Traveler's USA Notebook


St. Martin/Sint Maarten
Two Trips in One



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When you go to St. Martin, you also go to Sint Maarten. The busy Caribbean island has a French side and a Dutch side, making it quite the Gemini getaway. Traveler was off to Le Meridien resort for a week of creative loafing.

Secreted in the most sequestered, sleepy Baie Anse Marcel, at the the French side's tippy-top, Le Meridien Hotel is almost a fortress. Bill Gates, if he wanted to get unplugged for a few days, could stay here without a second thought.

To get to Le Meridien, your $30 taxi from the airport (plus a tenner tip to the driver, please, for saving your life) goes down and up steep paved and unpaved roads and hairpin turns, and passes through two sets of barricades and guards. Not every car is up to the rigours of the journey. We got thrown out of our first cab at the airport when the driver realized her brakes might not be able to handle the challenges of the road. Cabbies go slowly, safely and expertly on these roads, without tricks. As you approach your cloistered citadel, your vehicle crawls and clings to its twisting, turning mountain road and suddenly you see it, the big blue bay, then, the sand, the sky, and still more sparkling sea. It is breath-catching. Don't look over the edge. you can look.

Le Meridien Hotel is an island within an island: very safe, very clean, very quiet…and very far away from the rest of St. Martin.  Ah.  Its vast, sprawling, landscaped grounds are adorned with bright spots of hibiscus, sea grape, bougainvillea, and, of course, palm trees. On the grounds are two pools, no Jacuzzis, places to play bocce and volleyball, bars, restaurants and a lovely private beach with the cleanest sand, even into the sea, we've ever seen.


A word about resort hotels. On the plus side, you can come in, collapse, relax, turn off your mind and float downstream. The restaurants are there, and there's a snack shop, beach shop, and  newsstand. You're on Fantasy Island. On the minus side, you could feel yourself to be  a prisoner. The real world is a pointlessly pricey taxi ride and miles away or a somewhat cheaper but rigidly and not daily scheduled hotel-sponsored bus ride away. On some days the bus goes to Phillipburg, Sint Maarten and some days it  goes to Marigot, St. Martin. (Tip: Local driver offers private services at moderate fees. Say no more.)



Resort living enforces the lotus blossom standard; but you’ve got to get out once in awhile and see the surrounding turf. We took taxis and bus expeditions to the big towns.  




Phillipsburg       On the Dutch Side




Before pulling away from the Meridian Hotel, the bus driver told his passengers that it was cooler in the back.  And off we went to Phillipsburg.  A disembarking passenger told the driver it wasn't so cool in the back.  He smiled and said, " This is the Caribbean."  He had a point. It was December and the thermometer registered 87° F. But the driver was cool. He drove calmly, unflappably, despite the at times terrifying sequence of hairpin curves, opposing motorists and an occasional herd of cattle monopolizing the road.

It was a quiet day in Phillipsburg.  No cruise ships, and no cruise ship shoppers.  So the streets were merely crowded, almost like one big market, punctuated by bright red, blue, orange and yellow fabrics, signs pushing Cuban cigars, loose gems and diamonds, duty-free electronics and liquor and all the usual global logos.  Women stand outside the shops, urging passers-by to come in. 


The two main thoroughfares are Front Street and Back street.  Front Street has the logos, and the gaudy, glitzy, more expensive stuff.  Back Street stores are funkier and more interesting, wholesale and retail,  and are absolutely chockablock with tourists and locals looking for savings on fabric, household items, toys, stereos, CDs, towels, linens, luggage, the lot. It's well worth poking around back here, even if sometimes the sidewalks are missing...and you can catch a bus to anywhere for a dollar or two. 




Marigot    On the French Side




It's off in the car to Marigot we go.  But first Traveler needs to stop off for a shave and a haircut.  Our driver takes us to his friend the barber in Grand Case.  Chance Damian's tonsorial parlor is next to a cafe and car wash.  "He is very accurate," our driver tells us. , What he didn't tell us is that Mr. Damian, wearing a Yankee baseball cap and armed with a clipper and a smile, is very talented! If you need a good haircut please visit Chance. Smalls' paradise barbershop telephone 
06 90619571 Formidable! 




The Marigot street market is by the water.  Boats and bar hopping are in the background.  You’ll find sarongs, T shirts, handicrafts. Mr. Coconut Man offers Coco Frio.  Up and down the streets are boites and cafes. On a side street, more like an alley, we found Croc Folies and enjoyed a 3 Fromage panini and ravioli with mushroom cream sauce. It's located at 8, Rue Général de Gaulle.
Tel.0690 53 68 07




 If you’d like, you can just hang out and practice your foot-dangling at the fortressed Le Meridien.  




Things to Watch Out for at Le Meridien:




NO JACUZZIS at Le Meridien! (No, we're not taking a bloody shuttle bus to the other hotel to use the spa and coming back wet. Install one this minute: your guests are tired!)


ESCARGOT STYLE FOOD SERVICE: Your food's a-gonna be a loooong time a-comin'. Sit down at the table at least an hour before you get hungry — especially at lunch You can amuse yourself by watching the snail races. Look at those escargots.


SCANDALOUS  BEACH TOWEL PENALTIES.  Don't flatter yourselves, mes amis. Your towels were never all that, cheri. Lose yer bloody towel and pay a 45 euro fine. No thanks. We'll buy our own in town for a fiver.


BEASTLY BATHTUBS. In the 'posher' La Domaine section, the baths are huge, round and high. One climbs up three creaky wooden steps just to get in…and if you don't break your neck falling forward, jolly good luck to you getting out again. Nobody over 42 or a little bit tipsy  will feel comfortable navigating the benthic depths of this terrible turkey of a tub, and every single one of the tacky green-curtained rooms on the La Domaine siderooms have the middle of your bedroom, where the only way to bathe in privacy is to pull the hospital curtain. Over at the other side, at the Habitation section, the baths approach, but do not quite manage to reach a normal navigable standard. Did they buy their plumbing in bulk and on the cheap? You still must step way too high to get into the tubs, but then these were made for very skinny and stumpy Lilliputians. Again, good luck to you getting out of the bath without getting stuck in the narrow porcelain corridors. And where are the rubber anti-slip mats for the shower? Eh? Do not come here with your tall supermodel lover or your basketball star, or if your sweetie is recovering from knee surgery. C'est pas un hotel de luxe! Ouch. Small athletes should do fine here.


CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH FOOD SERVICE The events of the following true story lasted for maybe 90 minutes, at most. But they were the first 90 minutes of our stay. You only get one first impression.


On arrival night, amidst the poetic plip-plops of a powerful tropical rain, we were embarrassed to report hungry. We intrepidly reconnoitered the area to see what we could find. The results? Two restaurants one closed and the other open.  The closed restaurant was accessible only by treacherous, slippery wet tiles. We spoke to the man in charge. Sorry, he said. Closed for a special party. We went to the second restaurant, which was, not so oddly enough, empty. Call room service, cheerfully advised concerned staff at the second.


We did.  And then we discovered that room service was operated by the first and still very closed restaurant.  Chef said there would be no room service that night, for  the party needed his full attention. We rang the front desk: what and where and how could one find                     dinner? Three minutes later Chef  was on the line.  He wondered what we might like to eat that night. The food arrived ever so swiftly,  faster than any other room service in the world. Later we learned Chef was new and how fortunate it was he had a chance to learn what life was like in a hotel. By the way the food was great. 




Things to Like About Le Meridien:




YOU CAN'T GET A BAD MEAL...when it turns up. Everything's delicieux...and fresh. The coconut jam  at the breakfast buffet is stunning.




YOU ARE SAFE, safer than you've ever been in your life. You can fall asleep at nine. Everything is quiet, except for the strange beautiful sounds of night birds, who sing softly all night. Heaven.  




THE STAFF.   Everyone is extremely nice to you. Alain Alidor, Guest Relations Officer, is exceptional - he's the go-to-guy at Le Meridien,  and he can wave a wand and make your hotel nightmares disappear.  He da man, at hotel extension 2500.  




THE BREAKFAST BUFFET: It's served with a large dollop of exquisite view (see photo right) and its huge and unusual smorgasbord. We had coconut, guava, pineapple, rum-and-lime, strawberry, banana and a zillion other jams and purees we could blob onto our toast or plop into our yoghurt every morning, plus 1000s of eggs, cheeses, fruits, breads and baguettes, pancakes, jalepeno fritters, oatmeals, mueslis, granolas, cereals, pickles, tomatoes, and trust us, much, much more. The egg chef is a master. A flick of the wrist here, a twist here, and voila! Perfection.  





THE LA BELLE FRANCE RESTAURANT, all grace and soft glitter, and right on the grounds.  Decorous, soft, understated but attentive service cossets you.  Somewhere on the menu there was hope for vegetarians.  Vive le potage.  Called "Garden Vegetable Soup" you know it as the French classic, 'Potage Bonne Femme" (Good Wife Soup) And they do a gorgeous vegetarian pasta if you ask. 

 Dr. Lucy, please do not read the following.  Dessert could be dark chocolate entrechat with strawberry coulis,  dense, intoxicating, and ringing chimes as it goes down.  A good argument that there very well might be something to this chocolate thing.  






NICE, MASTERFUL MASSAGES AND REIKI by the wonderful  Maria De Los Angeles at an air-conditioned room on the hotel's beach! Just walk up and flop down. (Trained in Venezuela, this talented healer seems to have eyes in the tips of her fingers. With her strong but gentle hands she will chase all the baddies out of your poor battered little body.) If you're not staying at Le Meridian, you can still have a treatment by Maria, who also has a loyal following at her private practice in Marigot, so you can arrange for a massage with this expert healer privately. Don't expect her to ring you back if you're ringing from outside St. Martin, but you can let her know when you will be arriving and give her your name and St. Martin hotel telephone number. Call in advance to book:  From the USA dial 0590  690  730509.  




THE SUPERETTE adjacent to the Meridien. Stroll through the general store’s narrow aisles and find all the necessities for tropical life — sarongs, postcards, canned ratatouille, chips, Gummi bears, key chains,  jewelry,  laundry detergent and more. In the background, coming from the radio are the the rocking strains of “Va, Johnny, va.”




A stay at Le Meridien offers an excellent blend of nature, nurture and gotcha-cha-cha. You can lounge about on the beach and peer into the pretty bay; hire nautical craft;  stroll through the gardens; sit at the pool bar and peer at  the pretty people; get some great rubs; play some wonderfully lethargic volleyball; eat and eat and eat. And then just when you think you’re really crazy, you can go into town and do what you’re supposed to do — spend and spend and spend at the duty-frees.




Would we stay again? Not until the management treat the employees with better incentives and praise for fast service, make daily bus service available to garrisoned guests (once a week for each town is not enough, Cheris), buy decent bathtubs,  and do something to relieve and rehouse the poor, freaked out, caged and miserably lonely parrot Juliette, who cries or just stares out through the bars, silent and depressed in her cruel solitary confinement, day after day, slowly going mad. Sometimes she does not even talk or sing anymore.




Animal rights people, DO something about this poor lonely creature, before she goes mad from boredom and life as a pauvre seul perroquet.




Le Meridien St. Martin, vous devez avoir honte! Shame on you for neglecting this pretty blue feathered innocent creature, year after year! It breaks the guests' hearts and turns our stomachs to note your indifference to her, day after day, and reportedly, year after year, as she descends into a deep blue depression, staring out into nothingness.




There are hundreds of abused parrots in captivity in the Caribbean, for no good reason but custom. But thoughtful travelers need not be prisoners of indifferent, cynical hotel conglomerates. Le Meridien should do better, and quickly.


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