There are islands in the Caribbean which have wonderful snorkeling, long, sandy beaches and turquoise waters. There are islands with French culture and cuisine, affordable restaurants and boulangeries (a definite attraction in my books!). There are the Dutch islands with their pristine, clean buildings and cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial streak. And then there is SXM which has all those things. Saint Martin on the French side, Sint Maarten on the Dutch side, one island, two nationalities, three currencies (the dollar is accepted everywhere), people from many destinations and chandleries galore. As one friendly Saint Martinian said, “Saint Martin is a soup” and had enough to keep us occupied for a month although we had arrived intending to stay only a few days!
SXM is also chandlery heaven and as we have decided to sail south of the (traditional) hurricane zone and stay in the Caribbean this summer, it made sense to stop here and stock up on all sorts of chandlery provisions before sailing south. This was both our pit stop and a chance to spend some time with friends before they headed either north to Chesapeake in the US (fair winds Rum Truffle) or back east across the Atlantic (safe passage to you Corryevechan and Free Cloud).
We arrived in extremis. Having flipped our dinghy in the mad gusts off the mountain of Basse Terre in Guadeloupe and having failed to revive it for a sensible price in Antigua, we found ourselves without an outboard. A gentle downwind overnight sail to Saint Martin meant that we could save ourselves several hundred dollars by getting an outboard here. Dinghy dramas have been a bit of a recurring theme for us and we were determined to reduce the chances of having more. When you are living at anchor, a reliable dinghy and outboard are essential to get to shore. Anchoring up in the vast and bumpy Marigot bay illustrates why .There was so much swell and wind that I quickly jettisoned my ambition to row ashore and shouted over to our nearest neighbour on an Australian catamaran, instead. Derek was a true good Samaritan to us. Not only did he tow us ashore, he towed us right across the enormous Simpson lagoon all the way to Island Water World, even going so far as to accompany us into the store and introduce us to the manager. Great! Within a couple of hours we were mobile and independent again, proud owners of a brand new 15 horse power Yamaha outboard. All that was needed now was my skill with a needle to make a grotesque bespoke outboard cover to disguise its squeaky newness. Cheers Derek! We hope to meet you again in Curacao and buy you a beer or two!
The first of many chandlery visits, shopping in Island Water World at SXM is like being a member of a prestigious club. Sales guys Rene and Eric are as friendly and helpful as it is possible to be, happy to chat about anything boat related under the sun. In fact, IWW runs free seminars, provide free bikes to borrow (I risked my life on one to cycle around the Simpson lagoon but didn’t repeat the experience) and even have shower facilities on site. With prices pretty difficult to match or beat and the wonderful Lagoonies bar offering locally brewed beer just next door, we kept returning for a couple more things.
The lagoon itself requires a reliable and powerful outboard to cross. It takes a good twenty minutes to get to the Dutch side from the entrance in Marigot bay. Although we had seen a few signs of the consequences of Irma and Maria before in Dominica, Simpson bay gave us a real insight into the scale of the disaster caused by those hurricanes that broke all the records in 2017 . Even today the lagoon is full of wrecked boats, some of them appearing to have been destroyed by a wrecking ball. The French side particularly has buildings and infrastructure which is still being rebuilt. Marigot, their capital has a marina called the Marina Royale. It was extremely handy for dinghies, fringed with great value restaurants and a wonderful bakery which became our first coffee and croissant stop after tying up. Although the shops and restaurants have rebuilt and reopened, the floors above them are still partially derelict and the boardwalk was being reconstructed while we were there. Occasionally someone would tell us about the trauma of the event and how terrifying it was. We will be thinking of the islands and their plucky residents every rainy season now!
We enjoyed visiting the two capitals of SXM which are very different in style and feel. Marigot was on our doorstep as it is very easy (and free!) to anchor in the enormous Marigot bay if you don’t mind the constant wash from speed boats as they zip back and forth to nearby Anguilla. Marigot is typical of the French/Caribbean hybrid, has many French stores and the familiar (to me) French post office, some stylish elements and some grungy bits. The fort offers great views over the bay and the distinctive circular marina which wouldn’t answer our emails!
Philippsburg is very clean and all about Duty Free shopping for the Cruise ships offering designer brand stores, jewellery shops specialising in diamonds guarded by burly security guards and Indian owned electronics stores selling the cheapest wide screen TVs in the Caribbean. Our shopping wasn’t just for chandlery purchases and French yogurts… we splashed out on a new laptop, computer screen and a Samsung smart TV to replace our old one as well, dinghying it back to the boat to the amusement of local tourists hanging out in the bar! The board walk along the beach is beautifully done and some of the older Dutch buildings such as the old Court house are very well preserved. We were lucky enough to be there during their 50th carnival when locals well outnumbered the cruise liner tourists. Their festival village, a venue with stage for concerts and many, many food stalls offers amazing value Caribbean barbecue with Indonesian influence and is a wonderful place to sample authentic Sint Maarten atmosphere with hardly a tourist to be seen.
We rented a car and enjoyed going around the island. Like Antigua, SXM is an older volcanic island and over millennia has eroded to become lower lying. This means that it does not have the lush, green tropical rain forests and waterfalls that younger volcanic islands like Grenada, Guadeloupe and Saint Lucia have. On the plus side, it means that the climate is drier and sunnier and that it has shallow bays of white sand. This offers the turquoise waters, sandy beaches and sunny climate that tourists love. In this respect it has been able to recover its tourist activity more quickly than Dominica, for example, which lost a lot of the lush, tropical vegetation for which it is famed. There are many lagoons in SXM which are less picturesque but offer plenty to please bird watchers.
We drove past, rather than visiting, the casinos and strip bars which pull in so many punters on the Dutch side (although a friendly lady at one of the chandleries told me that I should go to one of the strip bars as they are fun for women, too!). Our favourite base was a lot quieter. Just around the corner from Marigot bay we fell in love with a small bay that has a big view of Anguilla called Grand Case. The perfect place to be a lounge lizard for a while after all our hard work (and shopping)!