Friday, March 06, 2009

St Maarten - Serious Fun!

[Maryanne]At last, I've time to relax and explore. I'd delayed really doing much, hoping Kyle would be able to join me, but his schedule hasn't worked out too well, so off I go on my own!

As part of a grocery trip, I cycled from the Dutch side to the French side. I crossed the border (no border control), and found a Rastafarian veggie farm; I also stocked up with inexpensive, but reasonable, French wine (well, as much as I could carry in the backpack on my bicycle).

French/Dutch Border marker in St Martin

Before I could go out sightseeing proper though, I'd volunteered to help with the Heineken Regatta this week (their catch phrase this year is "Serious Fun" - hence the blog title). This volunteer opportunity (for me) entailed helping cut some DVDs for the press one evening (while being filmed for a "behind the scenes" thing they are planning to put together on the web), and serving breakfast two days of the regatta (starting at 6am!!). In exchange for this, I got two free t-shirts and a really cool heavy duty dry-bag (things inside stay dry if the bag is dropped in the water! - perfect for me), and best of all I got to meet with some really interesting people.

Helping out at the Heineken Regatta, Maryanne with Perin, a kindred spirit who was kind enough to entertain Maryanne even after our obligations at the Regatta

First stop on my sightseeing tour (after serving breakfast on Thursday) was Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch St Maarten. I took the bus, and the ride from Simpson Bay to Philipsburg is really nice, with hills and great views en route!

I'd not been especially looking forward to Philipsburg. It is where all the cruise ships stop over in St Martin, full of casinos and jewelry stores and other duty free shopping. My (Lonely planet) guide book says very little about the capital except "There are some older buildings, but overall the town is far more commercial than quaint.", so it was quite low on my enjoyment expectation. However, when am I next going to be here? I figured I should make the effort and go, and I'm so glad I did.

Now let me remind you that Simpson bay around the lagoon is really tatty, and dusty, and not really a pleasant place to walk around at all (bad traffic and no where safe to walk), so I guess Philipsburg would be hard pressed to let me down compared to the lagoon area.

The capital is basically made up of 3 streets running parallel to the beach with narrow streets and alley ways linking them all. There is also a boardwalk along the beach. At the "back" of the city there is a lagoon, so the beach and the lagoon together keep Philipsburg long and skinny). All the streets have nice wide sidewalks/pavements, and of course the boardwalk is pedestrian only. I started at one end of the boardwalk. Immediately, was asked if I wanted my hair braided.. Oh, no, here we go I thought; I declined, but smiled, and I ended up chatting for 20 minutes with the lady (Emily) who was offering to braid my hair. Emily was from Dominica (which I've been pronouncing incorrectly, confusing it with the Dominican Replublic - it should be pronounced dom-ah-NEE-ka). She was great fun to hang out with, gave me some tips on where to get an inexpensive lunch, and shared with me that they are really noticing the decline in tourists and reduction in spending generally; we also shared a long and hilarious conversation on men, and sex, I had a great time and lots of laughter.

Scenes from Philipsburg, St Maarten

Eventually, I moved along the boardwalk. Tucked way in the shade, I found an artist using charcoals to sketch from pictures. He tried to sell me a portrait of myself (I declined, where on earth would I hang it?), but I hung out and chatted to him (Kelly) for about 45 minutes - again really interesting, shooting the breeze and learning about the various mediums he works with (and nudging me to get back to my drawing, after the classes I took before leaving to head out cruising!). I left when Kelly's appointment for a pastel drawing arrived, and my next stop was the Museum.

Kelly Sketches (among other things) for his living, on Philipsburg Boardwalk

At this time I'm still wearing my Heineken Regatta volunteer shirt, and I'm being stopped regularly by people that recognize it who are also volunteering or have done in the past (even the bus driver wanted to know where he could get a shirt like mine!)

I was amazed to find the museum free to enter. It's small but packed with artifacts, and lots of things I'd not seen in other museums (musical instruments, books laying out that you can flick through on all manner of historic topics associated with the islands, and even comfy chairs to sit in while your reading). It is a cozy museum, and I enjoyed it. As I left, the curator stopped me and asked if I'd sign the guest book (of course) and then also noticed my t-shirt, so we ended up having quite a good chat about the museum. The curator (who had herself established the museum) was preparing for a meeting with the country's Governor the following day to talk about the museum (at the governor's request); now  that I think about it, maybe she said the Prime Minister (lousy memory, grrr). Either way, it was a big deal, and I wish the museum good fortune.

I basically ambled the streets of Philpsburg. I did get to try a free tasting of he local alcoholic offerings - several Guavaberry Liqueurs, and separately Rum Jumbie Liqueur; both were much tastier than I was expecting. There were plenty of street stalls selling tourist tat and beach ware; much of it surprisingly inexpensive. All the vendors were friendly and I had a great time wandering around and chatting with those trying to sell me stuff (the banter was friendly rather then pressure-sell). I resisted purchasing anything until later in the day when I found 3 hats for $10, and later still 5 skirts, a dress and a blouse for $30 - all good for the boat and beach. Naturally I avoided all the designer stores, intended for the cruise ship duty free shopper crowd. I did a bunch of other stuff too, including eat, but mostly I just ambled around and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Philipsburg Pond/Lagoon

Finally leaving central Philipsburg, I wandered back to the lagoon. It is stunningly beautiful with mountains in the background, with egrets and other water birds all over; Beautiful, that is, as long as you don't actually look in the water and notice the slime and all the trash, drinks bottles, etc - it's amazing the birds seem to be so happy there.

Right on the edge of Philipsburg, I could not leave without visiting the Air Lekkerbek Bar And Restaurant, it really stands out as it utilizes the fuselage of an old WinAir NAMC YS-11 as a restaurant, and you can walk through the plane to the larger bar area... I couldn't resist partaking in a Heienken (to cool me down - of course).

Air Lekkerbek Bar and Restaurant

Leaving Philipsburg, I took a bus (past those lovely hills and great views again) past Simpson Bay lagoon (where the dingy and Footprint were waiting) and on to Maho Bay. Why? to visit yet another bar and major tourist attraction - Sunset Beach bar and grill. It's famous for 2 things (well, famous for one, and infamous for another)

  • It is on the beach which is right on one end of the SXM runway; planes taking off and landing have a big impact on the beach and anyone who happens to be on it! They have a surf board converted to chalk board that lists the plane arrival/departure times and they have speakers throughout the bar where you can hear the air traffic control channels and listen to the pilots etc - all this helps make sure you won't miss a take off or landing. The planes landing can come really low, and very close the the beach, the bigger the plane, the longer the runway they need and they won't waste the start of the runway - so they just graze over the beach before they land.... It looks as though you can touch some of the planes as they fly over. They have two types of visitors interested in the proximity of the runway
    • Those taking pictures/movies
    • Those that run out to the beach and like to get caught in the sand storm, or even blown over by the strong jet blasts
  • Topless women at the bar get all drinks free
As you can imagine it's a very popular bar.

Sunset Bar and Grill - sign on surfboard confirms "Topless women at bar drink for free" - and beside the airport, the large signs read "Danger - Jet blast of departing and arriving aircraft can cause severe physical harm resulting in serious injury and/or death" Can't say you weren't warned!

Effects of a jet taking off and "revving up" at the end of the runway - notice the sand flying around and the poor guy rolling down the beach!

Normally, when I go sightseeing, I've researched in advance and have a long list of things to see/do and a preliminary schedule before I even arrive at the place. Philipsburg has so little to do on the traditional tourist/cultural front that I was forced to amble around, and had most of the day as time to fill. This enabled me to hang out and chat whenever the mood took me. I've generally found locals hard to get into a conversation with in the Caribbean, this certainly was not the case in Philipsburg, and I suspect that is as much to do with my attitude as theirs. I'm so glad I went.


Anonymous said...

Hi Maryanne:
Phillipsburg sounds like a place I would like to spend a lot of time in. Glad you are having a wonderful time. If you cannot get the Carribbean people into a conversation, then there is no hope for the rest of us. This was a wonderful blog and the photos were superb. Cheers

Anonymous said...

* Topless women at the bar get all drinks free

As you can imagine it's a very popular bar.

I can't seem to find the photos - Linky?

Perin said...

Hi M, Perin here, but American! That makes me smile everytime I say it, you know the one? it looks a lot like Kyle's clown smile! hee hee Anyway, honored to be a "but"!!! Local people are not chatty people like us who babble on about “things”, it is different logic to life and has nothing to do with you or your attitude, it’s their way in their life. We are after all strangers, visitors, to their land and strangers in their land has not been favorable, in fact, deadly power rained down on them. So it has become a natural way to protect your family, to not reach out to a stranger with an open hand. But they are wonderful and wise people and I have learned much from their strength as a people. Locals and business owners in Phillipsburg have been taught to meet and greet “strangers” differently, in more of “our” way because it is an international shopping place, and people are made to feel comfortable for that experience. It has brought value into their hands and grows the economy. Respect and trust must be built world over and then we can all sit down for a nice chat and smile. One love

Shruthi Kumar said...

Hey Maryanne... happy to see you and Kyle enjoying ur time sailing to lovely places.. and even more happy to read about all the adventures... its been ages (i know..almost 2 yrs since we met).. but out of sight is not out of mind.. always thinking of both of u.. just sent u an email on hotmail..bounced back.. and then i found my way here :)... do write when u get a moment.. love and best wishes...Shruti

kate said...

i don't know what to comment on first! i'm so glad you're able to strike up conversations easily - and learn so much as a result! beautiful photos - and very funny about the bar at the end of the runway... some people don't have enough trouble, they have to go out and find it :) i love that the sign warns that extreme physical harm will result in extreme bodily harm. yeah, i've heard that about harm!

SV-Footprint said...

Shruthi - I tried emailing at your old hotmail address but no response... I'm not sure what you are using now. I'd love to be in touch again - you can email me at Maryanne_L_Webb -@- Yahoo -dot- co -dot- uk