It's the New Year, and I need to finish some things up from 2005!
Overall, St Martin was a great trip; nice with kids, and good for adults. There are two good official websites for each side of the island, the Dutch Sint Maarten and the French Saint Martin. Each website lists lots of things to do -- a zoo, butterfly garden, watermelon farm -- but we basically did three things: go to beaches, shop and eat well. Here's my report on our week just before high season (apparently the island changes dramatically with the influx of people).
Culturally, the most interesting thing about the place was probably the split between nations. It can also be annoying since a call from one side to the other is international long distance. I should point out that the border consists of a sign that says, "Bienvenue a Partie Francaise" on one side and "Welcome to Dutch Saint Maarten" on the other. They also use different official currencies on each side, the Euro and the Guilder, but both sides happily accept and give change in US dollars. There were actually some nice "sales" on the French side with merchants who offered 1E=1$ prices.
The Dutch side seems more American, with American franchises and American style supermarkets (even a Costco-like "Cost U Less" warehouse store). Philipsburg in St Maarten also had lots of duty free luxury shopping (jewelry, clothes, electronics). The French side had little boulangeries and boutique-y shops.
The beaches are beautiful, white sand beaches on turquoise water. We quite liked Orient Bay Beach, but you should know that a nudist colony occupies the southern end of the beach so lots of naked (or near naked) people walk by. Orient Bay had lots of restaurants on the beach and drink service. Also, it's fun to watch the kite surfers off shore.
For visitors with kids, I'd recommend Mullet Bay Beach. The water there was gorgeous and very still, the beach long enough and not too crowded, and there were two cute "lolos," local vendors with grills who served barbecued chicken, ribs, burgers, fries, and drinks. There were also some neat "sea grape" trees that were easy for kids to climb. Mullet Bay is a little hard to find, though, not well marked. From the east, you have to take the second left after the pharmacy and then take your first right into the dirt parking lot. I guess I'm ruining the secret now but, what the hey, we're not going to be back too soon, I think.
The food on the island was excellent. We didn't have much Caribbean fare (we were told that The Jerk in Philipsburg is the place to go for that) but we had great European and Asian food. Everyone who had visited in the last twenty years recommended the Fish Pot Restaurant in Grand Case. I had the bouillabaisse and was very pleased (and stuffed). Julie had a seasonal special: the grouper with a vanilla bean sauce and liked it very much. And we shared the souffle for dessert. Although the restaurant was fairly formal, they were extremely nice and accomodating to our kids. Each table had a goldfish bowl on it and they brought an extra over so Mari and Austin could each watch one. And when Austin got tired, they even put some chairs together as a makeshift bed for him to lie on.
This level of gracious yet flexible service was found elsewhere. We returned to Grand Case for dinner at Il Nettuno, and Italian place whose French owner spent some time in Washington -- that explains all the Redskins fan paraphernalia. Opting for a simple meal, I had the bolognese sauce over homemade pasta. Very tasty. The restaurants in Grand Case are along the main street and on one side overlook the water so Austin had fun looking through the rails at the boats and sea.
Our best meal was at Mai's in Marigot. Located in a former colonial home, you have to walk upstairs and seemingly through a wealthy Vietnamese home to get to the tables. Family heirlooms, portraits and furnishings decorate the restaurant. The shelves are filled with Mai's family's books. Mai herself is a lovely lady who came around to our table and told us about her life travels from Vietnam where her father worked for the French army to Algiers, Madagascar and virtually everywhere the French had a military presence in the 20th century. After marrying a Frenchman who was born in Vietnam, they opened a restaurant on Saint Martin three decades ago and are still going strong. The food was absolutely delicious (I had the beef with peanut sauce, Julie had pork with pineapple) and beautifully served on unique place settings. Between the warmth of our hostess, the taste of the food and the fascinating decor, we all had a great time.
If you've seen my pictures of the Villa Robinson where we stayed, you may be wondering how we found it. The Robinsons are kind enough to donate a week at their Villa to medical charities and Joe and Mary won it in a raffle for the Mass General cancer center.
All in all, a great trip.