I have just returned from a weekend on St Martin which will soon be my new home, and thought I would share my first impressions.
Having never been to the Caribbean before, I can't honestly say what I was expecting, but I do know that what I experienced was not whatever it was I was expecting
The very first impression was from the air and I defy anyone not to be enchanted by that unbelievably blue sea and the island rising majesticaly from the ocean. Landing over the famous Maho beach was exciting and the airport was a pleasure - we were even welcomed with rum - that is a first for me at an airport!
Out of the airport and into the car and suddenly that spell of idyllic enchantment was broken and I came back to the real world with a thud. The roads, the traffic, the driving. After having been spoilt by the orderly and picturesque roads of rural New England for the last 15 months it was all a bit of a shock.
However, as I travelled north towards Anse Marcel it dawned on me that the island was a lot like a mini-condensed version of South Africa, my native land. There was the opulance and the poverty side by side, the shiny new luxury vehicles and the minibus taxis side by side, the renowned French restaurants and the simple but no less flavourful roadside stalls grilling ribs and chicken. The cultural mix too reminded me of life in Africa, although there is the sense of less racial tension on the island than you experience in Africa, all the peoples seem to cohabit peacefully which is wonderful.
Home for the next 2 nights home was the Radisson. The setting of the hotel is fantastic and the staff were amazing, every single one of them went out of their way to do everything possible to make the stay memorable. Rooms were large and airy and the grounds manicured to perfection, and then of course there was the beach.......I need say no more!
Alas, I was not there to lie on the beach all day, but scouting for a place to live. First things first I needed a sim card. So back to Marigot I went. Choice betweeb Dauphin and Digicel. For anyone wanting any info on cell phones on the French side, it appears that Dauphin is the best option if you will be making a lot of calls to the French side. Sim costs E25.00. Digicel on the other hand is probably the better option if you plan on making calls outside of the island. E20.00 for a sim with E5.00 call time credit included, and all calls to anywhere in the world cost a flat E0.30 per minute rate.
Armed with my phone I set off looking for realtors. Warning to people looking to rent on the island. Without a "history" on the island and copious amounts of paperwork, if you rent through an agent expect to be asked to put down a hefty deposit of between 6 - 12 months rent - it seems there are a lot of people that rent and then disappear into the night, and the agencies are being very cautious.
Marigot itself was a little sad. Being September nearly everything was closed and boarded up. The Royal Marina was almost silent with just a couple of restaurants remaining open. I would say that if you are looking for action September and early October are not the best months to visit the island. It is, however, the perfect time for people to visit if you are looking for a relaxed, unhurried type of vacation, where you just want to unwind and soak up the scenery.
Philipsburg was quaint, at least Front and Back Streets, outside of those two streets, not quite so quaint. I can only imagine what it must be like when several cruise ships dock at the same time.
I could not resist a trip to Maho beach at peak "arrivals" time on Saturday afternoon. Watching those planes land is every bit as spectacular as the pictures and youtube videos had led me to believe. The Sunset Bar is a great place for any spectator to hang out and they serve some of the best chicken wings I've come across.
Talking of food, I would recommend Villa Pizza, as you come into Cul de Sac (at the point where the road turns to Anse Marcel) if you are looking for a lovely, informal spot for a relaxed supper, not to mention their house banana vanilla rum - hic!
Many people on this forum ask about food prices and, at least in the restaurants, I found them to be comparable with the US. Once you add drinks into the equation you will probably pay less in St Martin than in the US - at least in the more informal restaurants. I never ate in any of the famous Grand Case establishments so cannot comment there. One thing that is different from France, is that service, I found was generally not included. Prices in the grocery stores were more than in the US, but not hugely so (at least not from New England prices - I know some folks from other parts of the US get sticker shock when they come to New England, but for a New Englander prices were not so bad).
The fact that such a small island, only some 37 square miles can vary so much from one side to the other was a constant amazement. The first and glimspe of this was on the drive from the airport to the hotel. As you left the Dutch side the roads went from pot-holed and narrow and disorganized to wide, clearly marked and new! Although I was advised by someone who has lived on the island for many years that the two sides seem to take it in turns redoing the roads, and that probably in a few years from now the Dutch side will be new and wide and the French side will be pot-holed and chaotic.
The most obvious difference was language. I only came across one person speaking Dutch on the Dutch side, but the French side was almost universally French. I was quickly reminded that my French is very rusty, and thank goodness that everyone on the French side seems to be at least bi-lingual if not trilingual.
All in all it was a very interesting weekend, and I am looking forward to returning in a few days time to continue my search for an apartment and the next step towards settling into my new home!