Reporters Note: The summer season is long a memory, the winter holidays are over and the Hamptons are relatively quiet until Memorial Day…time for an escape and I think Spring is a perfect time for the Caribbean! Spring is the start of their off-season and there are great resort and hotel values to be found. I have been visiting the island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin for years, but I decided to make my last visit a working vacation by writing a three-part destination piece on this half Dutch/half French paradise that I truly love, concentrating solely on the French side of the island, Saint Martin, this time around.
About a four hour flight from NYC, for many years only American Airlines and Jet Blue served the island. Now several more air carriers fly non-stop to Princess Juliana Airport located on the Dutch Side, but I highly recommend Jet Blue. The fares are fabulous and I have always found the airport staff and flight crew attentive and highly professional. You definitely need to rent a car while on the island, however wait until you arrive then stroll the counters of the independent car rental agencies and negotiate for the best price. This past trip we rented a compact hatchback for the entire week for only $170 USD! There is a second airport on the French side, Airport de L’Esperance, appropriate for private jets flying out of East Hampton Airport and NYC.
Part Two: Anse Marcel and Orient Beach
If you are looking for seclusion in Saint Martin then Anse Marcel is your destination. This beautiful cove engulfed by mountains on all sides is accessed by a single two-lane road that is reminiscent of driving the Amalfi Coast in Italy with its winding curves and severe elevated cliff drops. It is easy to understand why in 1989 President Bush and French President Mitterrand chose this part of the island for a summit, as it is the perfect geographic scenario for absolute Secret Service security.
That very summit took place at the now Radisson Blu, at the time the iconic and historic resort known as L’Habitation de Lonvilliers. One is immediately struck by the stunning façade of the Radisson Blu’s Parthenon like columns with billowing blue and white curtains. The lobby is expansive with check-in counter, concierge service desk, lounge seating areas and a lovely bar where General Manger Jean-Marc Jalbert and his extraordinary team host an arrival evening cocktail party each night for guests.
The Grande Terrasse courtyard of the Radisson Blu is stunning and expansive bordered by the two main wings of rooms that along with the five Marina Suites make up the accommodation choices of this first-class resort. Our room in Wing One was light and airy with a lovely pale palette and a view of the harbor and Caribbean from our balcony. The bed was extraordinarily comfortable and the linens were absolutely luscious. The bathroom was large with full tub and shower, lovely appointments and top shelve bath accessories. Those with families looking for kitchen amenities should book one of the Marina Suites. I toured the Presidential Suite and it was impressive.
Along the paths to the beach one intersects the Restaurant Le Marche where an elaborate and extensive complimentary breakfast buffet is served each morning. This same building houses the fitness center and what may be one of the finest spa/salons on the island, Le Spa. Radisson Blu has undoubtedly the largest pool on the island; it is literally the size of a small lake. The beachfront is beautifully maintained with a terrific tiki bar and every water sport imaginable is available.
A walk along the beach “Promenade” will lead you to “C” Le Restaurant, where Executive Chef Bruno Varenne has created a cuisine de maison that has elevated this resort restaurant to a dining destination on Saint Martin. Every course was a standout, but I recommend the Ahi Tuna Sashimi with seared Foie Gras and the Seared Sea Scallops as starters. The Lobster Bisque is one of the best I have ever tasted. Regarding terre and mer main courses, the Seared Duck Breast and Seared Sea Bass were both superb. Definitely include the Crème Brulee as a dessert, served in the shape of a log and absolutely delicious.
Anse Marcel is close to the most popular beach on the island, Orient Beach. No matter where we are staying on the island in any given year we almost daily make the trek to this beautiful, long and, frankly, Bacchanal stretch of beachfront. Located on the Northeast corner of the island the on-shore breezes are perfect and refreshing without minimizing the tan bake everyone but this alabaster skinned Scotsman wants to bring back from the Caribbean. (In the words of Woody Allen, “I don’t tan, I stroke!”)
Orient Beach is lined with beachfront bars that offer chaise lounges, umbrellas (for Celts like me), bar and food service, bathrooms, showers, and some have live music. The bars battle for customers with prices for your day long spot in the sun from $7-$12 dollars per person, which includes chaise lounge and umbrella along with your first drink, I am not kidding and they all do an even exchange of dollar to euro!
I think the best Orient Beach bar by far is the “String Beach Bar” and where we park ourselves in the glorious Caribbean sun every April. Owned by an American Baltimorean when we first visited Saint Martin all those years ago, the bar is now run by the brother of Chef Pascal Paviani (Piazza Pascal mentioned in Part One) and his lovely wife and charmingly precocious son, who seems destined to be the first French born, Caribbean raised Surfing World Champion. Beyond great drinks and a fabulous staff, the food at String Beach Bar is fantastic!
That said, the real celebrity at String Beach Bar is Johnny, the best “Beach Boy” on Orient Beach! (Please save the PC outrage, like it or not, that is the term in Saint Martin.) Beach Boys are essentially beach waiters that bring the drinks and food to the beachfront chaise lounges and make a damn good living doing it, but also are the salesman for their bars to the tourists walking the beach looking for a place to park their bodies in the sun…none is better in all aspects, as both a beach “man” and salesman, than Johnny!
We left Radisson Blu for a two-day stay at what is arguably one of the top 10 resorts in the world, La Samanna, which I will devote the third part of this destination article to exclusively. However, after our stay at La Samanna we returned to Anse Marcel for our final night in Saint Martin at La Domaine de Lonvilliers, a very pleasant and unexpected surprise of a resort.
La Domaine de Lonvilliers, and this is meant as an absolute compliment, is Bohemian bliss! Literally sharing a property line with Radisson Blu, my impression of this resort was one of a laid back ambiance with no hype, no attitude, and no corporate signature. A grand dame of a hotel that did not age well, it is now a property of the world renowned Chef Christophe Leroy. This is a historic and venerable resort in transition, thankfully evolving in all the right directions.
First and foremost, I loved our room! It had the most creative décor and design of any hotel suite I have experienced on the island. Colorful and eclectic, the suite was large and airy, yet not an inch of space did not draw your eye to a piece of sculpture or artwork and all perfectly complimenting each other. The bedroom was as large as the sitting area and the expansive balcony was the width of both. A large, step-up soak tub was in the corner of the bedroom set against the window of the balcony with the option of a pull-back curtain to bathe privately or soak publicly and view the beauty of Anse Marcel.
Le Domaine de Lonvilliers has all the beach and water sport amenities necessary including a colorful and very local feel waterfront tiki bar. There is a lovely bougainvillea bordered pool and another adjacent bar to it that serves light cuisine. “Spa, Comfort Zone” offers all possible salon services, including alfresco massages in curtained huts along the beachfront.
Of course, as a signature Christophe Leroy property, there is a signature Christophe Leroy restaurant, “La Table du Marche.” Open-aired with stunning views of the harbor and the Caribbean, it goes without saying that the cuisine matched the view. We opened with Foie Gras with mango chutney that literally melted in our mouths. Regarding my main course of Lamb Ribs with crisps of garlic, all I wrote on my menu notes was, “Exceptional!!!” Lily had the generously sized cut of Chilean Sea Bass that was cooked to perfection and complimented perfectly by Leroy’s Miso sauce. We finished with an absolutely classic Crème Brulee and a Pomme Tarte, both excellent. The Carte de Vin is also excellent and it was nice to see it was almost exclusively French, appropriate for Saint Martin and bravo Chef Leroy for passing on Napa, Italy and Chile. As they say, “When in Rome!” To the credit of Le Domaine de Lonvilliers, in the case of Saint Martin “When in France!”
Although strikingly beautiful, the resort is in need of some restoration and that is exactly what is happening. What it is not in need of is a superb staff that aims to please beyond expectation and frankly one of the best luxury hotel values in the Caribbean, simply because it is going through some restoration that will go completely unnoticed by you the average tourist. Carpe diem my friends! Book your Jet Blue flight and seize this affordable opportunity to visit a wonderful first-class resort that very soon will be one of the pearls of the Caribbean and, appropriately, priced to match in another year or two.
Next Part Three: One of the world’s truly great resort hotels, La Samanna!