The Traveler's Journal  
Travel Articles by David Bear
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St. Maarten blessed with serene beaches


By David Bear

SIMPSON BAY, St. Maarten -- You could call this perfection.

I am bobbing in warm, crystal-clear water contemplating the cerulean Caribbean and a three-mile-long scythe of sunlit sand.

In the distance, the shadowy silhouettes of four precipitous islands dot the 180-degree horizon. In the foreground, float millions of dollars worth of sleek mega-yachts.

One third of this beach is lined with pastel buildings, tiny inns and low-key condos, but the rest of the shimmering strand is entirely void of development.

More remarkable, I have this stupendous stretch of sand and sea almost entirely to myself.

Then my moment of pure reverie is stirred by a thudding sound that grows into a roar. Suddenly from behind the roof of Mary's Boon, the simple, seaside inn where we are staying, the sleek silver tube of a Boeing 737 leaps into the air.

Barely 100 feet off the tarmac, this aerodynamic wonder is in full throttle and throat, near enough so I can read the numbers on her nose.

Talk about awesome entertainment! In the once-again quiet, I can hear a few guests on the inn's roof top bar applauding the performance.

This gives a whole new meaning to the notion of an airport hotel.

Set on the shoulder where the long arc of the Caribbean chain first curls to the south, this island is unique in this corner of the world.

Although its 38 square miles offered few minerals, timber or other natural resources, and few surfaces flat enough for profitable plantations, the island was long a bone of contention between competing European colonizers. Between 1648 and 1839, it changed hands 16 times, but eventually its northern two thirds fell under the control of France, while Dutch colonists ruled the southern third. Over time, both colonies gained their independence, but even though most of their population descended from Africans, each retained its European colonial identity and allegiance.

The Dutch side, known as "Sint Maarten," has its capital at Philipsburg, the island's primary deep-water port. The French side became Saint Martin, with its capital in the busy but quaint port, Marigot. Together they give the island the distinction of being the world's smallest land mass to house two independent nations.

The island remained relatively out of the way until the 1950s when jet planes brought it within easy reach of both North American and European vacationers. To accommodate bigger planes, the single landing strip was gradually lengthened and widened.

The two-mile isthmus of sand it is on forms one side of the broad lagoon that separates the island's main land mass from a rocky promontory called Terres Basses, or the low country. The ocean side of the isthmus fronts Simpson Bay, where small inns and guest houses grew along the beach.

Mary's Boon was opened on Simpson Bay in 1970 by Mary Pomeroy, an eccentric American woman in her late 60s and her boyfriend, whose name was Boon. Ms. Pomeroy envisioned a simple but elegant beach side enclave built in a Caribbean style, with 37 units. A pilot herself, she attracted a flying crowd, and her guests often taxied their own planes up and parked them right behind the inn.

But as mass tourism discovered the island, larger resort hotels, such as Maho Beach, Mullet Bay, the Pelican Resort and Great Bay Beach Hotel, were built to provide proximity to the airport, and the Simpson Bay area grew cluttered with condos, cafes, casinos and clubs.

Princess Juliana Airport and its tiny terminal were often overwhelmed by a growing tide of vacationers who flocked to the island or to catch short flights to St. Barts, Saba or Anguilla. The runway was enlarged again and in the early 1980s a security fence was required, so the beach road was truncated just past Mary's Boon.

But by that time, Ms. Pomeroy had moved on.



The island began to get busy when the port at Philipsburg was relocated and enlarged to accommodate bigger cruise ships, which off-loaded 1,000 or more passengers at a time.

Today, tourism is virtually the only industry on the island.

I had known none of this tale several months ago when planning a three-night visit to the island for my wife Sari and me. I had asked several people to recommend a traditional inn on the island, and Mary's Boon was suggested three times.

Flying to St. Maarten from Pittsburgh was a snap on US Airways, two flights with a smooth connection in Charlotte. We landed shortly after 2:30 p.m. and were through the bright new terminal and in our rental car less than an hour later. When I asked the lot attendant for directions to Mary's Boon, he told me to drive around the end of the runway and make a right on the beach road.

A minute later, we encountered our first traffic gridlock.

We were barely 100 yards past the runway's end when the single lane of cars stopped dead, with no traffic in the on-coming direction. An accident, I thought.

After five minutes with no movement, I switched off the engine. After 15 minutes, I started the car up, turned around and headed back to find someplace more pleasant to wait out the delay.

Circling past the airport, we joined the lively crowd gathered at the Sunset Beach Bar to savor the setting sun and the rum punch.

Just as the sky was approaching its most colorful, an enthusiastic throng started staring in the opposite direction, cheering the Air France jumbo jet just moving into position on the runway apron for takeoff. When the pilot revved the big jet's engines, the backwash almost blew the spectators over, who seemed to be having a great time.

Darkness came quickly, and we set out again to find our hotel. We drove back around the airport and through Simpson Bay (the traffic was gone) and crossed the lift bridge (apparently the cause of the earlier delay) that separated the ocean from the marina.

After stopping to ask directions, we turned around and tried again. On our third pass, we noticed the tiny lane that ran along the side of the runway fence. Half a mile along, we found Mary's Boon, literally abutting the runway fence.

While our guest room was charming and clean, with wide louvered windows that opened directly over the now moonlit bay, we were both skeptical about how pleasant a hotel next to an airport could be. But our fears were unfounded.

As we discovered, only the biggest planes used this end of the airport, and fortunately their arrivals and departures occurred within relatively narrow windows of time, and never after 8 p.m. The rest of the day, airport sounds were barely loud enough to be heard over the steady lick of ocean waves outside our window.

We awoke leisurely the next morning and after breakfast on the inn's beach front restaurant, set out to explore both nations on the tiny island.

Because of the steep terrain, most roads follow the shoreline, so navigating was easy, except when rainstorms transformed the two-lane roads into shallow canals and the slow stream of cars became gridlocked. It was clear much of the island already has more traffic than its roads can handle.

Our first stop was Philipsburg. Four streets fitted on a sandy strip between the sea and a salt lagoon, the pedestrian ways of the old Dutch capital now seem geared primarily to entertain cruise passengers.

We soon headed north toward the French part of the island, driving up the eastern side to Orient Beach.

In contrast to helter-skelter developments we passed along the way, Orient Beach was a neat neighborhood of low pastel cottages and houses, with well-tended gardens.

Handsome people strolled on the beach, while wind surfers and para-sailers plied the waters.

We found a table at a beach-side cafe, which seemed as if it were lifted right off the French Rivera, except that the beach here was much nicer. The sweetbreads I ordered were superb, and it was the first of a series of stellar meals we would enjoy on the island.

Several of the better restaurants turned out to be a 20-minute drive from our hotel in the village of Grand-Case on the northwestern side of the island. That night we ate at Le Tastevin, which was truly marvelous both for its cuisine and ambience.

We spent the next day enjoying the tranquillity of Simpson Bay and our peaceful retreat, albeit punctuated periodically by the departure of a jet liner, events which I found myself eagerly anticipating.

We only ventured out for dinner at La Semanna, a very upscale resort with another highly recommended restaurant. Although both the resort and the meal were sumptuously satisfying, we found ourselves glad to be returning to the simplicity of Mary's Boon.

And a week later when we were back on the island to catch our flight home, we made a point to stop back at Mary's Boon for a pre-departure meal on the veranda overlooking the bay.

It felt wonderful to be there and very hard to leave.


If you go: St. Maarten
Getting there: Daily flight service from Pittsburgh to Princess Juliana Airport on St. Maarten (Netherlands Antilles) is offered by US Airways via Charlotte, while American and now Jet Blue offer daily flights via JFK. More information:
-- St. Maarten:
-- Mary's Boon Beach Resort:
-- Le Tastevin:
-- La Semanna: Carnival: This year Carnival takes place from April 17 to May 3, a celebration that brings out the music, dancing in the streets, fun and pageantry, along with festivities like Jump-Up Parades, calypso competitions, beauty pageants and the annual Jouvert celebration, which allows visitors and residents to parade alongside costumed revelers and join in the numerous street jump-ups. For more information:

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