An intercontinental jet touches down every three minutes on the tiny island of St. Martin in the Caribbean.
Tourists arrive constantly from Canada, the USA, Great Britain and Europe to enjoy the island’s warm sun, sandy beaches and tourist attractions. It’s an odd destination; the southern part of the island is Dutch (Sint Maarten) and the northern half is French (Saint-Martin).
The freethinking Dutch allow gambling and promote shopping in the duty-free capital and cruise port of Philipsburg. The French allow nude beaches and boast of their restaurants. It’s the lucky traveller who discovers early on that the northern half of St. Martin is known as the “food capital of the Caribbean.”
Heading west then north on the highway that circumnavigates the island, the instant you cross the border (there is a marker by the side of the road; no customs booths) you know you are in French territory. All the signs are in French. Everyone speaks French. Renault and Peugeot cars dot the streets. But it’s the restaurants that catch your eye. There are more than 400 restaurants on the island’s 21 square miles. The best of them are found in the town of Marigot on the west coast and the village of Grand Case a bit farther north.
Start off with a visit to a “lolo,” the beachside cafes and barbecue stands that cook ribs and chicken with a side of rice and beans, macaroni salad and fried plantain. Washed down with an ice-cold beer, lunch comes in at under $10. You can also try the salt fish and Johnny cakes, conch sausage and cod fritters with a side of sauce chien (a spicy vinaigrette infused with herbs).
Grand Case holds the bulk of the best-known lolos along the ocean, including Talk of the Town and Sky’s the Limit. At Talk of the Town, try the Caribbean lobster served at an incredible price. Rosie’s in the capital of Marigot pulses with reggae; a simple cardboard sign on a street displays the day’s special.
Dessert lovers will be more than pleased with St. Martin’s selection of French boulangeries, particularly in Marigot. Tropical fruit shakes and drink stands are everywhere.
A bit higher up the food chain are the French brasseries like you would find in Paris, only in Paris you wouldn’t find diners in shorts and tropical shirts. On Tuesday nights the main boulevard in Marigot turns into a pedestrian-only block party with barbecued street food.
Grand Case’s restaurants run the gamut from cosy brasseries such as Le Tastevin to innovative French spots such as L’Estaminet. There are more than 67 restaurants set up in typical Creole houses along Grand Case Boulevard.
On the other side of the island, Orient Beach is a slice of St. Tropez. All the restaurants rent beach chaises and umbrellas and their dining areas are perched overlooking the water. Kontaki, Kakao and Waikiki are recommended.
The food in St. Martin is so good because delivery of fresh vegetables and other imports from California and Europe via air is constant and inexpensive. Also, the harbour at Marigot is packed with millionaire yachts, and the owners like to get off their floating toys for a great meal.
On the rest of the island you can choose from Indonesian, Indian, Japanese, Moroccan, Lebanese, Mexican, Thai, Italian and more.
Never mind the 37 excellent beaches; it seems people go to St. Martin just to eat. They are never disappointed.
Michael McCarthy is a freelance writer and owner of http://www.mccarthy-travels.com