One island, two countries. Sint Maarten/St. Martin is composed of two separate halves— the French side (Saint Martin) and the Dutch side (Sint Maarten). There was an old tale on the island that the French and the Dutch had been so civil to each other that rather than fight over the island they each sent a man to opposite ends of the island, the French man with a bottle of wine, and the Dutch man with a bottle of rum. They walked towards the center of the island and where they met a line would be drawn to divide the island. The story goes that the French side was a little bit bigger because the rum was stronger. However this island came to be split like this, each side added their own unique flavor to the experience of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.
The Dutch side was further divided into the Simpson Bay area, which was extremely cruiser-friendly, and the Philipsburg area where the cruise ships came in and thus was tourist-oriented. In Philipsburg, there were many stores selling the same old souvenirs we’d seen on past islands. But it also had a few Dutch stores such as the Delf-Blue pottery store specializing in expensive fine blue and white Dutch pottery, and a Dutch linen store with just about anything for the home that could be made of lace.
We were anchored in Simpson Bay. The island of Sint Maarten, and especially the Simpson Bay area, caters to the cruising community. From the smallest simple sloop to the massive mega yacht, just about anything those living and working on them could want could be found here. And, if one still couldn’t find what they were looking for, it could always be shipped here.
With this in mind, we were contemplating replacing out frustratingly wet, tiny inflatable, with a slightly longer one with bigger tubes. From fellow cruisers we had learned that larger tubes are crucial to keep dry. We took about a day going to the various marine stores and comparison shopping, then took and additional day to mull it over, and the following day we had a new 14 foot dinghy and 25 horsepower motor. What a difference! It was such a luxury to leave our boat dry and arrive at our destination still dry.
It was very fortunate that we had this new dinghy here in St. Maarten/St. Martin because of a heavily polluted, sorry excuse for a body of water called Simpson Bay lagoon. Before I arrived at St. Maarten and first heard that there was a lagoon the scene from “The Little Mermaid” where they are rowing through a glittering tree-covered lagoon with various singing marine life came to mind. Alas, when I first set eyes upon Simpson Bay lagoon I was sorely disappointed. It resembled a cess pool more than a lagoon. Hundreds of boats were huddled inside, and most of them pumped their heads overboard and turned the lagoon water into toxic waste. This water was so disgusting you would not want to even stick your big toe in. This was also just about the only place in the Caribbean that we had been to where you could not see the bottom at all.
The lagoon was split in half along with the rest of the island. The French side was a bit less polluted because the current brought fresh water in from that side. In our brand new inflatable we could whiz across from one side of the lagoon to the other, which was really quite large, in style. Zipping across the scummy lagoon water to the French side we passed a locally well known landmark called the Witch’s Tit. This uncompromising mountain was aptly named by some filthy-minded Frenchman no doubt. Past this sordid hill the water began to clear up minimally, and the boats we passed were decidedly more colorful. We later learned that the French are somewhat known for painting their boats non-traditional hues. The channel led us into a small cove in the middle of downtown Marigot, the main city of the French side. The dinghy dock, which was basically a bunch of rings along the sea wall, was jam-packed with an assortment of dinghies of all shapes and sizes.
The city surrounding us was impressive at first glance. It was unequivocally French and well kept. Tidy boutiques and charming little cafés lined the waterfront and surrounding streets. Outside the restaurants the menus were displayed in at least two languages; French and English. All the signs and just about everything else was written in French. This was the first time in our trip that we had really encountered a foreign language. I had taken a semester of French, so I could understand a few words here and there. But because it was over a year ago I had forgotten a great deal. Fortunately, nearly everyone could speak English.
In addition to all the wonderful stores, there was an open air market three times a week. Many locals would come and set up shop selling everything from tacky trinkets most likely made in China to locally hand made wood carvings and jewelry. The most interesting thing there were tiny statuettes that looked like they were made of ivory. Upon further investigation we found that they were actually made from the pit of a tropical fruit called a tagua nut. After being extracted from the fruit, the pit was dried and would harden to a consistency comparable to that of ivory. Thus it was sometimes referred to as vegetable ivory. It could then be carved into just about any shape imaginable. Laid out on a cloth covered table were tiny tropical fish, monkeys, birds, boats, manta rays, etc. All were intricately carved and each was a work of art unto itself.
The best thing of all on the French side was definitely the food. There were bakeries and restaurants galore. Most were reasonably priced and a bad one was difficult to find. While we were in St. Martin, we had fresh, buttery croissants almost every day for breakfast. When we ate out for lunch here, even just a simple salad and lemonade at one of these French restaurants was exquisite.
Going to the local grocery store here was a treat. The shelves were filled with strange and exotic things. There were tons of foreign cookies and candies and other treats. My personal favorite was chocolate mousse. It was in the yogurt section in small pudding size containers. Each container held a serving of rich, velvety chocolate mousse. All the non-junk food was very good too. There was a multitude of fresh fruits and vegetables, and good meats and cheeses.
There was only one thing I did not enjoy about the French grocery store. Since I knew some French and my mother knew none at all, she would often ask me what various unfamiliar words meant. In the meat section one day, my mother inspected a strange looking package labeled “lapin.” Not even attempting a French accent, she asked me what “lapin” meant. Recalling that lapin was French for rabbit, I glanced down at the saran-wrapped package and was horrified to see an intact yet mangled skinless rabbit, with one glassy eye staring back at me. My mother had not noticed the eye, and once she did she immediately put it back. We bought some nice pork tenderloin instead.
Of all the interesting people we met on our trip, some of the most interesting we met here in St. Maarten. I could go on and on about the professional captain and his wife, the family of four from Washington state taking the winter off, or the Canadian couple who built their boat and everything on it right down to the cleats, steering wheel, and anchor windlass, just to name a few. But most astoundingly, there was the couple we had met a few years earlier when they were cruising up north and stopped in our home town of Rockland. They actually lived on the island of St. Maarten and owned a marine repair business and had since sold their boat and become land lubbers. They had been up just after we had purchased Koukla and we told them of our dreams of cruising the Caribbean. When they saw the sorry state of our vessel they didn’t think we’d ever make it. So, when we dropped by their business one day they were astounded yet delighted to see us. They were fairly prominent citizens on the island, and particularly prominent in the internationally renowned Sint Maarten Heineken regatta. They were among the top three or four organizers of this big event, and they immediately volunteered us to help out.
A common meeting place for all these cruisers is the Simpson Bay Yacht Club. But the Simpson Bay Yacht Club is not your typical yacht club. Made out of two old cargo containers, with picnic tables scattered about the premises, the yacht club is conveniently located near the Simpson Bay Bridge. At 9 am and 5 pm the bridge is raised to let boats in and out of the lagoon. At 5 pm many cruisers and a few locals flock to the Simpson Bay yacht club for drinks and to watch the boats come and go. Everyone is friendly and talkative and has a million stories to tell. Probably the most fascinating person we encountered here was Captain Fatty Goodlander. He has written many articles for various cruising magazines as well as a few books, and is something of a celebrity amongst the cruising community. He had come to Sint Maarten to write about the Sint Maarten Heineken regatta. He had been flown by regatta officials to Sint Maarten from some remote location on the other side of the planet where he was in the middle of circumnavigation the globe. He exuded an almost Santa Clause-like joviality, although despite his name he really wasn’t that fat. And so, we spent many a balmy evening at the yacht club sipping soft drinks, chatting with fellow cruisers, and watching the boats come and go from this epicenter of cruising in the Caribbean known as Sint Maarten