Hip hop to it

French flair in the Caribbean

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KATIE GLASS

I’d never been to the Caribbean and my as­sump­tion that it would be some­thing like a Mal­ibu ad turns out not to be en­tirely wrong. There are, as ex­pected, bright-coloured build­ings un­der blind­ing sun, milk-pow­der beaches with daz­zling blue seas, and the tin drum of reg­gae on streets lined with mango trees.

Yet what is this? A restau­rant filled with slim wait­ing staff glid­ing be­tween white table­cloths, serv­ing foie gras, Ro­que­fort and veal chops, pour­ing chilled Ch­ablis and calling me made­moi­selle. St Martin is the French Caribbean, which is a bril­liant com­bi­na­tion. It’s as beau­ti­ful as the Cote d’Azur, but no­body is rude to you. It doesn’t feel par­tic­u­larly French when you land on St Martin but that’s be­cause the air­port is in Sint Maarten, the south­ern, and Dutch, half of the is­land. The first thing you no­tice is the sea, which is cerulean at its depth, cyan in the shal­lows. You can’t help but no­tice it, be­cause it feels as if your plane is go­ing to splash right into it on the sharp de­scent to the run­way over Maho Beach.

But you’re not stuck on the Dutch side of the is­land. You can drive around both ter­ri­to­ries in an hour, and you don’t need a pass­port to travel across the bor­der, al­though phon­ing over re­quires an in­ter­na­tional di­alling code, a dif­fer­ent plug adapter and a change of cur­rency. I mis­tak­enly with­draw guilders at the air­port; every­one on the French side looks at them blankly. (They take eu­ros.)

The most star­tling dif­fer­ence be­tween the two sides, though, is the at­mos­phere. Think: the dif­fer­ence be­tween an af­ter­noon in Toulouse and a night out in Amsterdam. I spend about two hours en­dur­ing Sint Maarten, then flee to St Martin and never look back.

The French Caribbean is as won­der­ful as France could be with­out the French, an in­tox­i­cat­ing mix of Gal­lic chic and West In­dian warmth. So you can buy per­fect mille­feuille and tarte aux pommes to eat on a flour-soft beach. You can order a glass of sau­vi­gnon blanc, then float in warm sea the colour of a Tif­fany store bag. You can shop at serene bou­tiques, while out­side a car­ni­val howls down the street. You can pass lime-green houses spring­ing with pink bougainvil­lea like a rain­bow-splashed Nice, on streets where Buf­falo Sol­dier plays on re­peat. It is the Cre­ole Riviera, with all the el­e­gance and the sparkling sea of France’s south coast but none of the ar­ro­gance.

Marigot, St Martin’s cap­i­tal, is like an un­pre­ten­tious An­tibes. It was set­tled by the French in the 18th cen­tury, who plonked the gi­ant Fort Louis on the hill. Now the most French part of town is the ma­rina, where yachts moor along­side restau­rants and shops flog Mis­soni dresses and $180 swim­suits that wouldn’t look out of place in Cannes. The rest of Marigot is so re­laxed no one looks twice at a man and horse strolling down the street. Colour­ful 19th-cen­tury ginger­bread houses line Rue de la Republique, and old boys gather at the Cuban cigar cafe.

The patis­series and boulan­geries ri­val those in Paris. They serve fresh baguettes and their glass fridges are filled with neat rows of pink mousse aux fram­boises. At Grand Case, which claims to be the gourmet cap­i­tal of the Caribbean, a whole boule­vard of restau­rants serves Gal­lic cui­sine. L’Au­berge Gour­mande, all slim wait­ers and the veal chops, could be a Mont­martre bistro.

But I pre­fer to eat more clas­si­cally Caribbean, which couldn’t be a more dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. At the mar­ket in Marigot, there’s seafood fresh from the fish­mon­gers, bot­tles of lo­cal rum crammed with fresh fruit (I rec­om­mend the pas­sion­fruit) and spice stalls piled high with red cayenne pep­per, turmeric and bound cin­na­mon sticks. I take a seat at Cisca’s Del­i­cacy, where the wait­resses plonks down heav­ing plat­ters crammed with jerk chicken, rice, peas, potato salad, lime, fried plan­tain and fried fish pat­ties. (No­body’s go­ing to body-shame you here.)

In Grand Case, I eat as of­ten as I can at the hud­dle of lo­los, or lit­tle restau­rants, on the beach, where open grills throw up plumes of sweet smoke. At Cynthia’s Talk of the Town, big women in bright T-shirts and hair­nets ferry gi­ant plates of bar­be­cued chicken and ribs among a chaotic buzz of ta­bles. At Love Bar, a hip­ster hang-out with a collection of ran­dom seats on the beach, I lie on cush­ions drink­ing guava co­ladas.

Then I go wan­der­ing down Grand Case’s main street, look­ing through rails of chif­fon in pretty bou­tiques run by French expats. On Tues­day nights, Mardi Gras erupts, fill­ing the streets with the sound of steel drums.

By day, all you need is the beach. At Ori­ent Bay, watch geckos dig­ging in the sand from the pri­vate ca­bana of a white­washed beach club and swim in wa­ter so thick with fish you just stretch out your arms to touch them. This se­duc­tive blend of up­beat and el­e­gant is the per­fect pre­con­di­tion for the SXM fes­ti­val, the rea­son I am here.

I can now con­firm this is the coolest dance party in the Caribbean. What’s not to like about rav­ing in par­adise, es­pe­cially with peo­ple who have musical taste as good as the French? The event at­tracts big-name in­ter­na­tional elec­tronic dance mu­sic DJs and hun­dreds of rev­ellers to dance in the sand, but still feels like an in­ti­mate gathering com­pared with many of Europe’s fes­ti­vals.

It’s held over five days at venues scat­tered over the is­land, with the main site at Happy Bay, a se­cluded sandy stretch where DJs play from a stage built from co­conut palms, flooded neon pink and backed by the ocean. There is break­beat, techno and house, with hard-core rav­ing and af­ter-par­ties that carry on all night, and yet the fes­ti­val main­tains a re­laxed Caribbean vibe. On the beach, be­side mango trees hung with dream­catch­ers, there is a drinks stall where a guy with a ma­chete cleaves open a co­conut for me and fills it with rum. Then I go to watch Jamie Jones or Guy Ger­ber on the decks.

Why did no one tell me about the French Caribbean be­fore now? I sup­pose no one thought I could af­ford it. The next is­land along is St Barts, which pulls in mil­lion­aires, Rus­sians and new rel­a­tives of Pippa Mid­dle­ton.

St Martin isn’t cheap, but given how much you could drop on a hol­i­day in the Riviera, there’s no com­par­i­son.

Katie Glass was a guest of the SXM fes­ti­val and the St Martin Tourist Of­fice.

THE SUN­DAY TIMES

Shops and restau­rants by the har­bour in Marigot, main; the beach at Happy Bay, Grand Case; shops at Grand Case vil­lage, left; Palm Beach Lounge Restau­rant, Ori­ent Bay, below

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