Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Friendly Island - St Martin/St Maarten

Christmas Tree of island driftwood
Roy & I wish y'all a Merry Christmas and a New Year that exceeds your wildest dreams, including a Caribbean vacation! (hint, hint)

One of the lift bridges into the lagoon
We did make it to St Martin as planned on Nov 13th, crossing the Anagada Passage in an over night trip from the north end of Virgin Gorda, BVI. We left around 2pm and arrived next morning about 9:30am after an easy motorsail. It's about 95NM and we had waited for mild weather and a relaxation of the trades as we’d been told that this could be a tricky passage. It’s basically in the Atlantic and winds and currents kick up between the islands. But, our only challenges were the mini-cruise ships that were everywhere. Cruise ships have so many lights aboard that you can’t see the green(starboard) or red(port) light or even distinguish the bow and stern lights from the thousands of lights that they use to light up the ship. This makes it extremely difficult to tell the direction of travel. Then when they stop, mid-passage, to shoot off fireworks, as one did, things really get confusing. Of course, Roy is great and uses our radar to the max to figure it out. I, on the other hand, get exhausted from worrying and just go to sleep. 

All in all it was fine and we arrived in Simpson Bay on the Dutch side just a little bleary eyed. We cleared in and went through the lift bridge to spend our first week in the lagoon, which is shared by both countries. This is a great island, only 37 square miles and yet it contains two countries! The Dutch (Sint Maarten) and French (St Martin) decided to share the space and quit wrecking havoc on each other back in 1648. A quaint story tells of how they decided to divide the island. Supposedly a Dutchman and a Frenchman stood back to back and raced around the island. The area each covered would belong to his respective country. As the Frenchman was faster the French side is larger.

Sint Maarten is part of the Netherlands Antilles while St Martin is a départment of France (like Hawaii is a state of the US). Today tourism is the backbone of the island’s economy. The French side is very French in style with small streets and little shops, slightly gritty but with wonderful bakeries, cafes and restaurants. The Dutch side is open to large cruise ships, big resorts, casinos and even some fast food spots. But both sides have beautiful beaches and friendly people.

The island was originally sighted on Nov 11, 1493 by Columbus on his 2nd journey to the West Indies. He named it Isla de San Martin after St Martin of Tours. He never landed and for many years the Spanish ignored the little island. But the Dutch found it a convenient stop between their other new world possessions and founded a settlement in 1631. There were rich salt deposits on the islands, so the Dutch East India Company started salt mining operations. French and British settlements also sprang up and, of course, this led the Spanish to take a second look. The Eighty Years War between Spain and the Netherlands made the Spanish eager to retain control but after the war ended they decided they didn't want it after all and handed it to the Netherlands. Again Dutch and French settlements sprang up and in 1648 they divided the island between themselves.

Like other West Indies islands a massive number of slaves were imported to create a plantation economy and cultivate cotton, coffee, tobacco and sugar. The Dutch had Fort Amsterdam but the French needed a fort also to protect itself from the British and other pirates. Near Marigot, capital of French St Martin, Fort Luis was built overlooking the harbour. When the British ships came, hoping to steal the settlement’s stores of coffee beans, a battle took place and the British were routed and "not one coffee bean was touched!"

St Martin was a tough island for a plantation economy. Rainfall is in short supply and the soil is thin. Lack of rain would help the island later for tourism but then it was ruinous for plantation owners. When slavery was abolished in 1848 for the French and 1863 for the Dutch, the plantation economy collapsed. Salt mining, bananas, fishing and subsistence agriculture became the new reality for the island’s residents. In 1939, looking for ways to help its economy the Dutch declared Sint Maarten a duty-free port and by the 1950s was focusing on tourism. It took the French another 20 years but they followed suit. 

 Simpson Bay Lagoon is home to many cruiser residents who reside at anchor. It has marinas lining the sides for mega-yachts. Anything you need done to your boat is available here. There are two big ship chandleries, both bigger than our West Marines. This is a comfortable island with a morning net at 7:30am, Ch 10 on VHF radio. It's run by a former cruiser and his wife. He’s known locally as Shrimpy and has the best laundry on the island plus can help you locate anything you need. There are two cruisers' bars in the lagoon, Lagoonies near Island Water World and Barnacle Bill’s on the other side. Another popular water side restaurant for cruisers is Pineapple Pete’s and then there’s the St Martin Yacht Club right by the bridge. When you come through the bridge there’s always someone at the club waving a welcome. It’s a very friendly place!

Full Moon over Marigot
From the beginning we could see the results of hurricane Gonzalo back in Oct. Many, many boats are de-masted and damaged. We’ve heard that over 30 boats sunk in the lagoon alone. There are boats of all sizes washed up and damaged on beaches. The storm rapidly intensified as it left Antigua (about 100 miles South) so no one had time to prepare. It was supposed to be a tropical storm and instead was a strong hurricane. Even the rescue boat was sunk!

The day after we arrived so did the “Christmas Winds”, strong trades seen in the Caribbean in the winter months. The wind was averaging 20 to 23kts with gusts as high as 30. But after a week in the lagoon we were itching to move on to prettier sights and had already discovered that we liked Marigot more than Cole Bay and Sandy Ground which are the towns around Simpson Bay Lagoon. Taking advantage of a day when the trades were supposed to abate (ha!) we sailed the 15NM around the West end of the Island and re-anchorded in Baie de Marigot. It was a brisk sail to say the least and we put out both anchors when we arrived. 
Charming Marigot
But we do love Marigot. It has a Bazaar on the waterfront and markets on Wednesday and Saturday, plus a boulangerie for fresh baguettes and croissants.

Sunset in Grand Case - see the plane coming in.
Luckily the winds did indeed abate for the Thanksgiving weekend and we sailed over to Grand Case which is two bays North. Grand Case is picture perfect and the gastronomic epicentre of St Martin. A long curving beach with a good dinghy dock welcomes sailers and it's fun to watch the charter boats come in every evening, drop anchor, get the guests over to a restaurant and then leave us to enjoy the sparkling waters all alone the next day.

Thanksgiving was also our anniversary (40th, if anyone's counting) so we arranged an evening eve of champagne and foie gras watching the sunset for the big day. Then the next night we chose Ocean's 82, an elegant and highly acclaimed restaurant that overlooks the anchorage, for our big date! We went in at sunset to watch the sun go down and lights of Anguilla come up while enjoying an amazing meal with great service and ambience.
At Ocean's 82 (best of all they made us look like stars)
Fine wine and raw oysters from France!

Two friends happy to be together!

A few days later found us back in Marigot preparing for guests. We are still thrilled that Ted, Louana and Monica Frois came to spend Ted’s 70th Birthday with us. We had time to really explore the islands with them. Anguilla (British), St Martin and St Barths (French) are all within 20 miles of each other which makes passage between the three an easy 1/2 day sail. 

Their first day we spent discovering that most restaurants close on Sunday in Marigot but we were still able to make the climb to Fort Luis and enjoy the view.

The Frois family at Fort Luis
Marigot Harbor from Fort Luis

Next day we sailed over to St Barths for a couple of days to experience the high life in the most elegant of the islands. The shopping was AMAZING!!! The mega-yachts eye popping.
On the streets of St Barth's - so many bags Roy has to wear my hat!
This one has a 40 ft sailboat and 40 ft speedboat aboard!

St Barth's Harbour
Monica as our St Barth's model

In Philipsburg

Then a romp of a sail bringing us  to Philipsburg, capital of Dutch Sint Maarten, had us all glad to drop anchor. We revived with my version of Belize's "traditional dinner" of stewed chicken, rice and beans with potato salad. More shopping in the cruise ship town and then drinks and dinner on the beach looking at a marvellous sky. Next morning we were gifted a double rainbow! 

Sandy Isle
laid back - Road Bay, Anguilla

Our fearless Capt Roy

 A couple of days later we sailed over to Anguilla, the English island that supposedly is home to many celebrities (that we didn’t see). One of our most idyllic stops was in Anguilla at Sandy Isle. We stopped to swim and grill hamburgers and found the perfect island! Ashore in Road Bay, where you clear in, we were pleasantly surprised as the guidebooks had led us to believe that fashion laws ruled. Instead we found a laid back beach with bars and restaurants open to the sound of the surf. No fancy beach shirts (or shoes) needed. Our visit to Prickly Pear was not so idyllic. Prickly Pear is another offshore island off Anguilla. The wind picked up after we arrived making our dinghy ride to the beach on the North side of the island "eventful". Getting us ashore was immediately followed by getting us back in the dinghy to get past the surf line. We were thankful for the kindness of strangers and our Captain. 

Ted's birthday was fast approaching so we headed back to Grand Case in St Martin. A pleasant downwind sail was followed by a snorkelling trip and Ted really got the prize when he spotted a sea turtle. We again chose Ocean's 82 for a grand celebratory dinner which started with champagne at sunset aboard Wahoo and ended with a round of some amazing little rum drink that the restaurant offered as a digestive. How we managed to get back in the dinghy and back aboard Wahoo is part of the wonder.
Ted and a couple of his groupies.
Before we knew it the time had passed and we were wishing our friends a fond, if sad, farewell. We always learn something new from our guests and from Ted I discovered the secret to discovering great beach bars. His advice: “It’s like pornography - when you see it you’ll know”. And as he led us to many wonderful bars and exemplary restaurants I intend to follow his advice from now on!!

Relaxing in the cockpit - just what you want on a Caribbean vacation!