Sail the seas in St. Martin

“Main grinders, stand by!” shouts our skipper. We jockey for the best starting position as I, the official timekeeper, punch the stopwatch and begin the countdown as soon as the red flag is raised to start the race. We’re in an abbreviated version of the America’s Cup course, a triangular format of three upwind and two downwind legs in the blue waters off Sint Maarten. But the 70-foot-long racing yachts we’re on are the real thing.

My team, after a full 15 minutes of instruction and practice, is manning the True North, one of the Canadian challengers in the hotly contested 1987 America’s Cup race which saw Dennis Conner and his Stars & Stripes regain the trophy from Australia and bring it back to the States where it had been enthroned for 132 years. Our competition today is the other Canadian challenger in that event, the Canada II.

Our first turn around the red marker is a heady experience. Our skipper, a young woman from Perth, Australia, pulls an inside tactic and we come close—perilously so, this uninitiated sailor thinks—to our opponent as we circle the buoy, leaning into the turn as the 86-ft-high mast dips toward the Caribbean waters. But the manoeuvre gives us an edge.

Exciting finale
The mini-regatta is an exciting finale to our visit to the West Indies island of Saint Martin-Sint Maarten, the smallest piece of land shared by two countries. Twenty square miles of this island is French territory with a population of about 30,000, and 16 square miles is Dutch with a population of 36,000. The inhabitants are a mix of 82 nationalities, primarily French, Dutch, Haitian, Dominican, Jamaican, African, and East Indian.

There is no border, no customs officials between the two countries, only two different spellings of the island’s name and signs reading “Welcome to the Dutch Side” and “Bienvenue dans la partie Francaise.” The official currency of St. Martin is the Euro, of St. Maarten the florin/guilder, but American dollars and credit cards are widely accepted in both countries. St. Martin is no longer a territory of Guadeloupe but has special status directly under the French government, which subsidizes the island’s economy (tourism is its only source of income). The French side has a Latin ambiance influenced by gastronomy; the Dutch has an American flavour of commercialism with 24-hour casinos.

Next page – And oh, the food.

Culinary capital
The town of Grand Case, about 10 minutes north of the French capital of Marigot, is considered the gastronomic capital of the island, perhaps of the entire Caribbean. Its main street houses the greatest concentration of dining spots in the West Indies, interspersed with pretty gingerbread Creole houses. The cuisine of many cultures is well-represented: elegant French dining with well-stocked wine cellars; creative Italian pastas, pizzas and more wine; open-air eateries called “lolos” featuring Creole stuffed crab, accra of cod, Antillean sausages with spicy sauce, tuna burgers, marlin steaks, tartar of mahi-mahi, scallop and shrimp risotto; Mediterranean tapas; and traditional East Indian Tandoori specialties. Each meal seems the best you’ve ever had—until it’s time to eat again.

Off the main road that circles the island but worth the detour for its panoramic view and its local cuisine is Paradise View on Hope Hill: conch fritters, dumplings, grilled red snapper and beaucoup de garlic accompanied by a light Cote du Rhone. Owner Claudette Davis is the author of several West Indian cookbooks. She laments the loss of the guavaberry tree due to the development of the island. For Claudette, the scarcity of the guavaberry—a blueberry lookalike shaped like a guava—symbolizes the loss of West Indian culture. In her youth, the berry was used at Christmas in jams, tarts and as a glaze for the holiday ham. Today, a guava liquer or rum is made year-round for tourists.

The narrow road in and out of Marigot is often packed with cars, trucks and motorcycles. The two working traffic lights on the entire island do little to ease the tremendous traffic jams around the French capital. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to circumnavigate the island and avoid the more direct route if it means going through Marigot during rush hour.

Duty-free shopping mecca
But a visit to Marigot is not to be missed. Originally a fishing village, it became the capital during the golden age when sugar was king under Louis XVI, who built Fort St. Louis on the hill overlooking the bay. Today, this tropical French town is bustling and lively with cafés, patisseries, bistros, lolos and high-end duty-free boutiques as well as a daily arts and crafts market.

A volcanic island, St. Martin does not have lush vegetation but what it lacks in greenery, it makes up with glorious white sand beaches and numerous dive spots. Arguably the most famous of beaches is Orient Bay, probably because part of the beach is reserved for naturalists (tourists are welcome sans cameras). Pinel Island, accessible by water taxi from the bay at French Cul de Sac, is a popular day spot for locals and tourists; again, the variety of restaurants right on the white sand shores will satisfy the most demanding gourmand. At the end of the runway at International Juliana Airport lies the beach at Maho Bay; large commercial flights come in directly overhead, prompting signs warning beach users of the powerful backlash.

A Canadian victory
Canada II is in the lead, staying between us and the breeze, casting foul air into our sails. We tack, reaching for fresh air, but Canada II tacks with us. We duel it out, our skipper hurtling orders to the main grinders who operate the mainsail and to the backstay grinders and trimmers, who secure the backstays to maintain the proper sail shape as we continue tack and gain on our opponent. We straighten up, slice through the aquamarine waters and we’re flying neck in neck as we approach the finish line and await the judgment of the referee  on a nearby boat. Three hours of sailing and we, all of us novices, feel victorious.