SINT MAARTEN, Dutch West Indies – It’s not much more than a speck of land in the midst of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, but Sint Maarten/Saint Martin has been called the Gastronomic Capital of the Caribbean for good reason.
This island is part Dutch and part French with the oldest unguarded international border in the world. The historical marker puts the date in the mid-17th Century when European powers were plundering the New World for its exotic spices and valuable minerals. There never has been any gold or silver here. The riches of this island are to be found in other things.
I’ve been coming here for more than 15 years and the food scene on the Dutch side is constantly changing. In fact, it continues to be in flux. The economy is a big factor here, too. That flux is not the case so much on the French side (next week’s column). When I first started coming here, the restaurant choices were rather limited. The ubiquitous American fast food franchises were here. But you had to make a real effort to find local cuisine or a restaurant that served something more than pedestrian food you could find on any street in America. There were a few decent eating places, but finding a table in the “fine dining” establishments was never a problem. There was a reason for that – most of the tourists and timeshare owners were from the U.S. and they wanted food they recognized.
The date of the transformation is inexact, but over the past eight or nine years, the food scene on the Dutch side has done, in my estimation, a complete 180. The fast food franchises are still here – and they’re busier than ever – but there has been a renaissance of sorts of better eating places with a variety that would satisfy most gourmands.
If it’s your first time here, you may go through sticker shock because prices are very high. The island doesn’t produce very much so just about everything is imported. Until a few years ago, even most of the potable water was imported. But beer – especially Dutch beer – is cheap.
French, Italian, Indonesian, Caribbean, German, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavian, and Mexican foods are available in all price ranges. Additionally, the freshest seafood (after all, it is an island) makes for some extraordinary meals.
My favorite restaurant on the Dutch side is Saratoga. The chef, John Jackson, has been on the island for many years and he never disappoints. His menu always has an amazing array of seafood, including fresh oysters, and a variety of fish – some served whole – and his saucing is flawless. This was the first year since I’ve been coming to Sint Maarten that I haven’t had New Year’s Eve dinner at Saratoga (a quirk of the timeshare calendar), but it was the first place I wanted to go to. And I’ll probably eat there again before I leave.
So here’s where else I’ll be eating (on the Dutch side): I’ll get my Indonesian fix from Pasanggrahan – a place that’s been here forever. I’ll get my steakhouse fix at Rare (one of the most expensive places on the island – but worth it); my Jimmy Buffet style island food fix at Taloula Mango’s on the boardwalk in Philipsburg; my Italian cravings will be satisfied by La Rosa’s; pub food will be at Peg Leg Pub’s new location; French, even before I get to the French side, will be at La Ginguette; and I’ll enjoy drinks and socializing with many of my “same-time-next-year-friends” at Soprano’s Piano Bar.
As you can see, my vacation looks more like a busman’s holiday. But I plan to catch up on a lot of reading and doing plenty of walking and exercising to work off the pounds I’ll undoubtedly put on.
The Dutch side of Sint Maarten is a very busy place. Traffic can be a nightmare because there is only one main road that’s not very well maintained and it’s just two lanes. The island is home to a number of marinas that cater to mega-yachts of the super-rich and entry to those marinas requires raising a drawbridge and bringing all traffic to a halt four times a day. Maintaining infrastructure does not appear to be a priority for the local government.
Nevertheless, my wife and I are two of the many thousands who continue to return year after year despite the traffic and other travel hassles (no comment about airlines) because Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, to us, truly is Paradise Found.
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