It’s French, it’s fun — and it’s now home to the Caribbean’s coolest music festival. J’adore, says our writer, as she orders croissants and a passion-fruit rum.
I’d never been to the Caribbean before, and my assumption that it would be something like a Malibu ad turned out not to be entirely wrong. There were, as expected, bright-coloured buildings under blinding sunlight. There were milk-powder beaches with dazzling blue seas, and the tin drum of reggae on streets lined with mango trees. There was the easy attitude and the ubiquitous smell of frying plantain and weed.
Yet what was this? A restaurant filled with slim waiting staff gliding between white tablecloths, serving foie gras, Roquefort and veal chops, pouring chilled Chablis and calling me mademoiselle. St Martin is the French Caribbean, which is a brilliant combination. It’s as beautiful as the Côte d’Azur, but nobody is rude to you.
It doesn’t feel particulièrement French when you land on St Martin, mind you. That’s because the airport is in Sint Maarten, the southern, Dutch half of the island. The first thing you notice about St Martin/Sint Maarten is the sea, which is full-on brochure cliché: cerulean at its depth, cyan in the shallows. You can’t help but notice it, because it feels as if your plane is going to splash right into it on the sharp descent to the runway, narrowly missing the sunbathers on Maho Beach below.
This hellish final approach has given rise to the island’s unofficial adrenaline sport, jet-blasting, which involves people clinging to the fences surrounding the runway to feel the rush of the planes’ engines. The tourist board allegedly once tried to ban it, but they’ve only managed to get as far as putting up some warning signs that everybody ignores. Instead, people gather at the Sunset Beach Bar, where waitresses wear skintight pink T-shirts, the Delta Airlines pizza costs £10 and arrival times are listed on a giant surfboard. As the planes come in, spring-breaking Americans put down their frozen margaritas, rush across the beach and cling to the airport’s fence for dear life as the backdraught sweeps them off their feet.
Jet-blasting feels typical of the Dutch side of the island. But you’re not stuck here. You can drive round both territories in an hour, and you don’t need a passport to travel across the border — though phoning over requires an international dialling code, and you’ll need a different plug adapter and different currency. I mistakenly withdrew guilders at the airport; everyone on the French side looked at them blankly. (They take euros.)
The most startling difference between the two sides, though, is the atmosphere: the difference between an afternoon in Toulouse and a night out in Amsterdam. In Sint Maarten, Yank tourists roll off cruise ships to visit white plastic stores on sanitised streets, casinos and Captain Morgan cafes. I couldn’t walk five paces without being asked: “You want your hair in braids, beautiful? You need a beach chair? Hey, baby, you got an island boyfriend?” I spent approximately two hours enduring Sint Maarten, then fled to St Martin and never looked back.
The French Caribbean is as wonderful as France could be without the French, an intoxicating mix of Gallic chic and West Indian warmth. So you can buy perfect millefeuille and tarte aux pommes, then eat them on a flour-soft beach. You can order a glass of sauvignon blanc, then float in warm sea the colour of a Tiffany bag. You can shop at serene boutiques, while outside a carnival howls down the street. You can pass lime-green houses springing with pink bougainvillea like a rainbow-splashed Nice, on streets where Buffalo Soldier plays on repeat. It is the Creole Riviera, with all the elegance and the sparkling sea of France’s south coast — but none of the arrogance.