By Jenn Kennedy
Originally published on Advocate.com February 13 2013 6:00 AM ET
Upon announcing plans for trip to St. Martin, a cultured colleague corrected my pronunciation and informed me that it’s actually St. Mar-teen (with a long e sound and emphasis on the last syllable). As it turns out, both are correct, as the half-French, half-Dutch island hums with two distinct cultures, governments, and currencies.
Tucked between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, St. Martin is colloquially called the “Friendly Island.” From airport security to taxi drivers to tour guides to passersby, the locals consistently greet visitors with eye contact and a genuine smile. Most residents speak English as well as French or Dutch, so it’s easy to get directions, order in restaurants, and communicate generally. With 80 different nationalities represented in the population today, St. Martin makes for an integrated, warm, and welcoming vacation spot for LGBT travelers.
Whether you’re craving some good old-fashioned rest and relaxation to recharge your batteries and reconnect with your partner or wanting an active week of water sports, culinary adventures, gambling, and exploration, this little island has it available at all price points.
There are numerous hotels and guesthouses throughout the island, with prices ranging from $75 to several thousand dollars per night. Radisson Blu (RadissonBlu.com/Resort-StMartin), which sits adjacent to a marina on a cozy, private stretch of beach, offers a luxurious, pampering getaway for about $250 to $2,100 nightly, depending on season and room choice. Rates include a tasty daily breakfast buffet for two (with a mix of meats, omelet station, fruits, and cereals), a fitness room, business center, gardens, volleyball nets, and croquet sets. A gorgeous 300-foot infinity swimming pool sits above the beach, and cabanas are available for privacy and shade.
Located in the northwestern part of the island, the village of Grand Case is the gastronomic capital of the Caribbean. Numerous restaurants line the main street and offer traditional French cuisine mixed with Italian, Indian, and fresh fish specialties. Roadside lolos (literally locals cooking in front of their homes) offer stuffed crabs and grilled lobster at a fraction of the price of restaurants. Located throughout the island, some lolos are simple one-person operations, while others have a team of family members cooking together and offer seating and beverages to patrons.
Not a place to lose weight, St. Martin is known for rich dishes like oxtail stew, johnnycake (fried bread), jacks (fried fish), and pies stuffed with beef or fish. Snapper is abundant, as is tuna, marlin and lobster.
Decorated with colorful Caribbean charm, Le Tastevin (Letastevin-Restaurant.com), located in Grand Case, is a beautiful, open-air contemporary French-Caribbean dining option with cuisine by owners Christine and José Manrique. A local favorite since 1984, it offers must-try specialties including an aged rum foie gras pâté and stewed dry fig appetizer, an entrée of pork tenderloin in cider and mapuche spices accompanied by honey-glazed turnips, and chocolate and Nutella crunch rolls with orange sauce and chocolate ice cream for dessert.
Dark or light, St. Martin offers hundreds of rum options, including refreshing fruit-infused light rum in flavors including pineapple, coconut, ginger, banana, and coffee. Another popular island drink is le punch planteur (planter’s punch), rum with fruit and grenadine. Guavaberry is St. Martin’s traditional liqueur, made from aged rum, brown sugar, and wild guava berries that grow in the hills in the center of the island; it’s a holiday favorite. Locals sell bottles wrapped with a colorful ribbon top in open-air markets throughout the island.
With 37 beautiful white-sand beaches and warm, clear water, St. Martin offers numerous activities for the sea-loving contingent. Boating, diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, fishing, Jet Skiing, and sunbathing can occupy a tourist for an entire week. The weather (air temperature averages between 77 and 84 degrees) and dependable trade winds provide ideal conditions for all types of water sports year-round. Sailing charters are available with Captain Stéphane Mazurier (Scoobidoo.com) on his 64-foot yacht. He offers various excursions, such as half-day trips to Pinel Island, which include a fresh halibut lunch in beachside thatched huts and sunbathing with attentive waiters serving cold beverages before you head home on a sunset cruise.
St. Martin teems with tropical treasures for undersea explorers of all skill levels. Divers might encounter arrow crabs, sea anemones, and coral shrimp along with small reef fish. Scuba Zen , operating from the marina by the Radisson Blu, offers full- and half-day diving packages. Choosing the full-day package, we did a 30-foot-deep wreck dive around a sunken tugboat and an exhilarating 40-foot-deep cave dive with the guidance of a dive master.
Venturing into the port town of Marigot, you’ll discover galleries featuring the work of island painters and craftsmen, a local mercado, and stellar duty-free shopping. Highlights include the Longchamp clothing boutique, where everything is a good 40% less than in the U.S., and Cartier, where you save more like 20%. Artistic Jewelers (ArtisticJewelers.com) carries David Yurman, Mikimoto, and Van Cleef & Arpels, among other brands. Many of the shops are full of tourist tchotchkes; however, once you find the quality section (near the marina), it’s definitely worth the trip.
Marigot also is home to Eros, the lone gay bar on the French part of the island. Relatively small, this easygoing club has a mixed crowd (gay, lesbian, bi) and attracts both tourists and locals. Check the club’s schedule, though, as it isn’t open every night (ErosClub-SaintMartin.com).
Fort Louis, built in 1765 to defend the French side of the island against invasion, holds appeal for the history-minded and others as well. The stairs to the top provide quite a workout, but the spectacular panoramic view of the city of Marigot and Simpson Bay Lagoon makes the climb rewarding.
Direct flights are available from Atlanta; Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago, Newark, N.J.; New York City; Philadelphia; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Washington, D.C. through American, Delta, JetBlue, Spirit, United, and US Airways. There’s a water shuttle service between the airport and the Radisson Blu for $60 each way.
Prices are lowest from April through October and highest during the December-January holiday season. Festivals, carnivals, regattas, and various cultural events happen throughout the year (StMartinIsland.org).