SAINT MARTIN, FRENCH WEST INDIES – For my second week of this eating extravaganza of a vacation, I write about the other half of the island, which technically is the westernmost part of France. On the French side of St. Martin, the road signs are European and the Euro is the official currency.
As I wrote in my last column, the border is open. In fact, the only acknowledgment of any international boundary is a stone obelisk on the main road that commemorates the treaty of 1648. The boundary on the other side of the island is unmarked. Your only clue is the change in the pavement.
The capital of French St. Martin is the port city of Marigot. The city is always busy and the shops and boutiques offer French and European goods at attractive prices. The restaurants in Marigot, however, many of them situated around the impressive and attractive marina, are in my opinion, just so-so.
But the real jewel of the French side (if you’re in my line of work) is the village of Grand Case, about five miles or so on winding, hilly and unlit rut-filled roads. The main street in Grand Case is one way, so you cannot enter from the main highway and you must motor to the end of the town limit and navigate through a rather unsavory looking neighborhood (but don’t judge any book by its cover, because it can actually be quite charming) where open-air bars and barbecues are everywhere.
As you approach the main part of Grand Case through a network of narrow alleys, suddenly you’re on the “main drag,” a term I use loosely because the street is barely wide enough for two cars and every available parking spot always seems to be occupied, so that means only one lane is available for traffic. An enterprising young man operates a parking lot in the space between two buildings in the middle of this restaurant row. He worked out a deal with two restaurants that he touts whereby you’ll get your parking fee back if you eat at either of the places.
My favorite restaurant in Grand Case (Rainbow) regrettably closed abruptly two years ago – owner fatigue, I’m told. But there was another I found to take its place – Spiga – now acknowledged by international food critics as the best on the island – both sides. But Spiga is not on the main street as most of the town’s other restaurants are. It sits by itself in a rather remote spot. Its sophistication, menu, expertly prepared food, atmosphere – everything about it – screams Paris (without the attitude) even though the menu is primarily Italian.
My wife and I have a policy about Sint Maarten/Saint Martin that we had to adopt a number of years ago. It’s just too easy to return to the restaurants you discover and love year after year. Our rule is that we must try one new restaurant on each side every year. Trust me: we’ll never run out of options.
Something else you should know about the French side of the island is that even though dollars are accepted, the Euro is the primary currency and when its value eclipsed the dollar’s, the restaurants suffered terribly. Enterprising restaurant owners began a policy that continues to this day and that is if you’ll agree to pay in cash, they will offer the rate of one-to-one, euro to dollar. Use a credit card, though, and the deal is off. You’ll pay the going exchange rate, which this trip was 1.30. Last year it hovered around 1.80.
Our new try for this year in Grand Case was a place called La California. And we were not disappointed. Despite the name, the menu is decidedly French-Caribbean. My wife and I have a weakness for foie gras and never have we been served such generous portions. Our food, as was our dining companions’, was perfectly prepared, charmingly served and there wasn’t a speck of food or sauce left on any plate, a testament to the scrumptiousness of the meal.
While the Dutch side is duty and tax free, the French side is not. Nevertheless, if you’re of a mind to drink French wine (and I usually am!), there are some bargains to be had and some memorable bottles for far less that you would have to spend in the U.S.
Space dictates that I end here, but as you may have deduced from my verbal gushing, I could go on and on. It’s one of the reasons why I come back to Sint Maarten/Saint Martin year after year.
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