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SXM 2010: In the Jumble, the Mighty Jumble

Pre-flight Checklist: minimalist packing? What's that?

The run up to a vacation is a big part of the fun of the trip itself. For me, the anticipation of an event can almost overshadow the real thing. (In generations past people encountered this phenomenon on their wedding night, a quaint practice now generally pushed up to the third date.)

So it is as we prepare for our 2010 trip to Saint Martin. Fortunately, in an uncharacteristic move, I compulsively kept records from last year's trip allowing us to cut corners, save some money, and be just a wee bit more informed than last year. Task One is packing more intelligently than last year. Thank you, Evernote.

We are typically minimalist packers. When we have bareboated in the Bahamas we traveled with a medium-sized duffle and a backpack carry-on apiece. It's easy to do that in tropical weather because clothing is minimal and even optional at sea and at anchor. One year, the Admiral's duffle didn't arrive and she had to buy a bikini and a couple of t-shirts to get her through the trip. She did so without difficulty. On a 10-day trip to Crete we packed a small roll-on and backpack apiece.

Given our experience you'd think we'd travel to SXM with even less, counting on the fact that what we forget or don't really need we can purchase there. That would be too easy and rational. No, in the push to take Every Fun Thing We Own on this trip, we find ourselves taking more "stuff" than ever: Nooks, netbook, DSLR, P & S camera, small video camera, iPods, inflatable floats and snorkel equipment. We are essentially taking a photo/video studio, a home entertainment center and a library. And don't forget the cables and chargers. I count six charging cables, one netbook power brick, a battery charger and an AC adapter for the French electrical system. Welcome to Radio Shack.

So, as I survey the jumble of equipment on the guest room floor, I ask myself, will we will really need to listen to music while reading on the beach? Do we really need the netbook so we can gloat during our vacation and post photos to Facebook? Do we really need the floats so we can drink beer while drifting in front of Club O? Do we really need three cameras to record it all?

Yes, we do.

Posted by Sea'n'Sun 12:55 Archived in Saint Martin Comments (0)

Day 7: Winding Down

sxm11.gifThe end of a vacation is always a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, you hope you’ve wrung every drop of fun and relaxation out of each waking hour. On the other hand, you’re ready to get back to familiar territory: your home, your dogs, your bed, your stuff. Your bills. Your overgrown lawn. Your job.

SXM_2009_083.jpgRecovering from our toasting on the Tiko Tiko, we were unsure whether we wanted to spend one last day at Club O. Our uncertainty lasted perhaps 10 minutes. But first, a trip to Maho Bay and the Sunset Beach Bar and Grill. We visited the Sonesta Bay Resort. It seemed to be focused on high roller types. We are not high rollers. In fact, if there’s such a thing as a low roller, that would be us. Moving on to the Sunset Beach Bar and Grill was slightly a better fit, but only marginally. The chief attraction is the proximity to the runway at Princess Julianna Airport. Otherwise, it was a Carib and time to move on.

After we got back to the villa we headed for Pedro’s for lunch then on to Club O. We spent several happy hours under the yellow umbrellas and ran into our Tiko Tiko crewmates, Annette and Gene. We said our goodbyes and we trudged sadly back to the villa. We returned to Grand Case for dinner, where many fine looking restaurants were open. Thanks, but we’re going to Sky’s the Limit, the sister lolo to Talk of the Town Too. Damn fine ribs and sides. The Low Rollers score again.

We packed, paid our bill, and headed back to the airport. In an hour we had turned in our rented cell phone, our rented car, had checked our bags, and were waiting in the terminal. Try that at home.

So what did we learn from this trip?

  • SXM is not a shopper’s paradise, at least for us. Other than local art and some jewelry of unknown origin much of what we saw was unremarkable and in many cases overpriced. Go for the beaches.

  • Our preference is to bypass restaurants that offer meals similar to what we can get at home so we eat local. That means lolos, delis, and beach bars, which are often surprisingly good. We enjoyed the experience of being just a little closer to the real citizens of Saint Martin and we didn’t have a bad meal.

  • Almost without exception everyone we talked to, who served us, who answered our questions, or just acknowledged our presence, was friendly and gracious. I kept expecting exasperated rudeness from a tired waitress or waiter, shop owner or clerk. It never happened. I hope we were equally friendly.

  • Driving in Saint Martin is a test of alertness and patience. Narrow, crowded streets, motorbikes darting in and out of traffic, no traffic lights. Somehow everyone gets to where they want, though not quickly. At the same time, drivers are much more courteous and accommodating than most American drivers.

We met many travelers who have been to SXM year after year. We now understand why and are already looking ahead to next year.

Posted by Sea'n'Sun 16:59 Archived in Saint Martin Comments (0)

Day 6: A Day Under Sail

Aboard the Tiko Tiko

sxm11.gifThe Tiko Tiko cruise, originally scheduled for Wednesday, happened on Thursday. We joined two other couples, Gerhard and Leah from Holland and Gene and Annette from Dallas. Philippe, the captain, welcomed us aboard and we headed for Tintemarre, a small island only a few miles away. After dropping anchor we swam ashore and Philippe brought our belongings to the beach in his dinghy. He erected three yellow umbrellas, the universal symbol of sun worshipping. We put on our snorkel gear and explored the rocks around the island. Not a lot of coral, but many interesting fish, none large enough to eat us, which is reassuring. Annette asks why we never hear reports of sharks in Saint Martin. None of us have the answer but I find myself looking just a bit more carefully while under water.

At noon Phillipe brought us sandwiches and drinks and promised to return at 1:00 to immerse us in the famous Tintemarre mud baths. But a mutiny is afoot, and when he returns we ask him if we can sail instead. He graciously agrees and we strike our mini-camp and return to the Tiko Tiko, haul anchor, and set off to the north.

SXM_2009_121.jpgThe other two couples have never sailed and were ecstatic during the three hours on the water. We bashed along, cutting through 3-5′ swells at six or seven knots, everyone getting thoroughly wet and happy. By the time we dropped anchor near Club O we were all sunbaked and tired.

Philippe proved to be an excellent host and captain. I know this from years of experience on ours and other boats: sailing is work and Philippe did not have to honor our request to do several hours of work simply because we preferred to sail rather than bake on the beach. The fact that he did so is testimony to his attitude towards his guests, something we just don’t see that often.

So here’s the deal. before you go to Saint Martin, look up the Tiko Tiko at tikotikocruises.com. Make a reservation, keep it, and I promise you’ll meet one of the nicest men in SXM and you’ll have the time of your life. And don’t forget to tip handsomely. Philippe will have earned it.

Posted by Sea'n'Sun 16:59 Archived in Saint Martin Comments (0)

Day 5: Down and Lolo

sxm11.gifOur plan to sail on the Tiko Tiko fell through when not enough people signed up for today’s cruise. No problem–Captain Philippe rescheduled us for the next day and he already has enough guests so we’re on.

We headed for Grand Case, the reputed gastronomic capital of Saint Martin and only a few miles from our villa. There must be three dozen small French and Italian restaurants, all with good reputations (and prices to match), but we are hunting for a different trophy: the Talk of the Town Too, a lolo. (There's some controversy about the term "Lolo." Some say that it ” means “locally owned, locally operated,” a name that does not do TTT justice.Others say they refer to the barrels used to cook the food.) In any case, lolos are mom ‘n’ pop street cafes. No frills, no table cloths, no perky waitresses, just basic, tasty food.

SXM_2009_113.jpgSXM_2009_100.jpgThere are four lolos situated next to each other on Grand Case’s main street. Each of them is grillling ribs and chicken when we walk up. We chose Talk of the Town Too on the basis of its reputation, which we later decided is well earned. A cook endures the heat and smoke from grills made from barrels. She is strategically situated next to the street so no one can avoid inhaling the fragrant smoke and smell of grilling meat. The ocean breeze makes the smoke swirl around the picnic tables arranged under the sheltered roof and a dozen or so crock pots contain side dishes on a table behind her.

We made our way to a table not too far from the grill and placed our order: grilled shrimp salad for the Admiral; ribs, curry rice, and fried plantains for me. We both ordered a johnny cake, a slightly sweet fried dough and, of course, a Carib. As we wait for our food we see tourists and locals gravitating toward TTT and its competitors, unable to resist the aroma from the charcoal and the drippings that sizzle when they hit the coals. Modern man reconnects with his primeval gastronomic roots. Let the salivation begin.

The johnnycake arrives first. It is absolutely delicious, but it’s just a teaser. The main course is outstanding. Her grilled shrimp and my ribs are very plain: no sauce, no spice, just the flavor from the smoke. I realize that it has been years since I’ve eaten grilled meat with absolutely nothing on it. It may be time to rethink my grilling strategy. The curry rice and fried plantains are equally tasty. I need to try these two dishes at home. More importantly, I need to come back here soon and often.

We are simple people. We enjoy a good meal at a fine restaurant like everyone else. But truth be told, there is something so much more real about eating food prepared by cooks who use nothing but the basics. No sauces, no recipes, no elaborate dishes. Just simple seasonings on some meat, poultry or fish, vegetables or rice flavored with simple spices. Add a cold beer and you have a lolo.

Posted by Sea'n'Sun 16:58 Archived in Saint Martin Comments (0)

Day 4: Pinel Island

sxm11.gifPinel Island is a tiny island a mile or so from SXM, accessible only by ferry unless you have your own boat. Ours being 2,000 miles away, the ferry is our only option. Other tourists show up at the dock at Cul de Sac and at 10:00 we all clamber aboard for the 5 minute trip. Upon arrival a beach boy (yes, that’s what they’re called) begins collecting money from people as they choose their beach chairs and umbrellas. Not surprisingly, we choose the chairs furthest from everyone else. Not surprisingly, we are immediately joined by a family with three girls, two of whom are busy bickering with each other. They turn out to be nice kids. Not so the hooligans behind us. OK, they were normal too. Just be normal over there, please. Thank you very much.

The two (or three when all are open) beach restaurants generate their own electricity and employees must ferry in and out every day. There’s a small, but neat boutique where a number of tiny birds called “bananaquits,” that look like, goldfinches dart in and out of their homes under the canopy. They are captivating. I purchase gifts for friends at home, but would rather have the bananaquits.

Soon the tiny beach is full of people. And music. And more people. We snorkel and swim, cooling off from the stifling heat. Because we are in the lee of Pinel, the breeze is unpredictable at best and nothing like Orient. At last, it’s lunch time. Great food, stunning prices, but that’s the law of supply and demand at work. We decide to return to the Big Island and we stop at La Bounty in Grand Case, which has quickly become our favorite deli. Friendly French proprietor and outstanding food. Best of all, they do not serve Bud Light. We see it offered almost everywhere and we see otherwise normal-looking people drink it. Why would someone come to a Caribbean island and drink Bud Light? I’m not a beer snob, well maybe I am, but does Bud Light even qualify as beer? (Bud Light Drinkers, please forgive me this conceit. Enjoy your Bud.)

Tomorrow we hope to sail to Tintemarre Island with Captain Philippe and his crew if enough folks sign up. If not, it’s back to Orient Beach where our favorite yellow umbrellas await.

I’m in the mood for a new tattoo. Maybe a small yellow umbrella.

Posted by Sea'n'Sun 16:56 Archived in Saint Martin Comments (0)

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