Friday, April 13, 2018

Caribbean Cruise: Sint Maarten

Great Bay, Philipsburg, Sint Maarten
The first thing to know about St. Martin is that it is not a single country. The island is divided into St. Martin (the French side) which is part of France and not an independent country. The other side of the island is Sint Maarten and is an independent country and part of the Dutch kingdom. Along with Saba, Sint Eustacius, Aruba, and Curacao, Sint Maarten is part of what used to be called the Dutch West Indies but is now known as the Netherlands Antilles. When you cross the border from the Dutch to the French side, you enter the European Union with its euro as the currency. The Dutch side uses the Netherlands Antilles Guilder. However, both sides easily accept American dollars. On the Dutch side there is a set exchange rate to facilitate trade.

The day dawned sunny and warm.  Some clouds began to filter in later and we got the typical brief shower.  We decided to spend the day exploring both sides of the island and its cuisine.  We joined a group of 14 others and were shepherded around the island by Randy, our guide, and Julio, our driver. 
Our driver, Julio
Randy is from Holland and relocated to Sint Maarten about 10 years ago.  Julio is from the Dominican and has been navigating St. Martin traffic for more than twenty years.  The island is 37 square miles.  While home to only 80,000 people,  the traffic is awful under the best of circumstances which these were not.  Hurricane Irma had inflicted heavy damage on the island, much of which was still visible especially on the French side.  Their priority is to replace roofs on structures and to put all power lines underground.  It is this last which causing much of the traffic congestion in Philipsburg, the capital and port city.

Randy in green and Etienne in black
However, Julio got us through these delays and on to our first stop:  .  This is a family owned and operated store.  Etienne, one of the sons, provided us a lesson on Dutch gouda cheeses.  Yes, that is plural.  It turns out there are an unlimited number of gouda cheeses but only the authentic Dutch ones will be called Dutch Gouda with a mark of “NL” in a circle on the package.  We began the lesson with a glass of wine, just to wake up our palates, of course.  We learned about and tasted young gouda, aged gouda, garlic gouda, and then the best of the best, Amsterdam Gouda.  He then combined all these along with bow-tie pasta and made us some mac and cheese which was scrumptious.  We ended up buying some of that Amsterdam Gouda and some dark chocolate.  Marilyn also found some cool tulip sculptures that will soon grace our table.  I later learned that she also bought five packages of Stroop waffles.  These are not a rare as we thought when she saw them advertised at Target and I recalled that United uses them for an in flight treat. 

Storm damage in Grand Case
StoAfter that, we drove around the island and entered France.  We could notice the more extensive damage there.  There has not been as much progress in repairing the damage as on the Dutch side.  Both Holland and France are helping finance the work but France bureaucracy has slowed progress there.  People were very aware that the next hurricane season starts June 1.  They were also very happy to see us.  Tourism is the only economic enterprise on the island.  Everything starts and ends with tourists.  While the number is down, the ships are coming back and that is helping.  The damage to the resorts is going to take longer to repair and recover.

Barbecue grilling at Sky's the Limit, Grand Case
We stopped for lunch in Grand Case which was becoming the culinary center of the Caribbean until Irma arrived.  We drove down the street that had been lined with high quality international restaurants.  This street was right on the beach and the fury of the storm showed no mercy.  While few if any of these high-end restaurants are back in operation, several of the “lolos” are.  A Lolo is a beach-oriented barbecue joint typically with picnic tables under canopies or in the open.  The cooking done right there out in the open and the smell is wonderful.  They are where locals eat, and we enjoyed a typical local lunch of barbecue chicken, ribs, potato salad, Cole slaw, and johnny cakes.  Only one of the lolos is fully
back although a couple were cooking and serving a few people.  We ate at Sky's the Limit.  The owners and their extended family cook and serve.  Randy told us that they had the restaurant up and running within a week of Irma and were providing food to rescue workers and local people at no cost.

Morano glass chandelier in Carousel Gelateria
We then drove through Marigot, the main city on the French side, and saw more of the devastation that will take a long time to set right.  After we returned to the Dutch side, we spent an hour at the Carousel Gelateria, located on Simpson Bay Lagoon.  The owner, Carlos, had been a somnelier on St. Bart’s where he and his wife, a chef, owned a restaurant.  They decided to just focus on one thing and gelato seemed to be that right thing.  In a beautifully appointed store with a carousel out back right on the bay, he makes and sells gelato.  We received a lesson in how that is done and witnessed the making of Oreo gelato that ended with a sample of the product right out of the gelato maker.  That was followed by a dish of gelato and a ride on the carousel.

Marilyn with Randy
Randy set his objectives at the beginning of the tour.  He wanted us to have satisfyingly full bellies—not stuffed—and to learn some things about his home, Sint Maarten/St. Martin.  He accomplished both objectives.  Here is a new fact I learned.  Christopher Columbus discovered St. Martin in 1493 on his second voyage.  However, he never set foot on the island but stood off shore and claimed it for the Spanish King.  Turns out he did the same thing to Puerto Rico.  But that was something we learned the next day.

Click here to see more photos of St. Maarten/St. Martin.

That evening after we stuffed ourselves at the buffet—Randy would not have approved—we enjoyed a show in the comedy club lounge.  There were two standup comics and we laughed continuously.  The ship has been moving around a lot since the swells—whatever they are—have been high.  In fact, the captain has cancelled the diving show twice in two days because of the excessive movement and the sloshing of the water in the dive pool.  They have rescheduled the show for three performances on Saturday when the seas are supposed to be calmer.  While the movement has been very noticeable, neither of us have experienced any discomfort.  Luckily we are on a big ship—just about the biggest—and the motion is much less than would have been the case on a smaller, though still pretty big one.

Tomorrow we will spent only about five hours in San Juan but we are looking forward to a very interesting adventure to learn and do some good. 

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