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St. Maarten: The "Happy Island"
One of the most gay-friendly destinations in the Caribbean, the semiautonomous Dutch territory is quickly becoming an island hot spot, offering everything from butterfly farms to pristine beaches to bustling night life
San Francisco in July, as everyone except naive tourists knows, is cold, foggy, and dismal. When the Advocate asked me to take a press junket sponsored by the St. Maarten Tourist Board, I jumped at the chance. I was not disappointed. Five days of beautiful beaches, warm breezes, duty-free shopping, excellent dining, and an all-night nightlife make the island a great place for a relaxing vacation. For a gay person it has to be one of the friendliest destinations in the Caribbean, a region that in the past two decades has gained something of a mixed reputation among (particularly U.S.) gays and lesbians.
The flight from San Francisco is long. After a red-eye and a four-hour layover in Miami, I stumbled through customs to be met by Eddie Dest, our guide from the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau. He took us to our hotel, the Divi Little Bay Resort ((800) 367-3484; www.diviresorts.com), and as I stepped out of the van the fact that I had arrived hit me. The white sand spread out before me, leading into the lightest, brightest of blue water. I quickly changed into trunks, slathered on some SPF 15, and fell asleep in the humid heat.
Despite the seductive charms of the island, even a short visit made it clear that St. Maarten is more than just a leisure destination for moneyed visitors. Like much of the Caribbean it is grappling with the legacy of centuries of colonialism and the subsequent force of globalization even as it strives to embrace its growing place within the region's booming tourist economy. As part of the semiautonomous Netherlands Antilles, St. Maarten shares a 37-square-mile island with St. Martin, which is a French overseas territory with direct representation in France. Until the mid 1960s, when tourism became a key force driving the economy, the island had only a few thousand inhabitants. Subsequent rapid growth strained the physical, social, and administrative infrastructure. Two devastating hurricanes in 1995 forced a massive reconsideration of development and direction. Now the island seems to be plotting a slightly more self-conscious growth for a future paved in U.S. dollars--the unofficial currency.
On our first night, over a Chinese dinner at the Old Captain (+599-542-6988) in Philipsburg, I talked with Eddie about the evolving "One Island, One Nation" movement that has made a significant, if symbolic, anti-colonial presence on the island in the last decade. Was island independence and unification feasible, I wondered? "Not in our lifetime," he shrugged. Despite a recent vote by the people of St. Maarten to formally separate from the Antilles (many feel that the Curacao-centered government inadequately represents their interests), it seemed that neither the Antilles nor the Dutch or French governments would be eager to let such a jewel of tourist revenue go.
On the way to the first nightclub of our trip we passed Fort Amsterdam, a remnant of a more militant Dutch presence on the island. I thought about the many overlapping forms of power binding this tiny island into a global legacy of a centuries-long expansion of capitalism on behalf of colonial powers. I wondered how U.S. and European desires for tropical pleasures, and the island's own marketing to those desires--gay and lesbian not excepted--might mask the often brutal means through which such spaces have been made accessible to people like me. How, I wondered, could a people both partake in the spoils of tourism--crucial to the island's economy and infrastructure--and create a future that might transform the people passing though with something more than a sunburn and a discounted Rolex?
I lost that train of thought after couple of drinks at Bliss (+599-545-3996), an open-air hot spot mixing a Miami style with some kind of Arabian Nights groove. Oversized four-poster beds, Bedouinesque tents with throw pillows, and lanterns were all over the place. It was Thursday, which meant 2-for-1 cocktails. While I stuck with Carib beer, the espresso martinis seemed to be the signature drink. The place was packed with an international crowd of young jet-setting hipsters. The various spaces for lounging, chilling, dancing, and socializing were seamlessly integrated. The crowd wasn't gay, although I didn't feel out of place. Later, a local gay man told me that Thursday nights tend to be more gay-friendly than other nights.
If you get bored at Bliss, you can always go to the nearby fence by the airport runway, where apparently people grab hold when the big jets take off and find themselves in a thrilling if treacherous horizontal wind tunnel. I never saw anyone do it, and for liability reasons I would warn you strongly against it, but if you find yourself at the west side of the runway, where the sign warns against strong winds during jet takeoff, you're in the right spot.
The next morning we all piled into a van for a tour around the island. If you drove it straight through without traffic, it would take all of an hour or so, but thankfully we made many stops along the way.
Going clockwise around the island:
In Simpson Bay, for those who desire such things, Top Carrot (+599-544-3381) serves up decent quickie vegetarian fare and sells health-food groceries.
In stark contrast to the behemoth contemporary Maho Bay resort and its casinos and clubs is the nearly abandoned and unfortunately named Mullet Bay, the resort that time forgot. After the '95 hurricanes trashed the place, subsequent legal contests between owners, developers, and time-share vacationers have left the place basically untouched. In a strange way, I thought the abandoned 1980s-style condominiums with missing roofs and smashed windows were much more beautiful than all the showy neon ruckus of Maho. The golf course, although open, is apparently only a shadow of its former self.
Crossing to the French side, gorgeous private houses pepper both the ocean side and the side overlooking Simpson Bay Lagoon. The lagoon, a vast inland body of water lined with mangroves and other rich flora, harbors small fishing boats and yachts, making it a spectacular view for those people rich enough to own some of the most expensive real estate on the island. A number of these are apparently available for pricey weekly and monthly rentals. Some are big enough to share with, say, ten close friends, which could make the accommodations more reasonable than a resort stay. I found a ton of options from just typing "St. Martin villa rentals" into Google.
Marigot, the French St. Martin capital, is not to be missed, although since St. Maarten's Tourist Board was paying our way, we were whisked through at such a pace that we nearly did. The little cafes and food shacks, brightly colored small houses tucked among little shops, and tiny streets and alleys held great promise. I can say that the toilettes publiques were immaculate, and that they shared with other bathrooms on the French side a curiously high urinal. I made a mental note to wear high heels the next time I had to pee in a French overseas territory.
Piling back into the van we careened past Friars Beach, where some gay boys told me the monthly full moon party at Kali's Beach Bar (+590-51-07-44) often finds like-minded men in the mix. After whizzing through Grand Case, known for having the best dining on the island (sigh), we enjoyed the stark scenery of golden grassy and rock-cragged hillsides dotted with goats. For such a small island, the diversity of lush green on the western side and dry amber on the eastern side surprised me. It sent me into a brief reminiscence of the contrasting north and south sides of the much larger island of Maui thousands of miles away.
Next, we stopped at the popular Orient Beach. How to describe this place? It is basically a mixture of a sort of margaritaville-type party beach (with a topless section, a bar called Bikini Beach and a "nude cruise"--oy) and a family beach full of activities for the kids. I spotted a rainbow flag at the Tiki Hut, an inexpensive snack grill in the Kon Tiki restaurant-bar (+590-63-11-43; www.kontikisxm.com/). Walking inside, I saw one of those "Gay Cock" tintypes on the back wall. As if I needed to, I asked the two French men who owned the place if these clues meant they were gay-friendly. Wink and a smile I had my answer.
Candy Shaw of the Butterfly Farm
The nearby Butterfly Farm (+590-87-31-21); www.thebutterflyfarm.com) is not to be missed. A small non-profit operation dedicated to showcasing various butterflies and promoting their preservation worldwide, the Farm has 35 different species displayed in various life stages. What made the tour particularly fascinating was less the butterflies than Candy Shaw, our rugged no-nonsense guide. A former nurse who had, she explained, previously helmed "the first all-female freight train crew in Canada," Candy came to work for peanuts at the farm out of her passion for butterfly breeding and conservation. It takes all kinds, and I am glad to know that Candy's kind exists. She urged visitors to come in the morning, when the butterflies were all flitting about in courtship dances, looking for some action. Apparently when they hook up, they join at the abdomen and mate for 37 hours. Sort of like the White Party post-Viagra.
After all that talk of female train operators and marathon sex, I was famished. We gorged at Mr. Busby's Beach Bar (+599-543-6088), an impressive little eatery on the somewhat uninteresting Dawn Beach. I should say that it could only be described as "uninteresting" after an entire day of viewing one gorgeous turf of sand after another. It supposedly has good snorkeling at an offshore reef, and I did have fun in the surf, which was rougher than we had back at our hotel. The view of St. Barths in the distance, along with the raw conch salad, a well-prepared snapper, and two guavaberry coladas--an island specialty--made lunch memorable.
The evening meal, however, was the trip's epicurean highlight. The Wajang Doll (+599-542-2687) in downtown Philipsburg brings together the far-flung cultures of the former colonial Dutch empire, spanning the East and West Indies, with lush Indonesian food (the only on the island) served inside a modest and well-maintained beachside Caribbean gingerbread-style house. Mixing ornate Javanese shadow puppets, crisp white linens, fresh local flowers, and dark wood chimes all bathed in a subtle and warm candlelit glow, the decor set the tone for a sophisticated experience. The food, served Rijsttafel-style, features a lush array of 19 dishes, including the simple pisang goreng, a kind of batter-fried plantain, to the curious sambal goreng talur, hard-boiled eggs fried in a spicy red chili, and the sublime prekedel daging, beef meatballs simmered in a sweet soy-based sauce reduced with onion, garlic, and nutmeg. Two personal highlights among the many gems: First, the bumbu bali, a fresh local snapper fried in a ginger, chili, and lemongrass sauce and topped with green onion, was the best fish I had on a trip full of seafood. Second, for anyone else who fell in and then out of love with the whole chicken sate and peanut sauce craze of the last few years, it takes just one bite of chef Edu Lembekker's sate ayam to rekindle the affair. Who knew, while nibbling on the chicken-on-a-stick served at yet another dreary Human Rights Campaign fundraiser, that it was supposed to taste like this? I asked Lembekker what his secret was.
"I do everything I can to get everything fresh--which isn't so easy on a small island," he said. "But I manage to juggle it. Sometimes a menu item will change." He added that he still uses a stone mortar and pestle to crush and blend spices each day, following old family recipes. "Otherwise you lose the subtlety of their flavors," he said.
For the past 25 years, Lembekker, a native of Java, has run the restaurant along with his companion of 35 years, a Dutch-born businessman named Bill Kaate. When the two met, Lembekker was an accountant. We can all be thankful that the two men found each other and created such a treasure on this little island.
By now we were in the sort of food, sun, drink, and fun coma that relaxing tropical travel promises to North American and European travelers. A morning spent swimming in the warm waters off the groomed sands of Little Bay just four steps from my hotel room further intoxicated me. Writing as I was for The Advocate, I realized I'd better come up with more gay-related stuff for the article, so I toweled off, trudged back to my room, and booked myself for a night's stay at the Delfina Hotel (+599-545-3300; ), the only gay inn on the island. "But babies or small children are not welcome," the person on the other end of the line told me in a curt but cordial German accent. As long as that didn't include adults who sometimes acted like babies, I assured him, this policy was not a problem.
The Emilio Wilson Historical and Cultural Park
Before heading to my new digs, though, Eddie had two more cultural stops planned for us. The first, the Emilio Wilson Historical and Cultural Park (L.B. Scott Road, Dutch Cul de Sac), proved to be a remarkable project with a surprise twist. The land, on the grounds of a former Dutch slave-labor sugar plantation, remains in essentially the same condition it did in 1954, when, following the semi-independence of the Netherlands Antilles, the Dutch owners sold it to Emilio Wilson. As the grandson of a former slave, Wilson had worked for the family as a tailor and caretaker to the children. Despite numerous offers to sell the land for as much as $20 million, Wilson retained the property as a legacy to the slave history of the island. In 2001 he formed a foundation to transform the grounds into a living museum.
While little has yet been developed, work is underway and the park should be up and running by Summer 2003. Featured buildings will include a reconstructed slave quarters, a "wattle house" built by former slaves after the abolition of slavery on the Dutch side in 1863, an outhouse, an overseer's watch house, and a school. I was struck by both the superficial similarities and profound differences of the slave quarter and wattle house. Both were approximately the same size and had thatch walls and roofs. But the wattle house was more tightly woven, keeping out the rain and wind that regularly tore through the slave quarters. Moreover, the wattle house had more windows, and, inside, a single wall that seemed to demand a certain level of privacy and respect for the families living there. It was a luxury denied to the same workers when they had been slaves. I stood in the wattle house for several minutes, quietly meditating on the space and on Wilson, who had insisted on the humble shack's preservation.
The manager of the property, the slight, relaxed, and impassioned Wilhelm Patrick, explained that Wilson was both defiantly independent and determined to preserve St. Maarten's history throughout its rapid transformation from a depressed and depleted former colony to a tropical tourist destination. And here's the surprising twist: Patrick explained that before Wilson died last year, he said, "Wilhelm, if anyone asks what kind of person I was, tell them I was a homosexual."
Talking to Patrick and walking around the grounds, I remembered the dilemma of St. Maarten I had pondered on my first day--the cultural center, it seemed to me, had the potential to be a manifestation of the necessary bridge between tourism and memory. As tens of thousands of U.S. and European tourists crowd the island's beaches each year, coming by airplane or cruise ship, here, on the grounds of a former plantation, was a straightforward testament to the force, suffering, and opportunity that created the possibility for their--that is, our--pleasure. What is more, Wilson's insistence on the memorial recognition of his own homosexuality, like the comparative buildings of the slave quarter and wattle house, deny visitors the flattening victimhood such sites might convey about the colonial past of Afro-Caribbeans--here were complex people with richly textured and varied lives.
Rather than playing on our appetite for colonial nostalgia and tropical return-to-nature fantasy, the cultural center demands historical recognition and accountability. Yet it does so in a way that is readily accessible to tourists coming by rental car or busload on their way to duty-free shopping, or the Butterfly Farm, or fine dining. I wished Patrick the best for a worthy endeavor.
Back in the van, we were shuttled to downtown Philipsburg for shopping on its well-trodden Front Street. At first, it all seemed a bit silly after the cultural center, but a lovely lunch at Kangaroo Court Cafe (+599-542-4278) put me into the swing of things. As we neared Front Street, we passed a huge white church bearing a huge white sign promising that "Jesus Saves." Yep, I thought, in duty-free St. Maarten, even Jesus saves. The Son of God, like the rest of us, should be selective in making purchases, though, because while some items, particularly big-ticket goods like watches and jewelry, comes deeply discounted from U.S. prices, other more modest things, like Izod apparel, didn't really seem to really be much cheaper. Alcohol was cheap. I saw a one-liter bottle of Absolut going for under five bucks, and, being a scotch fan, I got a bottle of Balvenie 21 Year, beyond my budget in the U.S., where it would go for like $80, for just $50. It is also worth stopping by the super-touristy but fun Guavaberry Emporium (+599-542-2965; www.guavaberry.com), where the island's ubiquitous guavaberry liqueur, and a host of other tropical beverages and sauces, are available in free samples.
Back at the resort, I rented a car (an economy car can be had from the major and local rental companies for between $25 and $35) and headed out for a night at a gay hotel and a trip to the one gay bar on the island. Switching the radio to Laser 101.1, I sang along to bright, bouncy U.S. Top 40 and Euro pop as I leisurely drove through a warm rain to arrive at Delfina, where I was greeted by German expat owners and boyfriends Michael and Boris. Michael, the daytime host, covers things like fresh bread, cheese, and fruit for the continental breakfast and the late afternoon happy hour. He showed me to my room, the "Bette Davis" (each room is thematically linked through pictures on the wall with a gay icon, although the "Brad Pitt" seemed a bit of a stretch). The place is architecturally a mix of a crisp white 1950s motel modernism and the gingerbread tin-roof style of the rest of the Dutch side. It has 12 rooms, a pool, a lovely sitting veranda and bar, a groomed lawn, and loads of bright fuchsia flowers. The rooms themselves are simple and clean, with fragrant Mexican pine furniture, cool tile floors, and, as Michael explained, "air conditioning for the Americans." One great detail is the personal cell phone--rather than room phone--they issue upon registration, with $20 credit included in the room price ($69 off-season, $119 on). Delfina was a quiet, relaxed, and fun place to stay, with a very cute international clientele. I made a note to spend my next stay on the island there.
Co-owner Boris, more of a night owl, serves as a social director for evening festivities, and was my guide (and free ride) to L'Alibi (+590-87-08-39) in Marigot, the one gay bar on the island (the Pink Mango is no more). The club, physically connected to The Ins, a mixed-straight bar, was a ton of fun, although it gets started late--not really peaking until around 3 a.m.--and the drinks are pretty pricey--$4 for a beer. Like Bliss, curiously, it had a huge four-poster bed in one corner. What's up with that? The DJ set the tone with poppy, dancey, up-to-date music. Patrons were friendly, flirty, chatty, and diverse, with local Afro-Caribbeans, French, and Dutch mixing with the European and U.S. tourists. Best of all, they refused to take themselves as seriously as those grim-faced, pumped-up disciples of U.S. gay mecca techno chambers. Alas, it was definitely more a boy than a girl crowd, although I saw a handful of lesbians.
Cocktails at Cupecoy
After noon the next day (I went to bed around 6), I hooked up with the two lesbians on the press junket and we headed to Cupecoy Beach, the clothing-optional beach just down the street from Delfina. Down a small dirt road, you park near a cement wall with the word "beach" scrawled in red spray paint. A little grittier than the resort beaches, with a modest surf, white sand, and craggy rocks, Cupecoy was my kind of beach. Two men set up a daily makeshift snack bar, serving up barbecue, soft drinks, and a killer planter's punch. In travel guides, you might read that families claim the main beach and gay people occupy the coves and grottoes just to the east, but when I went the gay part was washed away. After a failed attempt to communicate in broken French with one gay local from the French side who could speak similarly poor English, I still don't know when the gay part disappeared, but I do know that it comes and goes. If you really want privacy, little plots of sand still exist for stalwart separatists, but the girls and I, along with every other queer on the beach except that French guy, just shared the main section with the families. Everyone got along just fine.
Back at Divi Little Bay, we all napped, showered, and took off again for another excellent dinner at the artery-clogging Ristorante Laguna (+599-545-2025), a decadent Italian spot near the airport. While the carpaccio was quite good, the stand-out appetizer was the fried calamari, which was golden crisp on the outside without that rubbery texture one nearly always gets with squid. My dish, with so much fat that I thought I was back in the culinary 1980s, was a local lobster, diced and put back in the shell with a thick cream, cognac, and mushroom sauce, then broiled with a grated romano topping. Rich intoxicating flavors and smells compelled bite after bite into my mouth despite my gay-male calorie consciousness. We were leaving in the morning, and my bathing suit would go back in the drawer for months upon returning to San Francisco, so I also ordered dessert--a crisp and smooth creme brulee. They had to put me on a cart and wheel me to the van.
Flying out the next morning, I noticed again what a tiny island St. Maarten is. For such a little place there is so much to do, from exploring its complex history to socializing with locals to ponder its present and future; from incredibly diverse dining and nightclubbing to daytime duty-free shopping. Oh, yes, and there is the beach: the long swaths of dazzling sand, the clear, almost neon hues of the sea, and the hot tropical sun. I closed my eyes, relaxed, exhausted, already plotting my return.