Jet Blue's seasonal expansion of direct flights from Boston seemed like a good excuse to plan a long weekend at one of our favorite islands. We usually enjoy a single day there as part of a longer cruise. We stayed for a week in 2007 and found we loved the relaxed beaches on the French side and the phenomenal French cuisine. But a lack of direct flights from our area kept us from a return visit. With a pile of Euros left in a drawer after a recent Central European trip, we felt like we had "found money" to enjoy the (admittedly pricey) cuisine of Grand Case and the Beaches of Orient Bay in St Martin for a long weekend!
An early Saturday morning flight allowed us to be slapping on sunscreen while waiting for the rental car van outside Princess Julianna Airport in Dutch St Maarten by 1 PM. We decided to stay at La Plantation in Orient Bay in French St Martin. St Maarten/St Martin is two countries on one island and while we passed through Dutch customs when we arrived, we did not have to stop at a border at any other time during our stay, traveling back and forth between the two "sides".
We decided to stay on the French side at La Plantation, a villa where we had stayed in 2007. In 2007 we found the location to be ideal, set about 1/4 mile up the hill from the strand of white beach and half dozen beach clubs of Orient Bay. The villas all have beds with mosquito nets, large balconies that are very large and private. Most of the studio units have a kitchenette and the suites have full kitchens. Last time we stayed the paint colors, kitchenettes and baths were a bit dated. We were upgraded to a suite for this trip and found that the kitchens and baths had all been updated and the villas garish bright paint scheme was redone in restful, breezy white and pastels.
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Suite at La Plantation
The resort offers included Wifi (in the common areas, although we were able to access it from our living room area), a large breakfast buffet including; scrambled eggs, cold meats and cheeses, cereal, toast, fruit, yogurt, coffee, tea and fresh squeezed fruit juice, as well as a basket of French pastries delivered to your table. Dining is around a large pool and bar area. There is a reception desk staffed 12 hours per day, a business center, and dinner served in the al fresco dining room at night. Each reservation includes a card that can be used for a complimentary beach chairs and umbrella as well as charging privileges at one of 5 beach clubs on Orient Bay. (Coco, Waikiki, Kakao, Bikini, Kontiki)
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La Plantation Resort
La Plantation is located on the north side of Orient Bay, where a nearly 2 mile long beach stretches from a nudist beach club called Club Orient on the south side to a private condo complex on the north end of the beach. Many think of Orient Bay as the "nudey" beach but the reality is most visitors wear bathing suits. Five beach clubs line the space in between, and while there is some nudity (usually retirees staying at Club Orient walking the length of the beach or a few women sunbathing without their tops on at the other beach clubs) Most of the beach is a mix of visitors from villas nearby and day trippers arriving on cruise ships. The Beach Clubs are; Coco, Waikiki, Kakao, Bikini, and Kontiki. Each has it's own "vibe"; young with music booming, or relaxed and sporty, etc. The vibe can also change with the demographics of the cruise ship visitors on tour. One day during our stay, the beach club near us hosted a Disney Cruise line excursion, and there were dozens of squealing preschoolers on the beach with their parents and grandparents, dodging waves and playing with buckets in the sand.
During our stay we rented a car. It is relatively easy to get around St Martin, the roads are right drive, and well marked. However they are narrow in spots and traffic, especially on days when there are several cruise ships in port, can be really thick around the rotaries and roads headed into Philipsburg. We were upgraded to a small, fire engine red SUV, but most of the rental cars look just like this:
So, be sure to remember you plate number when you park your rental car!!
One of the benefits of staying on the French side of St Martin is the opportunities for fine dining. There are many French and other specialty restaurants, as well as beach restaurants and roadside barbecues called lolos (derived from the French, "lot lot" as in a lot of food!!)
Place Du Village, Orient Beach is just down the road from the villas and hotels of Orient Bay. We found a couple of small supermarkets, but the prices were high. The larger supermarkets used by the locals were much more affordable, although groceries are generally expensive on islands. In addition to some beach clothing boutiques and a good gelato shop, there are several decent restaurants, including a couple of French restaurants, an Italian restaurant and a Thai and sushi place within walking distance of the villas. We dined one night at the Thai restaurant, Tai Chi, and found it to be very good. If you did not rent a car, you could easily eat lunch at the beach clubs and dinner in Place Du Village and find enough places to fill most of a week and not eat in the same place twice. Note: the Place Du Village restaurants are usually open only in the evening, while the beach restaurants are generally only open during the day.
Beach Clubs each have an associated restaurant and bar. Most offer traditional beach fare with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Dining is outside and most of the clubs will open a tab and allow patrons to use chairs and umbrellas free of charge if you run a bar tab or have lunch at their restaurant. many of the nearby villas and hotels have arrangements with the beach clubs that allow you to show a card and put your beach club tab on your hotel bill, which means you can go cashless at the beach.
Prawns at Kakao Hamburger and pomme frites at Kakao
Grande Case We enjoyed many excellent meals, even at the beach, but Grande Case is where the best reviewed restaurants are located. Seven years ago, we visited Grande Case during the day to scope out the situation. We were shocked to see everything closed up during the day, with a shallow beach and a big community center hosting several grazing goats! We were having a tough time imagining this place as the gastronomic capital of St Martin! But it is! And they have paved the grassy patch near the community center into a large parking lot, so while parking is still tight, there is free public parking for guests of the restaurants. Also, there are plenty of cabs, so if you are without a car you can arrange a cab to drop you and have the hosts call one for you when you are through.
We found goats in the parking lot in 2007... ....and we found a more modern paved lot and plaza in 2015
But in both cases, the meals we enjoyed in Grande Case was excellent!
Generally the seaside restaurants score on views, while the street side restaurants rule the top of the Trip Advisor lists! We will cop to choosing some restaurants for their location and atmosphere so we chose a mix of restaurants on both sides of the street. During our short stay we decided to try one of each...a lolo, a seaside view restaurant and a top rated street scene restaurant.
Le Cottage was our choice for the street scene, highly reviewed traditional French Restaurant. We enjoyed a multiple course dinner with excellent wine. We spent well over 150 Euro for two of us with a bottle of wine. We enjoyed people watching folks coming up and down the street checking out the menus at each of the restaurants and the locals working at the other nearby restaurants. This was the best meal we had in St Martin, and we felt the service was excellent and well paced. (if you'll notice my captions, I make food a proper noun as a tribute to my grandmother. She was a champion eater, and quite a good cook too, and she always capitalized food, I think for her it had as much import as people and places!
Porch table French Onion Soup Steak Stuffed Shrimp
La Shambala was our choice for waterside dining. It's at the far end of Grande Case and because there are also several rooms for rent there, it has a view of a lovely pool area as well as the ocean. We spent close to 200 Euro for a multi course meal with the same bottle of wine we had at Le Cottage (we really liked it!) The service was excellent and the view was very romantic. we enjoyed the amuse bouche and appetizers so we had high expectations for our entrees, but the lobster and steak were good, but in our opinion the preparation didn't match the level of attention given to the prior courses.
Ceviche with mango sorbet Steak Lobster, right out of the tank!
Sky's The Limit was our choice for a lolo visit. The servers try to entice people from the street and this one smelled yummy and the servers were very friendly! The food here is as advertised - lolo is a word developed meaning "lot, lot" and there was a LOT of food! The meats are prepared on a big open grill on the street, and are accompanied by what I referred to as "a little comfort food from every culture!" It was delicious and filling, and the cheapest meal we had all week, each meal costing about 12-25 Euro.
Sky's The Limit Grill Shrimp non alcoholic ginger beer Grilled Chicken
In addition to excellent food, Grande Case has several boutiques and galleries to browse before or after dinner. We enjoyed people watching and there are also casual bars and a gelato shop to extend the evening.
Shops and galleries along the Blvd. de Grande Case
One of our favorite stops was the Elephant Box Gallery, with it's enthusiastic proprietor and her friendly dog. We enjoyed seeing her work inspired by her visits to Africa. I bought a pair of lovely silver bracelets, one with tiny silver elephants on it, for our daughters for Christmas while I was there.
Bars, shops and restaurants along Blvd. de Grande Case provide lots of people watching opportunities.
Things To Do
Obviously, the beaches of French St Martin are a major attraction. But there are plenty of things to do in addition to lying in beach chair with a drink in hand! Having spent more than 10 days here on vacation and several port stops over the years, we have several ideas for things to do...the caveat with these photos are that they are collection of all the different activities we have done over the years- we certainly DID NOT do all this during our short 5 day trip!
On the Dutch side, there is plenty of shopping! it's also the place to see the cruise ships in port. Although, if you are staying on the island, it's usually a good idea to google the port and research how many ships will be in town. When there are 2 or more large cruise ships, the city can be very crowded!
We also enjoyed a tour with Fun and Roll Segway Tours in April 2013. Fun and Roll is located right on Front Street along the Boardwalk
Again, plenty of shopping; lots of high end shops, restaurants and yachts bobbing in the marina. Instead of shopping, we headed up the hill to Ft St Louis. The fort itself is a little run down, but the views over Marigot are worth the hike! Look for the little sign along Rue de Republic, and follow the curvy road past the church and you will see the fort on the hill.
Loterie Farm and Pic Paradise
A little further along the North Coast of St Martin, Pic Paradise can be accessed Via a windy road just east of St Louis. This is the highest peak in St Martin, the Loterie Farm Nature Reserve features a hiking trail, zip line and restaurant.
Friar's Bay Beach is also along this North West Coast. Its a very quiet beach club, with more gentle waters than Orient Bay, and some colorful sculpture created from found objects along the road to Friar's Bay.
On the east side of the island, a small islet lies off the coast. If you follow the road to Cul de Sac, you will find a ferry operation running tourists over to Islet Pinel for 10 Euro or $13 dollars round trip. The ferry runs every 1/2 hour from the Cul de Sac parking lot, hours vary a nit by season, so check before heading over to Cul de Sac. For a quite a bit more you can get the water sports outfitters to take you from Orient Beach.
The waiting area and large parking lot at Cul de Sac Captain Gentle at the helm of the ferry A view to St Martin from the ferry
A kayak rental outfitter is also located at Cul de Sac and you can rent a kayak and paddle to Islet Pinel yourself. This is also the place to rent snorkel gear, as there is none for rent on the island.
The ferry lands at the island, which is a preserve, with no permanent structures of inhabitants. There are two beach clubs which will rent chairs and offer bar and restaurant service. These are strictly a cash operation, as there is no power on the islet.
We decided to take the hike around Islet Pinel. The public park includes descriptive placards along the trail in French and English which describe the local flora and fauna and also explain conservation efforts. The views out to Tintamarre and the nearly deserted beach on the far side of the island make the hike well worth the effort. Don't try to make the round trip in flip flops, there is some small elevation and rough terrain along the way. You'll encounter a map of the island, if you want to get to the sandy, quiet strand on the other side, the left (clockwise) trail is the fastest, while the right (counter clockwise) trail includes interpretive signs, scenic overlooks and picnic tables as well as interesting wildlife and plants.
The terrain is alternatively, a barely noticeable hip high grass path or rough rock hill side, with inviting sand crescents below.
The whole walk around the island is not quite a mile, and we found it very interesting. One of the beaches was covered with seaweed where a huge flock of herons foraged for food.
Finally, we reached the opposite side of the island where this nearly deserted strand was waiting. We were joined shortly by a local who arrived in his small power boat wearing nothing but his sunglasses. Several other visitors to the island eventually made the hike or paddle and after a while there were several groups snorkeling and sunning on their towels, but there was always plenty of room and the overall vibe was much more relaxing and natural (including a few "naturists") than the other side with the beach clubs with beach chairs lined up next to each other. The disadvantage to this side is there are no waiters coming by to take a drink order, and no other facilities. There are some interesting, old corals and a few fish to see underwater.
More to come!!