When Kyle and I both managed to get five days off at the same time in January we immediately decided that we wanted to go somewhere warm. Through Kyle’s job with the airline, we’re able to “non-rev” (non-revenue) on flights for free or at very minimal cost (international flights). Non-revving is when you get to occupy an available seat on the airplane but you don’t know if you’re getting on the flight for sure until you’re actually in the seat and the plane is in the air.
As we didn’t have a specific destination in mind for this particular vacation, we decided we would finally try our luck at a true non-rev trip. This means you choose your destination based on the best-bet non-rev flights when you get to the airport. All the vacation prep you normally do weeks or months ahead of your trip—choose a destination, book lodging, reserve a rental car, get foreign currency, learn anything about where you’re going—we were doing twenty-four hours before take-off.
After a series of acrobatic discussions and elaborate systems of back-and-forth decision making, we focused our target destination on St. Martin about a week in advance of our trip. I book-marked and ranked hotels with availability (using Google maps cross-referenced with Trip Advisor) in order of preference so that we would be prepared to book a place to stay from our phones, in the airport.
Indeed, last minute planning was underway. After grabbing the Fodor’s Essential Caribbean 2020 from my library shelf two days before our trip and reading the section for St. Martin, we realized we should most definitely rent a car. I jumped online and reserved a car for SMX airport. I couldn’t sleep that night and, while checking my email, I noticed the Avis reservation confirmation for Santa Maria Airport. Great! One word caught my attention and I looked again at the car rental reservation for the airport in Santa Maria, California. For anyone who’s asking, the airport code for Princess Juliana Airport in St. Martin is SXM. Always book a car in advance so they don’t price gouge you at the counter, and so that there is a car available, and triple check your reservations!
Considering that we reserved our room at the Bleu Emeraude Hotel at the Philadelphia airport on our layover to St. Martin, and our only known destination on the island was the beach-bar overlooking the airstrip, we had an incredible time. We kept an open mind and let the island lead us.
Tourism in the Caribbean is complicated, to put it mildly, so I had mixed feelings about visiting St. Martin. In the end, Kyle’s insistence plus the promise of warm weather was enough to make me set aside my doubts. I was expecting an island-turned-tourist-trap; instead St. Martin was equal parts tropical paradise and humble reality. Though Kyle found the side of the island where we stayed, Grand Case Bay, just a little bit too sleepy, I thought it was the best part of the island.
Saint Martin, or Sint Maarten if you want to be Dutch about it, is one of two islands in the Caribbean shared by two nations: France in the north and The Netherlands in the south. In 2017, Hurricane Irma wreaked incredible havoc and destruction on the entire island, but particularly on the French side, where we stayed. The damage is far from being recovered and with rural roads that lead to shells of former four-star resorts, the mood in certain areas (like Anse Marcel) can be almost post-apocalyptic. Driving through these jungle hills on a rainy afternoon, I felt the queasy discomfort of being in a place so wildly different from the familiar that you feel unmoored, dreamlike.
Amidst all of this, perhaps as white American tourists we should have felt unsafe venturing off into the island in our rental car, but we never did. While the local custom is to be lassiez-faire concerning trivial things like legal parking or glass bottles on the beach, we were harassed in the street only once. We were in our car, out exploring on that rainy afternoon near Cul-de-Sac Bay (aren’t all bays shaped like cul-de-sacs?) when the leader of a gang brought out a barricade to block our car’s progress. He was white, with sandy brown hair, wearing a soccer jersey, and about 13 years old. The smallest of his bicycle riding crew, he was absolutely the leader and definitely had us outnumbered ten to two. Kyle did not stop the car but very carefully kept crawling along steadily as he sprinted behind us, shouting after our car like a dog racing after the mail truck. He was mad, you see, because we didn’t pay his toll.
In Grand Case, the creepy feel of destruction may reign in the architecture, but the people and restaurants set an entirely different mood. On our first night, we walked all the way down the beach from our hotel to the lolos. These are locally operated open-air grills that serve huge portions of creole food like plantains, curry rice, fried chicken, fish, and ribs for really affordable prices. As we walked passed the first lolo a woman beckoned to us aggressively from the porch, “come sit, sit here. Ten dollars.” We waved her off, “no thank you!” Dazed from travel, the unusual heat, and the strangeness of the claustrophobic street, we picked our way down the block poking our heads into not-yet-open French restaurants. Quickly realizing our error, we hastily made our way back up the street, smiling bashfully to the woman with the menu. We would, indeed, love a seat. She smirked and nodded her head; she knew we’d be back.
Not realizing that Grand Case had been the “culinary capital of the Caribbean” before Irma, we were delighted by the array of French food when we arrived on the bay. The new French-Latin American-Caribbean Barranco was our favorite. Here, they served us a meal of incredible red snapper ingeniously prepared with a crispy delicate skin and thick tender meat that melted in the mouth. It was served with pureed sweet potatoes, the most flavorful I’ve ever tasted, and some sort of sauce that was both buttery and decadent but didn’t overwhelm the fish. The service everywhere was impeccable, especially at the famous and traditional L’Auberge Gourmande where we were served another excellent meal of fish and learned that there are definitely circumstances in which we can both enjoy a glass of rum. Sitting in a French restaurant in the Caribbean with the sea breeze blowing through open windows after a decadent meal is definitely one of those circumstances.
In between eating our weight in French and Caribbean cuisine, we also went to the beach, zip-lined in the jungle, watched the airplanes take-off so close to the beach that they blew tourists into the water, and met a variety of people who made the trip sparkle. There was the snorkel gear guy in Philipsburg who has lived on the island all his life but whose name is Cleveland because he was conceived in Cleveland, Ohio. No joke, he showed us his ID! After meeting twenty-somethings Rocco and Tyler from Long Island at Topper’s Rhum distillery, we gave them a ride back to their hotel and directed them to Loterie Farm‘s pool cabanas to find hotties. Then there was the man from our Philly flight who recognized my hair (called me Little Orphan Annie, which, rude) at the beach bar overlooking the airport runway. It turned out that the friend he was with literally graduated from our high school. There was the English couple from our hotel who also recognized my hair, this time from L’Auberge Gourmande (called it “absolutely brilliant,” which, thank you). Genuinely friendly, they were making friends with everyone on our hotel’s little patch of beach; their names were Chris and Dig, “short for Elizabeth!”
After learning we had booked our hotel in the airport on the way to St. Martin, Rocco remarked in his very New Yawk accent, “wow. You guys seem really, you know, laid back. Go-with-the-flow.” I’m not sure if he meant it as a compliment or as an indictment, but that, Rocco, was absolutely the best thing that anyone has ever said about me.