By Jean Allen
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Q. What can you tell me about St. Martin? My wife wants to go there for our wedding anniversary because, she claims, it has the best food in the Caribbean. What's to do there besides eat? I'm not a lie-on-the-beach person. - R.A., Boynton Beach, Fla.
A. Your wife is right about the food. After all, the place is French. As for the rest, the island has nice beaches and resorts rent equipment you can use to scuba, sail, kayak, ski and parasail. Boats take divers to offshore reefs and out for deep-sea fishing.
I'm not a beach person, either, so when I visited St. Martin recently, I looked for other things to do. If you haven't been there, some background: French St. Martin shares the island with Dutch Sint Maarten. The two sides have existed amicably since 1648, when it was divided; there are no border formalities. The hilly 37-square-mile island is east of Puerto Rico in the arc of islands that define the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea, a three-hour flight from Miami.
I found plenty to do away from the water.
About the food:
If St. Martin is the gastronomic capital of the Caribbean, the little village of Grand Case is the gourmet center of St. Martin.
Restaurants in bright wooden Creole houses line the narrow main street in this town on the island's northwest shore, not far from the French-side capital, Marigot. There's an ethnic mix - Vietnamese to Mexican, Caribbean to American. There are also lolos, shacks on stilts, popular with local folks, where barbecued lobsters, chicken, goat and ribs are prepared on outdoor grills and served with rice and beans, johnnycake and plantains.
The French places, my favorites, include L'Auberge Gourmand, where owner Pascal Narme has his own china made in France especially for his restaurant; and Tastevin, where the china is from Villeroy and Boch. Tableware reflects the quality that includes the food. Seafood is a menu favorite.
Some restaurants are also small inns, and a popular resort hotel, Grand Case Beach Club, is within walking distance.
Other memorable eating is found in Marigot, where you can pretend you're on the Riviera at seaside cafes on Marigot Bay. Lolos thrive at the open-air "tourist market" where bright island shirts, shifts and caftans wave in the island breezes.
Steve Wright, manager of the Grand Case Beach Club, took us exploring in Marigot, very French with wrought-iron balconies, fretwork trim and boutiques displaying European designer fashions. "In the boutiques, nothing much is bigger than a size 6 ," Wright said, "and in stores, where islanders shop, it's hard to find anything under size 20."
Visitors can get baguettes and croissants from a bakery, and shop at hypermarches (supermarkets) loaded with French wines and spirits, tins of pate, caviar and smoked fish, chocolates and deli departments full of ready-to-eat goodies.
Night owls can disco, club hop or gamble. All the casinos are on the Dutch side. We visited Atlantis casino, whose slots, craps and blackjack use American money. Dress is casual.
There's an up-and-coming art scene. We visited an exhibit of Roland Richardson oils and lithographs. His gallery and courtyard garden are in Marigot. Other galleries are listed in the island magazine called Nature, available at the St. Martin Tourist Office in Marigot.
Explorers can catch a ferry or catamaran daily to one of the nearby islands - St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Barts, Anguilla or Saba.
Active folks can hike, play tennis or golf, go horseback riding or mountain biking, then soothe sore muscles at a spa.
I chose a $30 archaeological tour called Around the Island in 4,000 Years. The half-day tour starts or ends at the Museum of St. Martin in Marigot, led by museum director Christophe Henocq.
Two forts are on the tour that circles the island: Gun placements at Fort St. Louis, above Marigot on the French side, and Fort Amsterdam on the Dutch side, point out to sea, guarding against the British who tended to stage occasional raids.
In hills above Grand Case, an Arawak Indian settlement dates from about 500 B.C. to 650 A.D. Ancient pottery and other artifacts found in digs there support the likelihood that the Arawaks came from Venezuela about 4,000 years ago and spread among the islands. Later, the fierce Caribs arrived and wiped out or shipped out the peaceable Arawaks. White men's diseases took care of the stragglers.
At the north tip of the island, we stopped at The Viewpoint overlooking the St. Martin Natural Preserve, a sanctuary for fauna and flora. We stopped at The Old House Museum, an 18th century sugar plantation house with its own rum-processing equipment. The great house was built for a man sent to the island by Napoleon.
Farther south a boundary marker along the road welcomes us to the Dutch side. Fort Amsterdam's cannon point straight at a line of docked cruise ships from South Florida. Half the island's 1.2 million annual visitors arrive on cruise ships.
Philipsburg is a good place to browse and shop. We passed Princess Juliana airport, built by American marines in 1943, then passed another border marker and returned to the French side. The tour ended at the St. Martin museum, which traces history from the Arawaks through European colonization and has a display of island art.
Both sides use their European parent nations' currency. The new Euro will become legal tender in January, replacing both francs and guilders, but it's likely to have little impact since American dollars are freely circulated.
Roads are narrow and bumpy, but many visitors rent cars, available at hotels and resorts. Wright at Grand Case Beach Club says that with few traffic signals and stop signs, "you have to drive aggressively, not defensively" and watch out for goats on the road.
Entry requires proof of citizenship - a passport, voter registration card or notarized birth certificate. Departure airport tax is $20.
Rates at Grand Case Beach Club, as at other resorts, are highest from just before Christmas to late April, lowest from late April through October, then up modestly through Dec. 21. Package stays are offered through American Airlines.
© 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.