Some days later, I switched nationalities—geographically and culturally, anyway. An unassuming, unguarded border crossing takes me to St. Martin’s French side, but the landscape changes so dramatically, I find it hard to believe that I’m on the same island. Goodbye strip malls, high-rises, and frozen daiquiris; hello farms, lush hills, and wide-open spaces. The drive north is a pure pleasure, especially with the local radio soundtrack; an hour of channel surfing offers a musical tour of the Caribbean, including multiple languages (English, French, Spanish, a smattering of Jamaican patois) and a soundtrack of reggae, soca, and French-Caribbean zouk music.
As I cruised through the green countryside, singing along in broken French to a zouk classic I hadn’t heard in years, I smelled something. I screeched my car to a halt and located the source of the scent: homemade bread and pastries sold from a makeshift bakery in a small house where chickens roamed the driveway. I bought two baguettes and devoured a still-hot saltfish pastry that proved to be one of the best meals of my trip, its flaky, buttery crust a divinely French interpretation of a traditional West Indian patty.
Arriving at Orient Beach, I was greeted with a kiss on each cheek. “Bonjour, doudou!” exclaimed my friend Judith Mouial, whose French-Algerian father docked in St. Martin four decades ago and never left. He pioneered the first lodging, L’Hoste Hotel, on what was to become one of the Caribbean’s most buzzed-about strands. Orient Beach is St. Martin’s answer to Saint-Tropez, a hectic, seemingly limitless stretch where the techno music never falters and the people-watching is magnifique, especially on the beach’s south end, where clothing is optional and thongs come in microscopic sizes.
“When my father first set up his place here, there was nothing, just swamp,” Judith told me as we sipped espresso beside the massive Buddha statues of La Playa, her family’s chic beachfront café and bar. I scanned the scene. At every turn, my eyes found topless sun worshippers, Jet ski riders, tipsy revelers, and blissfully entertained children.
I took a long swim in the rough, refreshing sea—until a colossal wave knocked the wind out of me, encouraging me to seek a mellower scene. I’d heard about nearby Le Galion Beach, on a bay just south of Orient Beach, so I drove off on the hunt. Passing a butterfly farm and riding stables, with cacti growing at every angle, I pulled into a hidden gem: a nearly deserted inlet, shallow and calm, encircled by green hills and speckled with almond trees. Kiteboarders soared off in the distance. French children played in the shallow water; listening closely, I heard waves crashing at Orient Beach around the bend as I waded into the sea—and kept wading. Ahead of me was a narrow sandbar, onto which a few fellow waders had made their way. The sun set crimson and the light flirted with the shimmering surface, and before my eyes it seemed that people were walking on water.
I spent the next afternoon in Marigot, the French side’s scenic capital. After hours of haggling for spices and jewelry at the stalls of the waterfront Marigot Market, after window-shopping at the designer stores and ogling the gleaming yachts in the marina, after coffee and pain au chocolat in a café opposite the Palais du Justice, I spied a Moroccan restaurant. Instinct told me it had the mark of authenticity. Come dinnertime, instinct proved right.
At Le Marrakech, housed in a turn-of-the-century Creole home, Judith and I reclined on beaded pillows as the waiter poured our wine and paraded forth a feast: zesty salads with pita bread, vegetarian couscous, oven-baked tilapia, and, for dessert, dark fudge and sweet sesame glacé. “I was raised on North African food,” said Judith, sipping her mint tea, “and this place is definitely the real deal.”
So to is La Samanna, where I spent the night. With a Mediterranean-style complex of villas strewn across a velvety strip of beach at Baie Longue, La Samanna is one of Caribbean’s most renowned hotels, set in an affluent neighborhood where luxury high-rises loom over white-sand shores and manicured gardens. I ordered a bottle of rosé, took a long swim in the sea and relaxed in the infinity pool, lit fluorescent blue in time for sunset. The total serenity of it seduced me into doing the unthinkable: having a quiet saturday night in St. Martin.
The next morning, I drove back through Marigot and onward to the northern part of the island. With its dramatic cliffs, pink-and green-roofed houses, and dangerous curves (DESCENTE DANGEREUSE read the ominous street signs), the French Cul de sac area and nearby anse Marcel recall the Côte d’Azur ambience of St. Barts. Swerving down a lush green hill I checked into the Radisson Blu. Would that all brand-name hotels felt so modishly boutique, with gleaming white French doors and wooden shutters accented with lime greens and baby blues. Its small marina housed expensive-looking yachts, and the pathways and fountains across the vast, finely groomed lawn seemed lifted from an 18th-century French manor. The grand, snaking swimming pool, however, was all 21st century—and the largest one on the island.
But in my final days on St. Martin I was knee-deep in authentic Caribbean culture again, at Kali’s Beach Bar, somewhere north of Marigot.
“At many places on the French side, you feel like you’re in St. Tropez,” says Kali, the dreadlocked St. Martiner who, along with his blonde Parisian wife, Caroline, owns and operates the establishment. “But you know you’re in the Caribbean here.” Color is a sure giveaway—the bar, restaurant, beach chairs, and umbrellas are decked out in bright rastafarian red, gold, and green hues—and so is the soundtrack, provided by local radio stations and featuring roots reggae, dancehall, and zouk. Along with a small crowd of French tourists, I sunned and swam there all day, in the sapphire waters of Friar’s Bay, where Anguilla, maybe 12 kilometers to the north, seemed close enough to touch. As evening set in, I hung out at the wooden bar, drinking heady ti punch made with Guadeloupan rum. I feasted on treats from Kali’s Franco-Caribbean menu—crisp salads, fresh mahi-mahi, baguette sandwiches—and did shots of home-brewed rum infusions in tropical flavors: sorrel, ginger, banana, coconut. It’s a perfectly mellow island scene—except, I was told, when the moon is full. Once a month, a full-moon party transforms Kali’s into a reggae-fueled Burning Man. A live band plays Bob Marley and Dennis Brown covers; locals and tourists spill onto the dance floor by the bar; and as the clock strikes midnight, Kali lights a massive bonfire on the beach, letting the flames blaze until the music fades and the sun rises over another tranquil day at his beach-front haven.
Before jetting back home, I joined an outfit called Rhino Safari for a dinghy tour of the west coast of St. Martin. Starting on the Dutch side of Simpson Bay Lagoon, we zoomed northward through an armada of gigantic yachts and on through a narrow channel, leaving behind the cafés of Marigot and the stone ramparts of Fort Louis, built by the French in 1767. Near the top of the island, we stopped at a small reef called Creole rock for snorkeling. Sea urchins and blue parrotfish were plentiful, but I enjoyed being above the water more than below it. During the high-powered ride back to Simpson Bay Lagoon we jumped waves and my adrenaline skyrocketed. Then the sky suddenly darkened and, as the rain pelted me, I had an epiphany: how quickly I’d jetted from one side of Sint Maarten/St. Martin to the other, and yet the island, with its manifold vibes and worldly wonders, never felt small. No wonder I’m obsessed: St. Martin proves such a paradoxical union of the local and the cosmopolitan that its newness never expires; to be bored here would be like starving at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And in the end, the beauty of this trip was that plenty of the island remained undiscovered—saved, I knew, for the inevitable next visit.