Hip hop to it
French flair in the Caribbean
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