Thursday, December 17, 2009
What exactly is the ultimate beach vacation for you? Is it a crowded sandy area filled with laughter, sandcastles and roaring jet skis? Or is it a calming, relaxing place where the lapping of soft waves and the palm frongs blowing in the wind are the only noises you hear?
It's diffrent for everyone and I entered my beach vacation not really expecting one or the other. I did my best to heavily research the small French/Dutch island (French side is know as Saint-Martin and the Dutch side is Sint Maarten), situated just off of Anguilla and near St. Barts. The 4-hour flight from NYC and reviews by adventure travelers drew me in. But, once we booked our tickets and deliberated over the hotel we couldn't find much more we were dying to do on the island. Assured that I'd figure it out once we arrived I packed up my guidebooks (a.k.a. traveling nerd) and headed off.
Our drive from the airport to our hotel took over an hour, and was approximately 20 miles long. Island-style indeed, we crawled along the 2-lane road at rates of 20-25 MPH and took in the sights at our leisure. The main International airport, Juliana, is located on the Dutch-side of the island, which is located in the southern region. The French-side of the island, which we opted to stay on for it's finer cuisine and beaches, is located to the north of the airport and provided quite a geographical and phonographic change. We drove through mid-sized towns with bus stops, supermarkets and chain restaurants and small agricultural centers.
We drove over steep hills which offered amazing views of the expansive beaches and along palm tree lined avenues. Finally, we arrived in Grand Case, the town we had decided to stay in. The small town was packed with a variety of waterfront restaurants from tasty Lolos, an outdoor grill and basic table service, to 5-star, Michelin-rated havens.
Our hotel, the Grand Case Beach Club, had a private gate and white exterior walls. The gate opened to a cobblestone driveway and tropical landscapers dream. Our check-in was quick and we situated ourselves in our suite, outfitted with a patio, lounge chairs, full kitchen, and fresh cut flowers spelling out a welcome.
We didn't waste much time before hitting the beach, and took in the ocean breezes from the deck of the Sunset Cafe and Grill attached to the hotel. The cafe was built around the only large rock that jutted out past the beach all along Grand Case. It offered amazing views of the beach and as it turns out...the sunset.
We found our favorite vacation spot on our first night there. Two lounge chairs sat alone in a guarded alcove, part of a wrap around deck on the other side of the rock, pushed out into the ocean. An unobstructed view of the sunset with room to play! As you may have guessed we visited the same exact spot every night and even did a silhouette photo shoot one night.
We tried out best to dig through our books and online resources, the hotel offered free wireless, to find ideas for activities the next day but couldn't be bothered to lure ourselves away from the beach. Our one outing, the grocery store to stock up on goodies for our fridge and liquor cabinet, proved to be exhausting, yet cultural and fruitful. We came away with enough groceries to feed us for 3-nights and 4-days along with enough booze and wine to keep us tided over most of the time for under 100 Euros.
Of course the store was an intresting experience, with all its unique fruit and European-style lay-out.
Our island adventures included a full driving tour of the island, with jumps in and out of the car for beach time and photos. We saw the drastic differences between the Dutch and French sides of the island, which do not maintain a strict border control, and cherished France's white sand beaches over Holland's casinos and packed marinas. We visited the nude beaches of Orient Bay, which was oddly paired with the main water sport activity area on the island, and took in some serene breezes at Oyster Bay.
We came across some magnificent wine bars, like Bachus, tucked away in strip malls and back allys. We saw the backstreets of the bigger towns and were reminded ofthe poverty that always surrounds resort islands such as this one.
We also did some adventuring close to the hotel. Each day we took the time to dive into the water and take in a swim. We remembered what it's like to splash in the waves and feel the pull of the water under your body as you swim freestyle. My fish fear, which I can't seem to track back to more than a water skiing incident 20 years ago (seriously brain, you can hold onto this but you can't remember the Italian language?) seemed to subside after our day out at sea snorkeling.
The French snorkeling instructor - Laureen, was a walking replica of Frank Azeria's character in 'Along Came Polly' - took Jerome another couple and me out to Creole Rock a couple miles off the beach to check out the wildlife. We spotted several new fish I hadn't seen before in past snorkling adventures but mostly, we interacted with the fish, thanks to our fun filled instructor. A long octopus darted under a rock to hide from us, while sea anemones came out to suction to the side of Laureen's mask. Somehow, it made my fish fear subside and my long afternoon swims became much more comfortable.
On my birthday, which was the Tuesday before we left the island, we planned a special day aboard a sailboat, which was headed out to Anguilla for the day. The trip was canceled that morning and we turned to find a new plan. Still adjusting to our first real beach vacation since we got together 10 years ago, we took some time to sit and sink our toes in the sand. Then we took more time to swim and take long hot showers. Eventually we knew we needed lunch and headed to the close by wine bar for escargot and taste bud shattering cheeses. As you can see, our day rolled along, unplanned and perfect. Evening rolled around and we made reservations at a nice restaurant in town recommended by a close friend's parents which turned out to be incredible and blew away the lunch I just had (previously rated as my top meal on the island). Overall, an amazing birthday and wonderful trip.