven years, took especially excellent care of us.

For an appetizer Sandra chose the sautéed foie gras on a bed of Darfin potatoes and forest mushrooms.  Ed did the foie gras duo which is a combination of sautéed fresh foie gras and pâté with a pear in a red wine and truffle reduction.  Because of our particular choices, Olivier strongly encouraged us to have glasses of Monbazillac which he insisted was only appropriate with foie gras or with a dessert.  The first sip or two we found a bit too sweet for our liking, but quickly came to enjoy it - it was just right with the foie gras, both varieties of which were most enjoyable.

One of the entrees was duck leg Sarladaise.  It's done Perigor style, baked for several hours and served with sautéed mushrooms and baby potatoes.  The meat was extremely tender - it literally fell off the bone - and had an excellent taste.  The other entree was Tournedos Rossini - sautéed beef filet served with a quite rich wine sauce and crowned with foie gras - totally wonderful.

For dessert Ed had a crème brulée which was definitely respectable and Sandra had the Moelleux Chocolat - a chocolate cake with a molten center served with a scoop of white chocolate mousse - remarkably good.

Chef Mathieu's creations were distinctive, nicely presented, highly enjoyable and made us more than a little pleased with our visit to Le Montmartre.  It definitely will be high on our priority list for a subsequent visit.

Our only regret came about when we realized we had chosen to dine at Le Montmartre the one evening of the week that the lovely Karen is not there - Saturday.  That was a disappointment because we had looked forward to chatting with her.  However, Pascal stopped by, recognized us and came over immediately to welcome us back to the island.  After a few sincere pleasantries were exchanged he excused himself so that we might continue with our dining.  He returned as we concluded the meal and we insisted he be seated with us so we could talk at length.  He promptly did so and ordered champagne for us all to enjoy together.  In our ensuing discussions we learned, among other things, they feel Le Montmartre is gaining a significant (and we might add - well deserved) reputation and they are receiving an appreciable number of repeat customers.  In fact, they've been a bit surprised and obviously pleased with the number of visitors to the island that are patronizing the restaurant multiple times on the same trip.  We saw indications of that among the guests that evening.  Pascal also told us that by the time our readers have seen our travelogue the menu will have been changed to incorporate those "specials" they had offered from time-to-time that had proven to be especially popular.

We should note that in succeeding days we encountered several people who had tried Le Montmartre and were every bit as enthusiastic about their experiences there as we were.

  (4.5)  Spiga, Grand Case http://www.spiga-sxm.com/  - It just keeps getting better.  Husband and wife team, Ciro and Lara Russo, have done a remarkable job with this restaurant in the comparatively short period of time since it first opened - about two years ago.

We had received advance word that Lara was looking forward to our visit and she did warmly greet us.  She was unabashedly candid in telling us how much the review of Spiga in our 2003 travelogue had meant to them and that it was frequently referenced by their customers.  She also indicated the aerial photo showing the location of Spiga we had developed in response to inquiries on the TTOL St. Martin travel board had proven to be very helpful:  Spiga Location.

After we were seated inside and began studying the menu which had changed somewhat since our previous visit, we noticed something that we perceived to be new - a note asking that all smoking, cigarette and otherwise, be on the outside porch.  That was certainly novel for a restaurant on St. Martin.  Having seen that, we promptly reminded Lara we are smokers and asked that she relocate us, which she graciously did.  Consequently, we joined the several other couples who had requested smoking seating on the outside porch at the entrance to the restaurant.  There was a very pleasant breeze and we enjoyed quickly making the acquaintance of a lovely honeymoon couple from Raleigh, NC sitting at the table beside us.  They were thoroughly enjoying their first visit to St. Martin and especially their dinner at Spiga.

For appetizers we ordered the hot homemade lobster raviolis with a lobster bisque sauce and the slices of Prosciutto di Parma, rolled and filled with a basil ricotta and served with fresh pineapple and arugula salad.  Both were completely excellent in every respect and a wonderful start for the dinner.

To accompany the meal we ordered the 2000 Sauvignon Alteni di Brassica Gaja which certainly was one of the more expensive offerings at 95 euros.  It proved to be well worth the price, but we must say we were a little disappointed the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene we had enjoyed on our previous visit was no longer available. Lara explained their supplier was no longer able to obtain it.

The entrees, which we immensely enjoyed, included a herb encrusted rack of lamb with arugula mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables; and the shrimp in ginger sauce served with a saffron and sweet pea risotto.  Did we say we immensely enjoyed these delectable dishes?  Retrospectively, Sandra believes her rack of lamb was the very best she had on the trip.

For dessert Sandra had the Tiramisu and Ed indulged in a "sinful mousse" which was a duo of Belgian white and dark chocolate mousses with a hazelnut crème anglaise.

Desserts were followed by especially delightful glasses of Remy Martin XO.  Life doesn't get much better.

Throughout the evening we enjoyed the service provided by the Russo's capable staff:  Valerie Rousselot from France and Cynthia L'homme from Guadeloupe.  After their duties were completed for that evening and also on a subsequent one, they both stopped by our table to chat and ask questions.  We enjoyed the opportunity to converse with them.

During the course of the dinner we mentioned to Lara that, if she were agreeable and when it might be convenient, we would like to visit Spiga's kitchen and make photos of Ciro there for possible use in our travelogue.  Soon thereafter she escorted us to where Ciro was concluding his efforts for the evening - very good to see him again - he's a real culinary artist.  We found the kitchen typical of that for Grand Case restaurants with respect to size - amazingly small and compact for what's accomplished there.  We want to note that even after preparing that evening's meals, the kitchen was spotlessly clean.  Ciro took special pride in showing us their pasta maker and cooker, imported from Italy - very impressive and probably one of the few on the island of that type.  You'll find no packaged, pre-prepared pasta at Spiga!

As we alluded earlier, we visited Spiga a subsequent evening to have after dinner drinks on the front porch which Lara told us was becoming fairly common.  We can understand why - it's a most pleasant setting.  The evening we had dinner there the restaurant was only moderately busy, but the subsequent evening we visited it was extremely busy.

During our conversations with Lara we learned they had just begun closing on Mondays for the low season.  She indicated the preceding high season had exceeded their expectations - on one night they were at total capacity for two seatings and were having to decline additional reservations.  They also had quite a few evenings when they were at 85% or better capacity.  Indeed, the popularity of this fine new addition to the Grand Case restaurant scene we think is completely understandable and justified.

Just as an additional note, we owe a special thank you to Lara and Ciro for rescuing us from a dilemma at Hediard's in the West Indies Mall.  Sandra had selected a large tin of their finest foie gras to take home with us, but the staff couldn't tell us if it needed to be refrigerated for the time we would be traveling (we thought that odd).  Lara and Ciro were having a late lunch nearby and assisted us with their expert determination.  After carefully studying the product they proclaimed it would be fine for the trip without being kept cool.  We can happily report they, of course, proved to be correct in their conclusion.

 (4.0)  L'Auberge Gourmande, Grand Case http://www.laubergegourmande.com/ - This was one of those evenings we were heavily engaged in discussions - this time with a businessman on the island.  Our guest had arrived shortly before us and was having a beer, so we decided to do the same.  After talking for a while we thought it best to tend to the matter of dining.  Both of us chose to have the fresh seared foie gras which was first class.  A great start!

Sandra selected the beef filet which we thought to be every bit as good as that which we raved about having at Le Montmartre, though the cut was thicker and the preparation method different.  It was very tasty.  Ed went for the scallops and shrimp for an entree and was extremely pleased with them - very fresh.  As always at L'Auberge Gourmande the presentation of everything was a work of art.

As we talked and enjoyed our appetizers and the great entrees, we managed to work our way through two bottles of a good Pouilly Fuissé.  Much too stuffed, we declined dessert (never an easy thing to do at L'Auberge Gourmande with their wonderful selections) and instead contented ourselves with glasses of Muscat - just right!

Pascal arrived late in the evening and stopped by to ensure all was well with us, which indeed it was.  He recognized we were in heavy discussion with our guest and appropriately didn't linger.

L'Auberge Gourmande is one of those restaurants we think keeps getting better and it's certainly one of the best in Grand Case.

 (4.0)  Le Cottage, Grand Case http://www.restaurantlecottage.com/  - The people at Hotel L'Esplanade, being as thoughtful as ever, had suggested Le Cottage and reserved the best table on the elevated veranda from which to view the Harmony Night activities (more about that later).  As we ascended the steps Bruno Lemoine rushed over to greet us and exclaimed "Ed and Sandra, it's such an honor to have you here!  I love your travelogues and your postings on TTOL (the preeminent St. Martin travel board)."  He then volunteered that he is a devoted TTOL fan and, without fail, reads it every day.  We should mention it was reinforced to us many times during our trip that a lot of restaurateurs and other business people on the island quietly follow the comments on that board and it was interesting to hear some of the conclusions they've drawn.

The reserved table really was perfect and gave us a great view of the swirl of activity on Boulevard de Grand Case.  We must say visibility works both ways - we were surprised and delighted at the number of people who recognized us and came forth from the crowds to introduce themselves.  That was much appreciated.

Apart from Bruno's constant attention to ensure all was as it should be during the dinner, we were well served by Laurent Le Solliec, originally from Brittany.  In fact, we were so pleased with his efforts that just before leaving that evening we called him to the table, thanked him profusely and handed him a rather substantial personal tip. He was pleased and a little stunned, to say the least.

On the matter of paramount importance, the wine selections, Stéphane demonstrated why his considerable reputation as a sommelier is so well deserved.  Le Cottage is certainly known for its wine collection - where else could you find the exquisite Saint Emilion Château Cheval Blanc '85 (Grand Cru Classé) at a mere 644 euros?  We settled on a more pedestrian Pouilly Fuissé for which Stéphane discerned we have a particular penchant.  Midway through dining we discovered that the bottle of Pouilly Fuissé must have had a serious leak because it was already empty.  We asked Stéphane to surprise us with something different.  And surprise us he did, very pleasantly so, with a wine with which we were not familiar - Quincy "Haute Victoire" by Henry Bougeois.  Excellent choice.  Apart from the good wines over the course of the evening, we were also regaled with Stéphane's special champagne drinks - a blend of black currant (Crème de Cassis), strawberry liquer, Soho "Litchi" and champagne.  Splendid!

Yes, we really did eat in addition to savoring the wines and the cocktails.  We both had the "home made" foie gras and toasts for appetizers - excellent pâté.  Next came the sorbet to clear the palate - it seemed to be cranberry with wine.  It certainly got your attention in addition to performing its intended task.  For an entree Sandra had the roasted rack of lamb, artichokes and a light sauce.  Ed had the evening special:  "Local lobster done thermidor style" - very good, but slightly heavy on the Parmesan for our taste - just a personal preference.  Would definitely not hesitate to have it again, if it were available.

Sandra considered it imperative to have Le Cottage's infamous "The Chocolate Dessert."  Yes, that's the name of it.  Ed decided to be adventuresome and try the "Ice Ti Punch" (a true play on words) which proved to be awesome - orange and lemon preserve accompanied by a shot of vanilla rum.

An interesting bit of news for us from Bruno was that he had acquired the concession to operate the La Véranda restaurant by the pool area at Le Meridien Hotel, Anse Marcel.  He had hoped we would be able to visit there and offer our opinions, but unfortunately that wasn't to be - our agenda for the trip was just too overloaded with other commitments.  Knowing the excellence of Le Cottage, we can only surmise that La Véranda would be well worth a visit.  We certainly wish him success.

As Ed was glancing at the cheque presented by Laurent, he noticed the discrete "offert" in lieu of a charge for the Quincy and questioned it.  The response was quick "It's a personal gift from Stéphane to show his appreciation of Ed and Sandra."  Much too generous, but thank you Stéphane.

 (4.0)  Le Pressoir, Grand Case - We were the guests of Roméo Fleming, President, Office du Tourisme de Saint Martin, and greatly enjoyed his hospitality and also the company of his companion, the very lovely and engaging Reina Martin.  In a subsequent, special segment of our travelogue we'll be sharing with you some of the insights and information we gained from our discussions that evening.  But, here we need to focus primarily on our dining experience at Le Pressoir which was the restaurant selected by Roméo.

Perhaps it will be interesting to summarize our conclusions first.  The staff were keenly aware of the significance of our host and the importance he attached to this dinner meeting.  The service was relaxed, convivial and unusually attentive, and all of the food served was excellent and, we might add, the best we've experienced at Le Pressoir.  Do we think that was because of our host?  Not really - Le Pressoir has a very good reputation and ironically enough it was on our "to do" list for this trip even before receiving the invitation from the Office du Tourisme.

We've always found this restaurant to be attractive and we were especially pleased with the alcove set aside for our dinner.  It was quite perfect not only for enjoyable dining, but to conduct discussions with some element of privacy.  The table beautifully set with Bacchus china was a delight.

We were asked to select the wine which was an easy decision when the very good Pouilly Fuissé was spotted on the list.  For appetizers we were encouraged to try the "Roméo special foie gras" (not on the menu) - a favorite of his he had requested earlier in the day to be available.  We certainly didn't need much in the way of encouragement and indeed it did prove to be quite special - fresh and seared with subtle savory spices - quite exquisite.

Sandra's entree was the duck and Ed's the filet of lamb, both with tasty condiments and accompaniments, including, of course, the traditional Le Pressoir palm tree artwork made of vegetables.

Dessert was a delightful berry assortment resting in a thin layer of delicious cream sauce.  This was followed by the house special cognac which was indeed excellent.

Throughout the evening Jerome personally provided the relaxed, convivial and attentive service we mentioned earlier, while also being unobtrusive.  His efforts definitely contributed to our enjoyment of this fine dining experience.  He was quite funny and good natured as he set about making photos of our group.

As we continued to chat about many things, all of which were not so serious, over our cognacs, Reina asked Sandra if she had seen Le Pressoir's wine storage area, which she hadn't.  Reina quickly led Sandra forth to a nearby door beyond which there was the narrowest of rooms, rather like a chilly, narrow hallway, with one side completely filled with wine offerings of the restaurant and some they don't publicize on their menu.  Quite interesting, to say the least.

Yes, it was a most enjoyable evening.

 (4.0)  Rainbow Café, Grand Case - Fleur greeted us and indicated our company for the evening was having drinks on the upper deck.  We proceeded there and joined our guests for before dinner drinks and to chat a while - very pleasant evening and that's a favorite spot of ours.  Fleur's partner, David, was topside and came over to say "Hello."

After downing several cocktails, and becoming quite relaxed and in a light hearted mood (hard not to be with our especially entertaining company), we all adjourned to the table in the restaurant Fleur had waiting for us.

After polling possible preferences for wine around the table, Ed ordered a bottle of Mersault for Sandra and an exceptionally nice Chateauneuf-du-Pape for our company and himself.  It was a welcome change of pace to share a bottle of red with others because Ed normally defers to Sandra's almost exclusive preference for various whites these days.  The Chateauneuf was soon consumed and another bottle requested.  Unfortunately, there was no more to be had.  Fortunately, there was a Nuits de St. Goerges that was every bit as good, if not better.

There was not a moment's hesitation on our part when it came to selecting an appetizer - in fact we knew beforehand what it had to be - Rainbow's fabulous escargot topped with puff pastry.  Totally scrumptious!

Ed finally decided on the grilled filet mignon with roasted garlic mashed potato and grain mustard sauce from the "Specials" menu, but not before discussing at length with Fleur whether it should be that or his customary sautéed shrimp and sea scallops with basmati rice, pineapple and island curry chutney (adore that chutney!).  Fleur solved the problem by suggesting he order the filet and if he didn't like it, she would quickly replace it with the other dish.  No replacement was necessary - the filet was very good.  Sandra's entree was the roast duckling with West Indian vegetables and banana rum sauce which was deemed excellent with her only complaint being there was far too much of it served.  She was expecting a small breast, but instead found herself wondering if she had the meat from an entire duck, there was so much of it.  Her accompanying potato with Christophine was especially notable - so much so all around the table sampled it and agreed it was quite wonderful.

Being unable to finish the large serving of very good duck, Sandra asked to sample only a small portion of "whatever" dessert Ed chose.  Ed was thinking to himself "What do you mean by 'whatever' - this is Rainbow - it has to be their crème brulée!"

We must note Fleur and the staff were extremely patient with us.  Even though we had started at 8pm it was fast approaching midnight when we finally waddled out of the restaurant with our friends and bid them farewell.

 (4.0)  Temptation, Atlantis Casino complex http://www.nouveaucaribbean.com/  - We were the guests of Deepti Mohnani (DK Gems International) at Temptation which is her favorite restaurant on St. Martin and certainly one of ours too.  When we arrived the restaurant was jammed with people - every seat taken and customers waiting.  We thought that most odd knowing that Asha and Dino Jagtiani balance their reservations carefully.  Talking with Chef Dino later while touring the new addition to Temptation and exchanging thoughts and ideas about some new ventures, Ed learned the reason for the unusually crowded situation.  The new addition is a most attractive affair constructed in tent-like fashion with the wall flaps gathered and tied, and a waterfall on one side - another romantic setting for the restaurant.  However, this particular evening there earlier had been an unusually intense storm which necessitated accommodating all of the guests in the original facility.  We must say we observed Dino and Asha, though harried a bit, to have dealt well with the unexpected situation and no one was significantly inconvenienced.

As we studied the menu, we could see there were a number of changes from our visit the prior year.  We knew that part of their objective in making such periodic changes was to ensure there was plenty of variety for their frequently returning customers, of which there are many.  Mind you, we think none could be as frequent a visitor as Deepti.

Ed made a point of ordering the white Chateau Mont Redon 2002 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, lightly chilled.  Excellent!

Our appetizers were the fresh seared foie gras with caramelized pineapple and port wine reduction.  They were quite tasty, but somewhat disappointing because we found the centers actually to be cold.

For an entree Ed selected the prime beef tenderloin with herb roasted potatoes, Argentinean chimi-churri, and cebollita.  Even though it is the most expensive item on the menu, we understand many customers make this selection and it became immediately obvious why that was the case.  Very nice.  Sandra also was very pleased with her choice of the grilled duck breast with Italian sausage - cannelini bean stew and brown sugar braised red cabbage.  This appeared to be very similar, if not the same, to the Nouveau Caribbean "Cassoulet" found on the menu on our prior visit and certainly was every bit as good.

Ed decided to do the responsible thing and forego dessert while Sandra charged ahead with the "wet chocolate cobbler" described as "wet chocolate lava topped with home made peanut ice cream."  She declared it delicious.  We both finished with nice glasses of Muscat Beaume de Venise.

The service throughout the meal was very good, though we could tell initially it was slightly strained with the backup in reservations.  A note should be made for our readers accustomed to U.S.A. dining manners.  A new type "plate" is being used at Temptation which is more like a tilted bowl.  It's very interesting, but utterly defies proper placement of one's knife when it's not in use.

Deepti, as always, was charming and delightful company.  She and Sandra have developed a special rapport over the past year and their conversations range far a field from their mutual interest in and enjoyment of jewelry.  Deepti laughingly says she wants to be like Sandra when she grows up.  On the other hand, Ed teases her a lot in a caring way, while at times being quite stern with her when he's emphasizing points about business practices.  Little wonder Deepti sometimes responds "OK, Dad."  Deepti and Sandra both received more than a little appreciative attention from customers and staff in Temptation because of how they were attired.  They had agreed beforehand Deepti would wear the same stunning outfit in which she's pictured on her website and in the store catalog, and Sandra would wear the turquoise halter kurta with boot cut pants and accompanying dupatta (scarf) which Deepti had custom made in India for Sandra this past fall.

As mentioned earlier, Ed and Dino talked quite a bit afterwards when most guests had finished dining.  Dino truly is a superb chef and his love and appreciation of good food and its preparation go well beyond what one might expect.  He was especially interested in discussing our dining experiences at other restaurants on the island and wasn't the least hesitant to commend the work of others.  Considering his schooling in the culinary arts and his skillful application of it, you might well be surprised at one of the restaurants he so highly praised.

Temptation does offer exceptional fare and we most certainly always enjoy our time with Asha and Dino.  We can honestly say if it had not been for the unusual, weather induced situation with which they were coping that evening and which we think caused the slight problems noted, the rating assigned would have been 1/2 higher.  We believe they understand that.

  (3.5)  Peg Leg Pub and Steakhouse, Simpson Bay area http://www.peglegpub.com/ - Though we've described some excellent beef we had at a number of fine dining restaurants, we have to say that Peg Leg Pub and Steakhouse has the absolute best, unadorned filet mignon we've had anywhere on St. Martin on all of our trips.  We just want to get that right up front where it belongs!

Our original planned visit to Peg Leg didn't occur.  Earlier that particular evening we were attending a cocktail party held for us at the Simpson Bay Yacht Club by the Leibowitz's.  The party was a lot of fun and we're most appreciative to our hosts and enjoyed meeting all those in attendance.  Among those attending was Linda Parker who along with her husband, Jack, own Peg Leg.  About an hour or less after the party began the lights went out all over the Simpson Bay area (and perhaps beyond).  That had no impact on the festivities which continued by candle light, but we soon learned from Linda, who was in touch with Peg Leg by cell phone, that it would be quite impossible for us to dine there that evening because of the prolonged electricity outage.  In subsequent conversations with Jack and Linda they indicated they had learned a lesson from that experience which, though quite infrequently occurring, warranted their acquisition of a large generator.

When we did make our rescheduled visit to Peg Leg, upon entering we found the place very busy and looking about we saw Shawn Buchanan at the far end of the bar chatting with someone and we headed toward him.  He saw us coming and we could hear him saying as if to all in earshot "Oh my god - they're here.  Welcome home Ed and Sandra."  After giving his huge bear hugs and kisses to Sandra and not quite so large hugs and handshakes to Ed, he turned to the person with whom he had been chatting at the bar and said "These are the people I was just telling you about!"  Thus began a most happy reunion at Peg Leg and, of course, a totally delightful dining experience.

Jack and Linda warmly welcomed us and we thoroughly enjoyed talking with them.  It's clear they have a passion about what they are doing at Peg Leg and were not the least hesitant in candidly sharing their learning experiences involved with moving to the island, and purchasing and operating a bar and restaurant which they had never done before.  We were particularly taken with a remark Jack made:  "We're blessed with great staff and wonderful customers, and we're committed to providing a quality product."  From every indication we could gather, that was a very sincere and accurate statement.

Shawn escorted us to our table and as we were seated he had that wry grin he sometimes flashes (we think it's an attempt to look serious) and said, as if to himself, "Hmmm, wonder what you will be having tonight."  For those of you that don't understand this little inside joke, we always have the filet done medium rare with stir fried vegetables and the accompanying béarnaise sauce.  We actually had to ask Shawn to slow down a bit in terms of having our order prepared because we wanted time to relax a bit more at the table and, frankly, have an opportunity to observe the others in the restaurant that were enjoying their meals - that often tells us a lot.  We definitely can say there were a lot of happy diners there that evening.

Once we told Shawn we were ready to eat, it was only a short amount of time before he returned with the food and announced with that immense smile of his "Dinner is served for my family."  So, how was it?  No different from any other time we've dined at Peg Leg - superb.  The filet mignon is just incredible.  On that subject, we mentioned later to Jack and Linda, as we complimented them for their excellent fare, that we had seen a few puzzling accounts in months past where a small number of customers indicated they had not found the beef to be so excellent.  They agreed that was regrettably possible and shared with us that in their quest to provide even better quality beef they had briefly experimented with using the highest grade Argentinean variety available.  They were disappointed with the result and in short order switched back.  We also were candid with them about having read a few reports where people felt the service had been too slow with Shawn trying to serve the entire restaurant by himself (he's good, very good, but superman he is not).  Jack and Linda indicated that was true and they had made changes to accommodate their growing business, though they felt it was something they needed to continue monitoring closely going forward.  We will note that evening and a subsequent one we dropped by for after dinner drinks there was an additional wait person and two quite busy bartenders.

In fact, after our dinner Shawn made a point of introducing us to one of his new assistants of whom he was obviously very proud - Kemesha Nicola Morgan, originally from Mandeville, Jamaica, as is Shawn.  She's a lovely young lady with a lot of determination - a little shy, but Shawn's working on that!

We inquired whether it was still Chef Danny preparing the excellent meals and Shawn replied "Yes it is and he wants to see you."  A moment later we were back in the kitchen meeting the big guy  again - great fellow!  Danny can be a little reticent when first meeting someone, but there was none of that this evening.  He was very pleased to see us and actually was having fun chatting and telling us about the pride he and his staff have in their creations.  As Jack said, they are blessed with exceptional people.

Since Shawn Buchanan is such an institution on the island (and one of our favorite people) we took time when he was finished with his evening's responsibilities to probe his thoughts and perspectives a bit more.  He's been on St. Martin for 22 years and, as one would well expect, has seen a great deal of change over that time.  He feels things have become a little too "Americanized" on the Dutch side and would like people "to be able to see more of the nature of the island, its freshness, its beauty."  He continued " Sometimes it's hard to smell the rain these days."  A poignant thought indeed.  We pursued this further by asking what he thought of Peg Leg Pub in that respect.  He acknowledged it's an American-like restaurant, but not a copy of an American style establishment.  "The food and setting though similar have a special character - one with Caribbean seasoning!"  Clearly he was speaking of more than just the spices used for cooking.

We asked Shawn if he realized he was somewhat of a celebrity with many people often noting their good experiences with him on St. Martin travel boards.  "I refuse to let such thoughts get into my head.  I must keep focused on my responsibilities and serving my family.  Even if people say you are the greatest, you still must keep earning the respect of each new customer.  And you must always remember the people who helped get you where you are."  His advice to people new in restaurant service is "Be a professional, always wear and project a smile, and genuinely care about what you do."  We certainly can attest that he is the epitome of his own advice.

Shawn concluded by saying he never thinks of customers as "tourists" or even "patrons."  "They're all my family and must be taken care of because they are family."  We asked if there were any special message he would like us to communicate from him to those who know him.  "Thanks for appreciating me and giving me the opportunity to keep serving my family.  Keep the reunion going!  Thanks so much to everyone."  Well said, Shawn Buchanan.

Although we've dwelt at some length on the people associated with Peg Leg and they are an important ingredient in the overall experience there, we would like to emphasize once more that the food is simple, but outstanding.  The best cut of filet mignon we've had anywhere on St. Martin - are we repeating ourselves?

  (3.5)  Le Piccolo Café, French Cul de Sac - We wanted something reasonably casual and low key for our first evening on St. Martin and had decided beforehand from all that we had read that Le Piccolo would be a good choice in terms of meeting those criteria and providing a new experience.  The restaurant was quite small with all the dining on the outside porch which wrapped around two sides of the building.  It had a surprisingly large kitchen area on the inside.

Vino (short for Vincenzo) explained all of the fare offered was in the form of appetizers and small salads with the expectation being diners would order a variety of them.  Very interesting concept.  We studied the menu and selected the duo of smoked and seared duck breast with confit of mangos in red wine and cinnamon; a mild chorizo sausage rizotto with shrimp fricaassé; a cassoulet of escargot, walnuts, sun dried tomatoes and blue cheese; and the seared "foua gwa" (foie gras) and mousse of pears in red wine with cocoa and basil sauce.  It collectively proved to be quite a diverse tasting with the many varied textures and flavors. A surprisingly good bottle of Pouilly Fuissé, the first of many we were to have on this trip, accompanied the meal.  All of the salads and appetizers were creative and most enjoyable, but the seared "foua gwa" most definitely caught Sandra's attention in terms of being exceptional.  It certainly earned her approval - Ms. Foie Gras doesn't give that lightly.

Sandra enjoyed Etna ice cream for dessert and Ed had the crème brulée which included a distinctive green cardamom spice as an ingredient.  Actually, the crème brulée had a much, much too heavy caramelization which was completely wrong - so thick it stuck to one's teeth when trying to eat it.  But, guess what?  It was completely delicious!

Will we be returning again to Le Piccolo in Cul de Sac?  Apparently not.  We subsequently learned the restaurant would soon be shuttered but there was a possibility it might re-emerge in some form on the Dutch side.  We hope whatever reincarnation occurs will be reflective of the unusual and most enjoyable dining experience we had at Le Piccolo.

  (3.5)  Poulet d'Orleans, Chanba Hill, French Quarter (telephone: 590 87 48 24) - "A diamond in the rough."  Poulet d'Orleans is probably not the sort of establishment most tourists would find and patronize unless they had some prior knowledge or recommendation of it.  Pity, they don't know what they're missing!  The restaurant is in an old house situated on a sharp "S" bend in the road and most would not even notice it coming from the direction of Orient toward Orleans since their eyes would be focused, as they should be, on navigating the downward twisting curve on Chanba Hill.  Parking is to the right side of the house in an unpaved area accessed by a semi-graveled drive.  The uninitiated and unadventuresome may be dissuaded by the initial access and appearance of the property - don't be.

As we came to a halt in the Explorer we saw young Christian Romney quickly approaching, and with considerable and unexpected graciousness he opened Sandra's door and welcomed us.  "This way please" he said as he led us along the path and up the steps to the front porch dining area.  There we were greeted by his older brother Josh and were seated at the rustic tables with stone-like tops and cast iron legs.  We weren't sure if Josh or Christian was the designated maitre de, but they shared the task well and they were ever so charming.  We promise they will steal your hearts with their politeness, good nature and genuine interest in everything about you.  They both also have tremendous senses of humor which are revealed in increasing amounts as the evening progresses, if their guests are responsive to such.

The menu was short, simple and to the point, as was the list of available beverages from which we selected a Sauvignon Bordeaux.  We both decided upon the escargot for an appetizer which we soon realized caused Christian a problem - he could find only one of the tong utensils with which one grips the shell while extracting the morsels from within.  We assured him that was not a problem and we would manage quite nicely.  But we could tell the elusive, missing device was bothering him and after some time he returned with a big smile and his treasure in hand - he had found it.  The escargot was delicious, made even more so by the effort to ensure we had the appropriate utensils.  A word of caution here - they are very hot when first served.

Sandra followed her escargot with a main dish of shrimp done in a garlic butter sauce while Ed had the restaurant's namesake which in this case was a chicken breast with creole sauce.  What the menu doesn't fully reveal is the assortment of vegetables that accompany these principal offerings:  pumpkin, christophine, carrots, broccoli, corn on the cob, rice and beans, and plantain.  Amazing!  We couldn't believe our eyes when the platters and bowls were served.  Everything - the shrimp, the chicken, the creole sauce, the vegetable and, Oh yes, we forgot to mention the bread - was completely excellent.  What a splendid feast.

As we ate, the boys chatted with us about all manner of things such as Josh's new girlfriend, their interest in cars, where we live, what we do, computers and their school.  They also regaled us with jokes and riddles which to their amusement we could never guess the correct answers.

When all was done, we asked to meet their father, Chef Tony Romney, who we knew beforehand had a distinguished culinary background.  He was most modest in accepting our high praise and appreciation not only for our excellent dining experience, but also for having two such well mannered, special children.  His guiding influence on Josh and Christian, and his love for them were most apparent to us and we think it would be equally obvious to anyone who has the pleasure of meeting this fine family.

We cannot recommend eating frequently at Poulet d'Orleans because the irresistibly good food and the portions of it served would be devastating to one's waistline.  Oh, by the way, the quote at the beginning of this review is not ours.  Those are the words used by Temptation's Chef Dino Jagtiani when describing his enjoyment of and affection for the offerings of Poulet d'Orleans.  We certainly concur.

 (3.0)  Antoine Restaurant, 119 Front Street, Philipsburg http://www.antoinerestaurant.com/ - This was another  new restaurant for us that we wanted to try, but we were quite uncertain of its exact location on Front Street.  Consequently, we made a point of locating it in the daytime during one of our earlier excursions to Philipsburg.  Having done so, we then began to wonder where one would park and could see nothing nearby we thought would be suitable for the Explorer.  Therefore we asked the people at Hotel L'Esplanade to inquire about the matter when they were making reservations for us.  The result was that special valet parking was arranged for us so we wouldn't have to be concerned about the matter.

When we arrived outside Antoine the street was jammed with cars parked all along it on both sides.  As promised, someone was waiting for us and quickly relieved us of the car, and we were soon inside the restaurant without the aggravation that might otherwise have occurred.

Co-owner and maitre de, Jean-Pierre Pomarico, extended his welcome and promptly seated us at the reserved balcony side table which had a nice view over the bay.  From our research beforehand we already knew those things which are the signature dishes of Antoine and had to try them:  duck, lobster thermidor and their soufflé.  Of course the first order of business, even before the wine, was the discussion of the soufflé.  We followed Jean-Pierre's recommendation that we have the Grand Marnier rather than the chocolate one.  With that important matter out of the way and the kitchen properly alerted, we concentrated on the other items for dinner and the wine - another excellent bottle of Pouilly Fuissé.

Ed chose the shrimp cocktail which proved to be absolutely first class - firm, fresh, large, superb shrimp - all three of them.  Sandra's lobster bisque she found to be unusually thick and rich.  Her characterization was "Very, very pleasant."  The "Langouste Thermidor" with its cream, shallots and white wine sauce, and the "Canard Montmorency" - half of a crisp duckling with cherries in a brandy sauce - well met their considerable reputation.  Excellent.  The soufflé, disappointingly, was another matter.  We all know that even in the most experienced and capable of chef's hands, soufflés can sometimes be quite ornery and to have a mind of their own.  Ours must have been one of those.  The outside looked quite perfect, but we soon discovered it was only a thin disguise with most of the interior too runny and a bit on the gritty side.  Our impression was that the interior was considerably undercooked.  We truly can say our rating for Antoine probably would have been 4 's if not for that exceedingly contrary soufflé.  Quite a pity and we think most likely our experience was an unusual exception rather than the rule since we continue to read so many favorable comments about their signature dessert.

As Jean-Pierre escorted us to the reception area of the restaurant, we found the same very pleasant gentleman waiting there for us ready to retrieve our car which he promptly did.  It was only later as we were researching additional information for our travelogue that we realized that quite unassuming person was none other than Pierre-Lewis Kesner, co-owner and chef for Antoine Restaurant.

We definitely would envision a return visit to Antoine and would encourage you to try this venerable icon of the Dutch side restaurants.

 (3.0)  Hideaway at La Vista, Billy Folly Road, Simpson Bay area - A fellow SXMophile implored us before the trip to try this restaurant and when we agreed, his immediate response was he was going to start worrying lest we not like it and our review might be less than flattering. He needn't have worried - we quite liked it!

It was the first time we had ventured beyond Buccaneer Beach Bar on Billy Folly Road.  Even though we had good directions we found it a bit confusing to navigate in the dark especially at one turn where we couldn't decide what was the "road" and what was an entrance way to one of the resorts.  After finding La Vista we parked in a lot beside and a bit beyond the main reception area.  A friendly guard asked where we were going and then escorted us to the restaurant - much appreciated.

The dining area basically is divided between an upper level near the bar and a lower level adjacent to the pool which was where our reserved table awaited.  There's nothing fancy about the Hideaway and the wait staff service is comparatively casual, but it was most pleasant.  We enjoyed our spot by the pool with the lights playing on the water and marveled somewhat at the cool breeze that we felt - it seemed to be coming from the sea, up and over the hill.

The wine selected was a Mersault and the appetizer for Sandra was Escargot de Bourgogne while Ed had the shrimp cocktail.  But the cocktail was more than one might envision.  The shrimp were firm, fresh, and delicious with a nice "calypso sauce", but there was also a salad with a lovely dressing and spicy red peppers.

Sandra then had the lobster tail thermidor and Ed the rack of lamb topped with a balsamic vinegar and thyme sauce - absolutely excellent.  Sandra's thermidor was a large serving which was quite good, but Ed's lamb easily warrants another visit on a subsequent trip.  Outstanding.

During the course of our dinner we especially enjoyed and were impressed with the singer playing an electronic keyboard.  He was quite talented - much more so than what one would normally expect.  As we sat sipping our wine after dinner, the singer announced the next song was dedicated to the very beautiful lady poolside and came forth with a soul wrenching rendition of "Lady in Red."  Sandra's eyes slowly filled with tears which then trickled down her cheeks as she tried to brush then away.  A beautiful and treasured moment.

  (2.5)  La Marine, Grand Case - La Marine is being operated by Camille Dutoya and Mélanie Raoux, an extremely nice young couple.  Camille's 24 years of age belie his considerable exposure to the restaurant business including five years of study at the Lycée Hotelier de Biarritz.  His father is the owner and chef of Le Saint-Séverin situated in the Bellevue area on the outskirts of Marigot.

Our first very pleasant surprise upon arrival was to discover they had valet parking - unheard of in Grand Case and most welcomed.  As we sipped our pre-dinner cocktails - a margarita and a pina colada, we admired the waterside view and attractive layout of the restaurant with its many plants strategically placed.  Later we discovered the exceptionally nice restrooms - worth noting because they certainly are superior to those found in many Grand Case restaurants.

Sandra had the foie gras pâté and said it was very good but the accompanying toast was much too hard (typical French) for U.S. palates while partaking of such an appetizer.  Ed's lobster ravioli was exceptionally tasty with the only slight disappointment being the bits of shell encountered.  It might be worthwhile to comment that we believe diners from the U.S. tend to be more sensitive to the inadvertent presence of crustacean shell and shrimp exoskeleton in various dishes than their European counterparts.

The entrees for us both were the combination of shredded quail meat, fresh foie gras and truffles in a puff pastry.  Unannounced on the menu were the accompanying quail legs.  The combination was quite tasty, but the shredded quail was a bit on the dry side.  Interestingly, the quail legs were exquisite with exceptional flavor and tenderness.  It rather left us wondering if all the the meat was from the same bird.  Sandra relished those legs and commandeered some of the ones residing on Ed's plate.

The dessert was extraordinarily good - a three chocolate mousse described as "combination of black chocolate, white chocolate and white chocolate with caramel served with cocoa sauce."

It didn't take Camille long to discern we were not their typical diners because of the close scrutiny we were devoting to the food and the questions we were asking about a variety of things.  His comment at one point was "You people seem to know and appreciate good food.  We're still learning and would like to have your critique later."  So, when we were finished, Camille and Mélanie joined us at the table for a discussion.  They were quite sincere in their interest and listened intently and asked some excellent and, we must say, insightful questions.  They seemed most appreciative.

We rather suspect La Marine may well become another favorite among the notable Grand Case restaurants if Camille and Mélanie persevere with the excellent start they've made.

La Marine closes for the low season and reopens in October.

  (2.5)  Restaurant du Soleil, Grand Case http://www.restaurantdusoleil.com/  - This was one restaurant about which we had no foreknowledge, but we gladly accepted the invitation to dine there when offered by one of the island's businessmen in order that we might continue our discussions of mutual interest from an earlier day.  The entrance way on Boulevard de Grand Case is deceptive in terms of suggesting the size of the waterfront dining area inside - it's larger than one would expect, but in no way so much so that it detracts from its intimacy.

Our waitperson was an extremely attractive young lady and although we had no prior recollection of the restaurant per se, we immediately recognized her from photographs we had seen.  Quite beautiful and a delightful countenance.

Not being especially hungry and, frankly, being absorbed in our discussions, we went rather light with our food selections.  We both shared a very excellent fried shrimp cocktail - unusual and well worth having again.  Each of us decided to have the filet of duck from the special menu for the evening.  Oddly, even though they were identically prepared, Sandra's was noticeably better than that which Ed had.  We probably would have not known that if Sandra had not kept saying "This is really good" and Ed finally asked for a sample and then could understand the difference.  Most curious.

There certainly was nothing light about the quantity of cocktails, wine and after dinner rum we made our way through that evening, including two bottles of an excellent Mersault from their wine list.

We think a subsequent visit to Restaurant du Soleil may be in order so we can more fully focus on and further appreciate the food while not being so engrossed in other matters.

 (1.0)  Los Gauchos, 87 Nisbeth Road (Pondfill), Philipsburg http://www.los-gauchos.com/  - Can we say "disappointment!"?  This was one dining experience which made no sense to us or our 5 companions who are local residents, in terms of the rave reviews so many people have given for this restaurant. The service was shoddy and the much touted Argentinean rib eye steaks were tough, stringy and chewy, and not even remotely in the same class as the much better U.S. beef we had in a number of restaurants on this trip.  Two of our guests were especially puzzled and troubled by the beef that was served because they had purchased it before from Los Gauchos for preparation at home and had enjoyed it.  The only person in the party who felt their meal was particularly good was the one who had the shrimp and, we might add, she managed inexplicably to break a tooth while eating her dinner.

We evidently arrived too late to see the Flamenco dancers, but it was of little concern since that was of only passing interest to us.  We also thought the table linen, heavily soiled from previous diners, was totally inexcusable.

We most definitely would not bother returning.  Enough said.

Other Dining Experiences

As is customary in our St. Martin travelogues, this section is devoted to mostly brief comments about those dining events other than the more significant evening ones.  As a rule, we seldom have breakfast or lunches when on vacation which explains the comparatively few number of experiences we are sharing here.

Hidden Forest Café, Loterie Farm, Road to Pic Paradise - There was nothing insignificant whatsoever about this fabulous lunch!

One of our plans for this trip was to revisit Pic Paradise with a local escort and at the same time to stop at Loterie Farm's Hidden Forest Café for lunch.  The former didn't happen because the weather kept conspiring against us and the latter did in spite of the weather.  Awhile before and immediately after arriving at the restaurant we were treated to phenomenal, torrential rains.  It didn't dampen our spirits, but certainly did those of the poor folk caught on the hiking trail to the top of Pic Paradise.  We saw them return and somehow to say they were "drenched" just doesn't seem adequate.  Almost drowned might be a little more accurate.

As the rain thundered down on the tin roof and rolled off in rivers, B. J. Welch, owner of Loterie Farm, was standing on the rails surrounding the open air restaurant trying to clear the gutters and slanting roof edges of debris with some modicum of success.  We indeed felt like we were in a tropical rain forest.

Undaunted, we enjoyed studying the menus.  Yes, there were two of them - one being what we would term the regular list and the other entitled "Cheap Stuff" which included wraps, "junk food" (their words, not ours) and junior food with all items priced at 10 or less euros.  From the regular menu we selected the brie in puff pastry with mango chutney for an appetizer and followed that with smoked salmon on greens with a crème cheese dressing for Sandra and the shrimp scampi seared in tequila and served with sweet potato, rice, pineapple, passion fruit and banana fritters (a taste of dessert) for Ed.  This mid-day feast far exceeded our highest expectations.  It was perfection in every respect and we can't compliment Chef Julie Purkis highly enough.  Well, we actually tried, but the praise was modestly rolling off her.

We did spend some quality time talking with Julie and learned she had come to St. Martin from Toronto 24 years ago.  For awhile she operated a restaurant in  Cul de Sac before coming to Loterie Farm.  She also has a catering service for small to large parties, and surprised us by volunteering she especially likes doing that at Hotel L'Esplanade because of "their beautiful setting and the facilities they have there."  Must say we made a strong mental note of that for a future occasion.

It is a little bit of a hike from the parking area along a somewhat rough pathway to the restaurant, so you might want to wear comfortable shoes and have an umbrella available if the weather looks threatening.  However, having said that, we cannot recommend strongly enough the wonderful food we enjoyed at Hidden Forest Café, rain or shine.  In addition to lunch, they do serve dinner 7 - 10pm Tuesday through Saturday and they have an attractive bar area for drinks.  Go and enjoy Chef Julie's delights.

La Samanna, Bai Longue http://lasamanna.orient-express.com/dining/di01a.html - During low season the main dining room is closed for lunch and all food is prepared and served at the poolside grill area.  We'll expand a bit more about our afternoon at La Samanna in a subsequent section and just will focus on the food here.

Does a hot dog for 12 euros seem a bit steep to you?  Then you're probably at the wrong place for lunch, that being one of the least expensive offerings.  We very much did like their admonition on the menu  "Kindly refrain from using cell phones during lunch time."  The comment is probably directed to those frantically calling their bank to have their credit line increased to cover the lunch tab.

In all seriousness, we had a lovely lunch there by the pool.  Ed had excellent Gâteau au Crabe - delicious crab cakes with a salad and a very tasty mango condiment.  Sandra did the Gaspacho Antillais with garlic croutons and avocado, and thought it unusually rich and very tasty.  We were well pleased with our lunches and the attentive service provided by Yudi, our waitress.

Delicacies from Bounty, Grand Case - We always have to mention the wonderful things we find at Bounty to make great snacks and evening meals when we're too pooped or not sufficiently hungry to venture forth to a restaurant, as was the case on two occasions after excursions to other islands where we had largish lunches.  On our first visit we had barely made it inside when we were greeted by other shoppers who recognized us from our travelogues.  We enjoyed talking with  them and appreciated their many kind words.  They too were delighted with their treasures from Bounty.

There are many delicious things both in the way of prepared and unprepared food to be had there.  Perhaps most memorable of the many things we relished on this trip were the roast beef, foie gras pâté and various cheeses including an exceptionally creamy brie.

Hot Tomatoes, Simpson Bay area - We tried the two versions of conch offered on the lunch menu.  Both were very good, though Sandra wished her curried conch chowder had been a bit more spicy (she likes it hot!).  The Bahamian cracked conch marinated with citrus and peppers, breaded and fried, and served with a "spicy creole dip" was just right!

Tropical Wave, Le Galion Beach - We strongly suspect our rating for Tropical Wave would have been even higher if we had ordered something other than the simplest of fare - "ham and cheese sandwiches."  The briefly worded chalkboard menu, we discovered, was hugely misleading because it didn't do justice to the scrumptious looking salads and other things we saw being served subsequently to others.  By the way, our "ham and cheese" was delicious and more like a hoagie presented with a very copious amount of fries, which were unanticipated.

  (2.5)  Taloula Mango's, Rose Arcade area, Philipsburg http://www.taloulamangos.com/ - This is a bar / restaurant which is quite trendy, fun and understandably popular.  We were seated on the upper level where we had a great view of the activities in the plaza below and of the new "boardwalk" - a most attractive addition since our last visit.

After partaking of several Coors Lights, we decided to have a light lunch and even though we chose items from the salads section, they proved to be rather large servings. Sandra had the Taloula Caesar with Romaine lettuce, basil croutons, and shaved Parmigiano.  The Thai Cobb (we inferred to be a play on words) with Romaine lettuce, chicken breast, shredded carrots, bean sprouts, snow peas, blue cheese and avocado - lime dressing was Ed's choice.  It was more than a little stringent with far too much of the lime juice ingredient used.

As we were departing Taloula, Sandra purchased one of their cute ballcaps and it frequently was worn on days thereafter as a good means of controlling her long hair in the all too frequent wind.

SunSet Beach Bar, End of Juliana runway - Well, this was a serious disappointment and consequently the rating is substantially lower than in previous years.  There was nothing wrong with Andrew's preparation of the hamburger, always done with flair and careful attention.  It was the meat itself - much lower quality than that about which we have raved so much in the past.  It definitely was nothing exceptional this time.

Bars

Perhaps it was the weather or maybe the result of a longer stay this trip, but retrospectively we can see that we patronized 24 bars and lounges, some several times.  That doesn't include a few "night spots" upon which we'll comment later.

Bikini Beach Bar, Orient Beach - Visited here more than a few times and enjoyed once again chatting with Elisa Cohen, the manager.  On one of our visits there was a good band which made a good afternoon even better.  Kellie at the beach bar, whose home is South Africa, took consistently good care of us which was much appreciated (she got to ring the bell a lot).  The same could not be said for Valet, the beach drink attendant, one of the few afternoons it was suitable to lounge at the water's edge.  His "service" was spotty and unreliable (seemed to be distracted by some attractive young ladies).  Consequently, Ed would periodically visit Kellie at the bar to retrieve the needed beverages.

BooBoo Jam, Orient Beach - Always one of our favorites and a "must do" for each trip even if it's only for a few drinks.  It was another of those sunny but especially windy days when flying sand and salt spray made Orient Beach best viewed and enjoyed from a sheltered vantage point such as BooBoo Jam.  Ed did venture onto the beach long enough to make a few photos and to note that work had continued on the nearby "abandoned building" with it now looking much more finished.  We continued to hear various stories of what it eventually would be.

Buccaneer Beach Bar, Billy Folly Road, Simpson Bay area - Great to see Neil Rooney again and to have a long chat with him while downing several Coors Lights.  Also appreciated the patrons who recognized us and introduced themselves and extended their kind comments about our travelogues.  It was sort of a "catch up time" with Neil since we had missed him on our previous trip.

Moose, Neil's four legged constant companion, had been under the weather but was well on the road to recovery.  Sandra could tell he was somewhat lethargic compared to times in the past when she's played with him (Moose, that is).

Neil has always been a major supporter of and participant in the activities associated with the Heineken Regatta.  He's already planning for the 25th Regatta and as he said "We'll have some possibly major surprises in place" for everyone.  Among his other ventures is the acquisition of the bar immediately adjacent to the Princess Casino at Port de Plaisance, now renamed the "PDP Crew Bar."  He expects to build and have completed by the end of this year a new bar at Port de Plaisance which will be called the "Stern Winch" - catchy name!  He'll be making a few changes at the Buccaneer Beach Bar including the addition of Heineken canvas awnings which will match the umbrellas.

Regardless of whether the ever convivial Neil is in attendance or not, we highly recommend at least one, if not many visits, to BBB during your time on the island.

Café Juliana, Upper level Princess Juliana Airport - A great place to stop for drinks and the last few cigarettes before clearing Immigration and Security before boarding one's departure flight.  We also understand the food served there is quite good and it appeared to be so, but we've never tried it.  The place was bustling (frequently difficult to find a space at the bar) and the staff and management were hustling - none of that island time thing there.

Crew Bar, Port de Plaisance - Dead as could be the late afternoon we visited.  We can't reveal all the details and the reasons why we expected that to be the case because of information Neil Rooney shared with us, but let's just say things are in transition and a bit of time has to pass before changes are initiated.  We found the bar in its current state to be pleasant enough and certainly enjoyed talking with Steve as he plied us with drinks.

Domaine de L'Amandier, Grand Case - Actually we patronized both the Tapas Bar and the Martini Bar at L'Amandier probably the most of any on the island.  That's largely because they're open very late and are convenient as a final stop for nightcaps before retiring at Hotel L'Esplanade.  It's also a good place for late dessert when none was had with the evening meal - Pina Coladas.  Samir always remembers us and was his normal ebullient self.  Toward the latter part of our trip we found the Tapas Bar had been closed for "renovations."

This is another of those instances in our travelogue when we'll make a cryptic statement without explaining it.  Don't be surprised if changes occur with Domaine de L'Amandier.

Howell Center Open Air Bar, Marigot - After a bit of shopping in the Howell Center we stopped by for a Carib and a Presidente.  Probably would have enjoyed more than one round but we spotted a massive black thunderhead moving our way from the direction of Pic Paradise and thought it prudent to gather our shopping and make a hasty dash for our car.  Very good decision - another torrential rain quickly ensued - the type in which windshield wipers seem to have no effect.

Hot Tomatoes -  Met the bartender Belinda and later had a reunion with Althea who was her normal smiling cheery self.  Learned that Gabe is off island for some time because of the illness of a family member.

We like the great looking bar at Hot Tomatoes and the nice breezes through the open doors and windows, day or night.

Lady C Floating Bar, Simpson Bay area - We had heard many times about this infamous evening party place but paid our first visit in late afternoon.  The bar is "docked" just by the drawbridge and cannot easily be seen from the main road.  The parking lot is a bit of a joke since it is so small and actually shared with at least one other adjacent business.  We can only assume the hordes of nighttime revelers must leave their vehicles alongside Airport Road.  Our beverage needs were well handled by the lovely Jill who we learned also works at the Sand Bar on Snoopy Island.  Her "real job" is being a school teacher and we would guess a very excellent one, judging by the way she was interacting with her customers - great personality.

The Lady C certainly is a different type of bar experience - it moves a bit even without one having consumed any libations.  Soon after our visit it was being moved to dry dock for some "bottom work" and after a hiatus of several weeks would resume its position and function.

Hotel le Flamboyant Pool Bar, Nettle Baie - Actually we were in le Flamboyant water activities area for a reason other than visiting the bar, but since it was there we availed ourselves.  It's a good size rectangular affair dispensing drinks for consumption at the pool and nearby tables with umbrellas.  Their Heinekens and Caribs were perfectly prepared.

L'Esplanade Pool Bar, This small bar in an incredibly lovely setting meets the needs of L'Esplanade's and Le Petit's guests during high season.  Gal, the bartender, had a large assortment of music from which his customers could choose their preferences while he served them interesting drinks at their lounges and on both the dry and "wet" sides of the bar.  Always fun having drinks sitting on bar stools submerged in the pool!

La Belle Epoque, Marigot - A traditional rest stop for us during those marathon shopping expeditions in Marigot.  We rested there a lot this trip.  Fabulous view of the Marina Royale.  Some customers there on one of our visits proclaimed it a fantastic place to observe a fashion show.

La Playa, Orient Beach http://www.hostehotel.com/restaurant.html - We visited La Playa twice primarily in hopes of rendezvousing with another couple, but alas for circumstances beyond their control they were not receiving our messages left for them.  On our first visit initially we deposited ourselves in the main restaurant / bar area and then gravitated to the small beachfront bar station.  It was a nice view and the sun felt good, but it definitely was another of those days when one would not want to be on a lounge on the beach.  There was very choppy water with white caps across the entire bay.  No parasails that day - much too windy.

La Vie en Rose, Marigot - This is another of our traditional rest stops when shopping in Marigot since it is conveniently situated along the route we normally take between the car parked at the end of Galis Bay Road and the Marina area.  On our first visit we missed Alison, the manager, but found her there on a subsequent trip into Marigot.  Good to see her again - she's always joking with us about the shopping bags we seem to have with us whenever we meet.  Alison explained that on our previous visit to La Vie en Rose she had been at Juliana awaiting friends from the U.S. who never arrived.  She went on to relate she later learned they had presented themselves for check-in at O'Hare not knowing they needed any type of travel documents for their child (which they did not have with them) and were denied boarding.  Can people really be that naive and uniformed?

Le Village, Marigot - Situated on the Marina waterfront immediately beside La Belle Epoque - we simply tried it for a change of pace.  The beer was fine and it provides a central view of the Marina, and shops and restaurants flanking it.

Pedro's, Orient Beach - It was another sand blasting day on Orient Beach and Pedro's had some of its beachside covered with wood panels to help block the wind.  Nice to see the place again, but there weren't many customers that afternoon. We did have the opportunity to talk with a number of gendarme who had parked just outside and were surveying the beach while waiting for some of their compatriots who were patrolling the area.  In their very poor English (which was infinitely better than our French) they tried to communicate as best they could and we found them quite friendly.  They explained they were fairly newly arrived on their three month tour of duty on St. Martin.  Nice guys.

Peg Leg Pub - We stopped by late one evening and found the dinner crowd thinning, but the bar area as busy as ever and a darts game at the far end well joined.  It was nice to see Linda Parker once more and knowing we would be leaving the island soon to be able to bid her a last farewell.  In case you haven't gathered thus far, the bar at Peg Leg is fun to enjoy regardless of whether you're dining there.

Among the souvenirs we acquired there was a tiny logo tank top for Sandra emblazoned with the words "I'm a luxury few can afford."  Ed says "How true, how true!"

Ric's Place, Simpson Bay area - http://www.ricsplace-sxm.com/ - We had visited Ric's on previous trips but this was the first time we had the pleasure of actually meeting Frederick R. Hetzel.  We talked quite a while and enjoyed his considerable hospitality.  We easily could have spent a great deal more time there and would have liked to have done so, but our agenda for the day was just too full to allow it.  Ric's is a very nice bar / restaurant and certainly is the premier spot on the island to enjoy sports broadcasts on large screens received via satellite.

Scavenger's Beach Bar, Dawn Beach - We made our way to Scavenger's via the well paved road leading to Oyster Pond, stopping along the way at various points to make a few photos - very picturesque area.  Not having been to Scavenger's before, we were appreciative of the appropriately placed small directional signs, especially for the final descent to the parking area.  One can't help but notice the legacy of a hurricane which some years ago devastated the resort once situated at this location.  Mother Nature is slowly covering the remnants with increasing foliage.  Descending the steps from the parking lot there's a great view of the beach, ocean and St. Barths on the horizon.

Although we had every intention of lounging on the beach, it was yet another day when the wind made that unappealing, once we were there.  Consequently, we spent quite a bit of time at the bar, listening to good reggae and taking in the splendid views.  A few thick skinned souls were lounging on the beach but well back from the water's edge.  The ocean was quite choppy but we could see a couple of snorkelers who must have been excellent and strong swimmers moving along the reef, the waves clearly washing over their pipes.

Though we didn't eat there, we noticed the grill was doing a brisk business all afternoon and the bar was not doing badly either.  The most amazing thing we observed was a group of Americans pouring shots of Guavaberry liqueur into bottles of Heineken then guzzling the concoction.  Even the experienced bartender was aghast and remarked as they walked away "Hope your life insurance is paid up!"

We very much enjoyed ourselves at Scavenger's and think most would, especially if the weather were a bit more cooperative.  Though we didn't encounter it, we must offer the thought that trying to make the ascent from their parking lot to the good section of road above could be quite challenging, particularly for those in smaller vehicles, in flooding rains as we experienced elsewhere.  Under such circumstances, it might be best to linger at the bar a bit longer until the storm passes.

Sint Rose Beach Bar, Sint Rose Arcade, Philipsburg - This is a small open air bar in the plaza bordering the boardwalk.  We found it to be a handy place to quench one's thirst after strolling the length of the boardwalk to Bobby's Marina and back, taking in the sights along the way.

Sunset Café, Grand Case Beach Club http://www.sunset-cafe.com/  - We decided to enter the grounds of Grand Case Beach Club with the Explorer and approached the entrance security gate.  To the side is a small box with a keypad accessible from a driver's window.  Ed studied the box and instructions which indicated visitors (versus guests with a security code) should push the black button for admittance.  That was fine except there was no black button visible.  Ed got out of the SUV to examine the box more closely thinking perhaps the elusive button was hidden from immediate view.  Nope, no black button.  Finally he said "What the hell?" and pressed the prominent red one.  It worked - the gate slowly swung open.

The weather was grim with threatening skies and the entire part of the bay between the beach and Creole Rock and beyond tightly dotted with white caps.  Quite unusual - that's normally a calm sheltered area because of the way the hilly coast line curves sharply around to Bell Point.

As we seated ourselves by the rail we were quite surprised to see how much Petit Plage had receded compared to our observations from prior years.  The beach appeared to be half the width of what we consider normal for it and in places there were smooth flat rocks exposed that we had never seen before.  All of the lounges had been repositioned up the slope at the top of the beach and were quite tightly packed.  (Based on photographs we have seen that were made since our return home, we gather the beach there is now back to normal).  

Soon after our first drinks were delivered a mist began blowing in from the sea and that was quickly followed by a few drops of rain and then torrents of water.  As we abandoned our table and moved to one against the inside wall, the waiters hurriedly began unfurling plastic curtains to close off the open areas.  Moments later the few who had been on the beach lounges pretending it really was a nice day ran into the restaurant quite soaked and with all pretense dissolved.  That was one heck of a storm!

After consuming more drinks than we had intended while we waited for the rain to abate, Ed asked for the cheque and saw the amount was not in the least reflective of what we had enjoyed - the bill was much too small.  The waiters who had tended to our needs were no longer there and the bartender had no way of determining the correct amount.  Being the resourceful sort he is, Ed returned to the table and inventoried the fruit remnants, cherry stems and such, from the pina coladas we had been accumulating in a glass.  With that determination made the bartender was able to render a correct bill and she greatly thanked us for our honesty.

Trying to exit GCBC was about as much fun as trying to enter it.  We drove back to the gate where we had entered and sat there wondering what magic we needed to make it open - no keypad box with a red or black button on that side.  We began hearing an odd sounding whistle and realized one of the security guards was motioning to us to come back down the incline.  We obliged and then learned we had to follow the driveway along to the other end of the complex to be able to exit.  Oh well, now we and you know how to do it!

SunSet Beach Bar - Always an imperative destination for us.  Apart from the disappointing hamburger and often heavily clouded skies which afforded the poorest of "Kodak moments" for landing planes, it was ...well, SunSet Beach Bar.  One evening after surviving a harrowing landing of a Winair flight at Juliana, we proceeded immediately to SunSet Beach Bar to consume an appropriate number of tranquillizers.  Once our frayed nerves were calmed a bit, we took time to notice there was a large number of people in attendance and a band was preparing to play.  The crowd continued to grow and pressed against the bar as the staff worked furiously to fill the drink orders.  No doubt some patrons were losing their patience with what they considered frustratingly slow service.  The thing we've learned to do in such circumstances at SSBB is patiently hold a $20 bill up and when our first two beers are delivered tell the bartender with a grin to "Keep the change."  Amazing how quickly subsequent needs for beer are recognized and met, no matter how thick the crowd.

The band that evening was pretty good and the crowd seemed to enjoy it and be appreciative - well maybe not as much so as the crowd was of the largest number of ladies we've ever seen drinking free at the bar.

On our departure day we found Heidi working at SSBB for the first time during our several visits and she immediately recognized us.   She was well into her first pregnancy but few would realize it because her figure for the most part was trim as ever and she was as pretty as always.  We enjoyed talking with her and left a special "tip for the baby."

Taloula Mango's - The possessive form is how they present the name.  We've already mentioned this establishment in one of the sections dealing with our dining experiences, but wanted to note it's often frequented by patrons simply wishing to imbibe drinks.  Apart from tables with chairs where one may do such, there is a bar per se on the ground level.  It was being put to good use during our visit there.

Tropical Wave - Another establishment we've already mentioned, but wanted to emphasize that many of the customers we observed were using it to obtain drinks to enjoy on the beach.

We also wanted to dwell a bit on the owner, Patrick (Pat) Turner, whom we enjoyed meeting and engaging in a long conversation.  We learned he was born in Rio de Janeiro, as he likes to put it "at the feet of Christ" (the statue on Corcovado Hill), of military parents.  He subsequently lived in the U.S., Korea and Japan.  During the course of our conversation, to our considerable surprise, we discovered Pat's mother now lives just a few miles from our home.  And as if that were not ironic enough, another couple visiting Tropical Wave during a cruise ship stop that day introduced themselves to us and we learned they lived less than a mile from our residence.  Small world indeed!

Pat has worked at the Galion location for approximately 30 years, first operating the water sports center at the old Le Galion Hotel, now demolished.  He has continued to provide that service including kayaking, wind surfing, kite surfing, surf boarding, snorkeling and paddle boating, and added the Tropical Wave Restaurant and Bar in 1990.

Obviously he has seen many changes over the years he has been on St. Martin and was able to share interesting stories including how over 1,000 large palm trees were removed from nearby Coconut Grove Beach and transplanted to the Mullet Bay complex when it was being constructed.  It was easy to tell as we chatted that Pat is a naturally inclined ecologist and that he has a special joy and interest in the preservation of the official marine reserve in the Baie de L'Embouchure area.  Presently he's attempting to secure permission to provide eco-tours using kayaks in the Reserve and also he wants to develop educational programs about it for school children on the island.

While talking with Pat we were joined by a friend of his, Alain Carty, an older gentleman born on St. Martin.  It was fascinating hearing some of his views on such matters as politics!  His speech was heavily accented and worded in what we think was possibly an early form of patois on the French side of the island.  It required we listen ever so carefully and at times had to ask Pat for interpretation of what was being communicated.

It was a most enjoyable afternoon at le Galion Beach and Tropical Wave.  We highly recommend you take the time to visit both.

Clubs, Lounges, Casinos and Such

The Maho area is quite attractive and vibrant at night, and provides a variety of things to enjoy, including dining and entertainment.  Cheri's appeared to be very popular and people seemed to be having fun with the raucously loud entertainment there.  Not our cup of tea, but clearly it held appeal for those attending and participating.

We spent time at Q Club, a huge facility, listening to great music and watching a few Salsa dancers, but found we were much too early, only elevenish, for the crowd that would gather later.  In fact, noticeably more people were beginning to arrive as we departed and they had instituted security screening at the entranceway while we had been inside.

Sopranos, unlike Q Club, was totally packed with a large crowd of people.  We felt fortunate to find seating - there were many people standing.  Entertainment was provided by a very capable singer with an electronic keyboard and he was quite popular with the patrons.  There seemed to be a fair number of locals scattered among the tourists.

The Platinum Room was an interesting late evening visit.  Again, perhaps we were a tad early with our arrival just before midnight, but we were surprised at the comparatively few patrons and, in fact, the comparatively few dancers performing.  Maybe our impressions in that respect were influenced by the large size of the facility which can accommodate quite a few people.  We particularly enjoyed meeting and chatting with Zohra Habita, a most attractive young lady originally from Algeria.  She explained she might only be on St. Martin for three months because that was the length of the contracts under which the girls worked and she didn't know, as was the case with the others, whether it would be renewed for another stint at The Platinum Room.  For whatever our humble opinion is worth, her contract definitely needs renewing!  Something odd we noticed while there was the occasional smell of something that reminded us of diesel fuel.  Ed mentioned this to Lewis, the affable doorman, who also could detect it and he volunteered he thought it perhaps was a hint of exhaust from the generator used by The Platinum Room and from those of other establishments in the immediate area.

Although we didn't attend, we did notice the new Gizmo Overlounge is immediately adjacent to The Platinum Room and seemed to be attracting a fair number of people.  We must say parking in that immediate area is a nightmare.

Apart from the lovely Zohra, we have to say that we found Golden Eyes above Ric's Place in the Simpson Bay area much more pleasant and comfortable than The Platinum Room.  It also seemed to have more customers.  Something we didn't like about Golden Eyes this visit was we found the girls noticeably more "pushy."  Altogether too many of them were circulating after their dances and somewhat pressuring customers for tips to reward their performance.  Although we both know better, we obliged one of the girl's request that we buy her an orange juice.  The few ounces of juice, which she didn't drink, was only $8 while the beers we were consuming were a more modest $5 each - the same as last year.

We thought it time finally to pay a visit to a casino on St. Martin - our first such adventure in four trips.  Simply because it was handy to Le Montmartre where we had been dining, we ventured forth to the Atlantis Casino.  Our first impression was consistent with what we generally had read about casinos on the island - not much to them - certainly nothing like those we have visited in other locations such as Nassau.  It already should be apparent from our remarks thus far that we're not big gamblers.  But, we'll digress and share a short story with you about Sandra's first exposure many years ago.  We were in the Bahamas and had attended an excellent casino show.  Afterwards, as Sandra studied the various gaming devices with a sense of curiosity and intrigue, Ed procured 5 one dollar coins, handed them to her and said "Have at it."  It took less than five pulls on the slot machine handle before she won a rather considerable jackpot.  Beginner's luck for sure!  Sandra had the good sense to stop at that point and escape with her winnings.  Unfortunately, Ed didn't have the same good sense and proceeded to lose every bit of Sandra's winnings the next evening in high stakes games of blackjack.  Easy come, easy go!  Anyway, once again Sandra walked away a winner from Atlantis.  With more than a little sense of déjà vu and lessons learned, Ed declined to wager away that which she had won.

In terms of "what's happening" including nightlife activities, we noticed there was a new publication available this year:  K-PASA.  It's a weekly guide packed with useful information about entertainment that's available.  Assuming you may be interested in something beyond being a complete recluse in your hotel or villa, we would suggest obtaining a copy of K-PASA early in your trip.

Beaches

This section in terms of what we normally share is pitifully brief which is a reflection of the pitifully small amount of time we were able to spend on this activity - meaning actually lounging on beaches versus partaking of the views of them from the sheltered vantage point of adjoining bars.

We visited Orient, Dawn, Le Galion, and the Grand Case beaches, but managed to enjoy quality time directly on the beach only one day at Orient and another one at Le Galion.  Actually, even that characterization is a little overstated.  We went to Le Galion to see a new beach for us and because local residents were telling us we would find it more sheltered from the very prevailing winds.  We found that to be true with the key words being "more sheltered."  It was still pretty windy at times and the sunshine would come and go.  Sandra did wade out a fair distance in the shallow water in search of fish to feed.

The one day of lounging on Orient was particularly nice with bright steady sunshine and it was fun to watch the various jet skiers, parasailers and kite surfers as they worked their way back and forth in front of us.  However, when Sandra and a newly met friend tried to swim out to the tethered floating trampoline device at Bikini they were both bashed about quite a bit by rough water.  As a result, Sandra suffered her only casualties of the trip - the loss of her hair bunchie that was part of her Venus swimwear outfit and one of the gold shell earrings which was the first jewelry Ed had given her.  Guess that's justification for another visit to DK Gems on our next trip to the island.

Shopping

Yes, as usual, there was lots of shopping done.  We're particularly fond of acquiring jewelry on the island and some select European clothing not customarily available to us in the U.S. - adds some very distinctive touches to one's overall wardrobe.  Of course,  there were other "trinkets" and things purchased including the obligatory T-shirts and such for family and friends.  Both Philipsburg and Marigot are interesting and, for us, always fruitful shopping destinations.

We will note we have the impression that often tourists fail to discover and explore the many interesting shops with quality ware in Marigot, especially along Rue du General de Gaulle, Rue du President Kennedy and the Marina Royale waterfront and alley ways.  We think this may be because many of those shops don't have glitzy storefronts and decorated interiors to which North Americans have been conditioned to be attracted.  A good example, which we've cited on several occasions before, is Coco Island.  It has an extremely plain, unappealing storefront with a small window display.  The interior is small and spartan.  But, Oh, the clothes on the racks are delightful - some very trendy, too much so for our tastes - and we always find some real gems.

Speaking of "gems", we'll begin our shopping chronicle with the most significant expenditure.

DK Gems International, Philipsburg - In order to appreciate our expeditions to DK Gems it's important you grasp the respective roles we assume with each other.  Sandra always says beforehand "I just want to visit with Deepti - I'm not going to buy anything this time."  Ed says "OK, that's a good idea."  We enter the store, exchange our pleasantries with everyone and without looking at anything Sandra sits down and starts talking with Deepti about all manner of things, none of which involves jewelry.  Meanwhile, Ed starts on one side of the store and rapidly scans all the counters and when done in a matter of minutes, interrupts Sandra and Deepti and says "OK Sandra, you need to see ..."  Deepti assembles the items identified for Sandra's inspection and so it goes.  Just thought you needed to understand our little ritual.

Sandra's "I'm not going to buy anything this time" resolve quickly evaporated and hours later, yes - hours, we departed having made some lovely acquisitions.

So, you're wondering what treasures we procured this trip.  Only four things including:  (1) a white gold bracelet holding 475 good quality brilliant cut white and two shades of brown diamonds - a perfect complement to the ring Sandra acquired last year; (2) a yellow gold diamond and opal inlaid bangle bracelet; (3) a matching yellow gold diamond and opal necklace.  The large sections of opal in these latter two pieces exhibit some of the finest, most brilliant color we've ever seen on such stones.  Our G.I.A. appraiser at home was more than a little impressed with them.

The fourth item involved an interesting decision on Sandra's part.  She had a diamond ring she inherited and had never been quite pleased with its very large, overwhelming "boxy" appearance.  After the other items above had been chosen, Sandra asked Deepti's advice on what might be done to improve the appearance of the stones in that ring.  Deepti has an incredible eye for such things and quickly retrieved a few excellent settings for the 3+ carat center stone.  After placing a loose stone similar to Sandra's in each of the settings Deepti had selected, it became obvious which one would be best.  The 3+ carat collection of princess cut diamonds in the new setting chosen were the perfect complement to the center stone.  Deepti is now in the process of preparing a custom designed necklace to incorporate the remaining diamonds from Sandra's original ring.

As always and as inferred in our preceding comments, upon our return home we had all of the pieces appraised, not only for insurance purposes but as a matter of prudence to verify the value received for the prices paid.  Overall, the value of  the entire collection easily exceeded our benchmark minimum expectation of 2x the cost.  The opal pieces proved to be especially good buys with very high multiples of cost to value.

We can only imagine what a visit to DK Gems will be like on our next trip since Sandra can no longer say she's not going to buy anything knowing we've got to replace that gold earring lost at Bikini on Orient.  And Ed's thinking "Oh my goodness, Sandra's going to remember that ring with the 5 carat yellow diamond center stone Deepti showed her just as a matter of interest..."

 

CoCo Island, 14 Rue du General de Gaulle, Marigot - Delightful to visit with Coralie (Coco) Canot again!  Ed had a huge laugh he couldn't contain when, while Sandra was trying some things in the changing room, Coralie was helping another customer, a French one, with a selection that needed a strapless bra which the woman wasn't wearing.  Well, actually, she quite evidently wasn't wearing a bra at all.  Undaunted and, frankly, with savoir faire, Coralie reached inside her own top, deftly removed the one she was wearing and handed it to the appreciative customer to try with the selection.  It was hilarious.

This time we purchased only one outfit - black, very French form fitting pants and a white lace halter style top.  We learned that Coralie's latest collection was being delivered in the near future, but unfortunately our schedule would not allow us to avail ourselves of it.

Monica, 21 Marina Royale, Marigot - Sandra had enjoyed so much the linen wear she had acquired at Monica on our trip the prior year, she was determined to return and purchase a few more matching pieces.  As we walked in the door, Sandrine Doll greeted us with a most expressive "Bon jour! You're back!" and a huge smile.  Then Ed did his normal, rapid inspection of everything in the shop and pronounced "Sandra needs to try this, this, this, this and that" - far more than the few pieces needed to round out her existing wardrobe from Monica.  He then excused himself and headed straight for the nearby corner table at La Belle Epoque and ordered the first of many beers he would consume as Sandra tried and showed various outfits.  Actually, it was rather like a runway fashion show.  Sandra would emerge from the changing room, Sandrine and Jean Christophe who had joined her by then would flutter around Sandra pinning bits and making other adjustments such as rolling shirt cuffs, and then dispatch her outside and watch, holding their hands clasped beneath their chins, as she did her presentations for Ed.  We must say when well learned and applied, one never forgets their training for runway and other fashion model photography no matter how far in the past it might be.  Seated some fifteen feet away, Ed would make almost imperceptible motions with his hand and forefinger that were Sandra's well known cues to turn and move in various ways, including removal of jackets and such.  On occasion he would motion her forward to more closely inspect some aspect of a garment and suggest how it might be altered for a better fit or in some cases why it was not a good choice.  Thus went the next hour or so with Sandra making repeated appearances until all the various possibilities had been shown and selections made.

As Sandra emerged from the shop now back in her original clothes and joined Ed for a much deserved beer, several couples quickly joined us enthusiastically applauding the "fashion show" as they called it.  They had been sitting outside at La Belle Epoque watching and said they were totally enthralled and it had made their afternoon!  They then wanted to know exactly which outfits had been selected because they had been individually "keeping score" and had to know which of them was closest to being correct.  We definitely had a good laugh about that.

Max Mara, 33 Rue du President Kennedy - We rejoined Sandrine and Jean in the shop where they had been packaging the items to be taken away, setting others aside for alterations and tallying the bill - a not inconsiderable sum, but then there a was a fair number of outfits chosen which was far beyond the few matching pieces originally envisioned.  We inquired where we might find some very nice shoes to match the new clothes and without hesitation, Jean replied "Sandrine will take you."  Laden with bags we walked with her as she led us through various twists and turns to Max Mara where she introduced us to the manager and staff.  Not only that, but she insisted on staying to assist with choice of shoes to try and then to help critique them.  Three pair of lovely, just right Italian leather medium height heels in Max Mara's house brand were chosen.

Meanwhile, Ed was wandering around outside the shop where he noticed what he thought was an exceptionally stunning dress with jacket in the display window.  Giving Sandra no option, he insisted she try it.  Absolutely beautiful!  It was a "must have" - no question about it.  You've already seen pictures of it.

Hediard of Paris, West Indies Mall, Marigot - This purveyor of fine, high-end delicacies has moved from a location near the Marina Royale to the West Indies Mall and is close by the elevator doors on the same level as Le Gaïac.  In addition to offering tins and jars and packages of delectable items, they also provide freshly prepared offerings for breakfast and lunch on the premises - not inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination, but well worth a visit.

Sandra's primary objective for our visit was to obtain some of their exceptional foie gras in a form which would travel well on our return trip to the U.S.  As mentioned earlier, with the excellent advice of Lara and Ciro Russo from Spiga a selection was made - 14 ounces of Bloc de Foie Gras de Canard - the variety with the black and gold label on the tin.  So what does such a delicacy from Hediard cost?  Exactly $100.  More as an afterthought than anything else, Sandra also purchased a  jar of Poivres des Tropiques (exotic tropical peppers) - that should add a little spice to something.

L'Occitane, 6 Rue du President Kennedy http://www.loccitane.com/index.asp - This shop is filled with an excellent array of the famous French L'Occitane products many of which can also be found in their boutiques scattered around the world, including upscale locations in the U.S.  We found it a good source from which to acquire gifts for some of our family as mementos of our trip.

Pomme Cannelle, Howell Center, Marigot - This was another of the shops on our pre-trip "to do" list because Sandra wanted more of the Chantelle Osmose undies which work so perfectly with linen wear that she had obtained there before.  We've always found the staff  at Pomme Cannelle to be most helpful even though conversation can be a bit of a struggle and at times downright humorous.  Attempting to describe undergarment needs in an unfamiliar language tends to lend itself to humor.  We do recommend this store which also has a good selection of French lingerie, though certainly not cheap, that is less expensive than some of the specialty shops in the Marina Royale vicinity.

Marlyndy Company, Orient Beach (telephone and fax: 599 54 72396)

On one hand we easily could have addressed this subject in the preceding Shopping section, but on the other we were more interested in highlighting a unique experience and the man behind it - Mr. Luiz Gomes.

Over the years we had read various reports of a vendor of swimsuits and pareos at Orient with all being highly complimentary of the custom made wear available there.  We parked the car in the area  behind Baywatch which we understood to be in the general vicinity of our intended destination and began to wander about the various vendor stalls we saw there.  None seemed to be that which we were seeking and we definitely were beginning to wonder if we were in the wrong place.  But then we saw back across the way in the opposite direction an interesting, bright display of garments floating in the breeze along the sides of a thatched roof building.  As we approached, a gentleman with bronze toned skin, long black hair and a fetching smile greeted us "I think you're looking for me - I've been expecting you all day!"  A little taken aback, we said "Are you Luiz?" to which he responded "You've found me!"

Sandra began to examine his wares and as she moved about, Luiz remarked to Ed with a knowing smile "This one has been a model."  The fabrics were indeed gorgeous and of exceptionally high quality - one example of that being prints on the pareos were on both sides of the fabric.  Luiz soon demonstrated his truly legendary skill for knowing the most flattering style and fit for any female form.  He most assuredly was correct in Sandra's case!  When she was ready to try one of his selections there, of course, was no changing room per se and Luiz happily quipped "Not to worry - this is a nude beach."  She didn't worry and as she shed her clothes and pulled on the bikini, Luiz said again "I know this one was a model" and added "She still can be."  We all laughed and Sandra was quick to respond honestly "Sorry, I'm aged out of that now."

Once the swimsuit selection was made we began to study the fabulous pareos and Luiz interjected "It must be this one" as he pulled out the lovely wrap which coordinated beautifully with what Sandra had just chosen.  No doubt about it - it was perfect.  Then began Sandra's schooling on the proper ways to effectively wear one.  Now who would have thought there could be more to it than tying it above the bust line or folding and securing it around the waist?  It was quite incredible the methods Luiz showed Sandra and with each different one he patiently made her practice over and over until she had it mastered.

Subsequently, Luiz related how many of his swimsuits are custom made for his clients - they visit his shop at Orient where we were, he gives his recommendations for most flattering style, fabric is selected and then he cuts and sews the garments late at night or early the next morning for collection that day when he's back at his shop from 1 - 5pm.  Interestingly, he doesn't take measurements - he just "knows what's needed."  We complimented him on his exceptional collection of material as we studied the swatches from which his customers can choose for their custom suits.  He related that he travels to New York and other such garment centers to find and choose the fabrics he thinks are just right.  He grinned and said "You can see I don't like sad colors."  We also admired his handmade jewelry.  Very unique and the large pendant he was wearing we thought especially so.

We continued to talk with Luiz and to learn more about him.  It's worth noting that given time and one's genuine interest, he can be enchanting and vibrant to say the least - his warmth and sincerity are attributes of his wonderful personality.  In response to our questions he told us he was a Quarany Tribesman from Brazil, the tribe all but extinct now.

Marlyndy?  His company is named after one of his children whose name he wanted to be uniquely beautiful. He said it originated one evening when he was looking at an atlas and slowly moving his finger along the coast of Africa where he found locations named Marly and Lyndy.  Now you know.

Our rapport grew while we chatted and there came a moment when Luiz seemed to hesitate, deep in thought, as if perhaps wondering whether he should share something with these strangers.  Then he revealed an almost mystical side of his persona as his dark eyes peered inside us:  "I must tell you something.  I have dreams and they come true.  Last night I dreamed I  would be visited today by a couple who I did not know, but they knew of me.  Their hearts and minds were full of love and enthusiasm for life."  He paused and then continued "As the hours passed today I thought my dream was wrong until I saw you get out of the car.  Even though you went in the other direction I knew you were the ones from my dream and you would find me.  And here we are together."  Well, that stunned us quite a bit - he obviously was very serious and sincere about what he was sharing.

We exchanged hugs and then we began to walk away with our treasures in hand when Luiz said "Wait, I want you to have this!" as he pulled a brilliantly colored pareo from the line and then handed it to Sandra.  "This is bright and beautiful like you - it's a gift from me."  We protested vigorously and insisted, though his gesture was touching and highly appreciated, that we be allowed to pay for it.  He would have none of that and bid us farewell.

We don't even need to suggest that you should visit with Luiz - we would hope it's patently obvious.  Truly a uniquely rewarding experience with a most unique individual.  Thank you Luiz.  Thank you indeed.

Something New in Grand Case

One rainy afternoon we paid a visit to Cecile Petrelluzzi (sister of Marc at L'Esplanade) at the Perfect Ti Pot, her pottery studio and shop which offers not only her own creations but those of other local artists.  Sandra was in search of a jug to match the bowl acquired on a prior trip and which now resides in our kitchen.  There was no luck there though as always we saw many interesting and imaginative pieces.

Apart from the shopping soiree we wanted to spend time with Cecile and hear firsthand the account of her project in Grand Case of which we had heard snippets from others.  She is having a multi-level facility constructed near the center of Boulevard de Grand Case and it will house a number of artisan shops and a small restaurant.  Completion and full operation are expected by October 2004 - just in time for the high season.  Cecile currently is thinking she wants the name to be "La Petite Favorite" in honor of her mother's childhood home "La Favorite", a plantation on Martinique.  She plans to keep the Perfect Ti Pot primarily as a workshop, but with some wares for sale.  Visitors will continue to be welcome there.

Our impression is Cecile's new venture will be a most interesting and welcome addition to the Grand Case scene.

Massage by Patrick Bourgarel, Masseur Certifie http://www.orientbeach.com/massagepatrick/ 

Prior to our trip Ed, as he had done for many other matters, sought the advice of Kristin at L'Esplanade regarding a massage experience for Sandra.  He was very intent on Sandra being able to relax and unwind from the stress and hectic pace of her normal routine as soon as possible.  After several back and forths with Kristin in which she offered alternatives, it was decided the services of Patrick Bourgarel would be employed on the morning after our arrival on the island.

Patrick, a very pleasant young man, met us at the hotel and we discussed locations for the massage - we had previously concluded outside would be nice, though he does provide the service in the hotel suites or on the amply sized balconies at L'Esplanade.  Prime choices were beneath the huge spreading Tamarind tree, poolside or on the covered terrace above the pool - Sandra chose the latter.  Patrick soon had his professional table in place and questioned Sandra about any special conditions she might have of which he should be mindful.

Soon he was slowly and meticulously rubbing and kneading those tense muscles and occasionally applying small portions of herbal oils.  Extremely professional and quite attentive to whether he was achieving his intended result, which indeed he was.  After an hour and fifteen minutes of Patrick's expert manipulations, Sandra was not coherently relaxed - she was deep in a sound sleep with not a care in the world - something approaching a comma-like state.

Sandra has had various types of massages around the Caribbean and yet another very excellent one later on this trip at CuisinArt's very chic, upscale Venus Spa on Anguilla.  How would she rate Patrick's efforts?  Superb and among the very best.  Quite an ideal way to begin one's island time.

Harmony Nights - Grand Case

What a wonderful, fun experience!  We were able to catch the last of this several week Tuesday night event conceived and sponsored by some of the restaurateurs and hoteliers of Grand Case and others.  It was like a mini-carnival of sorts with the primary street closed to vehicular traffic, bands - some marching, some not - and vendors with various things displayed on tables streetside.  Crowds thronged Boulevard de Grand Case only needing to make way for the troupe of drummers in white slacks and bright blue pattern shirts as they marched along from one end of the boulevard to the other and back again, repeating their procession with happy children following.  The restaurants and shops were bustling with business and unquestionably there was the greatest number of people we've ever seen by a wide margin in Grand Case.  Quite a festive crowd.  We also saw by far the largest number of security personnel - both gendarme and the private "Sheriffs" staff - a welcome sight.

On the marching band's first pass, Ed descended the steps from our exceptional vantage point at Le Cottage and positioned himself mid-street along with others wishing to take photographs.  The band very patiently stopped, and marched and played in place till all who wished had captured the moment.  Later, after dinner, as we wound our way among the crowd on the boulevard, we found the band by the lolos preparing to perform again.  Ed began to take more candid closeups of the members and then saw one of them heading toward him saying "Hey, I want to talk with you."  Thinking to himself "Oh my, have I been a nuisance or offended someone?", Ed was relieved when band member and leader of the group, Patrice Toma, introduced himself and said "We saw you earlier - you're good - not like the others - you know what you're doing.  You must be professional journalists."  We explained our interests in St. Martin of which Patrice was most interested.  He then began helping us organize more pictures.  Extremely nice person.  We learned the band is named La Flamme and is based in Marigot.  If you ever see that name on a venue, be sure to attend - quite something - reminded us a bit of the Junkanoo bands in the Bahamas and their pulsating, hypnotic rhythms.

By all accounts from visitors who attended Harmony Nights and from our discussions with many business people in the Grand Case community, the event was highly successful.  We hope it will be resumed next year and that you will be able to partake - don't miss it if you're on the island when it's in progress.

 

St. Maarten's Carnival Parade

We were especially pleased when we realized our travel dates would allow us to see this very interesting event.  Our greatest concern, since we understood it was well attended and there would be large traffic jams in places, was where we would be able to park and how soon we needed to be there to accomplish that.  Both prior to our trip and after our arrival we solicited opinions from people on the island about these matters.  The consensus seemed to be go early, real early; use the municipal lot; and expect difficult traffic afterwards.  We were quite prepared to do that until Lara at Spiga gave us what proved to be an excellent tip along with a sketch of where we should go.

A bit before noon we descended the new road leading down to Great Bay Beach Hotel and parked in one of its lots across the street.  From there we walked the comparatively short distance to where Long Wall Road / Armenhuissteeg intersect the beginning of Front Street (which was already blocked to vehicular traffic).  As we meandered along Front Street and, in fact, traversed it from one end to the other, we could see vendors putting together tables and such along with sound equipment by the street sides.  It was somewhat eerie seeing at that time so few people, no cars and practically all the shops shuttered for the rest of the day.  It certainly gave us an opportunity to photograph various sections of Front Street in a state seldom seen.

After refreshing ourselves at Taloula Mango's, exploring the vicinity of the Sint Rose Arcade and strolling the new boardwalk, we found the crowds along Front Street were growing quickly and rather substantially.  Laser 101 had a band in place getting the crowd into a very festive mood - well, that and the copious amounts of libations we observed being consumed.

The carnival parade itself was nothing short of fabulous and at times we were of the opinion that the parade participants were enjoying more revelry than the onlookers.  What a sight!  The costumes were fantastic with each troupe having a distinctive theme.  Actually, there was more "stopping" than "parading."  The phalanx would move twenty to thirty feet and then pause for a while as the paraders continued to dance, prance and spin non-stop.  We must say St. Maarteners are hardy sorts indeed - so much energy being expended in the elaborate costumes on the long route in the high heat and nothing but smiles and happiness among them.  There also were huge tractor trailers associated with many of the troupes, gaily decorated and transporting unbelievable arrays of sound speakers often fore and aft, pumping out incredible music with enough decibels to cause not only long term hearing damage but to rattle one's insides.  Those sound systems gave new meaning to "feeling the music."  Oh, and we should add these mega-wattage systems were each powered by good size, onboard electricity generators.  Collectively, they probably could have given GEBE (the utility company) a run for its money.

We slowly walked in the direction from which the parade was proceeding and it still took nearly two hours to see it all from start to finish.  Definitely a most memorable and enjoyable experience.

An Afternoon at La Samanna

In decided contrast to a high energy event such as the carnival parade, we spent one peaceful afternoon at La Samanna enjoying drinks, having lunch sitting by the pool and exploring the beach.  This resort always has puzzled us a bit.  Without a doubt, it's the most expensive on the island, a favorite of celebrities and the well heeled, and frequently receives nice commentary in travel magazines.  Why were we puzzled?  Simply because it didn't "add up" in our experiences there and in those of others who have stayed there and shared their personal observations with us.  We first visited for dinner in 2001 expecting an extraordinary experience.  It was extraordinary - extraordinarily disappointing in terms of both the food and the service.  Subsequently, over the following years we kept meeting people who had stayed at La Samanna, visited with us at or were already familiar with Hotel L'Esplanade and who, without fail, always made the same observation - the accommodations at L'Esplanade were every bit as nice or better.  Yes, that did puzzle us and, frankly, we found it difficult to believe.

So how was our experience the afternoon we visited?  In a word "excellent", but you may be surprised by a few of our comparative observations.

After parking we made our way to the main entrance and went immediately to their very nice bar area which we well remembered.  It's most attractive and at one end provides a glimpse of the adjoining pool area.  Tapestries adorn the ceiling, tastefully done artwork is on the walls and there's a variety of comfortable seating scattered about.  A most pleasant atmosphere.  Service was friendly and all around excellent.

We particularly enjoyed chatting with Orlando that afternoon - a very likeable, personable sort who looked after us well - definitely an asset to La Samanna.  He normally performs the role of bartender, but on this day was host for those partaking of the bar, lunch facilities and the pool.

From the bar we made our way to the dining area on a terrace overlooking the pool and could see the cooks working away at the nearby, large grill section.  Our late lunch was great and again the service was first class - not totally perfect, but well beyond acceptable.  Afterwards as we sat on the pool terrace we had more drinks while we watched the guests swimming, lounging and enjoying cocktails.

On the subject of guests, those that we saw and with whom we interacted during the afternoon, if we might generally summarize, seemed educated, reasonably sophisticated, mannered, unusually well attired both casual and otherwise (nice to see a few gentlemen in the hotel proper wearing jackets) and to be enjoying themselves.  There was nothing ostentatious about those folk, but we did have to contain our laughter with respect to the woman using one of the telephones in the bar to try to arrange a hair appointment.  We inferred from the one side of the conversation we could clearly hear, probably also heard by those outside, she was attempting to arrange a hair appointment at Jacques Dressage, located in the West Indies Mall, Marigot (a very good salon).  She was indignant they didn't remember her from a year ago and weren't willing to cancel some other customer's appointment so she could have her hair done at a particular time.  It was a riot - some people!

An aspect of La Samanna with which we were very impressed was the beach on Baie Longue.  It was totally beautiful and on this visit much larger than what we had observed on aerial photo recons in prior years.  Something else we particularly noticed was the golden color and coarseness of the sand which was in contrast to the more white, powdery texture of that found on the other side of the island.  That in no way is meant to be a "negative" observation - it was just different from that to which we were more accustomed.  It truly was a beautiful setting with the white facade of the hotel on the cliff above gleaming in the sunlight.

We did make a rather considerable mistake on this visit - we let time evaporate to the point when we realized how late it was and we had to hurriedly depart in order to keep another appointment, without being able to tour some of the accommodations at the hotel.  Yes, that was a major and regrettable screw-up on our part because we were keen to see what people had described to us.  Oh well, we'll try again on our next trip!

So what did we observe and experience that didn't particularly appeal to us (other than the obnoxious woman trying to make a hair appointment)?  Two things.  One was the very "ho hum", ordinary pool, a rectangular, plain looking affair that was not especially large.  The second was the landscaping in general - not impressive as we had envisioned.  True enough, it was tidy and pleasant, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary.  Guess we've been spoilt by the grounds at L'Esplanade, CuisinArt and the Westin on Grand Bahama.  Not to be overly critical, we must in all fairness say our continued impression is that La Samanna, though comparably priced, just isn't in the same league as a CuisinArt or Cap Juluca on Anguilla.

We would like to emphasize again we very much enjoyed our short visit to La Samanna and based on that do look forward to trying their restaurant again for dinner and, of course, rectifying our mistake in not touring some of their suites.

St. Maarten Parkhttp://www.stmaartenpark.com/english/home.htm 

St. Maarten Park or as it is more simply known "The Zoo" is located on the backside of the Great Salt Pond on Arch Road in Madame Estate.  You'll likely have no problem finding it - there seem to be directional signs everywhere.

Capybaras, ocelots, tortoises, baboons, bats, caimans, snakes, iguanas, many varieties of birds including peacocks roaming the grounds and much more await your discovery as you wind your way along the paths and through the exhibits in the park.  It's fascinating, it's educational and it's well worth doing because it's an unusual thing to find on most Caribbean islands.  However, you most likely will be disappointed if you require the U.S. type zoo setting with carefully paved areas, gleaming glass expanses for viewing and large exhibits with controlled climates.  This is different and we must say a pleasant change of pace.  It's small, and by that we mean it covers a few acres, it's intimate, and it preserves well its Caribbean setting.  The animals, a surprising variety of them, certainly seem happy enough and well maintained.  We concluded they must be doing something very right when we observed and later learned about "wanna-be" residents who voluntarily appear on their own seeking to join the others.

We were especially fortunate and appreciative to receive an invitation and personal guided tour by Barbara Cannegieter, Board member and public relations officer for St. Maarten Park.  She greeted us at the entrance area and we were soon on our adventure, but not without Barbara apologizing for a knee that was troubling her and which she feared might impede our progress.  Whatever ailment this lady may have had was clearly overridden by her passionate enthusiasm for the Park and to share with us all that there was to see.  She spryly hopped fences here and there, played "catch" with some of the monkeys from St. Kitts while calling them by name, and provided non-stop and much welcomed commentary on all that we saw and some things that weren't so obvious.  It was we who were the laggards, not matching her pace, as we contemplated the many wonders along the pathways, each leading to a new surprise.

It's quite remarkable what has been achieved here and this was all the more apparent as we discussed the history of the Zoo.  Its genesis can be traced many years ago to a small, private menagerie kept in the backyard of a Front Street home.  Tourists were encouraged to visit there for a small fee.  The transition from that inauspicious beginning to its present day state was one marked with many trials and tribulations, with the efforts floundering in debt.  But local supporters, such as Barbara, continued the struggle by forming a non-profit Foundation, building exhibits, adding residents, and doing much more including the recent retention of a professional zoo management group to handle daily operations and build for the future.

At the conclusion of our tour we met Nick Atchison, Manager and Curator of the Park's operations - a very much "hands on" sort of person, who is originally from Australia.  He told us about new exhibits being prepared, the improvements in attendance following some marketing efforts and a new once a week nighttime tour lit by lanterns to allow visitors to enjoy their nocturnal inhabitants.  We had to know and consequently asked about their emergency preparedness plans for such things as hurricanes.  Nick did a good job of explaining them and clearly they had given appropriate forethought to such matters.

We then visited the well stocked and interesting gift shop where we were able to purchase cold adult beverages and with those much welcomed refreshments walked to the Monkey Bar where we seated ourselves at the picnic-like tables.  There we continued to talk with Barbara and Nick, and they shared with us that a number of resorts on the island were starting to have special guest evenings at the Park and that they would operate the Monkey Bar and provide snacks for those in attendance.  Eventually, they hope in the near future, the bar will be put into operation for all visitors to the Park and will serve drinks and light meals.  It certainly was a most pleasant setting in which to do so.

By the way, the wanna-be Zoo resident we saw that day was an Amazon Parrot who had flown in for an audition.  He strutted and chirped and otherwise put on a good show, perhaps mistakenly thinking we were the selection committee which would determine whether he was to have such a fine new home with housekeepers delivering whatever delicacies an Amazon Parrot wants.

We do encourage you to visit St. Maarten Park and enjoy this unique experience while also knowing you're helping to support their worthwhile efforts to preserve wildlife, including their participation as a sanctioned member in international breeding programs.  We think it also appropriate to note that your support is an investment in the children of St. Maarten / St. Martin by ensuring they have the opportunity to see and learn firsthand about some of the other beings with which we share this world.

In addition to providing support by attending the Park, it is possible to make direct donations (non-tax deductible) to the Foundation for general operation and enhancement purposes.  Donors may also earmark funds for specific purposes such as particular exhibits or educational programs.  Donations and inquiries may be directed to:

        St. Maarten Zoological and Botanical Garden Foundation
        c/o Barbara Cannegieter, Public Relations Officer
        6800 SW 40th Street #100-22
        Miami, FL 33155-3708

The Ultralight Experience

Les Ailes de Saint Martin (The Wings of St. Martin) is an ultra light plane operation based at Hotel le Flamboyant, Baie Nettle, which offers two standard tours.  The shorter flight covers the lowlands on the French side and takes about 20 minutes.  The other swings north passing Marigot, Grand Case and around the tip of the island down to the Orient area and a bit beyond.  That route is then retraced back to Baie Nettle with the total flying time being approximately 40 minutes.  Only a single passenger can be accommodated on the plane which flies at speeds of 50 - 60 miles per hour and at altitudes varying from 100 - 500 feet.

Prior to our departure for St. Martin, Kristin at L'Esplanade, knowing our interests in aerial photography and also unique adventures, recommended we consider doing the ultralight.  After our arrival we learned that Gal Bessy, the bartender at L'Esplanade's pool, had done the flight and we listened intently to his descriptions of it - all of which were very fascinating.  We definitely concluded we wanted to try this adventure, but wanted something out of the ordinary routine, something customized which would give us more flexibility to explore areas of particular interest at length and also to take in more sights.  After discussing the matter further with Kristin and her husband, Marc, we prevailed upon Marc to contact the operator of the service to discuss our particular interests and questions, and to negotiate the price, all of which he handled perfectly, as he always does.  The only problem was the weather.  Have we mentioned the weather was being more than a little uncooperative on our trip?  Consequently, it became a day-to-day matter of watching the weather conditions and looking for the right opportunity.

As we made our way to the water sports area of le Flamboyant we could see the bright yellow ultralight resting on its pontoons a short distance from the shore.  We found and introduced ourselves to Nicolas (Nico) Di Stefano, the owner and pilot - a very interesting person.  We reviewed our objectives as we studied together a map of the island.  Ed was to be the first up and Nico helped with his life vest and explained its operation.  Then Ed waded out to the plane and clambered into the passenger seat where Nico belted him in place.  Once Nico was aboard he explained all of the instrumentation of which there was precious little and then began to taxi across the water.  Liftoff powered by the 582cc two stroke 65hp engine was easy, but felt "different" from that to which we are accustomed with land based craft.

We essentially followed the standard long tour route around the northern tip of St. Martin, but with the difference being in those places Ed selected for Nico to make repeated passes at different altitudes.  Pinel and Tintamarre were circumnavigated several times and it was at the seldom seen, rocky backside of Tintamarre that Nico showed Ed where pods of Dolphins are often found.  Along the way a large spotted sting ray and sea turtles were seen and in each case Nico circled slowly above them at a very low altitude.  If you've not done so, it's very hard properly to imagine cruising along at such low speeds.

The landing on Baie Nettle was fun and then it was Sandra's turn.  She wanted a different flight and off they went to see more of the bay and then some of the lowlands.  However, that venture was cut short - you guessed it - a heavy black storm cloud appeared and began rolling into the area.  As they descended, landed and coasted across the water, large drops of rain began falling with increasing intensity.  Though her flight was abbreviated, Sandra was very pleased they had spotted and were able to observe yet another group of very large sea turtles.

As we huddled beneath a large umbrella at one of the tables by the bar and pool, Nico retrieved his laptop and showed us the most remarkable pictures he had made from the ultralight.  Truly exceptional.  On the point of making such pictures, we can say from our experiences that it's a bit of a challenge to capture ones unobstructed by the thin wing struts, but it can be done.  Actually, the struts and a hint of the wing can add interest to such photos.

We asked Nico about his background and he told us that his father was a manager with Air France which explained why he had lived in so many different places.  He was born in Peru where he lived until he was four and then spent the rest of his youth in Algeria, Kenya and France.

Nico began accumulating various flight qualifications and licenses at the age of 14 and at that time was the youngest person in France to do so.  He has been a bush pilot in Africa and also has lived and flown in other countries including the Dominican Republic and Cambodia before settling on St. Martin.  As we sat enthralled with his experiences and obviously great love of nature, it was hard to comprehend how someone only 30 years of age could have done so much.  Makes most of our lives seem quite mundane.

Why has he settled on St. Martin?  "It's civilized and I like the tourists and the nightlife.  It's a good spot to fly with the rich and famous houses, nice beaches, the whales, the dolphins, the turtles and a lot of things to see from the sky."  We had to laugh when he related his experiences of flying at times very close to whales (yes, there are whales that transit close by the island).  "You know, you can get in a big problem too close to a whale [in an ultralight] if he decides to flap his tail."

We often share in our travelogues those unique experiences we think you will enjoy and this most definitely is one we encourage you to try.  We've chartered conventional planes to do similar aerial reconnaissance around St. Martin and can say the ultralight experience is significantly different.

Daytrips to Anguilla and St. Kitts

There are separate reports about the daytrips we did while staying on St. Martin this year.  Click on the links below to read about them:

  Anguilla
  St. Kitts

BullDog in the Evening

Since our visit, BullDog and his family have returned to the USA after some eight years on St. Martin.  He now has the morning talk show, 6:00am - 10:00am, on WOCM-FM 98.1, Ocean City, Maryland.  A live feed can be found here http://www.bulldogradio.com/ 

For those of you not familiar with radio on St. Martin, BullDog had the #1 rated morning program "The Rude Awakening Show" on Laser 101.  So, what was the program like?  The best answer we can give is "Sort of all over the place."  One never knew quite what to expect, especially with BullDog's acerbically quick wit hard at work.  To say there was a lot of spontaneity probably would be the understatement of a lifetime.  There was always talk about local "happenings" whatever they might be, lots of opinions, prank phone calls to unsuspecting folk, calls from listeners, guests that ran the gamut of humanity, weather and news highlights (read from the Daily Herald) and, of course, those infamous hoaxes which at times threw the entire unsuspecting population of the island into a tizzy.  One of his favorites was the flyover of a stealth bomber complete with live reports from the field.  No doubt the school children were appreciative of the diversion as they were assembled on the playgrounds to witness the (non) event.

So what's this gregarious, incredibly funny, fast talking, entertaining, quick witted BullDog individual like when he's not behind the microphone projecting his radio show persona?  We would say gregarious, incredibly funny, fast talking, entertaining, quick witted and more.

Our first live encounter with BullDog was a few years ago when we were invited to be on his show to talk about donations we had made for the benefit of Safe Haven, a shelter for battered women on St. Martin, and our general philanthropic interests.  Since that time we've kept in touch and were delighted to have BullDog and his very beautiful wife, Nancy, join us for dinner one evening.  And a wonderful evening it was.

Well aware of our penchant for proper attire, especially for dinner, BullDog teasingly inquired beforehand if he needed to wear a coat and tie.  Knowing BullDog and his propensity to find the fun in any situation, we immediately had visions of him appearing in coat and tie, with no other encumbrances.  We responded that wasn't needed and anything would be fine as long as most of his body parts, including his personal ones, were covered.  We must say we found him dressed quite tastefully and sartorially correct for the evening: long pants, button shirt and shoes.  Sorry BullDog, there goes your image!

We had barely concluded our greetings and were sharing before dinner drinks on the upper deck of Rainbow Café when BullDog engaged the adjoining table in banter.  The two ladies at that table said they were from Massachusetts and having a girls' night out celebrating their respective engagements.  Without a moment's hesitation BullDog said "Congratulations, I'm sure you'll be very happy together in your marriage."  The uproarious laughter from all around was immediate, except from the two of us - that is until once the "penny dropped" as they say and we understood what BullDog had just done.  Did we mention he's quick witted?  And, bless his heart, he does endure those less so, like us.  And so went the evening with the hours flying by at an incredible pace - good friendship, good fun.

BullDog and Nancy were eager to know of our experiences and related opinions thus far on our trip.  BullDog really laughed when we told him of the one restaurant that definitely would be at the bottom of our rankings.  Choking back the laughter, he said he thought he was the only one of that opinion and related how he had panned the restaurant on his show when all others seemed to be praising it. "I can't wait for you to drop that bomb!"

He went on to say he thought we ought to be guests on his program again and share some of those thoughts.  We declined and indicated we felt our earlier appearance probably had been the most boring interview to which he had ever subjected an audience.  He politely disagreed, but we noticed he certainly didn't argue the point.

Now for some things you might not expect.  The beautiful Nancy, of whom you hear very little, is every bit as fascinating as BullDog, but in a low key, demure way which is a study in contrasts.  She's extremely intelligent, as indeed is BullDog, and has done many interesting things in her life such as when she started and managed her own business in the U.S. and made trips to remote places like Tibet to procure her products.  We particularly were interested in her efforts on behalf of very worthy causes on St. Martin such as Safe Haven where she is a counselor.  She shared some extremely insightful views of the need for outreach programs to deal with the issues of those men whose actions cause the services of Safe Haven to be needed.  Both Nancy and BullDog probed Sandra about her career devotion to philanthropy and helping others, and learned what very few know about her motivations - she felt unusually comfortable sharing that with them.  No, it wasn't all fun and frivolity that evening - there indeed were some very serious and contemplative moments.  Little of it is publicized, but, as we already knew, BullDog also is frequently involved in activities to help others less fortunate.  He and Nancy are very wonderful people.

Subsequent to that evening, we were on Anguilla visiting Bankie Banx at the Dune Preserve and he was delighted to hear we had spent time with BullDog, a good friend of his, and wanted to know all about it.  As we were relating our fun evening, Bankie got that far away look in his eyes, as if remembering something, smiled and then laughed.  "I want you to tell your readers a story about that BullDog."  Bankie related how with BullDog's instigation an impromptu decision was made to do a concert at Loterie Farm on St. Martin, but the problem was it was Easter weekend and with no pre-planning it was a totally mad scramble and an almost impossible task to get the sound equipment and other things needed.  Bankie enjoyed telling us how he persevered and was still trying to get things to work at the concert site even as the scheduled start time passed, including improvised lighting - provided by headlights from cars (if you ever hear Bankie mention his "Hi Beam Concert" - that's the one he's talking about).  He went on to say "There I am bustin' my ass, sweatin' man, and you know where the BullDog was?  That BullDog was out there on the stage walking up and down tellin' de audience he don't know what's goin' on, it's not his fault and he nuttin' to do with it.  Yeah, dat's what that BullDog was doing - just like some damn politician."  Bankie had us totally in stitches.  Does the story Bankie related sound like BullDog?  Yup!  We love him.

Good luck to you, BullDog, in your new venture!

The Tall Ship and Other Things

Jan Roosens is a handsome, unassuming sort of person whose deportment gives not a hint of his far flung business interests and affiliations, many of which are concerned with providing services for the mega-wealthy.  In conversation he nonchalantly mentions names in the context of explanations that many would recognize and some many would not such as the captain of Paul Allen's yacht, Tatoosh, but never qualifies who they are.  Though he has lived in a number of places and regularly frequents the French Riviera, his home base has been St. Martin for the past 14 years.  His Belgian origin still shows itself in his mild accent which simply adds to his charm, of which he has a considerable amount.  He and his wife, Veerle Rolus (it's a Belgian custom for the wife to retain her maiden name), both have a great love of the sea which apparently has been passed on to at least one of their daughters who currently is in the final stages of completing the necessary voyages for her qualification as a transoceanic captain.

We first became acquainted with Jan some time ago when we contacted AeroPhotoCarib

From that beginning our relationship grew and Jan agreed to provide high resolution photos which could be the basis for additional and much better panoramas of the type we previously had produced for key points of interest such as the one for Orient Beach.

One of our planned objectives for this trip was to participate in an AeroPhotoCarib flight and subsequently provide what we thought would be an interesting account in this travelogue.  Have we, per chance, mentioned what the weather was like on this trip?  Needless to say, that plan didn't materialize.

In the meetings we had with Jan on this trip we quickly learned that he had some most interesting insights, which he shared, about tourism on the island.  Among those was an observation, well more than an observation because he elaborated at length, that we heard frequently from various business people, officials and others with a vested interest in tourism.  There is an increasingly significant concern, even among those who prosper as a result, that the island is rapidly becoming simply a transit point for the more affluent traveler.  They arrive on their private planes and yachts, and then are quickly whisked away to other destinations such as St. Barths.  That was not always the case.  But, it's not just a concern specifically related to the exceptionally well heeled travelers.  There is a perception that more and more "budget conscious" tourists are arriving for stays on the island and also that a disproportionate amount of funds are being directed to attracting cruise ships and creating the infrastructure needed for such.  Jan agreed there was a significant risk that a disproportionate number of tourists spending less and less per capita could lead St. Maarten / St. Martin into the type problems Grand Bahama now has as a result of such.  This is probably a good point, while on this topic, for us to interject some comments made to us by a respected native of the island.  He emphasized his considerable distaste for and concern about those tourists who seemed to think, as he put it "This is Daytona Beach."  He drew the analogy further by saying "You read their accounts of their visits to my island and you don't know whether they've been here or at Daytona and maybe ate at a few restaurants with French sounding names."

Interesting thoughts, but we've veered away somewhat from our intended subject matter.

As we mentioned, Jan and Veerle love the sea and have sailed extensively throughout the Caribbean among other places around the world.  In fact, Veerle is Principal of the Maritime School of the West Indies http://www.mswi.org/ which is based at Port de Plaisance.

In one of our meetings Jan was eager to share information about their latest project involvement which concerns the creation of a 200 foot schooner - a tall ship - to be named the Netherlands Antilles.  It will be built in Holland and subsequently will be used as a training vessel for those attending the Maritime School.  An interesting point of the concept is that the ship will be outfitted with some luxury cabins and will be available for charter in conjunction with the school's purposes.  We might note that Jan has prior experience with major ship building efforts and in his unassuming manner remarked this one "Presents no special challenges in its construction - just the need for careful planning and oversight."  By mid-year he is to be in Holland working with the naval architects and engineers to complete the detailed specifications, with actual construction to commence soon afterwards.  We asked what a venture of this nature might cost "Only $30 million or so."  The following morning we found the first public announcement of the project featured in an article on the front page of The Daily Herald.  It certainly is receiving some favorable press.

At a dinner meeting as guests of Jan and Veerle several days later, they shared with us a photo that some of our readers might recognize.  It's one of a yacht that their company provided BankAmerica for a print ad targeting high wealth individuals that's currently being seen in the U.S.  At the end of dinner we asked to be allowed to pay for the wine or cover the tip which they, of course, declined.  So instead we handed them a $100 bill and said "Well, then please accept this as a donation for the tall ship."  Jan laughed and said we had the honor and distinction of being the first donors.  Then he grinned and said "Now we've got only a few more million to go."

We suspect you'll be hearing more about this effort.

Office du Tourisme de Saint Martin

Often when you first see someone, even before they've spoken, your mind instinctively  forms an impression of what they may be like.  Confident, friendly, expressive, passionate, a lover of life - those were our initial and subsequently proven correct impressions of Roméo Fleming, President of the French side tourism office.  As guests of Roméo and the Office du Tourisme we welcomed the opportunity to explore important perceptions of developments affecting tourism on St. Martin; to learn of tourism focused programs, current and future; and to identify some of their principal concerns.

We wasted no time moving to a subject of which very few tourists are aware.  In a referendum on December 7, 2003 the voters of St. Martin overwhelming approved Article 74 which severs governmental connections that existed with Guadeloupe.  Under the French overseas governmental structure St. Martin was a Commune of the Department of Guadeloupe, but now it will become a Collective when Article 74 becomes fully implemented over a transition period.  In simple, generalized terms this means St. Martin will be independent of Guadeloupe, affiliated directly with France and may chart its course with respect to local matters, including the right to enact regulations and laws pertaining to them.  Matters of national interest such as civil rights, criminal and electoral law, justice, foreign affairs, defense, safety and the monetary system remain the responsibility of the French State.  So what does all of this mean as far as impact on tourism?  Roméo, a strong supporter of Article 74, indicated it would allow St. Martin, among other things, to customize and better control regulations pertaining to the local environment, determination and use of various taxes, business and public practices, and land utilization.  That's a short list of the things that will be affected.  The typical tourist is unlikely to perceive any near term specific changes, but rather an evolutionary one which better reflects St. Martin's local perceptions and preferences.  When talking about the transition Roméo said he expects it to be comparatively smooth, but acknowledged there would be special challenges.  Laughingly, but in a serious vein, he remarked "You know St. Martin has no jail and we don't think Guadeloupe will appreciate us continuing to ship our criminals there."

Perhaps hinting at things to come, but certainly articulating the current official view, he spoke of the need to encourage private rather than government investment in facilities and infrastructure for tourism, while at the same time giving a special emphasis to protecting the environment and encouraging the type of tourism they favor.  He went on to say their objectives were: not to encourage mass tourism; to avoid too rapid development without appropriate infrastructure to support it; and to discourage construction of "huge" hotels.  Roméo emphasized above all else it was "Imperative to recognize and maintain the social values, customs and integrity of St. Martin" when meeting the needs of and for tourism.  "It's an important matter of achieving an appropriate balance."  He clearly wants to see a close, mutually respectful and appreciative relationship between the people of St. Martin and their visitors.  We'll interject at this point that if, as you read this, you find yourself thinking these comments are just nice sounding platitudes, we would say you are wrong.  There was no doubt in our minds of the earnest sincerity and conviction of what we heard, and it was the basis or guiding premises for actionable plans.

It also is worth noting that as our discussions ranged over many topics a recurrent theme was the intent to more rigorously regulate and enforce protection of the environment.  High on that list of concerns was the cessation of pond and marsh fills.  We also learned about studies to ensure the preservation and proper use of the official marine reserve in the Baie de L'Embouchure area (le Galion and Coconut grove).  He does anticipate that eventually there may be some form of carefully controlled eco-tours made available for the mangrove swamps located there.

Also discussed were perceptions of cooperation with Dutch Sint Maarten.  The message was evident enough - they want and seek to achieve enhanced cooperation, particularly with regard to immigrations, customs and the environment.  Roméo was not shy in indicating the special difficulties both sides of the island face with respect to illegal immigrants and the many social and other problems they create.  Clearly, it is a matter of high concern and one we suspect will receive increasing attention.

We heard about quite a few current and planned programs in which the Tourism Office was instrumental - in fact, too many to enumerate here.  But typical is one we subsequently read about in The Daily Herald in which a special observance of "Tourism Week", May 12 to 23, was being used to "create a greater level of awareness among the population on the importance of tourism and its contribution to the local economy."  Special town meetings were being held, stands set up to distribute relevant literature, and presentations made in the schools.  It certainly seemed extremely well organized and on target.  Again, we found that typical of the well conceived, important activities the Tourism Office is pursuing.

The last major subject of consequence on which we deeply probed was the matter of crime and its impact on tourism.  We greatly admired Roméo's straightforward candor as he addressed the issue and acknowledged its importance.  The most frequent problem for tourists by far is theft, especially of things from automobiles.  While noting the high involvement of "illegals" (illegal immigrants), he in no way excused the behavior of St. Martin people engaged in such acts.  He noted that more has to be done to stop what some term a cottage industry on the island.  He surprised us by saying that they do on occasions conduct "sting operations" to apprehend those engaged in such activities.  Roméo indicated that with respect to crime and tourists one of the biggest challenges faced is the gendarmes (we told you he was being exceptionally candid).  He explained they are sent to St. Martin for a tour of duty that is only three months and that frequently their English communication skills are very poor.  As a consequence they are never sufficiently integrated into the community and usually only as they begin approaching the end of their tour have they developed awareness of how best to be effective.  Especially because of the language barrier, many English speaking tourists feel unable to have problems they may encounter properly addressed in a professional manner, i.e. timely, with compassion and understanding, and with demonstrable results.  Roméo offered no immediate solutions, but we had no doubt that the matter troubles him considerably, that he knows the importance of it and that he would like to help find a means to improve the situation.  Frankly, we'll be surprised if some greater effort is not forthcoming to help deal with this matter.

At the conclusion of our long dinner meeting, Roméo graciously thanked us for our efforts on behalf of St. Martin and for affording him the opportunity to share his perceptions while enjoying "a most sociable evening."  Indeed, it was a sociable evening, though it was filled at times with intense discussion of significant matters.  We are the ones who are tremendously appreciative of the hospitality extended and the opportunity to gain insight to the important role and objectives of the Office du Tourisme Saint Martin under the leadership of Mr. Roméo Fleming.  We'll close by saying they certainly shall have our support in terms of some assistance and consultation they've requested as they move forward with their various programs.

Odds and Ends

These are just a collection of a few miscellaneous experiences, thoughts and observations we want to share with respect to the trip.

Village d'Orient keeps growing and growing.  We assume it won't eventually encroach on the Club Orient property,  though it's definitely moving in that direction.  Thanks to a kind invitation we received at L'Esplanade from Frank and Anna Young, we visited for cocktails at the townhouse where they were staying in Village d'Orient.  That was our first opportunity to see and explore one of the units which we found to be very nice.  On another day our explorations around the development revealed the beach access area at Hotel Alamanda was much improved - definitely more tidy and now attractive.  Thanks go to Jim Ruos of Caribbean Islands Travel Service http://www.info-res.com/cits/ for communicating our concerns about this last year to appropriate management at Hotel Alamanda.

It must have been mating season or some special event for the waterfowl visiting the salt pond at Grand Case.  Incredible ruckus early morning and late evening for about five consecutive days.  Maybe they were just tourists of the feathered variety.

Given sufficient rain, it is truly amazing how vigorously some plant life on the island will grow.  It goes without saying, we saw a lot of growth!  In all seriousness, we observed some of the foliage beneath our balcony at L'Esplanade increase two feet in height in just under three weeks.

We don't always apply the good advice we try to share with others.  One such recommendation is to be totally familiar with a new camera and not be trying to learn about it while on a trip.  That's a recipe for disaster.  Indeed, we found ourselves fumbling about at times and resorting to the manuals for the new digital camera and data storage device we took with us on this trip.  One morning in particular, Ed thought he was going to have heart failure when it seemed he had lost days' worth of pictures that had been downloaded to the standalone disk drive unit.  After about an hour of panic it was determined he was using the wrong method to locate the files and everything really was OK.  Learn to use your new equipment before you take it on a trip.

We were surprised at the number of people we met on this trip who told us they had one or more complete copies of our St. Martin travelogues with them and also printouts of the Orient Beach and Dawn / Oyster Panoramas.  We didn't ask how many ink cartridges and reams of paper they must have consumed in printing them.

Conclusion

We trust we have accomplished our objectives which have been to share our particular experiences and perspectives with you in a detailed and, hopefully, well communicated manner that some of you will have found useful or entertaining or thought provoking.  As you've noticed, we did endeavor to share more depth about some of the individuals with whom we interact.

Now that it's all said and done, do you think we had a good time?  No, we didn't.  We had a fabulous time - it was a most wonderful trip to St. Martin.  We've joked a lot about the unusual weather we encountered, but the fact is the island has so much diversity in what it offers that it really wasn't an impediment to enjoying ourselves.

Just as a standalone observation or maybe we should term it a "prediction", contrary to the belief that the distinctions between the Dutch and French sides will become even more blurred and the experiences there more homogenized, we believe the differences will become more pronounced, especially as they chart what seem to be very different directions in terms of objectives for tourism and their respective concerns or lack thereof for preserving their social values and institutions.  It should prove to be interesting.  We don't by any means think that will be a bad thing.  If anything, it will enhance further the diversity of experiences to be enjoyed on the island.

We do have a concern as we contemplate future visits.  Like so many, we find ourselves irresistibly drawn back to St. Maarten / St. Martin, but in our case it means we're not exploring the yet unexplored destinations in the Caribbean.  Quite a predicament ... we shall see.

Thank you for taking the time to share in our thoughts and experiences, and for your continued support and encouragement.

                                                                                       With sincere regards,

                                                                                        Ed and Sandra                                                                                           EandS@carolina.rr.com

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