St. Maarten: Seeking thrills and places to chill

12/07/2013 12:00 AM

12/05/2013 3:03 PM

With my face pressed against the glass by my window seat, the action below looks like it could be an episode from a TV reality show on extreme plane spotting. Coming in for a landing at St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport, we’re flying so close to Maho Beach that I can count the aviation enthusiasts — at least two dozen of them — waving wildly while snapping what must be the coolest vacation photos ever.

My seatmate, who is a St. Maartener, tells me that nowhere else in the Caribbean do jumbo jets fly 30 to 60 feet above the beach, delighting the thrill-seekers who gather every day to watch the show. I make a mental note to check it out.

What also makes the island unique is that it’s the smallest island in the world shared by two countries. There is no formal border between French St. Martin in the north and Dutch Sint Maarten in the south. No customs or immigration checkpoints, just a welcome sign separating one side from the other.

MOTION OF THE OCEAN

Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of small boats. Cruise ships and ferries are fine but smaller boats, not so much. Making conversation with my cab driver Rolando as he makes his way down the coast with the Windex-blue sea on our right and the green mountain peaks on the other side, I confess my preference to stay on dry land.

“Try a comfy catamaran,” he says. “You’ll love it, I promise.” He makes a good pitch so I book a tour on a catamaran called Tango.

Arriving early to Aqua Mania in Simpson Bay, I study the 65-footer anchored to the pier. Does it look like it’ll be a smooth ride? Can I even tell that by looking at it? Sammy and Wolkey, the able-bodied crew, assure me that no one gets seasick on their watch (or on their boat) so after leaving my flip-flops on the dock, I’m ready to go.

A gaggle of gal pals from Atlanta make a beeline for the open bar, teenagers snap selfies with their iPhones and the squeamish types like me find a seat next to Captain Haresh. “I’ll make this seven-mile trip in less than two hours,” the captain assures me as he navigates with finesse.

With a refreshing breeze at my back and an even more refreshing rum punch in my hand, we pass gorgeous beaches like Mullet Bay, Cupecoy (the only au naturel beach on the Dutch side) and Long Baie, which is home to the turtle nesting station and the swishy La Samanna Resort.

Having been to the island before, I tell the captain — and the other squeamish types — that the scenery is so spectacular, it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. Time zips by and soon we’re back at the Pelican Marina. Thanking the Captain with a mutual high-five, I step delicately off the boat, find my flip-flops and give myself full marks for taking a page from the “Get Out of Your Comfort Zone” book.

SOUL FOOD

One of the best-kept secrets on the Dutch side, Ital Shack is as un-guidebook a restaurant as it gets. Lorded over by Ras Bushman, known around town for his mega-watt smile and dreadlocks that reach past his knees, the shack, painted in the Rasta colors of red, yellow and green, serves an “Ital” menu — a spin on the word “vital” — which means no meat, fish, cheese or eggs.

With indoor seating for 18 and a few seats outside; the ramshackle restaurant on Bush Road is island-famous for lentil pea stew and oats and lime juice (try it; it tastes better than it sounds) and its farmer-owner.

“We serve only what we grow ourselves,” Bushman tells me, showing off his prized watermelons.

A curious hybrid between a savvy businessman and an old-school hippie, the Curacao-born entrepreneur, whose real name is Roland Joe, is also a reggae musician and one of a handful of farmers in a country that relies mostly on imports. He owns three farms, including one on the hillside behind the restaurant, where he has figured out how to grow a bounty of fruits, vegetables and herbs (yes, that kind).

“No one expected my experimental farming to succeed but I proved them all wrong,” he boasts as he hands me the fiery pepper sauce that his wife Raisa makes fresh every day. If you stop by for lunch and ask him nicely, he’ll give you a lesson in organic farming.

RETAIL THERAPY

From Bushman’s place, I turn right on Bush Road, over the Prince Bernard Bridge past the salt ponds and towards Philipsburg, where shopping on Front Street is a rite of passage for every visitor worth her (or his) sea salt. Not only is St. Maarten a free port, but it has no local sales taxes so prices for cameras, computers, diamonds and everything else are up to 40 percent less than what we pay at home. With the uncanny ability to a spy a bargain a mile away but not enough cash in my pocket to buy a diamond, I head to the Shipwreck Shop and in record time buy a Kipling bag at a price way below wholesale.  

I reward myself for my savvy purchase with a snack at the Moana restaurant in the Pasanggrahan Hotel — the name translates to “guest house” in Indonesian —the oldest hotel on the island and a former residence of the Dutch Royal family. At a table facing the sea, I declare the red snapper ceviche “divine” and the parade of cruise shippers, boardwalk strollers and vendors along Great Bay Beach “awesome.” Often a parking lot for gigantic cruise ships, today it’s quiet with just one of the floating cities parked offshore.  

Back on Front Street, I’m intrigued by the Cariloha store and go inside to check out the clothing made from bamboo. “These shirts will keep you three degrees cooler than cotton shirts,” the salesperson tells me. Although I’m not sure if three degrees cooler in the Caribbean makes a big difference, I look around anyway.

Philipsburg is made for walking. Front Street, the aptly named Back Street (where the locals shop) and the beachfront Boardwalk are parallel to each other and connected by narrow steeges, the Dutch word for alleys.

Continuing my stroll, it’s a good thing I didn’t blink because I’d have missed the St. Maarten Museum tucked away in a tiny 19th century house. “We rely on donations from visitors,” explains Dieudonnee Ostiana, volunteer guide. “We might not be the most popular attraction but we’re an important one.”

Perusing the Arawak treasures, I notice the impressive selection of local crafts, which are far better souvenirs than the T-shirts made overseas.

LITTLE RED BERRY

At the end of the Front Street strip near the cruise ship pier, Guavaberry Emporium sits pretty in a Dutch cedar house built on the site of a synagogue that was abandoned after the American Revolution. The small shop that sells the potent liqueur made from rum, sugar cane and the bittersweet berries is a delightful respite from the afternoon sun.

“The berries grow in the hills of Colombier on the French side and ripen only in November and December,” explains a saleswoman, Camille Roberts, as she pours a sample for me. The liqueur is traditionally sipped at Christmas. I buy a couple of the hand-painted bottles and place them carefully in my brand new Kipling knapsack.

SNAP HAPPY

Remembering the mental note I made a few days ago, I get my camera and take a $2 bus to Maho Beach, one of 37 beaches that ring the island, to find the those plane-watchers at the end of the runway. Flight times are written on a surfboard, and air traffic control is broadcast on speakers at the Sunset Bar and Grille.

Despite the jet blast that blows my hair in every direction as a plane comes in for a landing, I look up and really can see inside the cockpit. Yes, I waved at the pilots — I’ll be back.

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