This is how you arrive in St. Martin: the 737 screams in over tin rooftops and a strip of yellow beach, then desperately brakes on the world’s shortest commercial runway; the taxi rides the perilous curves of the road, cut into the mountainside above sapphire seas and distant islands; and you are thrust, groggy and confused, into the bright mid-day sun at Oyster Pond Marina, where your vessel awaits.
From there, things slow down considerably–to a magical pace known as “island time.”
ASA’s first ever St. Martin flotilla was held from April 20-28, 2012, and I got to go along for the ride. The Caribbean’s Renaissance Islands are separated from one another by only a few sea-miles, but are worlds apart culturally and geographically. Comprised of bustling, half-French/half-Dutch St. Martin, the distinctly European flavor of St. Barths, and rural, English-owned Anguilla, a week of sailing these islands is not just a lesson in the art of relaxation, but also a study in the remarkably varied history of the West Indies.
ONE FOOT IN FRANCE, ONE FOOT IN HOLLAND
With the island of St. Martin being divided in two, Oyster Pond Marina is a true geographical oddity. The dock, restaurant, and charter offices are all in France. The water and boats are all in Holland. Luckily, over a few hundred years these countries have learned to co-exist, and even co-operate, so there are no checkpoints or passport control stations between the shore head and the cooler of beer in the boat cockpit.
We spent one night in the marina, and the next morning, with the help of a local pilot, motored out of the marina and made the 10-mile upwind sail to St. Barths. The first thing that strikes you, if like me you’ve never sailed the Caribbean before, is the color of the water. Different from the bottomless blue you see in the South Pacific, or the steely magnificence of the Atlantic, the Caribbean is a marvel of aquamarine, with a white sand bottom that you can often glimpse in the shallower spots.
That afternoon ASA hosted a beach party at Columbier Bay, a perfect crescent of floury sand. The only buildings that can be seen are the abandoned remnants of the Rockefeller compound–low lying house and a weird, angular gazebo. We drank rum punch and got to know one another. People had come from all over the country and from all walks of life to be there. Some were long-time ASA members and certified sailors, others were completely new to the water. Everyone was already stunned by the beauty of the place, and excited to see what it had in store. The group hit it off right away, and we returned to our boats no longer feeling like strangers.
A great flotilla needs a great flotilla leader, and we had Captain Bob Diamond. In addition to being an accomplished sailor and ASA instructor-evaluator, Bob is a jokester, prankster, and raconteur, with a sea story or salty limerick for every occasion. Some of his favorite catchphrases include: “To err is human, to arr is pirate,” and, with deadpan irony, “Just another rotten day in paradise.”
Captain Bob’s itinerary took us the next day to Gustavia, the main town on St. Barths. Here we spent two nights in a rolly anchorage, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. I was filled in on the curious history of St. Barths by Eddy Galvani, the manager of the Wall House Museum in Gustavia. Originally held by the Swedes, it was settled 300 years ago by poor European farmers from regions such as Brittany and Normandy. These people made up the majority of the population until the 1980s, when it was “rediscovered” by the high society of Paris and New York.
Since then, St. Barths has been the “it” island in the Caribbean for the wealthy, and it shows. You can’t throw a stick around here without hitting a Cartier store, or a fashion boutique, or a very good-looking French person. The food is world class, from crepes to red snapper, and Gustavia’s architecture is distinct, with pitched red roofs and tidy, colorful streets.
For me, the appeal of expensive shopping and $80 dinners wears thin pretty quickly, but it turns out that St. Barths has plenty more to offer. A morning swim from the stern of the boat in the warm waters of the bay, an afternoon nap under the bimini, and an evening stroll on the waterfront promenade does the trick. Throw in a hike up to the lighthouse for a spectacular harbor view, and top it off with dinner at Le Select, a hamburger joint that’s been operating since 1949, which is a miracle of survival in the capricious Caribbean economy. The patio will be packed, music playing, drinks flowing–it’s no wonder Le Select is one of many businesses claiming to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” I’m inclined to believe them.
TO BE CONTINUED
To find out more about ASA’s flotillas, click here!