A Tale of Two Cultures

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Grand Case Beach Club in St. Martin offers a laid-back vibe.
Grand Case Beach Club in St. Martin offers a laid-back vibe.

St. Martin/St. Maarten packs a cultural punch. On the north side, this dual-heritage, 37-sq.-mile island associates itself with the French West Indies, while the southern portion, St. Maarten, is part of the Netherlands Antilles. Where the south is lively and energetic with its frequent cruise ship visitors, shopping opportunities, active nightlife options and well-known North American eateries, the north is a touch more laid-back, with quieter beaches, untouched reefs and superb international cuisine.

Steve Wright, Grand Case Beach Club’s general manager, says, “On any given day, you can use three or four languages and eat culinary offerings from all over the world. Over 180 nationalities create a taste so rich that it sometimes overpowers you…but if you can handle it, there are few places on earth that can rival the diversity that we have here.”

going dutch

St. Maarten, as it’s called on the Dutch side, gains much of its incoming revenue thanks to its cruise terminal, located in St. Maarten’s capital, Philipsburg, which means tourists are brought in almost daily. Beaches here will almost certainly feature chaise longues and umbrellas for rent, with a bar no more than 15 steps away. Boutique shops that sell real handcrafted and artistic treasures can be spotted among neighboring touristy souvenir shops, and some vendors even sell their wares while they walk down the sidewalk alongside you.

And the activity doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. Nightlife abounds on this side of the island, with some prime nightclubs including Tantra and Bliss. St. Maarten also lays claim to each and every one of the island’s 13 casinos, the largest and most popular of which is Casino Royale at Sonesta Maho Beach Resort. “Our clients appreciate the variety in St. Maarten,” says Laura Sangster, owner of The Journey Group travel agency. “They love being able to spend one night dressed up at the casino, and the next in shorts with their toes in the sand at a rustic beach bar.”

As far as accommodations, Sangster adds, “Hotels tend to differ slightly between the two sides. Where most of the larger resorts are on the Dutch side, many of the French accommodation options are smaller, more intimate hotels.”

As far as water activities go, there are innumerable watersports operators lining the beaches, offering various half- and full-day trips. The Dutch side happens to lay claim to many of the islands 30+ scuba sites, though the sites on the French side are just as incredible.

parlez-vous français?

On the north side of the island, the national culture is much stronger than on its southern side. Here, the French language is fairly prominent, the official currency is the euro, electronics will require voltage converter plus, and often, cuisine is prepared in careful accordance with French style…which can mean imported ingredients and fresh-baked baguettes and croissants daily.

In fact, St. Martin is well-known for its excellent cuisine, with a bevy of French restaurants lining the streets. Sangster agrees that dining on the French side is a big plus to visiting St. Martin.

“What I love,” Sangster says, “is that the island offers cuisine from around the world, but every menu shows evidence of the French and Caribbean influences.” Citing one of her favorite cafes, she says “Sarafina’s Bakery has some of the best pastries outside of Paris—all of our clients rave about it. Addictions are formed there.” For a European market-style ambiance she recommends Bacchus, adding that L’Estaminet is another popular, safe choice. And for a nice night out, our favorite is the elegant and upscale eatery Pascal’s.

In addition to delightful meals, St. Martin offers exquisite shopping, and the northern beaches are perfect for a quiet day in the sun, sans vendors peddling henna tattoos and hair braids. However, before they set out, you might want to warn your beach-going clients that things here are done the French way, so they shouldn’t be surprised if they run into any topless or nude sunbathers.

Known during the day for its beach, Orient Beach transforms during the evening hours, when many of its restaurants, resorts and beach clubs feature live music and entertainment. That’s when the beach becomes a dance floor, and locals and visitors alike find themselves dancing to the sound of the steel drums.

And in Marigot, St. Martin’s capital city, open-air markets are held twice-weekly, where shoppers can pick up all manner of fresh fruits, meats and spices, in addition to home goods, arts and crafts.

relaxation central

During our time hop-scotching from one part of the island to the other, we stayed at Grand Case Beach Club in St. Martin. The property features 72 perfect guestrooms on the shores of—understandably enough—Grand Case’s Petit Plage beach. (And for the record, that’s “Case” with a soft A sound, like “ah.”)

Guestrooms are spacious and feature a fully stocked kitchen, sitting area with sofa and easy chairs, and flat-screen TVs and WiFi. As part of Wright’s plans for constant upgrades, most bathrooms were recently redone and now feature indirect lighting, mahogany countertops and new appliances. Outside, large patios show off either a beach or garden view. On-property amenities include all the standards, with a fitness center, lit tennis courts, pool, gift shop, restaurant and room service. At the on-property watersports desk, guests can take advantage of complimentary non-motorized equipment such as floats, snorkel gear, kayaks, paddleboats and sailboats. Additional services include concierge, laundry and babysitting services, car rental and tour desk, and a massage facility.

Property guests can also expect a complimentary bottle of wine upon arrival, fitting for French hospitality. And we highly recommend your clients attend the weekly Manager’s cocktail party, where Wright prefers the emphasis to be less on him and more on guests mingling and sharing newly discovered secrets while enjoying bottomless rum punch and an impressive assortment of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres.

As far as the atmosphere is concerned, “We are comfortably casual, entirely unpretentious and have no use for airs or snobbery,” he insists. “Our clients are open and friendly, quick to strike up a conversation, and eager to connect with others like and unlike themselves. No one is here to impress anybody, but simply to enjoy a relaxed rhythm of life that seems to have disappeared from our day-to-day existence.” This friendly, care-free ambiance, he says, “resounds strongly here.”

For more than 15 years, Wright has managed Grand Case Beach Club. His motivation to see the resort succeed is noticeable in both his words and his actions, and it must be making a difference.

“The fact that we have not only survived, but thrived through the recessions and political turmoil that impacts us is a major accomplishment,” says Wright. “We have had the rare blessing of stability, and we have taken that asset to implement and effect change. Sometimes it’s not quite as fast or encompassing as we wish, but every year, we are improved over the last, and that is our chosen path…continuous and constant improvement.”

With that kind of success, it’s only natural that Sangster, who has sold the Caribbean exclusively during her 12 years as an agent, would be quite familiar with the property and the area. “In Grand Case, [clients] can often avoid being in a car for most of their trip,” she says, “since there are so many great eateries within walking distance.” The only thing she can think to warn clients to avoid is the traffic on the island, which she says can become quite heavy at times. That’s why, as she says, “we suggest they stay in Grand Case.”

The resort is offering a Fifth Night Free through Oct. 31. The Fifth Night Free applies to all rate categories, but cannot be combined with any other promotion. Included in the room rates are daily continental breakfast; bottle of red or white wine upon arrival; and use of all non-motorized watersports equipment. Rates sgl or dbl through Oct. 1 begin at $175; from Nov. 1 to Dec. 21, they start at $205.

getting there

Most flights into and out of St. Martin are through Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM), which serves 18 airlines and is widely known for having one of the world’s most thrilling runways. This notorious runway is only a few feet from the Caribbean Sea. Swimmers, sunbathers and tourists gather to put themselves right in the path of incoming 747s, which soar overhead before landing on the runway. Then upon departure, pilots are greeted at the end of the runway by 1,100-ft.-tall Mt. Fortune, making a quick, steep ascent essential.

If clients are island-hopping through the area, arrival/departure options include boat transfers or air service through L’Esperance Airport (SFG). Make sure you tell your clients that Saba, Statia, St. Barths, St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla can be reached in 30 minutes or less.

Map of St. Martin/St. Maarten
Map of St. Martin/St. Maarten

as the story goes…

A few varying tales are told around St. Martin, explaining how both French and Dutch citizens came to call this tiny island their home. The most popular version, it seems, goes like this:

Both the French and the Dutch arrived to the island at roughly the same time, and both groups immediately claimed the island for themselves. After much arguing, name-calling and debate, the two groups eventually came to agree that they could share the space.

Determining the border was another argument entirely though, and it was finally decided that a representative from each country would meet at the shore. The Frenchman, who arrived on the beach’s northern edge, would begin making his way along the island’s northern edge, while the Dutchman would do the same in the south. Wherever the two met again, they agreed, a horizontal line would be drawn across the island to determine the border.

The Frenchman apparently covered much more ground than the Dutchman, because today French St. Martin is 21 sq. miles, while Dutch St. Maarten is just 16 sq. miles. Whether the Frenchman ran while the Dutchman walked, or whether he was just in better overall condition due to his daily glass of wine, is still debated to this day.

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
St. Barthelemy Avec Amour (November 2012)

contact information
Grand Case Beach Club
: (800) 344-3016; gcbc.com