Caribbean Style

After 4 months of living aboard Calypso in the Bahamas earlier this year, the lush and mountainous islands of the Caribbean are almost sensory overload.  The Bahamas are low and scrubby, with the most dazzling colors being those of the sea and the candy-colored houses in the small settlements.

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Not going to complain about these colors, but the colors of St. Martin and Nevis are in another category altogether!

Further south and east, the seduction of the senses is of an entirely different magnitude.

For the third time in a row, we’d preceded our time in Nevis with a 3-day stay in Grand Case on St. Martin.  We love staying at Le Petit Hotel, which combines a Mediterranean-style exterior with the surprise of sleek European style on the interior (Rick and I have joked that it’s not unlike the interior design of more recent models of Beneteau and Jenneau sailboats).

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Stucco and tile adorn the exterior of Le Petit Hotel’s old-school Mediterranean exterior.

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But the interior is all cool, smooth and sleek.

We like the feel of an “in-town” beach, with a bit of activity that nevertheless feels insulated from the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest islands in the region.

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A plane makes its approach into the airport just behind Grand Case.

But the principal draw of St. Martin in general, and Grand Case in particular, is dining out. To me, it’s the perfect combination of local ingredients, French techniques, and an island sensibility.  Upon arrival in Marigot, for example, we head right for the waterfront to indulge my love of Creole specialties.

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A visit to the islands is not complete without some goat stew.

Once we arrive in Grand Case, however, cuisine goes a bit more haute, at least at dinnertime.  In the space of a few blocks, in a somewhat shabby and down-and-out looking fishing village, you’ve got a collection of 2 or 3 dozen of the finest restaurants in the Caribbean.  All you need to do is walk down Boulevard Grand Case, decided whether you want to be on the sea side or the street side, and read the menu boards to choose where you’re going to eat.

The hosts are uniformly welcoming.  The servers are well-informed and tolerant of my tortured Franglish.  And the food?  Magnifique!

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Whole fish and fresh lobster at Bistrot Caraibes.

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Three kinds of mahi mahi tartare at Ocean 82.

With only 3 nights in Grand Case, we had to choose well, and were delighted with dinners at Bistrot Caraibes and L’Escapade (regular stops for us), as well as new-to-us Ocean 82.  With the customary meal-ending shot of flavored rum, the evenings always end beautifully.  And lest one feel wary of walking back to the hotel, Le Petit Hotel and a few others now offer a free shuttle.

At the other end of the spectrum, but no less satisfying, are the lolos of Grand Case.  They are basically a collection of outdoor food stands (with liquor licenses!) that offer inexpensive and hearty local gilled foods.

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The approach to side dishes at Sky’s The Limit lolo is Yes! Salad, mac and cheese, broccoli, potato salad, peas and rice, coleslaw and spaghetti make SEVEN sides; it would have been 8 but they were out of plantains.

Of course, we do more than just eat!  There’s time for some strenuous beach lounging.  And if we want to spend time at Happy Bay — one of the least crowded of St. Martin’s beaches, and one where different states of dress are tolerated — it’s a nearly 8 minute hike to get there from Friar’s Bay.  Whew!

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It’s worth the arduous hike to get to Happy Bay.

For me, St. Martin’s principal draw is culinary. Nevis, on the other hand, just knocks me out with her lush beauty, overlaid with loving stewardship of her natural and historical attributes.

Like several other islands in this neck of the Caribbean, Nevis is volcanic in origin. The result is fertile soil, and volcanic peaks which snag the rain clouds, assuring plenty of rain.

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The cloud-topped volcanic peaks of St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and Nevis, as well as the volcanic sand of Nisbet Plantation’s beach.

Nevis was also strategically and economically important in past centuries, with ties to Alexander Hamilton (who was born here) and Admiral Horatio Nelson (whose wife Fanny Nisbet was from Nevis). Nisbet Plantation’s beautiful and historic Great House anchors the resort where we stay, and our hosts work to preserve the integrity of the Great House while providing modern amenities in the cottages scattered on the grounds.

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Nisbet’s Great House is traditional, while its pool is a modern amenity.

While Nisbet Plantation is on the beach, the other plantation inns on Nevis are nestled in the mountains. We have made a tradition of having lunch at Golden Rock Plantation every time we visit the island.  The hosts are happy to let us wander the grounds while we’re there, and we take in the beautiful natural setting, and the modern décor superimposed over sugar mill ruins on the site.

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Golden Rock Plantation’s grounds are terraced and feature lily ponds overlooking the green hills and Caribbean Sea.

Similarly – but executed with an entirely different aesthetic – Montpelier Plantation combines the modern with the historic, and offers a similarly warm welcome. We stopped here for afternoon cocktails after visiting the Botanical Gardens.  Nisbet’s bartender Kaddy also works at Montpelier, and we spent time with him comparing (with taste tests, of course) the qualities of different sipping rums, most of which are (sadly) not available in the U.S.

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An old sugar mill is a centerpiece of Montpelier Plantation.

When it comes to gardens, I’m an appreciator, but not an especially avid or informed one. And while I can’t say what inspired me to visit Nevis’ Botanical Gardens, I’m glad I did.  With no basis for comparison, I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of plants and their surroundings.  A nice way to while away an afternoon.

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Bold colors stand out at the Botanical Gardens.

Lest you think that beautiful flowers are limited to botanical gardens and plantation inns, they are not! After Saturday’s torrential downpours and a run into Charlestown to visit a doctor to treat fire ant bites (more on that in an upcoming post), we ventured back into the mountains for lunch at a new-to-us restaurant, Bananas.

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An artful display of island-style “mezze.”

Aside from artfully presented and creatively prepared local foods, the setting was jaw-dropping. Sited in an old gingerbread plantation cottage, the restaurant uses the dark woods and rich colors of its interior to set off eclectic accessories.

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And all of it is surrounded by barely-contained tropical vegetation.

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A feast indeed.

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