07 January 2011
St Martin: Seclusion and Style
A private villa above a crescent beach, an Italian speedboat…and a wine cellar where 12,000 bottles await: French St Martin is the Caribbean with a Mediterranean accent - a haven of sophistication under the sun.
A common thread binding all our travellers is that we are culturally curious. While we naturally appreciate the five-star comforts that are the sine qua non of a 21st century luxury hotel collection, we also like a stimulating environment.
It could be the richly historic streets of St Petersburg, the soul-soothing temples of Luang Prabang, the endlessly raging waters of Brazil's Iguassu Falls - or the spicy cook-up of cultures that is the Caribbean. Yes, really - for while this sun-kissed region is renowned for lotus-eating, seasoned visitors will know that it also presents an engrossing mélange of sensational landscapes, bizarre colonial legacies, lilting music - and some very engaging people.
Few spots bear this out so vividly as the entertainingly schizophrenic island that is St Martin/St Maarten. Occupying a pivotal position in the Leeward Islands, it is the smallest island in the world to be divided between two nations - the result of a carve-up by European powers dating back to 1648. The southern half is Dutch, an enclave of guilders and Heineken signs where you'll find casinos, high-rise condos and marinas full of mega-yachts.
First DivisionMany myths surround the division of St Martin/St Maarten. The most popular involves a Frenchman and Dutchman sent to walk around the island in opposite directions, setting the boundary line where they met. The larger size of the Dutch territory is put down to the Frenchman's regular stops for glasses of his homeland's wine.
Head north, though, and you're suddenly in France, where the euro holds sway and handsome gendarmes in shorts patrol the beaches. For North American visitors, St Martin/St Maarten offers an intriguing way to get a taste of Europe without the long flights and rain. Only 37 square miles, the island is also a useful staging post for trips to other nearby jewels of the Caribbean, such as Anguilla, St Barths and St Kitts & Nevis.
If St Maarten is like a jolly but somewhat gaudy neighbour, St Martin is typically chic and cheerful. Life here feels instantly more refined. The streets of the capital, Marigot, are graced with patisseries serving featherlight quiches and tartelette aux framboises, and every day life stops for a civilised two-hour lunch break.
The coastline is sprinkled with waterside bistros and an impressive choice of 36 beaches, of which the best is Baie Longue, a near-private, mile-long swathe of white sand bordered by a bewitchingly blue sea. On the bluffs above sits La Samanna, the island's leading hotel, which long ago grabbed a million-dollar location that ensures guests enjoy an unrivalled combination of seclusion, sea breezes and panoramic views.
By Nigel Tisdall, an award-winning writer and editor, based in London
What were your favourite experiences on St Martin?