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A quick visit to tropical, tasty St. Maarten/St. Martin

ST. MAARTEN/ST. MARTIN – Fine, flavoured rum. Sweet-smelling local soaps. And a dreamy beach resort with one of the best massages I’ve ever had.

I had the good luck to spend roughly 24 hours in St. Maarten (and an hour or so on the French side, St. Martin) following my Caribbean cruise with Sea Dream Yacht Club. And found a lot to like.

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We started our day (my wife was with me, which is always great) in Marigot on the French side, where we strolled through the waterfront markets and bought some trinkets to take . home. It feels a lot like other markets in the Caribbean, with t-shirts, flowing scarves and local art work. But I still love the casual feel of places like this and the authenticity of the people.

The town is pretty nice, with several casual cafes and smart shops and restaurants. From there we drove along the coast towards Maho Bay, gazing at the malls and hotels in Simpson Bay and stopping to watch a jet come in low over the beach on its approach to the airport. Folks make a sport of this all day long, especially when the jumbo jets that need more runway space come in low and loud. It’s okay, I guess, but I’d prefer to swim without the noise of a 747 thundering overhead, thank you very much.

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Our tour guide explained along the way that the island is something of a “salad bowl,” with folks from all over the world (140 nationalities, he said) and nobody forced to do things a particular way. It sounded to me like the Canadian approach of letting folks celebrate their own heritage, versus the famous American “melting pot” approach that, to me, doesn’t seem to have worked so well. And I’m a born-and-raised California kid.

Along the way we spot an area where Jackie Onassis used to live and drive past a yacht that’s said to belong to the folks from Victoria’s Secret. I can only imagine the dress code, but I didn’t get a chance to pop in and say hi. We also passed by a bakery called Zee Best, apparently run by Canadians, and a restaurant called Jimbo’s, which undoubtedly is the finest spot to dine in the Caribbean if the name is any indication.

Our first stop was outside Phillipsburg in a shop called St. Maarten Nectar, where I ran into a woman from Winnipeg, Cheryl Healey. She was buying some moisturizer to take home, as I recall.

“We’ve been coming to St. Maarten for 10 years now,” she said. “We love the feel of the place. Plus, we can leave Winnipeg at 5 a.m., transfer in Toronto and be here by 4.”
Shop owner Nalia Muriel makes small batches of natural bath and beauty products, as well as bug spray and sunscreen. Among the offerings are lemongrass soap with shea butter and coco oil, as well as sea lavender soap and candles made with mango.

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She showed us around her small lab upstairs, where the products are made. She explained how shea butter comes from the nut of the karite tree in Africa (I had no idea) and how coconut is great for your skin.

“Plus you can eat it.”

It’s a complicated procedure that needs just the right ingredients and the right temperature. Each soap is individually stamped to show its authenticity. They’re not perfectly shaped but that’s part of the joy of a handmade product.

In addition to the soaps and sprays, Nalia sells sandals from Guyana, local jewelry and small hearts from the nearby island of Saba. Oh, and also a natural dog shampoo.

At Topper’s Rhum, Dave Herbert (who grew up in Toronto and Montreal) showed us how the company has grown from a home-made affair to provide after-dinner drinks at Topper’s Restaurant to an award-winning group making everything from white rum to banana-vanilla-cinnamon and more.

I’m not a fan of flavoured rum most of the time, but it was pretty good. Many flavoured rums are sickly sweet but the Topper’s ones stopped short of that. I especially liked the Mocha Mama, which won a Caribbean Taste gold medal recently for best flavoured rum; pretty impressive considering they just started making it. The white rum is much smoother than most of the store-bought stuff I’ve tried, such as Bacardi.

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They now sell their product in several U.S. states as well as St. Maarten. They might even make it to Canada soon. It’s all made with natural products and they have a very small assembly line, which Herbert proudly shows off.

“There are no rules here for how to make rum so we follow the USDA regulations,” he tells me.

One thing I learned, and didn’t expect, is that flavoured rums have about half the alcohol of the real thing.

Herbert shows me how they’re experimenting with various flavours including Dr. Pepper, salted caramel, Dreamsicle (a nice orange flavour) and Chai Latte (pretty good).

It was raining in Phillipsburg so we didn’t have a chance to check out the new boardwalk along the beach or the shops. But I liked the sound of a clothing store called “Step It Up a Notch.” We didn’t have time, but we passed a number of outdoor shacks grilling chicken or local fish. Our guide said the places are inspected regularly by the department of health and are perfectly safe. And perfectly delicious.

I also loved driving past a street called “Doodle Doo Cactus Road” on our way to the Westin Dawn Beach Resort, where we spent our only night on the island.

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The Resort is quite large but quite pretty. We had a huge room with a monstrous bath (lovely after being on a cruise ship for a week) and a nice patio overlooking the beach. It’s a fine beach on the east side of the island, stretching for probably a kilometer or more. I was told all beaches on the island are public, as they should be, but that this one is fairly protected and thus more quiet than many. Certainly it’s quieter than Maho Bay, there being no 747’s zooming overhead.
The pool is quite large and has the de rigeur swim-up bar. We sat near the pool and had an adequate lunch (a so-so club sandwich with little turkey but lots of bacon) and then enjoyed a great walk on the beach.

We also tried the casino, dropping in $20 US worth of quarters in the span of about ten minutes and getting not a single payout; not even a single quarter. I can’t say all the machines are this tight, but the one we played was awfully rough.

The minor pain of the casino was more than made up for at the spa, where I had one of the best massages of my life. The woman I had working me over, Petal, did a series of circular motions around my back and neck and shoulders and also gave my hands, feet, ears and scalp a good rub-down. It was a sublime hour-long treatment in a nice room. Afterward, I sipped tea in the relaxation area and dozed off for a few minutes. My wife said she had one of the best facials of her life at the spa, including a hand and neck massage for an added bonus.

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I had a good and quite substantial veal chop at dinner at the Aura restaurant, while my wife opted for a very tasty serving of sea bass. The crab cakes were a bit bland (probably they’re afraid to knock tourists over with too much spice) but enormous. The Aura salad was a highlight, with arugula, poached pears, candied walnuts, blue cheese and champagne vinaigrette that was a touch thick but tasty. The servers were quiet but enjoyable, and they have a nice wine list.

Breakfast on the patio is always a nice thing, and we had a sizable and tasty buffet meal the next morning before checking out.

It’s a great spot for families, as well as young people. And it’s got a great beach in a quiet, pretty stretch of the St. Maarten coastline. Definitely worth checking out if you’re headed this way.

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