Charter Destination: Split the Difference in the Caribbean

Here’s a bit of jet-setting one-upmanship for you: Last March I had breakfast in Boston, flew to the Caribbean, and had lunch in Holland and dinner in France. Well, it’s kind of true. St. Martin/Sint Maarten, all 37 square miles of it, is two-thirds French and one-third Dutch, and it’s in the Caribbean. The Dutch section is part of the Netherlands Antilles, and the French is a collective of Mother France, which means this tiny speck of land has two legal systems, two financial systems, etcetera. Confused? Me too, but it’s been this way for 350 years, so it obviously all works.

Anyway, I was there not to ponder the vagaries of history, but to check out the Heineken Regatta and the associated charterboat activity. In early March the predominant color on the island is green, and not just because the U.S. dollar is more than welcome on both sides of the national border. Heineken’s presence is everywhere during race week, which has managed to hang on to the “Caribbean’s biggest regatta” mantle in the face of stiff competition from Antigua Sailing Week. Small wonder, too; the trades blow relentlessly at 15 to 25 knots daily, the deep-blue waters are warm, the racing is tough, and the parties are even tougher.

I was surprised to find that nearly half of this year’s 280-strong race fleet was bareboats; Sunsail and The Moorings both have bases on the French side, and they and other companies raid the fleets all over the Leeward Islands for this sell-out week. I suspect you’d get a good deal on a one-way charter between Antigua and St. Martin, stopping over at St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Barts, and maybe Anguilla while delivering a boat to the regatta. I suspect you’d get an even better deal for the return (windward, i.e. wet) journey.

The sailing population is concentrated in Simpson Bay Lagoon, which is landlocked except for a pair of opening bridges—one at Marigot, the capital of the French side, and the other near the airport on the Dutch side. There’s room for hundreds of boats here, though development now seems aimed at superyachts; there were some extremely large examples moored near the bridge on the Dutch side.

Where there are superyachts there are high-end hotels and restaurants, and these are especially conspicuous on the smaller, more densely populated Dutch side. In places, it’s impossible to see the ocean between the high-rise hotel complexes. Another side effect of development is that traffic often travels at an escargot’s pace, so the visitor needs to develop some Caribbean-style patience even though the ambiance is evocative of a cross between southern Florida and the western Mediterranean. The hulking shapes of cruise ships at the Philipsburg dock do little to dispel the sense of familiarity; if you’re looking to get away from it all, this isn’t the place to be.

The French side is bigger, so less developed, and has a different atmosphere that will be familiar to anyone who’s visited other French territories. We dined one evening in Marigot, a postcard-pretty town with a large anchorage full of cruising boats; a regatta party was in full swing, and squads of strapping young gendarmes who looked as if they’d just stepped off a flight from Paris were mingling with the crowds.

As a charter destination, St. Martin/Maarten has a few good anchorages (though no isolated ones), plenty of local character, and no end of places to eat out. Combine it with the proximity of Anguilla and St. Barts and the predictability of the winds, and you’ve got the makings of an excellent week’s vacation; French and Dutch optional, English essential. And don’t forget the green.

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