Thursday, September 17, 2009

St. Martin & Friends

A night spent in an el cheapo motel near the Miami airport. At least they had a breakfast bar and a shuttle service. Then an easy 11 am Saturday departure and three hours over the blue Caribbean. I didn’t quite know what to expect from St. Martin. But of course I would soon find out.
I walked out of the midsize terminal and Micky was there to meet me from the rental company. He led me to the car and told me to turn right, turn right again, go over the bridge, turn right at the Hollywood Casino, and the office is opposite the Atrium Hotel. The area surrounding the airport was completely built up with Subways and McDonalds and cheesy casinos and rental offices and such, the Hollywood Casino wasn’t lableled as such, so of course I got lost.
About forty minutes later I had everything sorted out, papers all signed, and was ready to tour the island. Although by now it was four in the afternoon. Fortunately there wasn’t a hell of a lot to see.
Sint Maartn/St Martin is divided in half between Holland and France. Not that there is any border beyond a sign saying that you are entering one or the other. It soon became obvious that the Dutch side is 100% American, whereas the French side is… about 92% American.
And although there is an interior of surprisingly nice lumpy tropical hills, you can’t really get there. Whereas the road around the island is pretty much one extended condo development. With Subways and McDonalds and many, many large building supply stores thrown in between. So it was immediately hard for me to see what the purpose of the place was.
Nevertheless I started counter-clockwise through the Dutch section. The pretty dreary ‘capital’ of Philipsburg was six or seven blocks of (mostly) jewelry stores, with all kinds of high priced names but relatively tacky in appearance. I still wasn’t getting it, and the fact that this was the lowest of the low season, and during a recession to boot, didn’t make ithe pretending of zazz any easier. I strolled around for about ten minutes.
(I suppose the reason I wasn’t ‘getting it’ was because upon boarding the plane in Miami I was handed a 300 page magazine on St. Martin’s, 290 pages of which were glossy upscale ads. So excuse me for thinking that I’d be getting at least a small dose of Monaco glitz. But I guess that’s the world of today. The ads portray a world that’s fancier and fancier, and the retarded customers are all slobbier and slobbier.)
Anyway, then it was back on the road, and within about ten minutes I was on the French side. This was slightly more rural, that is there were tiny breaks between the endless development. But if you were expecting classy and continental, forget it. Just a bunch of small restaurants in wooden shacks with classy, continental prices.
I took a side road over a hill and all the way out to ’Cul de Sac’, but it wasn’t that much of a wowzer. At Grand Case I took a left and went up the highest point on the island, all 1400 feet high of it, and got a mildly nice viewpoint. But by now it was getting dark, so back down the hill I went.
I pulled into Marigot, the French ’capital’, which was somewhat less commercial than Philipsburg, and found my way to my guest house. The hallway was narrow, but the room was nice, the a/c worked, the hot water was hot, and the TV got all 75 American channels. I relaxed for a bit, and then drove two miles over to the Dutch side and the Burger King there.
Sunday morning I had my refreshing shower and drove my car over to the ferry dock in downtown Marigot. $30 a day and they’ll pick it up wherever. I then went through the rigamarole to catch the ferry to Anguilla.
It’s about ten miles and a half hour ferry ride to this smallest of British protectorates. And as opposed to the mountainous St. Martin, Anguilla is lowlying ten mile long, two mile wide limestone sandbar. And instead of tropical foliage it is covered in scrubby scrub.
It is famously backward and low key in a black British Caribbean sort of way. Although there’s enough going on for the taxis to charge absurd amounts to take you anywhere. And though a car rental is only $30, you also have to pay $20 for a local driving license. Which seemed like a lot to me for such a small island. Anyway I could always walk. So I did.
It was pretty nice sauntering along on a Sunday morning, passing the occasional church with the singing emanating. But it was also pretty damn hot in this scrubland. And being basically flat didn’t mean that there weren’t long, uphill stretches. So after a couple of miles I decided to see what would happen if I stuck out my thumb. Not much.
But then I got to a main road, and a guy with a flatbed truck stopped. His name was Michael, he was originally from St Vincent, and he had a small construction company. He also lived at the east end of Anguilla, and he decided to take me there and have me hang out with his family.
So I did for the next few hours. Which was good, because the island is little else but hot and scrubby, and I don’t know what else I would have done once I had gotten the basic idea down. They fed me a little lunch, and then he had to go to work. But his wife and some relatives took me briefly to a beach (nice, but not really all that amazing), then drove me over to the west end of the island before depositing me back at the ferry.
I guess the best way to sum up Anguilla is that regular building lots are about $20,000. Seafront ones are a half a million. The island’s economy is building houses for those rich idiots who want to pay that kind of money for oceanfront scrubland. And the recession is cutting down on those numbers.
I bought a watermelon soda while waiting for the ferry. Then the ride back.
When I got back to Marigot it was a Sunday afternoon in the slow season and absolutely everything was closed. Even the Subway a few doors down from my guest house. So the guest house owner was nice enough to drive me over to the Burger King on the Dutch side, and I brought my BK Veggie back to eat on the guest house patio overlooking the sun going down over the marina in front of me.
Then I retired to my room where I watched a Phillies game on ESPN.
The next morning it was back to the ferry dock where I bought my ticket for St Bart’s. Anguilla had been $30 round trip. St Bart’s was $80. On the way to the docks I had looked in the window of the Marigot ReMax office. A four bedroom villa was priced to sell at 1.6 million euros.
It took almost an hour and a half to get to St. Bart’s, which is only about seven miles long. But it does have a pleasingly jagged mountainous outline. And its main town of Gustavia is red-roofed and pleasingly pleasant.
But the island is famous for being expensive, and it was. $6 for a cup of coffee. In St. Martin all the prices are in euros, but they only add 10% for dollars. Here they charged full exchange. In St Martin only the government officials spoke French. Here on St Bart’s it was like being in La France herself. Hardly any blacks. Lots and lots of French people.
And the low season scooter rate was over $50, so once again I decided to walk. Although here the hills were much more pronounced.
As I think I’ve intimated, in St Martin the traffic was relentless. And this was the slowest of the slow season. Here on St Bart’s it was almost as intense, especially considering that the roads were so narrow. For some reason I would have thought that a place that was so expensive and so ’exclusive’ wouldn’t be so annoying.
The hitching here wasn’t all that bad though, so after a couple of short rides I was almost at the end of the island and Orient Bay. There was a beach right past a picturesque graveyard, so I went to it, pulled out my towel, and stripped down to my bathing trunks.
It was a nice little sandy beach, but not something you would go halfway around the world for. I tried to ignore the 55 year old matrons toplessly sunbathing. And my diabetic feet were going, ouch, ouch, with all the rocks in the water.
Once I was out there in the mild ocean and looking back at the villas dotting the verdant hills, the scene looked inviting enough. And I suppose that if you were Oprah or Leonardo it might be nice to be somewhere where nobody cared if you were Oprah or Leonardo. But, really, if you have that kind of money you can find anonymity anywhere, can’t you? And if your mind tended towards anything resembling modesty, why the hell would you be going to St. Bart’s?
So I still wasn’t getting any of this.
After a couple of hours of hanging at the beach in St Bart’s, I decided it was time to head back. I got a ride to the small airport, which was only about a mile from Gustavia. So I decided to walk the rest of the way.
It was kind of tiring walking along, and I realized that I was getting old. Then I also realized that it was 88 degrees and 88 percent humidity, and I was going up a really steep hill. So it wasn’t really my age, what was going on was my senility in doing something so stupid.
When I got to the top I was looking down at the teeny tiny short runway and wondering how anybody landed there. Just then a small plane came in not ten feet above my head on its way in. Oh, so that’s how.
I had thought it would be a scenic walk down into the harbor. But it wasn’t. Just steep and hot. Then I was so tired that all I could do is sit around and wait for the ferry. There was a glossy catalog of hundreds of villas for sale. Not a single price was listed. I suppose that if you have to ask you can’t afford it.
But I did have a revenge of sorts on snooty St Bart’s. I only spent a total of one euro while I was there.


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