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Christmas in the Caribbean! What could go wrong?!
French Saint Martin/Dutch Sint Maarten for 3 nights followed by a week on Anguilla in the British West Indies.
The easiest way from the USA to access Anguilla (our ultimate destination of the trip) is to catch a ferry from St Martin – the public ferry goes from Marigot which we had intended to take but for reasons below we changed plans and took the more expensive charter ferry from the airport.
I didn’t expect too much of St Martin partly because I hadn’t heard the greatest compliments about it and partly because it is a massive cruise ship destination. But I considered it was worth a few extra days as we were to be “in the area” to check out its finer points (if any) before ferrying over to Anguilla.
I didn’t want to be be unduly uncharitable without having experienced it for myself.
As it happens … I was … and I wasn’t 😉
It was an unusual first 24 hours in Saint Martin.
We stayed on the Dutch side in Indigo Bay a few minutes drive from Philipsburg and a 15 minute drive from the airport. This is not a particularly large island. We arrived early afternoon and the traffic was almost stationary – 15 minutes became an hour. This would become a frustrating feature of our mercifully brief stay on the island – backed up traffic, poor infrastructure and hours longer on the road than the GPS promised. Frankly, the traffic is worse than the I-495 around Washington DC at 8am on a week day morning … or the M25 around London at 5pm on a Friday night 😉
Upsides – the food was excellent on both the Dutch and French sides.
More critically for a couple of Brits marooned on an island thousands of miles from England at Christmas we were ecstatic to find a box of coveted Walkers mince pies in the Carrefour supermarket for the princely sum of US$24. This is the equivalent of 20 British pounds and thereby at least 4 times the price that they would be anywhere else in the world!
We would, however, have paid double for such an unexpected delicacy 😉
Given that investment together with Geoff’s obligatory bottles of French wine and other Christmassy necessities, our food and wine shopping bill was so high that we were also given a free bottle of heirloom tomato flavored potato vodka at checkout (lucky us!!!). Needless to say we didn’t open it but left it in the fridge for the next inhabitants of our apartment (lucky them! 😉).
We drove to Philipsburg for dinner – an odd place – it was Friday night and the whole town was totally dead. Every store closed. Barely a soul in the streets. No-one strolling the much-hyped boardwalk and the only life whatsoever to be found was in the Ocean Lounge Bar and Restaurant in Holland House Hotel. Trying to find parking in a mess of one-way streets (albeit there was no-one else in town with whom to battle over a space) didn’t exactly set the scene for a relaxing first night. The cocktails were awful and the chef kicked up the salt in his mushroom risotto (poor Geoff) but at least we weren’t the only living beings in town! Obviously, Philipsburg (and its array of boring designer label stores) exists solely for the cruise ships.
Bright and early the following morning we headed out with beach bags and swimsuits in search of some of the islands famous beaches. As we were leaving, the owner of our apartment stopped us with an ominous warning. If we were heading to the French side we should turn around at Orient Bay but under no circumstances should we continue south in a full circle through Quarter of Orleans back into the Dutch side. Apparently there had been “some unrest”.
No problem – Quarter of Orleans wasn’t on my “to visit” list anyway …
There are some beautiful pristine beaches on the French side. The Dutch side is as expected – unappealing cruise ship destination bars and restaurants on over-crowded touristy beaches. The one exception was Cupecoy – a small rocky beach with beautiful water – and the last stop on the Dutch side before reaching the Terres Basses peninsula on the French side where some of the most famous beaches of the island can be found … that is if you can actually find them …
St Martin touts itself as the “friendly island”. Whilst that may well apply to the Dutch side (whose residents are admittedly particularly friendly and laid-back in spite of the awful traffic), it became however, abundantly clear that the European French residents on the French side are distinctly unfriendly and unwelcoming. The Afro-Caribbean French residents are equally as friendly and laid-back as their Dutch counterparts.
For a tiny peninsula we spent a lot of time driving around in circles up and down the same few roads in Terres Basses but we were completely unable to find the 3 famous beaches – Baie Longue, Baie aux Prunes and Baie Rouge. I could see where they were on the map and the GPS was desperately trying to help me but there were no signs or entry points to help locate them in their physical reality.
Conversely, there were plenty of “Private/Keep Out/We don’t want tourists here” signs written in a multitude of languages on the public roads and, as it turned out, at public beach access points! We followed our GPS down one of the roads in a final vain attempt to find a beach – any beach would have sufficed – and as we drove slowly past the houses lining the road, European French residents in their driveways and gardens were shouting and gesticulating at our audacity to have driven down their public road. So, in our experience, the French were most unpleasant, entitled and supremely unfriendly people.
Unwilling to concede defeat, however, we drove back to a security guard we had passed a few times already. We pointed at the map and he re-directed us back along the same road we had driven at least 4 times to a white gate marked “Private”. That was the public entrance to Baie Rouge which was a beautiful huge sweeping bay, well worth the effort of finding.
On to Baie aux Prunes … same problem … so we returned to the friendly security guard who told us that to access both that and Baie Longue, we would have to come in through the gated community he was busily guarding. For a moment I thought he was going to deny us access but if we promised that we wouldn’t take photos of the mega houses of the multi-millionaires he would allow us through. If you persevere in your search, both beaches are absolutely spectacular. If we were ever to return to St Martin (which is unlikely) we would hole up on Baie Longue at the Belmond La Samanna and not bother with the rest of the island.
Leaving the exclusive beaches and residences behind us, I pointed us in the direction of the coast road passing through Sandy Ground towards the capital, Marigot. This is a journey of some 4 miles. Not more than a mile from the super wealthy enclave of Terres Basses we drove directly into a war zone. It seemed that the “unrest” of Quarter of Orleans had expanded across the country into a full-blown riot with upturned burning cars, smashed stores and bus shelters, smoking piles of trash and projectile molotov cocktails.
Not quite the cocktails we had in mind for our Christmas holiday …
It would have been nice to have known beforehand that we would find ourselves driving through the remnants of a massive riot between Sandy Ground and Marigot because once you were on the road there was no way out. The 50 or so burnt out cars which we passed were upended every 30 feet or so on alternating sides of the road creating make-shift barricades. We had to weave from one side of the road to the other, clamber up and down kerbs, and maneuver in between bollards – all as very unhappy youths on motorcycles raced aggressively towards us doing wheelies around the car. For a moment I thought we might be in trouble … It was certainly the longest most nail-biting 45 minute/4 mile trip of my life! God knows what it must have been like a few days beforehand when Sandy Ground was actually burning. Local residents were desperately trying to keep traffic moving in both directions – some were standing on burnt out trucks waving cars through and guiding drivers through piles of broken glass and obstacles – just to make sure that no-one got stranded and into difficulty.
As we got closer to Marigot another mile or so further on, the burnt out wrecks became fewer and we found our way to the centre of the town which held only a little more appeal than the war zone behind us. There is a superb Belgian chocolate shop in Marigot called Cocoa L’artisan Chocolatier which is worth the trip (but not worth getting inadvertently stuck in a riot for) and a great coconut stall in the market area – Coconut Juice -Juice Man.
French St Martin might well boast the best restaurants on the entire island in the northerly fishing village of Grand Case (the iconic Bistrot Caraibes, Ocean 82 and Le Pressoir, amongst others) but overall it needs some serious cleaning up. Even allowing for the fact that Hurricane Irma caused devastating damage 2 years ago to St Martin there was a definite air of neglect which wasn’t as obvious on the Dutch side.
Thankfully, our second day was far less dramatic! Bypassing Sandy Ground and Marigot was a definite improvement. We headed straight up the west coast towards Grand Case and Happy Bay (Anse Heureuse). No burnt out cars nor smoldering trash … just coconut sellers … street bands … and best of all – finding our ‘happy” on Happy Beach. Anse Heureuse is a short hike through low-lying scrub and undergrowth accessed from the end of Friar’s Bay. It was beautiful, peaceful and devoid of other living souls. Perfect!
Grand Case is the culinary capital of the island – French restauranteurs have bought up the historic buildings along the main street parallel with the bay, now known as “Restaurant Row”. There are fishing cottages and wattle huts and beach bars. The emphasis in the restaurants, unsurprisingly, is fish. In retaining its authenticity, it is a much more appealing town than Marigot.
Onwards and upwards around the top of the island to Orient Bay. The first true resort-style development we had seen on the island. The beach was gorgeous but covered in regimental rows of sun beds, noisy families and sunburnt children … and the water was dotted with plastic floats and children’s toys. Not so perfect 😉
Our weekend explorations over and judgement cast (we have no desire to return to St Martin and wouldn’t recommend it) we retired to the fabulously located Indigo Beach Bar and Restaurant a few steps from our abode. We sipped cocktails and watched the sun twinkling on the ultramarine waters … so it wasn’t all bad 😉
The following day we caught the Link Ferry service from the ferry terminal opposite the airport to Blowing Point on Anguilla and learned a lot more about the riots from our captain during the 20 minute shuttle. The government of St Martin are trying to force the sale of land and property owned by residents in Sandy Ground which had been severely damaged in Hurricane Irma. Far from an act of benevolence, the government is offering only US $40,000 per property. It might be battered and uninhabitable at the moment but these are prime beach front properties which would have a far greater monetary value than $40K if they weren’t derelict. More importantly to the residents, Sandy Ground is where they have lived within their communities for the whole of their lives. Easy to picture the government forcing sales, dispersing the residents across the island and up into the surrounding hills and then in a few years when the anger subsides, selling the prime real estate to Hilton Hotels for a massive profit. Typical government exploitation. All became clear.
We were under strict instructions not to photograph the protesters as we passed under the Sandy Ground bridge because they had been throwing projectiles at reporters in boats passing under the bridge. So, we kept our heads down, the camera inside the boat, and waved a relieved goodbye to the “friendly island” 😉
Immigration into Anguilla is as relaxed as immigration in and out of St Martin. A desk with a happy, smiling officer who barely glances at your papers and waves you through. Ten paces outside of the ferry terminal and we arrived at Andy’s Auto Rentals to pick up our wheels for the week. For the princely sum of $450 we took charge of a 4-wheel drive which had literally been through Hurricane Irma. Every single panel was scratched, dented and scraped, the inside was barely in better shape than the outside and it had no windscreen wiper blades. It rattled and clanked over every pothole on the island but we figured if it had survived Irma it would probably survive the next 7 days.
We needed a few supplies so we stopped at JW Proctors supermarket en route to paradise at Shoal Bay East. I was looking for postcards. Nope – no postcards on the island. The only previous vendor of postcards was still rebuilding after Irma. A quick look around the grocery section was enough to convince us that however much we might come to love this island we could never live there. The staple diet (aside from fish) comprises unidentifiable frozen meat products, dairy and some equally unappealing packaged items which brought to mind 1970’s England. There was a tiny section of fruit and vegetables memorable only for how close they were to rotting on the shelves. Of course, nothing grows on the island and everything is shipped in … impossible for a couple of 98% vegans, 2% pescatarians.
No point looking at retirement houses for sale here which is unfortunate because “Wow!” Anguilla is absolutely beautiful. The best kind of (sandy) white Christmas destination – pristine uncrowded beaches, sugar soft sand, great food and warm teal waters.
Shoal Bay East is as spectacular as it is purported to be. “The” hotels at this end of the island to hang your sarong for the week are Zemi (fabulous and suitably upmarket enough not to attract too many noisy infants) and Manoah at the most westerly point of the beach. Anyone with even deeper pockets might consider the Belmond Cap Juluca on the spectacularly pristine and tranquil Maundays Bay on the south side of the island with views of St Martin.
Wherever you stay you are going to be considerably poorer by the end of the week 😉 It is a notably expensive island.
Having Andy’s jalopy at our disposal I was determined to explore this tiny island from one end to the other … several times if necessary. We quickly discovered that all routes pass the airport (which has more private jets parked up than any other airport we have seen in our lives). The locals stroll the roads at all hours of the day and night so you need to have your wits about you in the pitch black of night. A large bull was tethered outside the airport with grazing rights befitting his size and stature. There are goats wandering along the roadside verges and roosters running amok across the country roads. The locals all smile and wave – without exception. Anguilla is truly a “friendly island”.
Food on Anguilla is exceptional. The independent restaurants of note are mainly on Meads Bay half an hour away from Shoal Bay but, even though Meads Bay is also a world class beach, you could not have prised me away from Shoal Bay.
Of the 33 beaches to explore on the island my recommended beach excursions are – in order of declining fabulousness – Maundays, Meads Bay, Rendezvous Bay, Long Bay (beautiful but troubled by rather turbulent waters which would have been exhilarating to swim in), Sandy Ground harbor and beach, diminutive Sandy Hill Bay and finally, on the “wild side” of the island, Savannah Bay accessed by off-roading for a good couple of miles down a dirt track (it is also known as Junk Hill beach due to the quantities of debris which wash ashore – we didn’t see any floating trash but given the howling gale I wouldn’t recommend it as a beach upon which to recline with a good book unless you like digging sand out of your every orifice and being whipped by your own hair).
Anguilla is an island to relax upon. We are not good at this but within 12 hours we were both horizontally chilled out. Lazy days were frittered beach walking, checking out beach bars and fish shacks around the island, floating in the warm waters and imbibing jalapeño margaritas and the occasional elaborately decorated piña colada – all this in between difficult decisions about whether we should head out for dinner or stay at Zemi and eat shoeless under the palm trees with our toes digging into the sand.
Beach bars of note on our travels are – Blanchards on Meads Bay (excellent for a more upmarket beach shack experience); Tropical Sunset on Shoal Bay East (for a more traditional Caribbean experience – including rice and beans and fried plantains to die for); and Falcon Nest on Island Harbor beach (where you can see the fishing boats arrive with their haul and 10 minutes later the same haul is served up for lunch). If (like Geoff) you abdicate responsibility for choosing your own cocktails because you are just too lazy to make your own choice the bar staff at Falcon will also create some truly dreadful looking multi-colored extravaganzas which apparently tasted better than they looked 😉
Because I had discovered in my pre-vacation research that Sunshine Shack on Rendezvous Bay was highly photogenic we drove out there shortly before lunch one day. As I needed to avail myself of the bathroom facilities before ordering I stopped at the restaurant’s toilets and by the time I was finished I had decided upon a rapid change of plan. Not to get too much into the nitty gritty of the facilities – but there was no running water. The toilet is flushed by picking up a scoop from a grubby bucket next to the toilet bowl and pouring it down the bowl. I was practically fainting from the stress of my OCD’s (at the very highest level of trauma from that alone). But to then discover that there was no running water in the tap was a step too far. Given that the restaurant staff use the same facilities there was no possibility that I could eat anything served there so I took my obligatory photos and shuttled Geoff back to the car for a return trip to Blanchards Beach Shack where I already knew that if I had chosen to do so I could have eaten lunch in the toilet – such was the level of their cleanliness 🙂
The best Caribbean French bakery on the planet is the Village Bakehouse which I blame entirely for our rapidly expanding vacation waistlines.
Best restaurants which we visited are Blanchards on Meads Bay set in a suitably exotic tropical garden (next to Blanchards Beach Shack) – so good we ate there twice; Veya in Sandy Ground was superlative (nestled in a romantic tropical garden above their trendy cocktail bar Meze); and Da’Vida in Crocus Bay.
There were a dozen other restaurants on my list but we ran out of time … which is a good excuse to return 😉
Christmas Eve Anguillan style was dinner at Veya followed by sandy feet, live reggae, fairy light wrapped palm trees, jalapeño margaritas & piña coladas “for the lady” on the beach at Zemi. Unbeatable!
The highlight of our vacation should have been sailing and snorkeling for a day with “Tradition” (a classic West Indian sloop) out at Prickly Pear Island for lunch – which I am sure is spectacular. However, the Gods of Wind were not benevolent and a front blew in which churned the previously calm Caribbean seas into a froth. The sailing was, as a result, invigorating and I’m sure that Geoff was very grateful that I force-fed him a motion sickness pill before we boarded for our mimosas at 9am! There is nothing quite like cutting through the swell at speed under power of sails listening to your fellow passengers re-visiting their breakfasts. By the time we arrived at Prickly Pear Island the waves were crashing against the rocks on the south of the island. We watched a fellow vessel – a catamaran – attempt to navigate through a narrow pass to reach the beach but it was clear that it would have been dashed upon the rocks if the captain had persevered so we both turned around and headed straight back to Anguilla which was rather a waste of time! We caught a rainstorm en route which added insult to injury although it didn’t much matter as the back-up destination was Little Bay where we leapt into the water to snorkel. I had been planning on visiting Little Bay in any event so it wasn’t a total disaster but ours was a very convoluted and considerably more expensive route to get there! As a general note, the snorkeling is pitiful but the beach is pretty albeit very popular and very small. Our beach lunch on Prickly Pear became lunch at Da’Vida restaurant on Crocus Bay which killed 2 birds with 1 stone … there’s always a positive!
On our last day, Geoff expounded that there is little better in life than gazing at the turquoise waters lapping the shore from one’s sun lounger, listening to the strains of “Heaven” by the Psychedelic Furs in the background and hearing one’s friendly barkeep utter the immortal words “Geoff, are you ready for some more rum?” 😉
We rarely return anywhere twice, but Anguilla will be an exception.