A ro­man­tic beach get­away — with the kids

The half-French, half-Dutch is­land with culi­nary cred can make a par­adise even of a fam­ily trip

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY JOHN BRI­LEY Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

“I am never go­ing on va­ca­tion with you guys again,” my sis­ter Rachel says.

A cu­ri­ous sen­ti­ment, given the set­ting: We are at a beach­front restau­rant on the is­land of St. Martin, 11:30 a.m. on a mid-De­cem­ber Mon­day, shar­ing a mo­jito while await­ing plates of sauteed grouper. My wife, Cath­leen, and chil­dren, Kai (6) and Christina (3), are with us. Twenty feet away the Caribbean Sea laps at but­tery sands.

Rachel joined our fam­ily va­ca­tion in large part to help with the kids and al­low Cath­leen and me glimpses of what va­ca­tion­ing was be­fore we had chil­dren. Lost in this ar­range­ment was how hard it would be for us — or, more pre­cisely, me — to ac­tu­ally let that hap­pen. Tan­gled in the bram­ble of par­ent­ing, I strug­gle to shake free and ap­pre­ci­ate what started it all: the mar­riage.

Thus on Day Two of a week-long trip three adults are trip­ping over each other, is­su­ing con­flict­ing edicts to the chil­dren and snip­ing com­ments to each other as we drift ever fur­ther

from re­lax­ation. Rachel gives the kids bread — be­fore real food ar­rives! The hor­ror! — and I glare at her. She rep­ri­mands them for run­ning around the out­door restau­rant; I de­clare their be­hav­ior fine, draw­ing a glower from my spouse. The chil­dren, ever aware, play the in­fight­ing to their ad­van­tage.

I have faith this will pass, and it starts to the minute I re­pair to a cush­ioned chaise ad­ja­cent our ta­ble, close my eyes and shut my mouth. Every­thing calms down once I’m gone from the ta­ble. The restora­tive sound of wa­ter on sand min­gles with the women’s con­ver­sa­tion and our waiter’s voice as he de­liv­ers an­other mo­jito.

St. Martin, tucked into the north­ern reaches of the Lesser An­tilles, is a 34square-mile gem of sculpted bays, lush moun­tains and re­mark­ably good res­tau­rants. This is most true on the north­ern tier of the is­land, an over­seas ter­ri­tory of France that bur­nishes the culi­nary ethos of its ma­ter­nal gov­ern­ment.

The south­ern por­tion is run by the Dutch, un­der a bi­fur­ca­tion that dates to 1648: Christo­pher Colum­bus had named the is­land af­ter he passed (but didn’t land on) it on the Feast of St. Martin, Nov. 11, 1493. The Dutch had long cov­eted the is­land as a way sta­tion be­tween colo­nial hold­ings in Brazil and what is now New York, and fi­nally ha­rangued Spain’s on site gover­nor into re­lin­quish­ing con­trolin 1647. A French naval con­tin­gent hap­pened to be milling around off­shore and in­serted it­self, with the threat of force, when Hol­land and Spain worked out the de­tails of their trans­fer.

We are in France, on Ori­ent Bay Beach, a 1.3-mile crooked smile book­ended by small is­lands and clus­tered with out­door res­tau­rants, in­clud­ing the scene of our spat du jour, Aloha Beach Bar. The vibe here is sans souci, or “with­out care” (we are late ar­rivals among the pre-noon rum drinkers) but the food and ser­vice far ex­ceed the stan­dard for places with “bar” in their names.

“I’m lucky,” Aloha owner Nathalie Pley, a trans­planted Parisian, tells me. “I have a chef from France. Re­ally, this is a party is­land but there’s so many of us here,” she says, nod­ding to­ward the line of res­tau­rants fronting the sea, “that we must serve good food.”

Ac­tu­ally, not true: As one of the is­land’s longer con­tigu­ous beaches, Ori­ent Bay draws a steady flow of tourists, many bused over from the cruise dock in the Dutch-side cap­i­tal, Philips­burg. They pour forth, pan phones through the air to cap­ture the mem­ory, eat, drink (and drink!), maybe take a swim, and re­treat. They would, I sus­pect, be per­fectly con­tent with greasy burg­ers and fries.

The droves are lighter in Ori­ent Bay this week due to an in­un­da­tion of a sea­weed called sar­gas­sum that is amass­ing on the is­land’s east-fac­ing beaches. It streams in and piles up with alarm­ing speed, to the point where re­sorts and pub­lic of­fi­cials de­ploy trac­tors at night to churn the plant into the sand. Un­like many other marine flora, sar­gas­sum grows in open wa­ter. It con­cen­trates in the Sar­gasso Sea, a mas­sive gyre in the At­lantic Ocean, and a range of fac­tors can shift cur­rents and send the weed to dis­tant shores.

It is mar­ring, though not ru­in­ing, the swim­ming at our home beach, but no mat­ter: An en­tire is­land awaits, and with it a suite of trop­i­cal back­drops for fam­ily dy­nam­ics.

Amaz­ing trail

“Of course they need life jack­ets,” Cath­leen sighs. “Don’t be ridicu­lous.” It is Day Three, and she’s ad­mon­ish­ing me as I sit­u­ate our nearly naked kids in a kayak for a 10-minute pad­dle over to one of St. Martin’s more pop­u­lar day trips, Pinel Is­land. I start to ex­plain that I’ve run the child-over­board-heroic-res­cue-by-dad sce­nario in my head, and that all will be well. But this one isn’t winnable. I stuff K and C into their flota­tion vests.

Pinel is a pro­tected marine re­serve, fringed by reef and a stun­ning beach that rises to rolling grassy hills. You could swim to Pinel from the shore in Culde Sac, the bay north of Ori­ent, and in fact we watch a French girl do just that, with some com­pet­i­tive zeal, while her dad pi­lots a kayak in her wake. Also, a ferry makes the run for $13 round trip. The kayak and stand-up pad­dle rental shack is ad­ja­cent the ferry dock.

Glid­ing onto the sand we are greeted by or­derly lines of um­brel­las and chaises (avail­able for rent), and two al­lur­ing thatch res­tau­rants. Em­ploy­ees of one are shov­el­ing sar­gas­sum into wheel­bar­rows and shut­tling it away, but the sea­weed seems to have sul­lied only one cor­ner of the beach.

The wa­ter here is sparkling clear, with an am­ple, sand-bot­tomed area roped off for swim­ming. The bay be­yond is dot­ted with sail­boats at an­chor. The en­tire scene is un­de­ni­ably beau­ti­ful but my lens is clouded by Rest­less Male Syn­drome: Is there any­thing to ac­tu­ally do here?

Cath­leen clearly thinks so, as she pays for a chair, kicks up her feet and opens a novel. I scan around for a surf break or kite board cen­ter that I might have missed, but there are none.

Rachel re­turns from an ex­ploratory walk. “You guys! I found an a-maz-ing trail through the trees that leads to spe­cial place!” Trail? Trees? I see a clump of bushes be­tween the res­tau­rants, but as I start to roll my eyes. the kids light up — “Aun­tie Rae! Where?” — and bound from the wa­ter to fol­low her.

About Rachel: 47, the mid­dle of my three sis­ters, goes by Rae, univer­sity pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in theater for the young, ca­reer artist with bound­less cre­ativ­ity and en­thu­si­asm for the wee peo­ple, mak­ing her a fa­vorite aun­tie to my kids. And at 5 feet tall, she can, say, find a “trail” through a stout clus­ter of sea grape trees. I fol­low along, duck­ing my 5-7 frame to avoid head in­jury.

Rae leads us to a sun­baked clear­ing be­tween the res­tau­rants where a crowd has gath­ered to gawk at a herd of igua­nas. The lizards saunter off the hill­side to gobble pro­duce rinds and other scraps tossed by restau­rant work­ers. Ev­ery kid there is in heaven. When Kai fol­lows the oth­ers in reach­ing out to pet a rep­tile, I with­hold my stan­dard spiel of how “we don’t in­ter­fere with na­ture” and let him en­joy it.

Look­ing around, I see a cook pulling lob­sters from a trap tied to a dock while, nearby, pods of young partiers stand — in waist-deep wa­ter — around wait-served ta­bles adorned with beer, cham­pagne and rum.

No­body needs me here, so I re­turn to my kayak and stroke through a nar­row chan­nel to Pinel’s ex­posed wind­ward shores.

It isn’t far, 10 min­utes into a head­wind, but the pas­sage opens to a by­gone Caribbean: bril­liant fish dart around the reef, vis­i­ble be­low; around one cor­ner a pic­ture-book beach, no hu­mans in sight; and to the east, wide-open sea, shades of blue dark­en­ing from the turquoise shal­lows to the white-capped sap­phire of deeper wa­ters. I squint to the hori­zon in hopes of sight­ing a hump­back whale get­ting a jump on the Jan­uary-to-May mat­ing sea­son, but I see none.

Be­fore we leave Pinel I find one more thing to do: I hoist Kai onto my back and fol­low an ac­tual trail up the hill­side to the high point of the is­land. It looks vaguely like Ire­land, un­du­lat­ing greens rolling to the sea, webbed by thin foot paths, the only other sign of hu­man­ity a Ho­bie Cat, skit­ter­ing over the reef.

Run­away kids

Ori­ent Bay Vil­lage has al­most every­thing a St. Martin va­ca­tioner might need: food, sun­dries and liquor stores, an ocean­view out­door cof­fee and juice bar, mul­ti­ple bak­eries and even a re­spectable hair salon. The vil­lage also har­bors nu­mer­ous ho­tels, cheer­ily painted town­homes and a peb­ble court­yard ringed by se­duc­tive res­tau­rants, sirens to the bud­get-un­con­scious trav­eler.

I’ve not been to the con­ti­nen­tal French sea­side but I ima­gin eit har­bors a vil­lage like this: ev­ery morsel of food a point of artis­tic pride, from the first mouth-melt­ing crois­sant of the day to the fi­nal dol­lop of sor­bet;

My sis­ter joined our va­ca­tion to help with the kids and al­low my wife and me glimpses of what va­ca­tion­ing was be­fore we had chil­dren. Lost in this ar­range­ment was how hard it would be for us to let that hap­pen.

beach­go­ers who con­sider the sun wor­thy of wor­ship, not a de­mon to be re­pelled with SPF; lo­cals who speak no English, smoke cig­a­rettes and walk very small dogs.

One night we stroll three min­utes from our place to the pièce de ré­sis­tance of the town square, La Ta­ble d’An­toine. We se­cure a spot out­doors, framed by trop­i­cal fo­liage. A cou­ple of kids are run­ning about, and Kai and Christina waste no time glom­ming onto them.

They dis­ap­pear around a cor­ner, prompt­ing Cath­leen: “I can’t see them. Can you see them? Where did they go?”

Me: “C’mon, they’re play­ing. Noth­ing bad can hap­pen here.” And, be­cause this is a re­cur­ring squab­ble for us, I add the icy kicker: “You need to re­lax.”

Even be­fore I’m done speak­ing I re­al­ize there are softer ways to dis­agree with one’s spouse. And, as Cath­leen arches an eye­brow at me, I fur­ther re­al­ize I need to take my own ad­vice. The kids come rac­ing by, glee­ful. Soon our ta­ble looks like a “Food & Wine” cover shot — cheeks of monk­fish in a curry sauce, herb-dusted snap­per, seared scal­lops, light re­fracted through glasses of sauvi­gnon blanc — and our ten­sions drift away on the trop­i­cal breeze.

The rou­tine

By mid­week we have found a rhythm: Cath­leen and I run on the beach ev­ery morn­ing while Rachel watches the kids. We re­turn to base camp to find them deep into cre­ative play in­volv­ing dragons, sand lairs and fierce princesses.

Most days we flee the sea­weed by ven­tur­ing to other beaches, in­clud­ing Pe­tit Plage, where we set­tle into a two-hour lunch at the Sun­set Cafe be­fore Rae and I kayak Kai out to an is­land of rock to give him his first snor­kel­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. One af­ter­noon we re­turn to Ori­ent Bay with the sun set­ting and the wind whip­ping. With­out even ask­ing per­mis­sion I rig up my kitesurf gear and head out, carv­ing the silky wa­ters un­til sky and sea meld in the dusk.

Twice we cross over to the Dutch side — St. Maarten — and, in case we missed the wel­come sign and na­tional flag, we know we’ve crossed the bor­der be­cause hulk­ing blond Cau­casians have re­placed sinewy brown-skinned lo­cals as ex­tras in our movie.

What we don’t do is split up: No ro­man­tic din­ners out or care­free day trips for the mar­ried cou­ple. Twice, the five of us head into the food-cen­tric town of Grand Case, for­go­ing the French res­tau­rants for age­drum drinks and Cre­ole cook­ing, and both nights end with me car­ry­ing a sleep­ing child back to the car. On the nights we stay in we cob­ble din­ners to­gether fea­tur­ing ex­otic French cheeses and chill out on our sec­ond-story bal­cony while los­ing brazenly rigged dance con­tests to Kai and Christina.

No doubt my wife and I would en­joy an un­in­ter­rupted din­ner to­gether, but one of the great tri­umphs of par­ent­ing is the real­iza­tion that this — what we’re do­ing — is en­vi­able, in the grand scheme. Life is short and va­ca­tions even shorter, and you might as well spend the spe­cial mo­ments with the peo­ple you love. Be­cause, you know, they might not ever come on a va­ca­tion with you again.

JOHN BRI­LEY

JOHN BRI­LEY

The author’s wife, left, and sis­ter kayak shal­low wa­ters near Lit­tle Key, off St. Martin’s east coast. Nu­mer­ous semipro­tected bays and coves make St. Martin an ex­cel­lent is­land for kayak­ing and stand-up pad­dling.

JOHN BRI­LEY

A beach gives way to trop­i­cal wa­ters on Pinel Is­land, just off the is­land of St. Martin in the Lesser An­tilles. Be­yond, boats an­chor in the bay of Cul de Sac, a qui­eter, less touristed slice of St. Martin.

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