Today’s excursion involves a tour of the island by rental car with boating friends Cary and Tom of Dragon’s Toy and LeAnn, Ron and boat hound Desdemona of Tavorish. Utilizing a rental car is the path of least resistance when it comes to sightseeing around St. Martin. Moving about from the French side to the Dutch side and vice versa by vehicle does not require customs clearance. However, moving the boat across the international border requires paperwork and fees to clear out of the French side as well as paperwork and fees to enter the Dutch side. The clearance fees are reasonable but the process is somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming.
By 9 AM, we arrive via dinghy at Barnacles on the airport side of Simpson Bay Lagoon where the rental vehicle awaits. Traveling south, the first destination of the day is Philipsburg. The outskirts of town are developed with large retail establishments including Cost U Less, the Gran Marche supermarket complex and a giant, two-story Ace hardware store. Access to the waterfront is provided by a series of narrow one-way cobblestone streets. There is one cruise ship at dock today. Passengers are exploring the shops and restaurants along the waterfront promenade. Already the beach chairs are beginning to fill up for the day. On the tidy interior streets, there is the usual assortment of jewelry stores and clothing shops that cater to the cruise boat tourists. By mid-morning, we are overdue for our daily fix of croissant and espresso. But to our dismay, Philipsburg is on the Dutch side of the island where there are no patisseries. This is a sure sign that it is time to return to French St. Martin.
The next stop is at Oyster Bay on the east side of the island. This spot brings back memories of a fun-filled charter vacation here in 2001 with boat buddies Hayden and Radeen of Island Spirit. Both the Sunsail and the Moorings charter fleet are based at Captain Oliver’s Marina. From this harbor, the island of St. Barth’s is clearly visible 20 miles to the east…a preview of coming attractions.
From Oyster Bay, it is a short drive to Grand Case, a quiet village with a picturesque beach on the northern coast of French St. Martin. We make a mental note of the dozen or so yachts anchored in Grand Baie. It would be delightful to spend a few days in this harbor aboard Cutter Loose once the weather becomes settled. The main street of the village supports dozens of French restaurants and small hotels that front on the beach. Grand Case is a popular destination for dining. After a delectable lunch at L’Escapade, a stroll along the beach sets the tone for our next stop at Orient Bay.
Orient Beach is perhaps the most popular sun and white sand destination on the island. The beach is covered with reclining chairs, bars and volleyball courts along with hundreds of people of all shapes, sizes and colors. Every imaginable watersports toy is available for rent. Since this is a clothing optional beach, many people leave their inhibitions behind and come here for a well-rounded outdoor fun-in-the-sun experience. This adds considerable interest to our relaxed stroll from one end of the beach to the other…all part of the laid-back island experience.
The final stop of the afternoon is Sunset Grill, a beach bar located right at the end of the runway of Princess Juliana Airport. Visitors and locals alike gather on the beach to watch the arriving aircraft pass close overhead. At the bar, a schedule of flight arrivals is posted on a bulletin board. The voice communication between the tower and pilots is broadcasted over the bar’s public address system. Departures are also interesting to observe.
Departing aircraft hold their position at the end of the runway until their engines achieve sufficient thrust to commence their roll towards takeoff. During this period of time, the backwash from the high revving engines creates a sandstorm on the beach. Despite posted signs warning of danger, adventurous thrill seekers position themselves on the beach directly behind the runway in an effort to remain standing erect amidst the overpowering wash from the jet engines. Some attempt to become airborne. Most of the participants are thrown to the sand or pushed downwind into the water. This scene is pure entertainment…a must-see for anyone visiting St. Martin.
After sunset, it is back to the dinghy at Barnacle’s where we enjoy a light snack and a libation while recounting the highlights of today’s Tour de St. Martin. Before calling it a night, we agree to meet again tomorrow at the Carnival parade in downtown Marigot.