THE CARIBBEAN'S ANSWER TO THE CÔTE D’AZUR
At the golden midpoint on the famed crescent of Orient Bay, 18-year-old Sebastian diligently looks after the watersports equipment — tightening the straps of the brightly colored kayaks, guiding the sailboats in, hauling the surfboards under a sinewy arm — and he offers expert service, despite his charmingly limited English. Sebastian is from Toulouse. On the marina in the main town of Marigot, glamorous Marie, her hoop earrings in constant motion, glides between the Art Nouveau lamps of Café Havana to serve up grilled lobster and gambas a la provençale (sautéed shrimp with garlic and parsley). She came here 20 years ago from Marseille, but she barely remembers the city on France's south coast. And then there's Jimmy from Antibes: The aspiring photographer enlisted a friend to play some serious soccer on the beach, displaying an athleticism befitting his former life as a gymnast and freerunner.
It's as if a chunk of the French Riviera broke off and floated away to seek sandier shores (the beaches off southern France, though lovely, are mostly smooth stones). Jimmy jumps into the calm waters of Orient Bay to get the sand off his back and out of his beard.
Their homeland is more than 4,000 miles away, and either on their own or as children with their families, they've come to this Caribbean island to live easily, tropically, as French expats (or part-time residents). Make that half this Caribbean island, the top half: St. Martin. The island is well-known as the smallest landmass to contain two countries; the southern half, St. Maarten, is Dutch.
But it's the French part that feels European. I work on perfecting my bonjour and bonsoir, and a few more key phrases: There are some cafés here where the menus and servers enlist only the French language. That's not the case at Le Divin, where the handsome and flawlessly multilingual Marcel brings me delectable jam — and chocolate-filled crepes. And that's not the case at the wildly popular Sarafina's in Marigot, a boulangerie and patisserie where the female staffers giggle appreciably when I say, "Merci, mademoiselle," especially when they are past the mademoiselle stage. Sarafina's croissants, apple tarts and macarons, it must be said, are the real deal.
And either language will suffice at the ultra-welcoming Coco Beach on Orient Bay. An oasis in fuschia and aquamarine, enveloped in the sounds of French smooth jazz, this sophisticated beach bar is full-service, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Eve, my server, who speaks fluent English, is originally from Burgundy. She moves lightly along Coco Beach's winding path, lush with coconut palms and seagrape, among wooden booths set in the sand under thatched roofs. I'm halfway into my pain perdu — crafted from a baguette cut on a slant — when I ask Eve why she came to settle in St. Martin.
She sweeps a slender arm across the panoramic view, taking in the parasailers and body boarders, the offshore islets and the gingerbread villas tucked into the hillsides. Coco Beach's hot pink sheers hang from the beach cabanas — very St.-Tropez — and stir in the Caribbean breeze. "It's paradise," she says simply, "and you can go around the whole island in an hour."
I know she's right. I've been to St. Martin before, and this time I'm happy to discover that renting a car and getting around is easier than ever. Hitting even three or more beaches in a day is completely doable. The day before in Marigot, Marie from Café Havana praised Baie Rouge ("Red Bay"). "The water is beautiful," she told me, "totally transparent" — and that jogged my memory, sort of. I knew the name of this beach from previous visits, but couldn't conjure an image of it; the thing I recalled about the island is that every plage (beach) I visited was fantastique. St. Martin is blessed in this way.
I drive off to the western end of the island, passing little Friar's Bay and then the large inland lagoon. I find the sign to Baie Rouge easily enough, and there's lots of parking. The spot is gorgeous, as entrancing as Orient Bay, but while Orient Bay is active with watersports, eateries, and boutiques (and even a stern nudist resort at one end whose denizens won't resist yelling at you if they spot a camera around your neck), Baie Rouge is deliciously rustic and remote-feeling, even if it's just a bit off the main road. Beachcombing and sunbathing are the primary activities here, and though a pair of buff Dutch tourists do handstands in the water, more typical is the couple who simply climb onto a rock and gaze out.
I spot a rock arch in the waters off the beach's eastern end, and I dive into the sea. It's as clear as Marie said, and the color is electric. I swim around an outcropping below a private villa and find a secluded cove. I drift in, walk the sands, admire the yellow striated cliffs. Then it's back into the water and I freestyle beneath the arch, the sea sloshing around the rock walls. The water isn't deep or even especially churny, yet the swim feels like an adventure. Then I find yet another uninhabited cove and luxuriate in the pleasures of sunny solitude. Moments like this define my Caribbean.
Back on Baie Rouge, I reward myself with a feet-in-the-sand meal at the beach bar Chez Raymond. What to have? The salade aux fruits de mer? The salade de langoustine? In the end, I choose the conch fritters and the grilled mahi-mahi. When the waiter asks what I want to drink, I tell him something colorful, with rum, and he says he knows just the thing.
With two beaches under my belt — one active, one serene — I end my stay in St. Martin at a luxury beach: Baie Longue ("Long Bay"). Because it's on the far western edge of the island, I plan to be here for the afternoon sun, when people on yachts soak up the day's last rays and the light-colored cliffs turn the sea underneath them into golden wavelets.
In other words, it's a great place for a glass of rosé, the Château Paradis Côtes de Provence Rosé, to be precise. I imbibe at Belmond La Samanna beach bar, where I chat with Michelinstarred chef Serge Gouloumès. Born in the southwest of France, he's worked in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and California — and won that Michelin star while overseeing the hotel Le Mas Candille, north of Cannes (he still has a home in Grasse). Serge has been in St. Martin for a year, and when I ask him what is the allure, after such an elite résumé, his eyes take in the bar's infinity pool, which overlooks the seemingly endless strand of beach, and he raises his eyebrows and shoulders in that Gallic way as if the answer is obvious.
Still, he concedes that living on a Caribbean island that receives very little rainfall has its challenges, culinary-wise, especially when you're offering the full range of Mediterranean cuisine as well as Caribbean specialties. "We source from Paris, Boston, and Miami," he says. "The lobster is from here, and the marlin" — his marlin carpaccio is to die for — "is from our own fisherman in Guadeloupe." Most of his produce comes from wetter Caribbean islands, though St. Martin is able to grow mango and papaya, the latter for Chef Serge's sublime papaya salad with grilled shrimp.
As on the island's other beaches, Baie Longue's lounge chairs and umbrellas are for hire, and I stretch out to embrace the cooling day. The yachts sail away. A couple walking their dog returns to their beach villa. Soon I'm the last one left, and as I start to roll up my towel, I say to myself, "Are you crazy?" With the whole sea to myself, I grab my goggles and jump in one last time.