Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Foodie Families Will Love St Martin - our Dutch and French Side trips

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The view from our porch at Beachside Villas, SXM
St Martin is a great vacation spot for foodie families. There are tons of things to do on the island. Condos and villas are easy and relatively inexpensive to rent and accommodations and driving are very family friendly. I can honestly say, after five visits with a large group, we’ve never had a bad to trip to SXM.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Our family has visited SXM five times now and has yet to stay in a hotel while there. Villas and condos are the most common form of housing for vacationers which works out well for families wishing to save money and enjoy a larger home base equipped for board games, nights in together, and offering the “with kids” must haves like tv and a swimming pool, all which help minimize the exhausted cries of “I’m bored” and “I’m tired”. Down time and space are a must for our brood – something you just can’t get in a hotel room.
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The Living Room at Beachside Villas
Our two favorite rental locations are as different from one another as are our trips, but are equally as well appointed, offer similarly outstanding white glove service from their owners and offer “location, location, location” like a nail driven straight on the head in a way that “made” our trips. When traveling with our whole family – there are some 13 of us on a short day - we always stay at Beachside Villas on Simpson Bay Beach. Something of a fright from the tarmac – the sign behind the villas can be spotted from Princess Juliana Airport, our first impression was a tad, ahem, unnerving, upon arrival – I don’t reckon anyone chooses to stay near an American airport on purpose for the tranquility of it. Our faces were long with nerves and disappointment when we caught the first glimpse of our home away from home.
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The Outdoor Shower, Our Deck at Beachside Villas

WRONG!!! Boy, were we wrong! The planes do, in fact, land behind the villas, something that has become the source of hours of entertainment for our little travelers who love watching take off and landing from the flower-lined steps to our condos at Beachside. The villas proximity to the ocean – as in placement directly on the beach with a wide open patio on the seaside means the sound of crashing surf completely blocks out the sound of the landing aircraft. In fact, the surf sound on a blustery day often renders conversation from lounge chair to lounge chair rather a task – which in the case of a family getaway often offers another level of insulation and relaxation – and a perfect excuse to read more.
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Looking out from her room at Caribbean Salt
The villas themselves are a marvel in detail – Wide open, bright white, tiled and tropical they are a balance of clean and colorful.

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Scenic Vista between Orient Bay and Dawn Beach
But it’s the layout and the small stuff that makes Beachside a real gem. An internal solarium allows for barbequeing directly inside the villa, and the grill backs up to the window of the galley kitchen (perfect for two well synchronized chefs). So passing the proteins through the window is as smooth as on any line in a restaurant kitchen. There’s ample seating and surface space throughout for eating en mass but without trying to herd cats to the table (there is a 6 top in the dining area, and two 4 tops on the porch and solarium). Pretty accents in the form of storage vessels are everywhere on every desk or coffee table – making organizing the personal effects of a houseful like rental car keys, wallets, sunglasses and markers that much easier with a group going in a thousand directions at a thousand different times.

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Dinner at Home at Caribbean Salt
The beach itself is some 2 miles long and virtually uninhabited for it’s overall lack of access and parking. Morning walks the length of the beach with the kids followed by a dunk in the resort’s pool before taking off for the day is always a great way to ease into the day and the long time manager of the property, Marvline is like our family concierge offering everything from beach toys and sunblock when in need to real intel on where to go, what to avoid and what we shouldn’t miss. She even arranges your rental car to be delivered to the villa versus pickup up at the airport so upon taxiing over to Beachside, you’re greeted with an open door, a fridge stocked with ice cold beer and sodas for thirsty travelers while check-in is done with your feet in the Caribbean. Everything at Beachside goes that way…easily, and with great care from the amazing, warm and welcoming staff. Contact them at www.beachsidevillas.com Tell them the Goulart/Ameros/Nicastros from Gloucester, MA sent you.

On the French side, we love the youthful rum-drunk daytime beach resort
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The Living Room at Caribbean Salt
environment of Baie Oriental. Lively and busy with hundreds of beachfront restaurants, bars, chair, kayak and windsurfer rentals, some of the best looking people on the island and a distinctly St Martin blending of Caribbean and French cultures with pirate cocktails served to and by the French nationals who come to stay and play in this outskirt of the motherland. Known perhaps best for the (well marked) naturalist resort that occupies the southernmost end of this giant white sand paradise, anyone
who takes issue with typically French toplessness on the beach should steer clear. Ironically, the French only bare breasts while sunbathing where guests on the Dutch side do so for free drinks in many non-beach watering holes under billboards for strip clubs. I guess that’s less offensive because it’s so very American? 
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Julz Room at Caribbean Salt

Anyway…
This year’s trip to St Martin was markedly smaller – with just our little trio traveling we opted to follow our family’s own style and go total immersion French, renting a gorgeous, modern condo called, "Caribbean Salt" in the tropically appointed neighborhood of Baie Orientale, directly behind both the sands of Orient Beach and the hustle and bustle of restaurants and shops in the Place du Village Baie Orientale.

Apple green and mocha in the living room, the furniture and appointments have a very IKEA vibe, with hip strips painted across the stone walls lighting up the very sensible furnishings with a splash of color and little clutter. Lime and purple, rose and turquoise accent the rooms with a simultaneously French and tropical vibe and, like Beachside Villas, assorted containers in the way of ceramic bowls and wicker baskets offered a “place for everything”, which helped this momma tremendously in keeping track of things like keys and sunglasses and markers.

st martin, orient bay, jennifer amero, Caribbean, travel, families, rentals, beach, destinations, caribbean salt
Picked Up a Few Things at the Epicerie
Our hosts Laure and Arnaud kept enthusiastic correspondence in the months leading up to our trip and we stumbled together with Laure’s limited English and my rusty French. She was delighted to know I was a French speaker, though I suspect her confidence in me was slightly over estimated, as she sent the non-English-speaking Arnaud to meet us to check in and the absence of “operational French” became clear quickly when Arnaud attempted to explain the workings of the “planche grill” “’lave-vaisselle” and “ lave linge”. This proved to be a very comical obstacle throughout the week when trying to understand the settings on these conveniences or figuring out why the washing machine took 3 hours to clean a load (because we kept messing with it is the simplest answer, for the record).
Even the Outside is Turquoise


Our arrival at Caribbean Salt, was, like at Beachside, met with the most gracious and warm attention. A large basket of fresh fruit, a bottle of homemade rum punch were on the kitchen’s dining counter and the stores of groceries, like coffee, soup, pasta, cookies and even canned petite pois made feeding hungry Ameros simple and tasty without first hitting the market. And at every turn the owners were available to answer questions and make our stay in their beautiful property a truly relaxing holiday. Caribbean Salt is perfect for small families wanting a truly French Beach Vacation. Contact Laure and Arnaud here: http://www.vrbo.com/445221

DAY TO DAY AT ORIENT BAY

We frequented the local epicerie, each morning walking through the vibrant-by-night, sleepy-by-day centre-ville to purchase our daily pastries and fruit, returning apres beach for cold beer, wine, napkins, aspirin or pizza. I love these little markets where “everything” is sold. One night we ordered pizza here and enjoyed chilled champagne on the steps while we waited, served by the baker/clerk through the takeout window in a proper wine bucket to our picnic table on the stoop.

Day trips started and ended with a swim at Orient Beach and Happy Hour rum punches became part of our routine while watching the beach hawkers wrap up shop for the day. This is the perfect location if you don't want to drive on holiday. In fact, many of the other vacationers in the village came by taxi and never put on shoes or anything more formal than a sarong.

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Our Favorite Restaurant on the Island
On nights when we opted not to cook in, we’d journey to the little village square for live music, people watching, shopping and a not-so-typical visit to our not-what-you-expect pizzeria – La Pimente where our hostess Krystal greeted us with warmth, kisses and an energized tour de cart which offered what seemed a whole restaurant’s menu worth of specials that were not pizza. The Saint Marceline cheese en croute with fig served with a strawberry spring green and gastrique was our go-to favorite. I stopped at Simply Market en route to the airport to buy the ingredients for enjoying this back at home. That good.

DINING IN ST MARTIN
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Best BBQ at the "Lo-Lo" Sky's the Limit in Grand Case
Speaking of food, because it always come to food with me, particularly when visiting a FRENCH island, the gastronomically inclined can find no better vacation destination than St Martin. Dotted with hundreds, probably thousands of eateries ranging from roadside Creole fish shacks to some of the best French eateries operated by soon to be Michelin star winning chefs getting their chops in the colonies before returning home to practice in Paris proper, there’s no shortage of experiences to delight the belly.

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Our friend Tom and Jimbo of Jimbo's Cafe Helping Us Celebrate
And dining on St Martin is a joy for vacationers who like to dine out or in. For casual nights out, try“Sky’s the Limit” Lo-lo (locally BBQ)in Grande Case where the island family who own and operate this open air establishment serve up grilled meats, cole slaw, fresh local fish, corn on the cob and creole beans and rice with ice cold beer for prices so low you’ll reread the bill a few times to be sure they haven’t missed some charges.
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My Dad Being Serenaded at Cheri's Cafe
Poutin at the Get Wet Bar in Philipsburg is another pilgrimage worth making, and seeking out this hidden gem is a game in itself. Wedged between the bustling shopping thoroughfare of Front Street and the broad Oceanside boardwalk of Pburg, you’ll need only look for the maple leaf on the colorful sandwich board to locate this friendly Canadian owned eatery under a giant shade tree. Clean bathrooms, cold beer, a Bimini ring (ring toss/drinking game) and good kid friendly food make this a great stop for hot visitors, particularly during the Dutch side’s “Carnivale” parades that fill the streets during the April celebration of Queen Beatrice’s birthday, also not to be missed if you happen to be there around the 18th.
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Another Gorgeous Special at La Pimente



For fun family night's out, we love Cheri's Cafe in Simpson Bay - the show is a riot and the food is wonderful. An open air dining room decked out in all the colorful island chachke your eyes can take, this spot is a true dining experience. An hilarious "drag" show includes some help from unsuspecting guests and might even break out into a dance competition. The Cheri Burger, with teriayaki and caramelized onions is worth a return trip for lunch. We typically make this our last stop before hitting the airport.

Jimbo's Rock and Blues Cafe is our other favorite with the whole family for great food and service with a tex mex flair. The margaritas are gynormous and a river and pool in the heart of the dining room entertains

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Sailing on the Lord Sheffield
the little guys. Sadly, on our latest trip the pool was no longer in service but the appearance of Jim himself at our table and a very sparkly ice cream cake for Julz birthday kept the whole table smiling. That and those awesome margaritas!

The finer dining establishments on the island are plentiful with the better known restaurants in Marigot enjoying the most acclaim. We prefer to eat in Grand Case with so many truly French bistros and cafes abutting the busy, bumpy streets of this fishing village. The best French food on the island can be found here and L'Auberge Gourmande is bar none our favorite. We visit here on every trip for the duck, the fresh seafood, glamorous cocktails, the incredible wine list and the impeccable attention of the maitre d' who looks staggeringly like Kevin Spacey.
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Getting Ready to Snorkel on Ile Pine

For those choosing to dine at home, the markets are a wonder of gourmet possibilities. With Air France jets landing daily, rife with the goodies of the motherland delivered en mass, prices and selection make eating well a simple endeavor. Simply Market and Match are my favorites for great wine, charcuterie that’ll boggle the mind and a huge selection of high quality fruits and vegetables, never mind French chocolate, olives, cookies, preserves and sauces that make cooking in as exciting as eating out. For “convenience”, most little neighborhood shops offer fresh baked baguettes, high quality deli meats, a range of delicious French cheeses and the essentials like toiletries and sunblock. Eating well and filling in the needs of a family on the go is never difficult and always an experience in itself.

TO DO
Driving on St Martin is easy. Roads are well marked and well maintained for a Caribbean location and though hilly, the roads are not nearly as scary as many of the other volcanic destinations on the pirate seas. The island hilltop views of the shores and the neighboring islands make for an album’s worth of breathtaking photos and a great opportunity to pull over for a refreshment at some of the island’s many “pop up” snacks – frequently little more than a man with an ice cream cooler full of ice cold $1 Heineken.

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Shopping at Marigot's Day Market

With two nations sharing the same island, the variety of venues for visiting is any culture and culinary adventurer’s delight. From the large cities of Marigot (Fr) and Philispburg (NA) with their open air and designer label shopping areas, street food to fine dining and cruiseports complete with tour boats and hawkers, to the little cultural burrows that pepper the island of Sint Maarten/St Martin, such as the French fishing village of Grand Case and beach resort of Baie Orientale to the hopping yachting communities of Pelican Bay to the quieter St Baarth’s facing east coast neighborhoods of Dawn Beach and Oyster Pond, not to mention 30 something of the most beautiful
beaches in the western Hemisphere –no trip to St Martin is ever the same.
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Junior Carnivale Participant
Off island excursions to the picture perfect Anguilla with its watercolor violet seas or to St Bart’s for star gazing are easily (if not cheaply) arranged through ferry services in Marigot and Pelican Bay. A Nantucket Sleigh Ride style journey over to Saba is an adrenaline rush for the truly adventurous and physically fit. This island seems to rise straight UP out of the Caribbean.
Our family’s annual “must dos” are sailing on the LordSheffield, shopping on Front Street in Philipsburg, competing in the crab races while watching the planes land at Sunset Beach Bar, grabbing the ferry over for a quiet day on the family friendly “Ile Pinel” and starting the morning at LaFerme Papilion (St Martin’s butterfly farm near dawn beach – the view of St Bart’s on the way over is amazing).

WHEN TO GO/GETTING THERE
Jetblue flies direct from Boston several times a week. For housing rentals try www.flipkey.com www.homeawaytravel.com and, of course, check Trip Advisor for more good solid travel recommendations. I wouldn’t go anywhere without looking here first. Accommodations and flights drop significantly in April and traveling then will also mean experiencing Dutch Carnivale, which is well worth waiting out the spring showers, if hot.

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Watching Planes Land from Mullet Bay Beach

















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