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Trip Report Just Back from St. Martin

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Hubby and I are just back from 4 relaxing days in St. Martin and I wanted to share our info!
Just as background this was a mini-trip for us. We are frequent travelers and we chose St. Martin because it was a direct flight Charlotte at a good price. We wanted a relaxing do-little vacation with no layovers and no checked baggage. This trip hit just as the "off-season" started on the island, so be aware that other folks may have different experiences, especially with pricing and traffic! Also we stayed on the French side, because we like quite and relaxation. We didn't want the casinos or nightlife. The French side is definitely more sparsely populated, so it might not be for everyone.
I've just included some basic info and tips here...some things I've seen questions about and things I thought would be helpful.

Overall packing tips:
Take bug spray! I'm still itching mega-mosquito bites
Don't worry about euros- everyone took dollars
If you are only doing carry-on, don't worry too much about sunscreen and your liquids limit. It is easy to find on the island.
Bring your own snorkel gear! So many great places to use it.
Ladies- take the bikinis! The great thing about European women is they have such body confidence and you'll see all shapes and sizes on the beaches.

Travel:
We flew USAirways and had no problem. The exit tax ($30) was included in the ticket price, which is nice to know.
We used "Unity" rent-a-car and would recommend it. Having a car is great to explore the island if you will be there a few days. Unity picked us up at the airport and drove us the 5 minutes off-site to its lot. We had a little KIA, and would get something with a little more horsepower next time. St. Martin is quite hilly. Also getting to some beaches is a bumpy unpaved affair (but worth it!). You've probably read about car crime. The rental place told us to just go ahead and leave our car unlocked and take everything with us everywhere. Driving is an adventure and expect the unexpected- like goats or cows in the road. Turn signals are rare...as are brake lights! The one sticker shock was gas. We explored a lot and had to return the car "filled up" which was $35.

Hotel:
We stayed at the Grand Case Beach Club on the French side and LOVED it. We got the off-season rate of $170 a night for a lovely ocean view room with a large balcony. Normally this hotel is around $300. The room was newly remodeled and very clean. It had a kitchenette with full oven for folks who want to cook on vacation (NOT ME!) and a full-sized fridge. This was a birthday trip and my hubby called ahead and ordered flowers and champagne and the flowers were gorgeous! Plus the staff remembered and said "Happy Birthday", which was nice. Everyone gets a free bottle of wine at check-in. Two beach towels a day are provided. The hotel is gated, with a security key for gate entry. It is a short walk to the famous Grand Case restaurants. At night this walk is dark, but there was hotel security. There was parking inside the gated area for rental cars. The hotel has two beaches. These aren't massive beaches, but they are lovely and you can snorkel right outside your hotel room! My only complaint was with with hotel restaurant the "Sunset Cafe". It is in a great location overlooking the water. But breakfast (the free one) is only coffee, orange juice, and bread. There's a menu you can order and pay off of, but it can get expensive. We really wanted to try it for dinner, but the menu is very small. I'm allergic to seafood, but normally there's a token chicken something. This place only had chicken stuffed with crab. A complaint most folks will not have to deal with, I know!

Grand Case food:
Just a note about strolling Grand Case. The road is small and used for traffic and pedestrians. It is kind of a pain and definitely dangerous. So don't get distracted while looking at the yummy menus and get hit by a car or motorcycle!
Grand Case is famous for a reason, and yes, it is pricey! We aren't "foodies" but do like a good meal and a good setting.
We loved Il Nettune for Italian. It is located on the water. Upscale dining.
But we really loved Calmos Cafe. Casual beach dining where you can eat with your feed in the sand. Decent prices for the area and good rum punch. Plus they give you free shots of homemade vanilla banana rum with your check. Nice!
The two lolos (basically bbq grills) were popular and VERY well priced and right next to each other- Talk of the Town and Sky's the Limit. These would be perfect for a casual lunch or dinner, especially with kids. We wanted to try them, but alas they grill bunches of seafood with the chicken, so I had to use caution. But they smelled delish!

Simpson Bay:
We drove into Simpson Bay one night for something different and ate at Jimbo's. This is apparently a very popular spot. It was yummy. They had this magical thing called a bean and potato, basically a burrito with mashed potatoes inside! Skip dessert because there's a big gelato place right next door- you cannot miss it!!

Shopping:
I'll be brief here because we really didn't go to the island to shop. We did go into Philipsburg one morning. If you want to find expensive jewelry, there are a lot of stores. I did want to look in the Delft shop, but it was closed (probably because it was off-season). We did go into the Guavaberry Emporium and get some rum. We discovered later the airport sold it duty-free. They have 6-pack plastic mini-bottles that are great for gifts and spice sets. Old Street had a FABULOUS Belgian chocolate shop that is a must visit. They delivered free to cruise ships and hotels. The Shipwreck Shop had a nice selection of hats and t-shirts. At the airport you may want to pick up some of the rum, especially the banana vanilla or the orange. It is sold in the cute painted bottles.

BEACHES-- THE MAIN EVENT!!!
Orient Beach:
We loved Orient Beach! The water is beautiful, the scenery is great, and the people-watching is fun. Several people have asked about nudity on this beach. The nude beach portion is clearly marked, and it is popular. But you will see various states of undress on the entire beach. It is not a display, just people comfortable with themselves. This wasn't an issue for us (ok the "man thongs" on the 80 year old men were a bit too much) but I did see some American teenage boys from a cruise ship that were thrilled to be at the beach that day.
Basically you find a spot you like, pick a padded chaise lounge and umbrella, and it is yours for the day. We paid $16 for the "beige" umbrellas with included two chairs, umbrella, two rum punches, and use of the bar bathroom. We'd read a lot about theft on the beach. We took a waterproof bag for our camera and cash and were prepared to bury it in the sand under our chair and beach bag if we had to, but honestly, we never got a bad vibe. Maybe being off-season there were less people? We used caution, of course, but didn't have any issues.
We used the public parking and didn't have a problem.

Pinel Island:
Paradise! This is a small key and a wonderful day trip. It is a 5-minute ferry ride off Cul-de-Sac on the French side. Definitely get the first ferry of the day, which was 10am in the off-season. First ferry means you'll have your pick of chairs. There are three companies that operate chairs/bars/snack areas. We picked "Up on the Key" and paid $15 for chairs, umbrella, and two drinks. This small island has palm trees, white sand, and water so warm and swallow you can walk out really far and still be only waist deep. Pretty good snorkeling, too! We left our beach bag and towels at our chairs and had lunch at the "Up on the Key" bar and again had no problem with theft. We took our camera and cash with us. You could rent a kayak or go kite-surfing here as well. This was just a great day trip.

Friar's Bay:
This was a smaller, but nice beach. It was at the end of a VERY bumpy pothole strewn gravel road. It seemed more like a local hangout, which was nice. We paid $10 for two chairs and umbrella. It was overcast and we got to Friar's late in the day, so we didn't spend much time here. There seemed to be a lot of children, so if you have kids this might be a nice spot.

I think this hits all my highlights. We definitely want to return and hit some beaches on Anguilla as well!!

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