This is how you arrive in St. Martin in the Caribbean: 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.
Beach Party at Columbier
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.
The rooster crows for a day:
After two nights in Gustavia, St. Barths, it was time to up-anchor and head for the British island of Anguilla. It was a marathon sail, 26 miles with several tacks and gybes onto different points of sail. Great practice for all of us, especially the three people on my boat getting their ASA 104 certifications! We had excellent sailing conditions throughout the trip, with consistent winds of 10-15 knots.
After a day of sailing we reached Road Bay, Anguilla, and it could not have been a sharper contrast from our previous stops. Anguilla is a flat, coral island, as opposed to the towering volcanic geography of St. Martin and St. Barths. It is also much more undeveloped and less frequented by tourists. For example, in Road Bay the roosters crow at daybreak. And at lunchtime. And during happy hour. And at midnight. The roosters crow literally ALL the time. It leaves you with no choice but to go out on deck and listen to them, admiring the numberless stars while Captain Bob explains the mysterious 13th sign of the Zodiac. Rough life, huh?
Up until the 1980s, Anguilla’s economy was based primarily on picking salt crystals out of a large pond and selling them. Then, as in St. Barths, it was 'discovered,' and resort hotels now dot the coastline. However, Anguilla retains much of its undisturbed past and, despite its reputation for being finicky about visitors, we found it a very welcoming and friendly place.
The first night was spent in Road Bay, and we had a particularly special reason for being there. ASA had partnered with Hands Across the Sea, a charitable organization that donates books to underserved schools in the Caribbean, and we had a load of several hundred books with us. Around mid-morning we were met by Michael, a teacher at Adrian T. Hazell Primary School, who told us about the school and accepted our donation. It was a great feeling to be using our vacation as a chance to do a good turn for the people whose home we were visiting. (For more info on Hands Across the Sea, visit their website.)
From Road Bay, it was just a 20-minute jaunt to the next bay over. Crocus Bay is peaceful and mostly empty, with just a single restaurant on the beach–but what a restaurant! It’s called Da Vida, and everything about it is first class. The food, a mix of fine French cuisine and local Creole flavors, is truly remarkable. And the house band, a piano player and a woman with a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice, had the whole place enraptured.
Our next sail was around the west side of Anguilla, squeezing through the gap between Anguilla and Scrub Island, and then southeast toward St. Martin. The highlight of this passage (and perhaps the entire trip) was the pair of whales, whose spouts we at first mistook for breakers, that swam right beside our boat. To see these gigantic creatures so close was astonishing–no photograph, video, or description could do them justice. They moved too fast for anyone to get a picture, anyway, but it was an experience we won’t soon forget.
Barbeque for every meal:
As a finale, we spent two days in Grand Case, on the French side of St. Martin. Grand Case is a narrow village of colonial facades facing a wide bay packed with sailboats, and bills itself as the dining capital of the Caribbean. Here you can get everything from fresh-caught snapper and lobster, artfully prepared by a master chef, to $2 barbeque. You can also get fine Italian cuisine, and at the Fish Pot, if you want to you can pluck your own lobster out of a pool, hold him up for a picture, and then have him for dinner.
The buildings are painted in bright yellows, red, and blues, just a bit faded from the Caribbean sun. One of the first places you’ll encounter as you stride up the dinghy dock is called Bar 24 — a little juice and cold beverage stand run by a Quebecois named Natalie. This is a great place to cool off and refresh before you hit the main drag.
For lunch, I opted for the barbeque. For dinner, I opted for it again. I’ll admit that I even had steak for breakfast one morning. Sad to say, I can neither approve or deny the claim of Grand Case’s gastronomic supremacy, I can only report that the barbeque is INCREDIBLE. It doesn’t seem to matter which place you go to; just wander and let the smell of sizzling ribs guide you. You will not leave unsatisfied.
A number of other flotilla members did eat at the finer establishments, and reported back favorably. So, it seems, you really can’t go wrong in Grand Case when it comes to eating. At night the town comes alive with music and singing, throngs of people; a very festive and happy atmosphere.
But what about those pesky in-between times when you’re not eating? Well, I clambered out some rocks, past a few local fishermen, to the point of the bay, and took a video of the spectacular vista:
Everywhere we went, we seemed to be encountering these spectacular vistas. And after two nights and a farewell beach party, we departed Grand Case and our trip came to a close.
What I’ll remember most, aside from the place itself, is the tight-knit bond that developed among the group, and particularly within the crews of the individual boats. Sailing with people, and living aboard with them, is a share experience that you can’t replicate any other way. For me, that’s the greatest value of an ASA flotilla. I can’t wait to do it again!
About the American Sailing Association: American Sailing Association is the leading authority on sailing instruction & sailing schools in the United States, responsible for certifying sailing instructors and students to international standards, and represents about 85% of the viable, commercial sailing schools in the USA. To find out more about American Sailing Association flotillas http://asa.com/news/news2012.html!click_here.