St. Martin, the Villa Experience

September 2005
by Michael Chisholm, Severine Degnan, Lidy Schalekamp

The Villa Experience

We've had the good fortune to examine a lot of Wimco's Caribbean properties and we had to agree that the standards, the degree of privacy and the comfort level of the St. Martin villas rank right up there at the top. The residences themselves tend to have bigger footprints—more space—and they are appealing to families and groups because the in-villa experience and the possibilities for entertaining are exceptional, which takes the heat off having to engage in mass pilgrimages to restaurants and nightspots for meals and diversions. The grocery stores are fabulous but if you happen to be timid in the kitchen Wimco enjoys a lovely association with Chef de France, a source of provisioning and pre-prepared food on whatever scale you need it.

Some of the really inspired villas we looked at include the following: l'Oasis is a spectacular five-bedroom vacation complex at the west end of Baie Rouge, truly Wimco's flagship St. Martin property. It includes an air-conditioned gym and weight room, a beach pavilion, media wired from one end to the other, and luxury living on a succession of levels cascading down to the beach. La Perla is an intimate one-bedroom gem located on Baie Rouge with a beachfront terrace and pool deck that abut the sand and overlook the sea; it has romance written all over it. Carisa is a deluxe, fully air-conditioned two-bedroom house on Baie Rouge with a TV and stereo entertainment center connected to indoor and outdoor speakers that reach all extensions of the property. La Tropezienne is a sprawling five-bedroom residence on Baie Longue designed around a French theme and outfitted with a 60-foot pool and a private tennis court. Six-bedroom Serena on Baie Rouge blends the intimacy of Caribbean-style pavilion architecture with Palladian galleries and a classical columned theme. Terrasse de Mer is a deluxe three-bedroom hillside Baie Rouge villa undergoing a complete renovation for the 2005-2006 season.

Going Out

We loved our villa encounter and it became more than clear to us why visitors who want to stay close to home and entertain en famille find such satisfaction in coming to St. Martin on a Wimco ticket. Another dimension to the island, however, has to do with getting out and about, immersing oneself in its Caribbean-flavored internationalism. Marigot, for instance, is in simplest terms a really neat capital—the local crafts market there is fascinating, and the restaurants are many, varied and first-rate. The "Frenchness" is infectious yet you never are far from the essence of this town, namely its island character. The marina in Marigot is especially appealing, with the ebb and flow of boats and dockside life, of outdoor dining in every flavor, of shopping, of bubbly island music in the air.

Philipsburg on the Dutch side offers another quality. The presence of casinos contributes to a lively nighttime scene that spills into restaurants, native bistros and bars. There is some of the best duty-free shopping in the Caribbean here, too, spearheaded by unreal deals on electronic gadgetry, cameras and virtually anything digital. The Dutch influence per se is understated but it is worth pointing out that here and all across the island we discovered some of the best bitterballen we've ever tasted anywhere. And if you don't know what bitterballen is, well, you're in for a treat.

Dining all over St. Martin is excellent, as you might expect. We enjoyed three places in particular, and they all happened to be French. La Vie en Rose is a charming little restaurant on the Marigot waterfront at the corner of rue de la République and the marina, with umbrella tables at street level overlooked by balcony seating above. One of our favorite spots anywhere, equally rewarding for lunch or dinner was Le Tastevin on the water at Grand Case, an area some have gone so far as to dub the "Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean." And back in Marigot on the marina docks we fell in love with Le Chanteclair, ranking it up there with any comparable establishment we've had the pleasure to visit in the South of France.

Our time on St. Martin proved to be an eye-opening experience from a number of perspectives. The place is a year-round destination, and a villa here is as much a classic Caribbean retreat as it is home base for a wealth of activities both on and off the island. It is a sailor's paradise and many people in fact combine a villa vacation with bareboat or crewed chartering arranged through established outfits such as SunSail or The Moorings; the annual Heineken Regatta in March has become a down-island staple. With a new ferry terminal in the works, it is an ideal jumping-off spot for side trips to Anguilla, for instance, to swim with the dolphins, or to St. Barth. A new golf course is under construction. There is horseback riding and hiking. It's endless.

And when all is said and done, there is that cool rum drink by the pool at the end of the day, a St. Martin ritual.

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