Yes this is long, but we did a lot, and spent a lot of time on these boards, so we are paying back. So you know who we are, we are a family of five, including three boys ages 14, 11, and 11, from the Maryland Suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. Our goal is to find vacation spots that combine relaxation for us, and activities to keep our boys entertained. So, here we go . . .
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS - These are my opinions only and are not intended to offend anyone, but merely offer one family’s observations and opinions of SXM. Different people look for different things when they travel, and like any destination, SXM has more for some groups than for others. We did have a great time on the island, however, a lot of the island is built around the cruise ship industry and as discussed below, many of the beaches maintain a cruise ship atmosphere. If you are into cruising, or a beach party atmosphere with lots of beach bars, drinking, people, and people watching, you will love SXM. As one other tourist we talked to observed, for those of us in our 40's, if you loved Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale in the 1980's, then this is probably a good destination for you Many of the locals who we met were fantastic, and extremely helpful with directions, recommendations, or assistance.
CRIME - One area that has generated a lot of concern on forums on SXM is the issue of crime. We felt extremely safe in the Oyster Bay Area, and overall felt safe throughout the Island. There are a couple of areas that you drive through at night that get your attention (the outskirts of Orleans, and entrance to Grand Case) because there is little lighting and there are a lot of young people congregating near areas with graffiti, but we were never approached or intimidated by anyone. There were two off-putting remarks from locals that did give us some pause. First, the owner of the rental car company we used told us not to lock the car doors at the beach because if you locked your car door people would assume you had valuables inside and they would break your windows out to investigate. We followed his advice and did not have any problems. Second, at dinner one night we talked about taking a walk on the beach (Dawn Beach) after dinner. The waitress overheard us said that it was not safe to do so and that it was not worth the risk. There was also a Casino robbery while we were there that got a lot of attention. Overall, I think the crime issue is probably overblown on some of these forums. Use some common sense, talk with the locals, and you will be fine.
CAR RENTAL - Unity Car Rental: I have never rented from an independent before, but was scared away from the brand names given a long history of complaints about them on this and other boards. Renting from Unity was totally the right call. I exchanged e-mails with the owner, Michael, and agreed to rent a 2009 model car from him instead of a newer 2011 model (less money, and less picky on routine damage issues). A staff member was waiting for us outside baggage claim as promised, and after a brief wait while he dealt with two other parties, we were on our way. A five minute drive later, we met Michael and picked up our car, which was in good shape with some scuff marks on the bumpers, but no other issues. He gave us a free map and directions to our hotel and promised to be there at 6:30 a.m. the day our flight was leaving. When we returned our car Michael was waiting for us. He noted an additional mystery scuff mark on the bumper. He immediately said it was minor so it was no problem and there was no charge. The reality is that the roads can be rough, and the parking lots are crowded, so even if you are careful there is no guarantee your car won’t get dinged up. Michael was a pleasure to deal with and deserves the high praise he has received from others.
LODGING - PRINCESS HEIGHTS: This was the perfect lodging for our family or five. We had a type 3 layout room on the 5th floor of the new building. The new building has an elevator and a spectacular view, so it is worth requesting. The room was immaculate and was as represented on the Princess Heights website. The room was cleaned every day and I want to give a big Thank You to the cleaning staff. When we got home we realized we had lost the memory card, about the size of a quarter, for our camera. Having nothing to lose, we e-mailed the hotel and they found it and mailed it to us - now that’s service!!! The hotel is in the Oyster Pond area and has lots of great dining options nearby. The Heights sits above Dawn Beach and you have a spectacular view of St. Barts. The Westin below was not that big a deal, and did not ruin our view. The layout is great for families - with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, separated by a family room and kitchen, the layout provides a great balance between privacy and family time. The beds were also incredibly comfortable, and beach towels are provided by the hotel. They also had showers near each parking lot so that you could de-sand before going back to your room. The complementary beverages in the fridge, including beer, water, and soda, were also a big plus! The pool is small, but quiet and uncrowded, the perfect place for a late afternoon swim and a bottle of wine, some cheese and a baguette. This is a great place to stay, particularly for families or couples who are traveling together. It is also a great value when compared to other properties on the Island.
OCTOPUS DIVING in Grand Case – one word, Awesome! Our kids had never been scuba diving before, but were anxious to give it a try. The owner, Sally, was very helpful and responded to a long list of questions I had via e-mail. We signed up for Octopus’ Discover Scuba Diving program which is a beginner dive at a depth of 25-30 feet. Our guides Stefan and Michelle were great, and were very engaging with the kids, and made sure to explain the physics of Scuba diving and safety issues to them in a very simple and engaging manner. Within 30 minutes of leaving the dock, we were all in the water at Creole Rock in full gear going through some underwater basics. Even though my kids had never been Scuba diving before, I felt very at ease under Stefan and Michelle’s watchful eyes. The dive itself was spectacular; we saw a lot of cool critters including a large Burr Fish (what I call a spiny puffer) and a beautiful eagle ray. Even though this was their first dive, the kids stayed under water for 43 minutes! As part as the package you can also do a second dive at a nearby reef with sea turtles (say hello to George) for only $49 more. A few other pointers: Make sure to get Michelle to come along to take your pictures. At the end of the dive she will put them on a disk that includes pictures of you as well as the creatures seen during your dive for a very nominal fee. Octopus also schedules their dives to avoid the cruise ship tours, so by the time the cruisers had arrived, we were heading out – very smart idea. Also, they have an outdoor shower and changing area at the dock, so after you dive you can rinse off, change, and head out to Grand Case for dinner. Also, make sure to say hi to Woody – he is just too cute. The folks at Octopus were great and have a great product. Anyone who has always wanted to try diving, but was scared off by long resort courses, or shaky dive outfits, this is the place to finally get under the sea and experience what Scuba diving is all about. A great time, a great value, and our favorite activity on St. Martin, by far. If you just want to do some spectacular snorkeling, they also have snorkeling trips to Creole Rock.
FLY ZONE – Loiterie Farm - The most important thing to know about Loiterie Farm is to avoid it in the morning when the cruise ship patrons are there. We actually learned this tip before we went, so after a morning on the beach we headed up to the Fly Zone, and got on the course with no wait. The course itself was very cool, and included lots of climbing and balance obstacles through the tropical forest. Our guide Roger was great and kept us entertained throughout the trip. My wife is not a huge fan of heights, but they had no problem letting her hike along the trail under us where she took some really cool pictures of us. The views of the wildlife and surrounding forest were spectacular and a genuinely unique experience. It is a bit of a workout, so don’t expect to climb one ladder and then zip down hill for 30 minutes. When you are done head to their very chic bar were they serve fantastic drinks and Tapas. A very cool way for the whole family to spend an afternoon.
SHOPPING – We briefly went to both Marigot and Phillipsburg for quick shopping trips. Phillipsburg is the typical cruise ship stop with loads of stores—from electronics to jewelry to handbags and lots of restaurants and bars. Marigot is smaller with trendy shops and several bakeries/bistros. We did not spend a lot of time in either location but both had good shopping. Better deals in Phillipsburg since you don’t have the exchange rate issue.
BEACHES- The beaches in St. Martin were somewhat of a disappointment in the sense that we love to snorkel and prefer low key beaches with few crowds. There are some good snorkeling spots, as discussed below, but talk to the locals about beaches, because many of the guidebooks and forum entries missed the mark for us.
DAWN BEACH – This actually turned out to be our favorite beach on the island. The beach is protected by a broad barrier reef and there is fantastic snorkeling along the beach. The current runs from south to north, so from the Westin, turn right to enter the water and ride the current across the reef. Beautiful water clarity, lots of fish, and nice coral formations. The current is a bit strong, so it is not great for very young kids. The sand is beautiful and there are abundant free chairs in front of the Westin. The use of the Westin pool is ambiguous. While signs state that it is for hotel patrons only, it is not enforced. We followed a basic rule that we only let our kids in the pool if we were patronizing the swim up bar or the restaurant and we did not have any problems. To park, drive into the Westin and follow the signs for the Dawn Beach Club to a small parking lot. If you want to hit a more traditional beach bar, you can walk north along the beach to Mr. Busby’s. Dawn Beach is a beautiful, uncrowded beach.
ORIENT BEACH – SXM’s “must see” beach is like a cruise ship with sand. The beach is lined from end to end with beach chairs and umbrellas that are rented out by the assorted beach bars. There is a constant din from jet skis and parasailing boats, and loads of vendors walking the beach. To be fair, the vendors are not very pushy by Caribbean standards. There are loads of activities including para-sailing (which we did and had a blast), banana boats, water trampolines, and sailboat rentals. Make sure to walk the beach and compare prices, we got a bad deal on our chairs and umbrellas, but learned our lesson and saved money on the para-sailing. The snorkeling was non-existent, so don’t bother bringing or renting gear. The water quality was also not great, and there is lots of sea grass. Our lunch at the Bikini Bar was marginal at best. The nudist resort on the south side is clearly demarcated by a stone jetty, so you can’t honestly claim to walk into it by accident. There were no more topless sunbathers on Orient than we saw on the rest of the island, so the proximity to the nudist beach should not be a deal breaker. I appreciate that there is a demand for beaches like Orient that are packed with people to watch and activities to do, but I think it is way overrated and is misrepresented in most of the pictures you see on-line.
BAIE ROUGE - We went here to snorkel because all the brochures and maps mention it as a great area for snorkeling. The spot to snorkel is to the right around a point near the tunnel formations in the rocks, The water quality there was not great, and the snorkeling was very disappointing, and not worth the effort. We did, however, enjoy the beach, which is sheltered and less crowded than other beaches we visited. One of the beach bars, Chez Raymond, was also very good, and in particular they make great drinks with fresh fruit rather than mixes. When you enter the small parking lot there are guys in the parking lot, they don’t charge you to park, but they will rent you a beach chair and umbrella. This is a great beach to lounge, swim, drink, and eat without the chaos of Orient.
ILET PINEL– As a beach, it was disappointing and suffered from an Orient Beach style overuse of chairs and umbrellas packed along the beach. The water is calm and shallow, so it is good for little kids. The snorkeling on Pinel is spectacular! On the end of the island there is a roped off protected reef area. When you swim along the interior rope you swim along the edge of the protected reef where there are spectacular fish, lots of coral, and beautiful reef formations. The snorkeling alone is worth the trip. There are also a lot of Iguanas that congregate behind the middle of the three beach bars (Up on the Key). If you are adventurous and like to snorkel I would suggest that you skip the $7 per person ferry, and rent a $10 two-person kayak and kayak over to Pinel. Skip the crowded beach, snorkel, have lunch, and kayak back. A great snorkeling location, not a great beach.
LITTLE BAY– Located at the Divi resort south of Phillipsburg. We went to Little Bay because a staff member at Octopus Diving told us about the sunken submarine that you could snorkel over at Little Bay. This is apparently somewhat of a mystery, because it is not mentioned in travel books independently of cruise excursions. Enter the Divi resort and drive to the end of the parking lot. Walk past the last waterfront pool and there is a small rocky beach. To your left, around a rocky point, beneath a floating Tiki hut, you will find the sunken submarine in about 25 feet of water. It is not a short swim, but our kids (who wear snorkeling vests when we go into deeper water) did fine. There are some fish, but the real attraction is the sunken submarine and the cannons that are nearby. This is part of a Snuba park, but there was nobody there when we were there so there were no issues. On the way back we saw a small school of squid which was pretty cool. We did not hang out at this beach because we wanted to spend more time at Dawn Beach, but the beach itself seemed small, calm and nice.
FOOD - We live in the suburbs of Washington D.C. where we have access to great food, and a great variety of different cuisines, so we can be very picky. In that sense, dried out beach ribs and burgers don’t really cut it for us. Happily, we had some great meals on SXM.
BOULANGERIE (Bakery) – Located in the small town of Orleans about 5 minutes north of the French border, this small local bakery serves fantastic pastries and baguettes. You have to get there early, and they were closed on the Wednesday we went by there (because of the Marigot market?). My entire family could not get enough of their Almond croissants – simply delicious. And if they are out of those go for a chocolate croissant, or a plain croissant or baguette with a small jar of their locally made jam. You can’t get pastries this good in the States. The bakery is located on the left side of the road opposite the grocery store in Orleans.
BIG FISH - I have no idea how so many travel books and lists miss this place. It is simply spectacular food, beautiful presentation, and a chic, yet informal environment. As I learned the first time we went there, don’t ask for anything until you introduce yourself to Brenda. Before she discusses tables, she takes the time to introduce herself to you, which is a very cool tradition she has. Tables fill up quickly, so get there by 7:00 if you do not want to wait. The food takes full advantage of local ingredients, and is served on elegant long plates with small bowls of different sides based on what is fresh. The wait staff will give you great recommendations and they have a varied wine list that covers a range of prices. It is also on the Dutch side, so you do not get killed by the exchange rate. How good is Big Fish? We have a cardinal rule of not eating dinner at the same place twice on vacation – we were compelled to violate that rule because the food was just that good. Some favorites included the Pumpkin Soup, curried Mahi-Mahi, braised lamb shank, succulent short ribs, and both the hurricane spiced shrimp and snails. Their salads are also phenomenal. Do not miss this spectacular dinning opportunity.
BHZ CREPERIE – As they say, when in Rome . . . , my kids were dying to try crepes while we were on the French side, so one night we headed out to the nearby BHZ Creperie. Located just past the small market (Petit Marche?) on the road to Orleans, they have both dinner crepes and a full menu of dessert crepes. The food is served in a very peaceful garden dining area that is both beautiful and relaxing. The service is equally relaxed. I know nothing about crepes, but our dinner was delicious, and all of us downed our assorted crepes. The waitress was very helpful in making our dinner and drink selections, and even took the time to give the boys a brief French lesson. This was a very neat experience, and well worth the trip. They only take cash, so make sure you bring some with you. From the road it does not look like much, but take the time to walk in to check the place out and you will not be disappointed.
DANIEL'S BY THE SEA (aka Mr. Busby’s) - very nice and relaxed setting directly on Dawn Beach with plenty of free parking. Again, we are slaves to the kids, and they wanted to have dinner on the beach, so we relented. We were disappointed to find out that there were no available tables on the beach, however, the waitress, without hesitation, found a table for us directly on the beach, got it cleaned and set, so we could enjoy a true beach-front meal. The service was prompt, but not annoying. I wanted to try grilled Caribbean lobster, but there were out of anything less than 2 pounds, so the waitress suggested a seafood trio that included grilled lobster – good recommendation. My son had a spicy shrimp dish that he loved, but beware, when they say spicy, they mean spicy. The rest of the family had pasta, which they all enjoyed. Overall this is a good place to have a reliable and relaxing meal, particularly if you are staying in the Oyster Pond area.
L’ESCAPADE - You can’t go to SXM without eating in Grand Case, so after our diving trip we headed out to dinner with the goal of sitting down to dinner and watching the sunset – everyone should do this at least once on SXM.. L’Escapade was not one of the places on my “list,” but after looking at a variety of menus, and most importantly the setting, we settled on L’Escapade. A major factor in our decision was the table we were offered, best table in the house, directly over the beach, overlooking Grand Case bay and Anguilla in the distance. The sunset was incredible, and while this was far and away our most expensive meal because of the exchange rate, the view was worth it. We also picked this spot because its menu had a good fusion of Caribbean and French cooking. Le Tastevin would have been my other choice, but traveling with the kids, I think their menu would have been “too French,” no offense intended. The service was not stodgy, and our host, Axel, an SXM native, made the meal very enjoyable. The food itself was also spectacular. I had a coconut encrusted Mahi-Mahi over a lobster risotto with a curry based sauce that was delicious. My wife had their vegetable risotto which was equally good. One of my younger sons considers himself an expert on French onion soup, and he declared that L’Escapade had the best onion soup he had ever tasted (moving De Kleine Wereld in Curacao to #2, and my homemade version down to #3 – very sad). The soup was great, particularly the rich, beefy stock. For dessert, make sure to have the profiteroles, a true French dessert gem. The key to sunset dinning in Grand Case is to get there early, around 6:00, when there is plenty of free parking in the public lot, and very few diners. By 7:00, most of the restaurants started to fill up. L’Escapade has gotten mixed reviews from other posters, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.
MAMA'S PIZZA – After breaking the bank at L’Escapade, we headed for the opposite end of the spectrum at Mama’s Pizza on the road to Orleans, overlooking Oyster Pond. This is a great casual dinning option and was well attended throughout our stay. The pizza is very good, thin-crust style pizza with a number of interesting local variations based on local ingredients and French cooking. Neat little place for a quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive meal.
- Many gas stations do not take credit cards, so bring cash;
- Those cheap gas prices you see are actually in liters (duh), it cost $100 to fill the tank of our Sonata;
- If you rent a car use a local company and request an older model car;
- Look out for the speed bumps, many are unmarked;
- Get directions using landmarks, as there are few reliable road signs;
- If eating outside bring a bug repellant, their mosquitoes are silent, but deadly;
- If you are there on a Wednesday make sure to go to the Market in Marigot in the morning;
- We travel with our own snorkeling gear, but many beaches, including the reef at Pinel, rent snorkeling gear.
That's it, at last. See you all in another 2 or 3 years when we save up for another adventure!