Sometimes everything just comes together to make an island landfall the perfect experience. We approached St. Martin in an absolute torrential tropical downpour. We had sailed overnight from Barbuda – leaving at midnight to arrive in the day. The night was a rollicking sail with nice strong winds from behind and we flew along at over 8 knots.
Then, as quickly as it had come, it moved off, and the sun started to shine as we made our way up to Marigot in St. Martin gleaming wetly and looking like a little French town in the tropics…which, in fact, it is Martin is. Lying on the French side of this split nation (half Dutch and half French) it is a very popular stop for sailors in the Caribbean. The Dutch side is a duty free haven to provision and outfit the boat. Over the years, the marine service industry in St. Martin has grown in sophistication to that it now rivals anywhere we have been in the world.
The French side has some of the best French pastry shops we have seen, great restaurants and a very French euro feel. The Dutch side offers excellent shopping and the winding roads into the main cruise port fairly heave with traffic seemingly all day. But you can still find wonderful quiet beaches and lots to do.
But probably the main reason St. Martin has developed into such a sailors Mecca is the lagoon in the centre of the islands. Simpsons Bay can be reached from either side but boats primarily come in at the lift bridge on the Dutch side. The protected lagoon is one of the best and most protected harbours in the Caribbean. In the last few years the mega-yacht scene has really taken off here and now boasts a couple of marinas just packed with mega-yachts. We took our dinghy through the harbour to the dock at Budget Marine Chandlery and that ride is an eye-opener. In these marinas, a 100-foot yacht is small change. I would estimate over 100 yachts exceeded that size and are all stern to the dock, crews scrubbing and polishing what must amount to more than 1 billion dollars worth of boats.
We loved our time in St. Martin. So, to ensure you do too, we picked our top ten favourites to recommend to you.
1) Order a pint at the Sunset Beach Bar and wait for the planes to come in. Princess Juliana Airport can accommodate all jets including 747s but the runway barely fits. The downwind end is just 40 meters from on the beach. And just next to the end of the runway is the bar. So you get a rare chance to watch aircraft coming in over the beach so low you wonder if someone tossing up a beach-ball might have it sucked into the engines. The bar posts a schedule for which planes are coming (near a sign that proclaims topless women drink for free) so you can plan for the planes. The highlight is when a 747 trundles down to the beach – turns and runs her engines up prior to take-off. Crazier beachgoers stay there are wait to be blown right off the beach into the water in what must be category 5 hurricane force winds. 50 meters away at the bar you don’t feel a thing. But, do stay at the bar and avoid the beach.
2) Visit St. Martin during the Heineken Regatta. Sign up to crew or jump on a spectator boat. This is one of the premiere regattas in the Caribbean and a great way to see the island. The race takes place over a few days – stopping in various ports. Every day ends in a fun-filled post-regatta party not to be missed. If your own boat isn’t there, you can easily charter one to enter the race. If you don’t want ot sail, you can still enjoy the night life.
3) Indulge in a pastry and cappuccino at Sarafina’s on the waterfront in Marigot.
4) Tour Simpsons Bay lagoon and check out the mega-yacht scene. If not on a boat, walk the docks or take a water taxi ride.
5) Shrimpy has been helping out visiting sailors for years and his bar on the Dutch side of the lagoon is well worth a visit. Go at happy hour for the very best value.
6) Check out the chandleries: Budget Marine and Island Water world are both world class chandleries with excellent prices. If you can’t get what you want in St. Martin, you probably don’t need it!
7) Zip over to Anguilla. It’s a day trip from St Martin to the low quiet island and a total contrast to busy St. Martin.
8) Dine in Grand Case. A few miles north of Marigot is this small waterfront town that stretches along the beach and has a divine selection of restaurants offering both French and local cuisine, many with beautiful waterfront views.
9) Drive across the international border. This small island is politically split between French and Dutch sides. Signs at the border announce you have entered the other country. No customs, formalities or guards. Just drive over. You will notice a distinct difference in the quality of the roads and use of signage. Crossing the border with a boat is much more complicated. Leave it on either side and rent a car.
10) Grab dinner at a Lo-Lo. Local women cook island specialties at low local prices. We had fabulous food and met some of the friendly locals at Lo-Los in both Marigot and Grand Case. I’m sure there are more waiting to be discovered.