Like most people in the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States, I am in the midst of ‘Blizzard Hercules’ and its freezing temperatures, inches of snow and unwelcoming wind chill. The storm has blanketed New York turning our fair city into a winter wonderland as New Yorkers don cozy PJs and work from home rather than face the storm. Although it seems like a dream now, two days ago the view outside my window was not a snow covered alley but rather the sway of palm trees over an enticing beach and the streaked blue of a Caribbean sea in St. Martin.
St. Martin/St. Maarten is a small island in the Caribbean divided between two nations—the Netherlands and France—located just east of Puerto Rico. It is said the best things come in small packages and with St. Martin/St. Maarten only 34 square miles in size, this saying proves true. Boasting breathtaking views, lush jungle, Caribbean warm waters and friendly islanders, St. Martin/St. Maarten proves a popular destination for all travelers. What makes this island unique from neighbors such as St. Barts or Anguilla is how drastically different the Dutch side is from the French side; one can almost argue that you can tell a lot about a traveler by which side of the island they choose. In my case? I stayed on the French side in St. Martin.
With its casinos, sprawling resorts and shopping malls the Dutch side (St. Maarten) takes away the illusion of being in a different country by catering to the comfort zones of visiting Americans. Despite its undeniable beauty and celebrated beaches, the Dutch side seems to eclipse the local culture.
In contrast, the French side is less touristic and is a a wonderful mix of French culture and island living while also boasting spectacular views and beaches. Imagine charming bakeries selling fresh croissants alongside Caribbean open air markets displaying freshly caught fish, or picture French-inspired villas alongside traditional island ‘Creole cases’ and you will get a feel of what it’s like to walk through Marigot, the French town in St. Martin.
Like Marigot, the cuisine on the French side merges the best of France with the best of the island by bringing together France’s knack for culinary greatness with Caribbean inspired ingredients. A traditional French dish such as steak tartare is re-imagined as a fresh sea bass ceviche with Creole flavors; and although restaurants take liberties with certain dishes they do stay true to French and Caribbean staples such as escargot or the ever popular Caribbean red snapper.
My love for red snapper began during my trip last year to Colombia’s Caribbean coastal city, Cartagena, where I enjoyed a traditional dish of pargo frito, arroz con coco y pantacones (fried red snapper, coconut rice and plantaines). I had first thought the dish unique to Cartageneans, but after my visit to St. Martin i realized that red snapper is a Caribbean favorite customized to various cultures. While Colombia deep fries the red snapper to crispy perfection and serves it alongside coconut rice, St. Martin pan fries the fish and draws in delicious Creole flavors and spices. The St. Martin red snapper can then be served along uniquely French side dishes such as ratatouille—a testament to the melting pot of cultures on this tiny island.
As is island tradition, every great meal seems to end with a shot of island rum often infused with local, tropical flavors. Despite the rum being served up in a shot glass it is best to leave college practices at the door and to simply sip the rum and appreciate the taste of the (often homemade) libation. To say a meal in St. Martin is paradise just doesn’t seem to cut it for you have to imagine the restaurant’s “floor” as the sand of the beach, the “soundtrack” as the waves of the sea and the balmy, outdoor air as the ambiance for your dining experience. If lucky, you may even have some island Bananaquits (a.k.a sugar birds) stop by your table during dessert.
Now back in New York my St. Martin trip feels like a beautiful Caribbean dream; in a month I will be back in the Caribbean—this time on Colombia’s coast—but until then I have some island rum, store bought snapper and pictures from paradise to keep me warm through the winter storm.