Saturday, November 01, 2003
Caribbean island offers exotic mix of cultures St. Maarten/Sint Martin By Dennis GordonJeremy and Mary Gordon dip their toes into the Caribbean.
As the world's least-likely time-share owner, I've become adept at scouring for that elusive perfect vacation getaway. As a jobbing musician in an ever-expanding karaoke world, I have the neurotic need to be available for whatever work may come my way. Setting time aside two months in advance is not much of a problem… but a year? It's unthinkable.
So, like I said, I'm the least likely person to own a time share. Every summer, I figure out the window of opportunity around the end of May, and start my frenetic search for paradise. I'm not looking for adventure, I just want to take my wife and son somewhere to relax.
This year, my son worked at Gallery 37 downtown. This occupied 8 weeks (Age 14, out of the house every day and making money? Yes!) and left only a two-week window at the end of August; later than usual. I started our online search in the beginning of July. On the third day, a listing for the Pelican Bay Resort in St. Maarten showed up.
Yes, I know. The Caribbean in the off season. What's the big deal? Well, it looked beautiful, and it just sounded like a place to go, and we could fly for free, having accumulated many unredeemed United Airlines miles over the years. With a few clicks we were in, and flew out, via Philadelphia at the end of August.
St. Maarten, about 200 miles east of Puerto Rico, is part of the Netherland Antilles. It's a five-hour direct flight from Chicago. At 39 square miles and a population of 13,000, it has the distinction of being the world's smallest land mass containing two sovereign governments. The western half is Saint Maarten, governed by the Netherlands, while the eastern half is Sint Martin, a French territory.
The blend of the two nationalities accounts for much of the island's commercial appeal. Briefly, the Dutch side has casinos, shopping, beautiful beaches, more American style restaurants, including KFC, McDonalds, Burger King and supermarkets selling everything you'd expect to find at Dominicks, plus breadfruit. English is spoken everywhere.
The three-mile drive from Phillipsburg, the Dutch capital, to Marigot, the French capital, takes you to a decidedly more European milieu. For those who fancy a more sophisticated island experience, Sint Martin has no casinos, more upscale boutiques, beautiful nude beaches, patisseries, boulangeries and no fast food, and European style grocery stores.
The diversity of styles and cultures has made St. Maarten/Sint Martin a very popular destination, and traveling in the high season from November to April requires a bit of planning. Our off-season trip found the island to be pleasantly occupied, but not crowded. Lines were short, rental cars were cheap (from $20/day) and the island hustle was plentiful. While generally more costly than many other popular Caribbean destinations, a family can get by fairly inexpensively, particularly if they stay at a full service resort with a kitchen and on-site amenities.
There is the expected abundance of water activities, set against the beautiful azure waters: snorkeling, SCUBA diving, sailboating and jet ski rentals. A unique sailing adventure allows you to man the crew of Dennis Connor's America's Cup sailboat, the Stars and Stripes, for a day of instruction and a "race" across the Caribbean.
This is all the best that the Caribbean has to offer: beautiful beaches, warm waters, fine dining, extensive shopping, breathtaking views and an array of activities. But I guess the question is: Wouldn't it just be easier to take the kids to Florida? Considering that airfare from Chicago is about $500, I'm not sure if St. Maarten is a viable destination for all families.
If your child is likely to moan about the limited cable channels in the room, if traveling a couple of miles to the Starbucks Internet Café to check your email and Ebay listings is a hardship, or if dealing with different languages and currencies is undesirable, then you'd best drive down to Orlando.
But if you seek something more exotic, St. Maarten is a wonderful place. It offers the commercial comforts that some require, and the stunning beauty, luxury and cultural diversity others desire; all within a small area. We loved our trip there… but then, we flew for free. It's certainly worth the trip.
Credit card warning! On our third day on St. Maarten, the phone in our room rang early in the morning. "Hello Darling, this is Evelyn down at the rental car desk"
"Well hello yourself," I cooed back. "What's up Evelyn?"
"Well my Love, I thought you should know that your credit card that you used to rent your car was rejected." Oh what a mellifluous way to suggest that I'm a deadbeat.
When I call theVisa service number, a nice woman informs me that, yes, they had voided my card after noticing several charges being made outside of the U.S. Their computers flagged these transactions as possible credit card theft and automatically shut down our account. Apparently, we were supposed to inform them of our travel plans. After noticing the nefarious usage profile of airport snacks, hotel check-in, car rental and a couple of restaurant meals the Visa computers must have figured they had a regular Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. on their hands. Criminy… If I was an international credit card thief, would I have rented a Corolla?
Anyways, a couple more mouse clicks on their end, and we were back in business, but not before my wife got a receipt for the $4 it cost to call Visa. That was a lovely morning.
So I guess if you intend to travel out of the country, always call your credit card company and let them know your plans, lest you be stranded in a lovely place where the car rental clerk calls you Darlin'. (My wife called me something, too…)
Dennis Gordon is a musician, a father and the production manager at Wednesday Journal, Inc., Chicago Parent's parent company.