Exploring Sint Maarten/Saint-Martin

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 57 of the June 2017 issue.
Left: Dining at the lolo Sky’s the Limit in Grand Case, Saint-Martin. Right: A smoking oven in use at Sky’s the Limit. Photos by Randy Keck

Exploring Sint Maarten/Saint-Martin

(Second of two parts)

On our March 2017 visit to the Caribbean island of St. Martin, comprising the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten and the French Saint-Martin, my wife, Gail, and I had to choose how best to explore the island.

Touring options

Because of the traffic gridlock resulting from the Heineken Regatta, taking place during our entire stay, we opted not to rent a car. This proved to be a wise decision. Other options included taxis, local buses (most of which were in the form of 10- to 12-seat passenger vans) or an organized tour. Over six days, we experienced all three modes of travel. 

Taxis were necessary for our airport/hotel transfers, especially since we were not traveling light. A transfer cost $25, late night, and $20 in daytime. 

When we undertook a day excursion to visit the outdoor Saturday market and sample French pastries in Marigot, the capital of the French side of the island, we chose to go by bus (van) with the locals for $2 per person in each direction, or one-fifth the cost of a taxi making the same trip. 

A smoking oven in use at Sky’s the Limit. Photos by Randy KeckA smoking oven in use at Sky’s the Limit.

On our return from Marigot to Philipsburg, we hopped off the bus at the large Le Grand Marche supermarket at the edge of town. Seeing where the locals shop and the range of products is usually culturally revealing. In truth, gourmet cook Gail was also looking for deals, especially on local spices and island condiments, to supplement her already acquired cache from the outdoor market.

We departed Le Grand Marche too bag-heavy to continue by a local bus that would get us only within a 10-minute walk of our hotel. This time, the $10 taxi ride to our front door was a very good value, only $6 more, total, than the bus. 

The primary issue with using the buses is determining the locations of the bus stops, where, on arrival, you flag down the first bus that is showing your desired destination in its front window. 

Be advised: the buses can get quite packed, especially if you’re traveling across the island. For us, however, a little canned-sardine time traveling with the locals is a worthwhile cultural experience. 

Foodie tour

Perhaps our week’s most entertaining experience was provided by Flavors of St. Martin (phone, in the US, 855/543-9849, stmartinfoodtours.com) on their 4½-hour “Culinary Road Trip.” 

This foodie bonanza included tasting stops at five restaurants on both the Dutch and French sides of St. Martin, with our guide, Randy, imparting pearls of island history and lore along the way.

Our meeting point and first tasting was at the Amsterdam Cheese & Liquor Store in Philipsburg, where we sampled several fine Dutch cheeses, paired with excellent wines, while learning about the processes involved in making Dutch cheeses. 

A vendor extracts sweet juice from sugarcane at the Marigot market — Saint-Martin.

After crossing over to the French side, we disembarked at the open-air Paradise View Crêperie/Restaurant, on a hill overlooking beautiful Orient Bay. Wonderful hot, fresh crêpes were on offer along with an unusual but refreshing hard-cider type of grog. The galette (buckwheat crêpe) with a savory mushroom filling was one of my two favorite tastings of the day. 

Continuing on to the culinary beachfront village of Grand Case, we stopped at Sky’s the Limit, a favored lolo (rustic creole restaurant with inexpensive food), to sample traditional island favorites, including smoked ribs, steamed-then-smoked chicken, johnnycakes, plantains, coleslaw and perhaps the best potato salad I have ever tasted. 

Sky has a definite cult following, with a constant stream of repeat diners. Considering its trifecta of food, value and entertaining staff, it was easy to understand why. 

Completely switching gears, we took a short stroll up the street to  L’Escapade, a fine French restaurant, where we sampled three intriguing handcrafted rum infusions.

Arriving in Marigot, the largest town on the French side, our group ducked into Sarafina’s, regarded by many locals as the best French bakery in town. 

Samplings of traditional pastry bites were quite good, but, at that point, Gail and I were lusting for an almond croissant accompanied by a double-shot, wakeup cappuccino, a craving that was satisfied on a second visit to Sarafina’s on a day trip to Marigot the following day. If we resided within walking distance of Sarafina’s, it would necessitate a lot of extra time at the gym.

The French bakery Sarafina's in Marigot, Saint-Martin.

Our culinary journey concluded back in Philipsburg, where a recovery nap on the beach beckoned. 

Gail and I felt the tour was a highlight of our island stay, revealing much of the culture of the French side, and, at $119.99 per person, it was a good value. On their day tours, Flavors of St. Martin can accommodate most dietary restrictions with advance notice. 

Summing up

In regard to flights to St. Martin, I was pleasantly surprised to score AAdvantage®-miles seats during the high season, December-March. 

Mileage seats on flights to the Caribbean are, of course, easier to obtain in the shoulder season and even more so during the summer season, June-September. There are many exotic Caribbean destinations, including some, such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, where few Americans tread and French language and culture prevail.

If we had had another day or two on St. Martin, we likely would have included a snorkeling experience and possibly, for me, a dive. We also may have opted for Flavors of St. Martin’s “Philipsburg Foodie Walking Tour,” since our in-town wanderings had not revealed much of its soul.

Cheese tasting at the Amsterdam Cheese & Liquor Store in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten.

Visiting Caribbean islands is all about priorities, and in the case of Sint Maarten/Saint-Martin, there is no shortage of exploring options away from the beach. F

You may reach Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350, randykeck@yahoo.com.