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St Maarten/St Martin
6 April 2008 Newsletter

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ISLAND NEWS


Sunset

Weather: Last Sunday morning had plenty of clouds, but they dissipated as it warmed up and it turned into a beautiful day. Monday had some rain, Tuesday morning had rain, and it is now raining on Wednesday. It has also been quite blustery with winds at 15 to 20 mph, gusts into the 30's. There were whitecaps on the lagoon and I can hear the surf at Cupecoy from six flights up. At 2 PM a squall arrived in Cupecoy, producing a total whiteout and stopping satellite internet connections. Thursday was quite blustery and gray at Cupecoy in the morning, but just windy at Grand Case. When we returned home in the afternoon, even Cupecoy was better, but still windy with whitecaps on the lagoon all through Friday. The wind slowed on Saturday but there were repeated whiteouts. Sunday has arrived with mostly blue sky and haze on the horizon. Today's (6 April) sunset will be at 6:22PM. Full moon dates for 2008 are: 20 Apr, 20 May, 18 Jun, 18 Jul, 16 Aug, 15 Sep, 13 Oct, 13 Nov, and 12 Dec. Here's the local weather forecast from the Weather Underground and here's one from the Weather Channel.   Whitecaps on the lagoon on Wednesday

the monolith after the storm   SXM-Beaches: Sunday did turn out to be spectacular and the recent large waves have filled in Cupecoy. Wendy K said it "was a bit wavy, with swimmers at all 3 beaches. The sand is eroding a bit from the main beach, and one can now walk in sand between the main and middle beaches. Tuesday had nice swells with most of the sand at the main beach. Dany says it'll ALL be there after the storm. We made it home just before the 11:30 squall." On Friday Martha and I took a stroll and took this photo of the monolith and as one can see, it is not so monolithic any longer. A few more storms like the last one and it may not be there.

Wendy K headed to Mullet on Friday, where there were mostly gentle swells, and calm water, if not yet clear. There's still LOTS of sand at the Maho end of the beach, and there was a hand-made sign tacked to the tree we generally park under, asking folks to "take pride" and clean up their trash. I don't know if it was a result of the sign, but there was little or no trash, where there are usually mounds. One would think the government [well, maybe not] would put dumpsters at the beaches as an incentive for people to clean up after themselves. If you don't know where the island's beaches are, visit SXM-Beaches for maps and photos.

Beach Reading: I'm still reading Caribbean by James A. Michener. It really is interesting, giving a historical vignette for all the major islands.

Activities: I don't know what I was thinking but I neglected to report that a local dominoes team dominated an Aruba team in a major championship event two week's ago.

Random Wind: RW cancelled Thursday and Friday because of high seas. They are taking some of the downtime to have new amidships cushions custom made. It's always something on boats, but given calm seas, and a bit of breeze, it's a great way to see the island from a different vantage point.

Roy Deep Sea Fishing takes out parties of four or five and comes back with wahoo and mahi lately, marlin and tuna, sometimes. If you don't have a party of four, we'll use this space and Roy's website to help fill out the charter. Send an email to get aboard.

  Random Wind

Cotton and Pharos   Construction: On the left is a shot of the cotton in the abandoned beach lot next to Ocean Club with Pharos rising in the background. The lot is no longer in use because the fence prohibiting driving onto the rest of the property was breached and now everyone drives up to the NW end where there is usually sand on the beach. Without constant traffic, this lot has reverted to bush status with wild cotton plants growing with abandon.

Sapphire Beach Club: It's that time of year. We are returning to our home in NY in less than two weeks. Our condo will be available for rent at $1000 per week from 15 April to December 15, $2000 per week during holiday season (20 Dec until 4 Jan), and $1500 per week at other times. The rental includes about $300 in coupons from several of our website clients. Check the calendar on our website for available dates.

For those of you who wish to sell or rent their week or unit, we have opened up the Sapphire Beach Club website for that purpose. We charge $25 per year. If you wish to rent or sell your unit, send us some text (and $25 to esk@sxm-info.com via Paypal). If you wish to rent or buy a unit without high middleman fees, check out the website. Given the large assessment that Sapphire just levied, there may be a lot of sales. At present, there are 20 sales and/or rentals available directly from owners. Given a 25 to 35% standard rental commission, there should be some bargains in eliminating the middleman and dealing direct.

Travel: Alert reader JanisBC notes that the charge for the second bag on US Air does not apply to those flying to/from Europe or Asia. The truly bored can view US Air's baggage policies.

All travel to the USA now requires a passport. Life is pretty easy if you allow enough time to renew by mail. All the details can be found at this State Department page.

Diamonds International   Shopping: Diamonds International has put a discount coupon on their website that offers 15% off on any diamond or gemstone jewelry over $300 or 10% off on designer jewelry and watches.

Groceries: This has been a poor year for produce down here. Generally, by now we have waxed ecstatic about several shipments of Guadeloupe melons to be had with dried ham and a chilled ros and tomatoes from Guadeloupe to savor with mozzarella, basil, oil, and balsamic vinegar with a bottle of Valpolicella. The melons have been missing and the tomatoes have been terrible. Thus, we are indebted to Wendy K for alerting us to the arrival of these lovely tomatoes from the Dominican Republic. They are at the US Imports in Sandy Ground for only 1.9 per kilo, about $1.50 per pound

  Dominican tomatoes

Alcohol: We went to the First Friday wine and cheese tasting at Champagne Restaurant and tasted wines from Select Wine Cellar. Details below.

Traffic: Driving back to Cupecoy from Select Wine Cellar in Cole Bay on Tuesday afternoon at 3PM revealed a backup that stretched from the bridge to the airport entrance. On Thursday we learned that the bridge has not been going up because the winds are too strong. In this case, it is a problem with the large flat face of the bridge catching a sudden gust, but they have curtailed openings in the past because wind and waves made it too difficult for boats to safely pass through the narrow opening.

Gas Prices at Cadisco were $1.08 per liter at Orient and $1.05 in Sandy Ground, a bit over $4 per gallon at the end of March. They still do 1 to 1 for cash. The Gess stations have reopened and sell gas at 0.95, but they are doing $1.35/, so that is about $1.30 per liter. The Texaco near the airport is doing 2.1 Nfl per liter and giving 1.8 Nfl/$. That is $1.17 per liter. The Shell stations usually charge the same amount (it's government regulated) but use a worse exchange rate, not that anybody does the exchange calculation correctly anyway.

Nature: One day at Skipjack's in Simpson Bay we watched frigate birds swooping through the sky and dropping down to harvest small fish off the surface of the water. Male Frigate birds can reach wingspans of 7 feet. They all have deeply forked tails and iridescent black feathers. The females have a white underbelly and the males have red-colored throat pouch (called "gula pouches"), which they inflate to attract females during the mating season. They have the largest wingspan to body weight ratio of any bird, allowing them to stay aloft for more than a week. Their feet and legs have essentially atrophied through generations of disuse. They also lack the ability to produce oil for their feathers and their feet are not well webbed, so they rarely land in the sea, but merely skim the surface to feed. The weak legs have trouble getting such a large bird up to takeoff speed so they have great difficulty taking off from a flat surfaces. Consequently, they perch on cliffs or trees when they finally rest. They are found over tropical oceans and frequently ride warm updrafts. Thus, in open waters, they can often be spotted riding weather fronts and can signal changing weather patterns.   Frigate birds

Small island story: A week ago the Daily Herald reported that a Dutch side Rental Car Group met with a government minister and proposed that he make a law forbidding rental car companies from having high and low season rates. It wasn't stated, but my guess is that they wanted high season rates year round. If you think otherwise, I have a timeshare for you with a (currently) unobstructed ocean view. Even the minister realized that the government really had no authority to set prices and doing so would seem anti-free enterprise. The next day, in and unrelated story (and if you believe that, the timeshare is still available) a minister announced that all applications for new rental car companies submitted in the last month would not be reviewed and even those submitted before his cut-off date would not necessarily be approved. We were assured this was unrelated because this was presented as a method to relieve congestion. However, there was nothing to prevent existing companies from expanding their fleets up to the maximum permitted (200). There certainly could be nothing to prevent the French side from adding more car companies or having the existing ones expand their fleet. Moreover, getting a French side car means that your car is not branded as a Rental car by its license plate. If you see a minor disconnect between a country that has tourism as its only means to earn foreign exchange and a suggestion that they relieve congestion by reducing tourist rental cars, you probably can't vote here. If you thought it would make a difference in traffic congestion, you can't count. To amuse ourselves as we drove past the Tuesday afternoon backup noted above, I counted the cars going the other way and Martha counted the rental plates. I got to 100 and she had 16 when we quit. Next morning on the way to the gym it was 5 out of 130 cars we passed from Maho to the bridge and on the way home it was 9 of 104. An overall average of about 10% R plates, ie Dutch side rental cars. I don't deny that many of the other cars, trucks, concrete mixer trucks, and buses on the road were there because tourists are on this island, but getting rid of ALL tourist cars will only decrease traffic by 10% even if they sit at their island accommodations (most unlikely), thereby avoiding alternative transportation (ie taxis and buses.)

The reasons that Simpson Bay has traffic jams are obvious, at least to those of us who plan our lives around them. First, there are many places of business there and almost no parking lots. Second, at the east end of the worst section, the Philipsburg road dumps onto the through street (It's called Welfare Road, but there are few signs and most businesses refer to it as Airport Road anyway, disliking the connotations of the former name) producing a backup in Cole Bay. Third, the bridge opens producing a backup in the center. Fourth, at the other end of Simpson Bay, some genius put the airport's parking lot across the street from the terminal with nothing more than a crosswalk giving any pedestrians the right to barge into traffic producing a backup there. Finally, in between these three congestion points, almost every business has cut the curb to provide head in parking in front of their establishment. They take away on-street parallel parking and get more head-in parking in front of their business and feel within their rights to reserve it for their customers. However, this forces parked cars to back out into traffic always bringing one lane to a halt and generally both lanes.

The first can be rectified by building parking lots and forcing all new construction to include adequate parking. The second will be solved if the blather about a roundabout ever becomes a reality. The third requires a tunnel but that is a dream. There is a plan to move the airport road yet again such that the fourth problem will be mollified. The last is hopeless, but a tunnel to get through traffic away from the business area would help. Taking back the right-of-way that every business has usurped to provide head-in parking and substituting parallel parking and sidewalks would reduce the congestion caused by cars backing into traffic and might get people to walk. It would also cut down on available parking, but it is only a dream anyway as eminent domain does not exist to take land for the sidewalks and I'm not even sure the government owns a large enough right-of-way.

The news for tourists in all this is that the locals want more of your money, but you knew that. The other news is that Simpson Bay backs up at bridge times 9, 9:30, 11, 11:30, 4:30, and 5:30. The first two are minimal, except during Regatta Weekend. The next two bump into the lunch crush on all the restaurants in the area and the last two create a mess just as the 9 to 5 crowd is getting off work. It's always worst heading west to east, from the Airport to Cole Bay, Philipsburg, etc. The airport has its worst backup on Saturdays (timeshare changeover day), especially in the afternoon after the big planes arrive. The problems at the airport and at the Philipsburg intersection may be changed in your lifetime. I doubt that I will live long enough to see a tunnel or significant building code changes that will be enforced.


SXM-INFO'S CONTESTS


Current Contest - now to 27 April 2008
Caribbean View Condo - half price summer rental (May-October)
Halsey's Restaurant - $50 off a dinner for two
Hibiscus Restaurant - $50 off a dinner for two
Lagoon Pub Crawl - two for one ticket
L'Escargot Restaurant - $100 off dinner for two (cash payments only, excludes Friday Cabaret show)
Select Wine Cellar - Wine tasting and a bottle of wine

Read our rules, visit the websites of these sponsors, find their contest codes, and enter them on our entry form.

One of the rules is that you should enter each contest only once.

Future Contests:

27 April to 27 July
Caribbean View Condo - half price summer rental (May-October)
Lagoon Pub Crawl - two for one ticket
Skipjack's - $50 off a dinner for two
Select Wine Cellar - Wine tasting and a bottle of wine
Ti Coin Crole - $50 off a dinner for two
Marci's MegaGym 2000 - Two weeks gym admission and two mega-shakes

27 July to 26 October
Caribbean View Condo - half price summer rental (May-October)
Azure Guesthouse - seven nights for the price of four
Lagoon Pub Crawl - two for one ticket
Skipjack's - $50 off a dinner for two
Select Wine Cellar - Wine tasting and a bottle of wine

26 October to 28 December
Caribbean View Condo - half price summer rental (May-October)
Bikini Beach - A DAY AT THE BEACH
(including 2 chairs and a parasol, 2 welcome punches and $50.00 credit towards food and drink)
Lagoon Pub Crawl - two for one ticket
Skipjack's - $50 off a dinner for two
Select Wine Cellar - Wine tasting and a bottle of wine


RESTAURANTS


On 30 March the euro was at 1.577. Today it is at 1.572. Not much change there. Last season, some restaurants were still offering a 1 to 1 exchange, but the numbers of such restaurants are decreasing. At a 15% or 20% premium they could do it for a while, but as the US budget and balance of payment deficits have ratcheted upward, international confidence in the dollar has ratcheted downwards. Most restaurants have dropped this because at a 50 to 60%% premium, there isn't any profit left. California Restaurant, Kokomarina, Ti Bouchon, Paradise View Restaurant, Spiga, Le France, Fish Pot, and Spicy are still is offering 1 to 1 and many other restaurants are offering favorable exchange rates. Just taking your dollars at the current exchange rate saves the 3% foreign exchange conversion rate from most credit cards. The menus at Pirate Beach Bar and Baywatch are in dollars, no conversion necessary. The last time I was at Baywatch, however, a mysterious 15% charge was added to my bill. I called it a tip.

A Movable Feast

Ti Bouchon Restaurant, Il Nettuno Restaurant, and Halsey's Restaurant

On Monday evening headed out to Ti Bouchon in Cul de Sac for the start of a meal. The jasmine on the front porch was in flower filling the entrance with a delightful scent, although there were some pleasant scents wafting out of the kitchen also. We ordered aperitifs, a martini rouge for Martha and a Campari and sparkling water for me. Note that in France a martini is generally a Martini & Rossi Vermouth (red or white). They are just now catching up with the martini craze in the US. We then switched to a couple glasses of Guigal's Cotes du Rhone to go with a lovely bit of puff pastry enclosing snails in a broth laced with garlic. Momo's prices are in dollars so the snails and wine, with a tip came to about $25. We bid adieu to Momo and headed off to the next stop on our moveable feast.
Jasmine flowers

Two old guys
and a jasmine in bloom

That would be Il Nettuno Restaurant in Grand Case across from the parking lot for our main course. As we walked in we checked the specials board and noticed baby calamari with a red sauce. Calamari are tricky to cook correctly. A very quick saut will leave them tender, but too much heat and a calamari makes a great tire patch, until you braise it in liquid for another hour. Not to worry, the chefs in this kitchen have done calamari for quite some time and these arrived tender as can be with a light red sauce. We just added two glasses of house red for lovely middle to this moveable feast. Raymon is using $1.4/, quite good when the actual rate is 1.6, so our two plates of calamari and two glasses of wine came in at about $50.

At that point we moved on over to the Dutch side, stopping at Halsey's Restaurant for dessert. Stella Artois is back in the cooler, so those desiring one of the world's greatest beers before bedtime can stop in at Halsey's for a late night snack.

Snails in puff pastry

Snails in puff pastry
in a garlicky cream sauce

Calamari

Calamari
in a tomato sauce

Halsey's

Halsey's

L'Escargot Restaurant
On Tuesday we had a lunch L'Escargot Restaurant in downtown Philipsburg. It is an authentic French restaurant housed in a colorful Crole cottage on Front Street, featuring what else: snails. Jol and Sonya are your hosts, ably assisted by Vernon and Paulette. The menu has snails seven different ways and for the indecisive, it offers a sampler. It's a great way to start a lunch or dinner. We started with that and went on to the conch salad and the calamari steak with capers and lemon. The bottle of 2005 Sancerre from Comte LaFond that Vernon brought was perfect with the calamari, possibly a bit light with the spicy conch salad. All in all, very pleasant lunch with good service. They do add 15% service and even the 3% turnover tax to the bill as mentioned on the menu. Our bill came to about $100, as the wine was not inexpensive. Friday nights are special at Escargot as a cabaret troupe takes over at about 9:30PM. There are many more photos on the website.
Snail sampler

Snail sampler
Calamari Steak

Calamari Steak
with lemon caper sauce

Conch Salad

Conch Salad
Conch with a spicy sauce

Christine Aguilera

Christine Aguilera

Tai Chi Restaurant
We had sushi at Tai Chi in Orient Village on Wednesday evening. It's a bit of a drive from Cupecoy, but we rested at Mario's Bistro along the way. We picked up a cookbook that Mario had autographed for some friends and chatted over a glass of chardonnay, resting up and recharging for the long journey ahead. In truth, traffic seems quite light now that the Easter tourists are gone. We made it to Orient from Mario's in about 20 minutes. We just had beers (Sapporo from Japan's northernmost main island) with a boatload (right) of sushi and sashimi (40). I just checked and the 20 January newsletter reviewed a sushi dinner at Bamboo Bernies. Their boat cost $55 to which they applied a 15% tip and a 3% turnover tax, bringing the total to $64. At the current rate of $1.6/ Tai Chi's 40 would be exactly $64 - so much for the euro making the French side too expensive. In truth, Tai Chi used an exchange rate of $1.4/, so their sushi was only $56.
  Mixed sushi and sashimi platter
My opinion was that the difference in the sushi, service, and price would not be worth driving out of your way. Both were quite good, service was fine, and the total price was almost exactly the same. Ambiance is still a question. Tai Chi is a lovely new building in Orient Village with some rather nice outdoor tables. Bamboo Bernies used to have a lovely waterfront setting at Caravanserai, but the construction at Caravanserai has taken away their bar and tiki huts. Bamboo Bernies is planning to move to new quarters upstairs at Maho. Until then, it's not as nice as it was, but I'm betting that the new setting will be quite nice.

Restaurant du Soleil
Thursday we had lunch at Restaurant du Soleil on the water in Grand Case where we met Martyne from Mario's Bistro. We drove out of a miserable day in Cupecoy wearing sweaters to bright sunshine at a waterfront table. We ordered water and a bottle of 2005 Savigny-Les-Beaune from Bouchard. They came over with a tasty lagniappe of garlic parsley buttered toast and vegetable caviar, mostly eggplant with chopped tomatoes and peppers. Restaurant du Soleil offers a 13.50 lunch plate with a drink and coffee. The plate generally has a fish and a meat option. We had two of the shepherd's pie: shredded beef with a bit of tomato sauce topped with mashed potatoes and baked. It came with a bit of salad. Martha had a poached chicken (from the menu) in a creamy broth with vegetables. As we had finished most of the bottle of good burgundy, our waitress brought over glasses of Guigal's Beaumes de Venise rouge as the drink with our lunch plates. We finished with coffees and a long chat watching the bright sun on Grand Case Bay. This is a great spot for lunch and at $18 for a tasty plate, a glass of wine, and coffee, it can hardly be beat.
Vegetable caviar
Shepherd's pie

Shepherd's pie
with a bit of salad

Poached chicken

Poached chicken
with veg in a creamy broth

Tart tatin

Tart tatin
with whipped cream

Champagne Snack Bar
On the first Friday of every month Champagne Restaurant has a wine and cheese tasting in conjunction with its neighbor in the Orange Grove Shopping Center, Select Wine Cellar. Bruno came around with a tray containing Selle sur cher, the prototypical black-as-coal ashed goat cheese from the Loire Valley; Crottin de Chavignol, little barrels with flat tops from Berry (in the Loire Valley) that are the tastiest of goat cheeses; Pouligny, the truncated pyramid in the photo: visually dramatic, yet a classic goat cheese, also from Berry; Valencay, another truncated pyramid from Berry, although shorter, the favorite of Napoleon; a goat cheese from Bougon, much like a Camembert; Fourme de Monbrison, a rarely seen neighbor of Fourme d'Ambert, both of which are less expensive versions of Roquefort, although less tangy also; and finally a Saint Maure from Touraine in the Loire Valley, quite close to Berry, a rarely seen, but wonderful goat cheese. I am indebted to Bruno for some of this information and also to Steve Jenkin's Cheese Primer and French Cheeses: The Visual Guide.

Bruno and his cheese
Charcuterie Sylvain poured Sauvignon Blanc Paul Mas 2007 ($8) and a Chateau Puyanche Blanc ($18.10) to start with the lighter cheeses, moved up to light Burgundy (Bourgogne 2006 Girard at $18.90) for some of the more full-flavored cheeses, and poured a Bordeaux (Chateau Puyanche at $15.90) for the most flavorful cheeses. Our dessert wine had a hint of sweetness from Provence: Chateau Mascaronne 2003 at $22,40. The wine and cheese tasting costs a mere $28 per person and is more than enough for a meal. We added Charcuterie for $15 for five of us at the table. Our total cost was about $35 per person for some great wines, cheeses, bread, and meats. I really like these affairs as they force me to taste things out of my normal experience and do it a most reasonable price.

Changes: Le Petit Market in Cupecoy is to be a restaurant with a chef from the US. I've been told that there is only one kitchen on the premises and Khush is already using it for lunch and dinner. It may be a cozy little restaurant.

This is a repeat, but take note: L'Escapade Restaurant has dropped 1 to 1 pricing and gone to $1.25/. Sunset Caf has gone to $1.35 and Auberge Gourmande is now using $1.4/. I have heard that Rancho del Sol had gone to $1.2/ and confirmed it on a recent visit.


BARGAINS AND HAPPENINGS


Our condo: It's that time of year. We are returning to our home in NY in less than two weeks. Our condo will be available for rent at $1000 per week from 15 April to December 15, $2000 per week during holiday season (20 Dec until 4 Jan), and $1500 per week at other times. The rental includes about $300 in coupons from several of our website clients. Check the calendar on our website for available dates.

Wine & Cheese Party: Select Wine Cellar and Champagne Snack Bar are hosting a monthly wine and cheese tastings, usually on the first Friday of the month. The next one is on 2 May. Send an email to Sylvain for more details or a reservation (highly recommended as these are very popular).

Harmony Nights will run every Tuesday night in Grand Case until April 8. Pascal from Blue Martini is in charge of entertainment. He also has entertainment at his restaurant next to the parking lot on several nights.

Orient Village has a similar, though smaller, affair on Friday nights that will run through August.

And now, another "night" on Orient! This one is a "Thai Curry festival with Live Music a la Christine" at Bikini Beach on Wednesday nights starting on 2 April and will running for six weeks until 7 May. It's 24.50 Euros per person with a choice of Panang, Red, Green or Yellow curry. You get your choice of Vegetarian with Tofu, Chicken, Fish or Beef. Rice and a beverage included. Christine is a lovely blonde songstress with accompaniment du jour. She works with lots of talented musicians on the island and is sure to please just about everyone. Thai Curry starts at 6pm and the music starts at 7pm.

Coupons: Look on the SXM-Info website for a list of all restaurants and others that have coupons for some freebie or discount. There are several coupons there to make your vacation a bit cheaper. Here's a list of what you'll find:

Bikini Beach
Beau Beau's
Escargot
Kakao Beach
Oizeau Rare
Paradise View
Pirate Beach Bar
Tai Chi
Lots here
and here
Select Wine Cellar
Endless Summer Beachwear
Diamonds International

The Mario's Bistro Cookbook is now available. They are shipped via UPS and cost $49 for one, $87 for two, and $123 for three, delivered. Delivery via UPS should take a day or two in the US.

L'Esperance Hotel has great rates and is conveniently located. It's quite handy if you just need a night or two at either end of your vacation because of the wretched flight schedules. They have a lovely pool and offer free wireless internet access.

Sandy Molloy at Molloy Travel offers personalized service to fit your needs and budget.