Itinerary
Saturday
Mar272010

Thrilla in the Villa

Location: Le Chalet, Grand Case, St. Martin

Rating:

Thursday night was our last hurrah here on St. Martin. We started with fondue and Raclette at Le Chalet, which was phenomenally tasty. Even though it was 80 degrees, it was still easy to imagine ourselves in the French Alps, carefully scraping off the Raclette as it melted, smothering the perfectly smooth potatoes. I'm a big fan of interactive food, and this was a great experience. Steve had always claimed that he didn't like fondue, but now that he has met fondue bourguignonne, where you put tasty morsels of meat into boiling hot red wine, and then dip it in yummy sauces, well, I think he's finally come around. 

After dinner, we hit Calmos Cafe. Where else would we spend our last evening here? We were with Kristin and Marc, and met up with our other friends Jenn and Mark, and finally got to introduce them all. Jenn has some friends from NY in town as well, and next thing you know, we had the largest game of apples to apples you've ever seen. Jenn proved herself yet again to be a masterful play-ah. True to form, we were partying till almost 2am. It was a good thing we had decided to give ourselves two final days to recover before our flight. 

Ever since we've been in Grand Case, we've been eyeing up this Villa up the hill. We had taken a tour early on, and it's a beautiful 3-bedroom with its own pool and a great open floorplan. We've been thinking about coming back and spending some serious quality time, because, you know, six weeks wasn't enough this time around ;). 

So yesterday we had a generous opportunity to spend one of our last nights up there, to check it out. It was a last minute decision, and we were warned - it was cleaned about a week ago, which means it was going to be clean, but not pristine. We were also warned that the exterminator comes religiously every month, so though we may encounter critters, they *should* all be dead, or close to it, and in general that was true.

When we arrived, and opened everything up (the living room literally folds open), we knew we were home. We stocked up at the grocery store and hunkered down to enjoy our final days here. The pool at the villa is perfectly situated to catch the rays, while being a private little oasis. We took full advantage. We had our foie gras, brie and baguette for lunch. For dinner, I cooked up some chicken pesto crepes, cracked open some chateau margaux, and we settled in for the evening, wondering whether or not we really were going to be on that flight on Sunday. The jury is still out.

Everything was brilliant up until it was time to get ready for bed. While sitting in the bathroom, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a movement. Not a small movement. A significant movement. In fact, it turned out to be the largest centipede I've ever seen, at least 8 inches long, and it was most definitely NOT dead. In fact, I think it used one of its many, many feet to give me the finger as it ran out toward the bedroom. Since no one had been up to clean the villa before we arrived, it was probably surprised and annoyed to find an invasion force. 

Of course I screamed. What else could I do? I was half naked, and defenseless. Steve came running. We chased the centipede under the bed, then back out again toward the bathroom, screaming all the while like insane people. Luckily the villa doesn't have close neighbors or the police would have been called for a domestic dispute. This centipede was definitely not on the verge of keeling over. In search of a weapon, Steve grabbed one of the wooden stakes that you use to bar the sliding glass doors, and started to hack at the centipede. The first chop took off its head. But still it writhed, threatening us, taunting us, and I swear I heard it say "come back here you coward, it's merely a flesh wound!" It was in at least six pieces before it finally seemed to give up the ghost. Its guts were splattered all over, including on Steve's legs, making it look like the scene of a bloody massacre. 

Time for bed? Are you kidding? Actually, though I did wake periodically to fluff the sheets and confirm there were only two of us sharing the bed, I got way more sleep than I expected.

After almost six weeks on the island, with only one previous minor centipede sighting outside on the path, I feel like I've now been fully indoctrinated into the island ecosystem. We survived, and are undaunted in our love of this island, and this villa.

Today is literally our last full day here, and I don't even know what to do with myself. There are so many things I probably should do, like start to pack (which is going to take FOREVER as we've completely settled into our room), but I just can't get motivated to face it. We're still at the villa, enjoying the open air and private pool. Our flight isn't until the afternoon tomorrow, so we've got time, right? Or is this a prelude to saying F!#!@k it? Either way, I'm in complete denial. 

Thursday
Mar252010

the Final Countdown...

Location: Grand Case, St. Martin

We're getting down to our last few days here, and trying to pack everything in. For lunch yesterday we hit La California, to check out their renowned mussels. The Moules Provencale were excellent (as were the requisite frites). That said, when it comes to mussels, I am thoroughly spoiled, and have yet to see a place top A Cote back in Rockridge, CA. We ate at Bistrot Caraibes last night to try out the lobster and see who won the contest. It wasn't quite as good as Alain's straight off the grill, but I tell you, the garlic butter for dipping was crazy good and worth every calorie. I almost lost my nerve when they had me select my lobster out of the pool. Apparently it's harder to pass a death sentence when it looks you in the eye. 

After dinner, we hit Calmos Cafe, our usual spot of getting into trouble, and yet again, we were true to form. We ran into the dive shop crew and drank several mojitos before stumbling home. 

On Tuesday I went for what is probably my last dive of the trip (though I'm still contemplating going out tomorrow afternoon) with, of course, Octopus Diving. Even though it was the usual beautiful, warm, sunny day up top, the wind was howling, and the water was angry, so I was relieved when we decided to hit the local Creole Rock and Turtle Reef instead of venturing into open waters. I had gone there on my second dive, but you always see different things, so I had no problem going back. We saw several turtles, but even cooler, were the mating stingrays. The visibility was only OK, so at first we couldn't tell what was going on with the stingrays - it just looked like one huge stingray with some white on it's back, which of course made no sense whatsoever. When I got closer to get a photo, the white detached, flipped over, and swam off nonchalantly in another direction. What I learned were two things: stingrays do it missionary style, and apparently they don't like an audience! Or maybe they were adulterous stingrays, and that's why the smaller one did the swim of shame. She certainly didn't look happy to see me with my camera. 

In retrospect, thinking about the Crocodile Hunter, I probably shouldn't have been so quick to follow these guys... doh!

The real excitement came when we returned to the dive shop, and I went to wrap my towel around me, and out popped a fairly sizable centipede! I screamed and lost control of the English language, which caused Stuart, who was also barefoot next to me, to scream like a school girl. Since no one had shoes on, the centipede was free to hide under the bookshelf behind the desk. Lucky for Sally we *think* she eventually tracked it down with a broom and killed it, after anesthetizing it with mosquito spray... but we only found half of it, so it may or may not have been the same centipede. I have to say, I wasn't surprised to hear she was going away for a few days, and wouldn't be sitting at the desk in the dive shop. Coincidence? I think not ;). I definitely learned my lesson to shake out my towel BEFORE wrapping it around myself. Those things can put you in the hospital. 

Tonight we're heading out to Le Chalet for a taste of Raclette and Fondue. Though it's not exactly Alpine weather here, I'm a sucker for good fondue, and looking forward to the interactive food experience with traditional French food. I got hooked on Raclette and fondue during my time in Grenoble back in the day. After Le Chalet, it's back to Calmos where we're (in theory) having our last night out before we settle down to prepare for our departure.

I can't believe our time here is almost at an end. When we first arrived, we had big plans, thinking we might buy a house down here, and then we settled in to make sure we would still like it after six weeks. The answer is unequivocally yes. Now, with only a couple days left, we're frantically thinking about when/how we're going to make it back here. This trip has definitely changed our outlook on life, and our priorities. 

Monday
Mar222010

Weekend of Crazy

Location: Guana Bay, Bamboo Bernie's, Atlantis Casino, L'Esplanade Pool, the list goes on...

What a crazy weekend. I don't think we actually took a breath from Saturday morning until today, and even now, it's a labored, hungover kind of breathing. We're definitely trying to get the most out of our last week! Well, I am anyway... Steve is trying to mellow out, but so far I'm winning that battle...

Saturday we hit our first Dutch beach with Kristin and Marc and their adorable three kids, along with some of their friends. We went to Guana Beach, which apparently no one else can find, because it was completely empty on a beautiful Saturday. There were maybe five other people there who weren't with us. It was gorgeous. Huge stretch of white beach, and you can see St. Barth's off in the distance. The water started out a little seaweed-y, but the winds turned mid-day, and it cleared up. This was our first beach with a decent amount of surf and we made the most of it. Steve was boogie-boarding with Xander all day, and I was playing in the waves with Chloe, who is almost five and a beautiful little firecracker. She was fearless. Every wave she'd exclaim "I can handle it!" and dive right in. She's only a couple months younger than my niece Sam, and hanging out with her made me miss Sam even more than usual. 

So after a beautiful, lackadaisical day in the surf and sun, we attempted a quick turnaround to get gussied up for some sushi at Bamboo Bernie's, also down on the Dutch side. Alas, the city water supply wasn't supportive of our Saturday night plans - the water was out when we got to the hotel. Who needs a shower after a day at the beach? oh, yeah, that would be me - more sand stuck in more places than I can recount. Luckily Marc worked some crazy magic, which I think involved stealing the water from his sister's house, and off we went. 

When we arrived at Bamboo Bernie's, a place that reminded me considerably of Blowfish Sushi in San Francisco with its decor and music, we got lucky and scored the best seating area - a low coffee table surrounded by comfy couches and chairs. Amazing sushi. Great quality fish. Innovative, without being over the top. There was an "Angry Dragon" roll that had a list of ingredients a mile long, including crab, eel, mango and cream cheese, and it was phenomenal. It was also quite a mouthful as Kristin demonstrated when she boldly claimed the end piece with the shrimp tempura sticking out, which Marc was able to capture frame by frame, from initial determination to the "oh shit" moment when she realized she couldn't chew it, and several pieces of rice escaped. In the interest of Kristin ever speaking to me again, I will refrain from posting these pictures :). After our meal, we decided to chill in our little sushi living room and play some Apples to Apples, my new favorite game ever. It is sooo much fun. Alas, it was a little too much fun - they had to kick us out eventually to make room for people who were actually going to eat, not just drink heavily. 

At that point, we could have called it a night, but someone (OK, it might have been me) spotted the casino across the way, and off we went. Sadly - and luckily - the casino we picked didn't have craps, so I was unable to indulge in my favorite money-losing activity. Steve was very relieved. Instead, we tucked in for a good night of blackjack. Kristin and Marc appear to be in the semi-professional class of blackjack players, so we learned a lot, and actually managed for one of us to break even (though which one broke even is unclear since he filled in for me when I went to the bathroom). Next thing we knew, it was 2am...

When we slowly woke up late on Sunday - Steve's birthday, though he has been studiously avoiding any mention of it - we had plans to meet our friends Jenn and Marc at the hotel pool for "Lobster Fest 2010." Normally we try to space out our drinking binges, but it just so happened that this weekend was a marathon. Alain had thrown the gauntlet earlier in the week claiming the best lobster around, so we had arranged to have him demonstrate his culinary talents for lunch. True to his word, the lobster was phenomenal. Grilled, with a hint of lime and more than a taste of butter, it was succulent. I finally felt avenged for being chased last week. 

Of course, what's lobster without some refreshingly chilled white wine? Next thing we know, it's 6pm, when Alain normally closes the pool bar, but there are 10 of us getting liquored up (including a few newbies, fresh off the plane), so we just kept going. Alain ordered pizzas somewhere around 8pm or so. And he just kept pouring. And pouring. He's the master at the presumptive refill. I don't know how many bottles of wine we went through, but it was considerable. And then he made Steve a special Rum Runner cocktail for his birthday, the largest cocktail you've ever seen. Dude. I'm surprised he was able to walk after that. Then Xander brought the Apples to Apples down to the pool, and next thing you know it was 10:30, and we'd been going since noon. We stumbled off to bed.

When I awoke at 3am with a pounding headache, I was sure I'd contracted the Dengue Fever... but realized it was far more likely I was just very hungover, which sure enough I was.

I had been signed up to dive this morning, but in the interests of avoiding puking my guts out all over the boat, I called this morning to switch to tomorrow. 

Sadly, this morning at 6am (3am west coast) we received a call from our vet to let us know that our little cat Rigby had passed away. He had gone to the vet the day before with labored breathing, and there was fluid in his lungs, and it turns out he had a virus called FIT, which sounds similar to HIV, but for kitties. Rigby was an indoor cat, and only a year and a half old, so it would seem he got it from his mother (though perhaps he was sneaking out to sleep around? not sure). We're sad about it, of course. He was a shy but very loving little cat when the mood struck him. Though, Rigby also had a tendency to pee on our bed when he got mad, sometimes while we were in it, but still, we loved him despite this bad habit. Hopefully Belle, our other kittie, won't be too sad. She's madly in love with our dog Apollo, which I suspect will cushion the blow. But yeah, we're bummed. I was glad it didn't happen actually on Steve's birthday. 

Today was a lumbersome day recovering from all the craziness. We went to the pool, usually our recovery haven, though this time it was tinged with a haunting sense of revisiting the scene of the crime. Steve is now off with Xander, trying out his new video game. I'm getting used to having to go over to Kristin and Marc's house to collect my husband from his play dates... 

 

Friday
Mar192010

Extreme Shallow Snorkeling on Pinel Island

Location: Pinel Island, St. Martin

Rating:

Yesterday we had a fantastic day on Pinel Island with our friends Jenn (aka Madam J) and Mark.

Pinel Island is a tiny island about a quarter mile or so off the coast of St. Martin, just near Orient Beach. As Mark joked, it's good to have a little island to go to in order to "escape" the big island of St. Martin.

To get to Pinel, you take a "ferry" for $7 roundtrip that takes about 10 minutes each way. I put "Ferry" in quotes because it appears to be a recycled landing craft from Normandy, which they use to pile in as many cattle, I mean people, as possible, to the point where the boat is barely floating, and can only go about 2 knots. I was tempted to jump out and swim at several points along the way, to prove that I could have gotten there faster, and more comfortably. Our foursome was the cause of some ire as we were the last to arrive, and the captain insisted on squeezing us in, to which some idiot American tourist protested "but it's hot, it must be 80 degrees! you can't pack us in here like this." Geez. For a 10 minute boat trip, really? I mean, there were several causes for concern, the most important being whether the boat was going to sink with so many people, but that it's too hot? Seriously? But I digress.

Pinel itself is a beautiful place, with pristine, quiet beaches, shallow calm waters, and fantastic snorkeling. We were lucky to be there with our Extreme Shallow Snorkeling friends as they showed us just how much fun it can be to brazenly snorkel in the ultra shallow waters, wondering whether your belly is going to be able to clear that next clump of grass and coral (the trick is to inhale, to make yourself float higher in the water). There were tons of fish, even fairly large ones, very close to shore. I even saw some crazy-looking needle-nosed fish. Apparently these unassuming little guys are the predators that cause all the fish jumping that we see at night from the shore of Grand Case bay. I also joined a school of thousands of little green fish for a while; I just floated there until they considered me part of the landscape and swarmed all around. Of course, once I started to move again, they scattered like the wind. Sadly, I hadn't brought my underwater camera casing, so no pics :(.

After our lovely snorkel, we retired to the Yellow Beach restaurant for lunch. They seated us in a private straw hut on stilts, overlooking the beach and sea, which made for the perfect atmosphere for a lengthy, wine- and rum-filled lunch. The food wasn't remarkable, though the frites and escargots w/ roquefort cheese were stand-outs. The crisp, cold French Rose went down very easily, as did the three varieties of rum digestif that they conveniently left on our table, and pretty soon we were drowsing on the beach.

Unfortunately Pinel closes at around 5pm. It would be a great place to hang out into the evening, but we decided better to catch the last ferry than accidentally camp out. We will definitely be going back.

Speaking of which, we're down to our last 10 days here in St. Martin before we head to Maryland for a few days of family, and eventually return to Berkeley on April 1st (is that a joke? don't know yet...). It's ridiculous that after having been here for 33 days, and still having a "normal" vacation length of time yet to go, I'm getting nostalgic that we have to leave so soon. I'm having to stop myself from making mental lists of all the things we have to cross off before we go. As Steve keeps reminding me, that's just silly, because we will be coming back here soon. 

Thursday
Mar182010

A Day in St. Barth's

Location: Gustavia, St. Barth's

Yesterday Kristin and I did a whirlwind day trip to shop in St. Barth's. 

To start with, the flights to/from St. Barth's were worth every penny, even if we had never set foot outside the airport. We caught the 9am commuter flight from Grand Case, the tiny airport just down the road. I've been watching planes fly in/out of the airport for weeks now - everything from tiny 2-seater prop planes to large prop planes - and was excited to finally give it a shot. 

Boarding our plane was in and of itself an adventure. We walked out to see a tiny little 10-seater prop plane with very small doors. With no indication of seating assignments on our hand-written tickets, we weren't sure what to expect, but upon walking out onto the tarmac, we were told where to sit. It turns out, Kristin got shotgun - she was assigned to be the navigator. Literally. As in, sat next to the pilot, with her own set of controls, both hand and feet. I sat directly behind her, and had to pull my seat forward to let other passengers on, like I was in an old 70's station wagon. The only safety briefing we received was when the guy who had checked us in (and did the plane inspection among other assorted odd jobs) told Kristin not to touch the pilot until after we landed safely. We only understood this admonition when he arrived - he was a Hottie! Sadly we were all sweating like pigs. I had to try and lean forward in the gap between the pilot's and Kristin's seat in an attempt to get a whif of AC. I almost asked the pilot to open his window - the plane was so small that that was an actual option.

The flight itself was spectacular. We saw amazing scenery, and I was able to take some great pictures of both islands on the flight there and back. 

The flight was also like an 8-minute amusement park ride. For those of you not familiar with the St. Barth's landing, I refer you to the YouTube video of a plane crashing. It's a very short runway, and on the approach, you have to crest this hill before the pilot literally cuts the engines and glides down to land. We were luckier than the plane in the video, but it was definitely an adrenaline-inducing ride. 

After the shortest flight in the history of aviation, we grabbed a rental car, and the real ride began. Kristin knows St. Barth's very well, and with only six hours to shop, we had not a moment to lose. We started with this amazing consignment shop - our only opportunity for a bargain. As my Mom once told me, you only go to garage sales in neighborhoods nicer than yours. St. Barth's definitely qualified. This consignment shop was full of Dolce & Gabbana, True Religion, and all manner of crazy brands, all items worn maybe once or twice. We each found a good deal there. 

We then embarked on our shopping mission of St. Barth's proper, starting with Gustavia. There was a cruise ship in the harbor, but I was amazed to see how empty the streets and stores were. It's clear that the economy has taken its toll. But did this translate to sales and deals? Hell no. When Kristin asked the store owners how business was, they were all in denial... and then they closed for a three-hour lunch, something they never would have done if there was actual business. Given where we were, I decided I was on the hunt for the best beach cover up ever. I found several... and they were all 150 euro or more. I was amazingly restrained, waiting until we had done the full tour before making a decision, but sadly the stores were all closed when it came time to make the final purchase. Actually, it's not so sad for my wallet... or my relationship with my husband. 

The one thing I did purchase was a fantastic silver ring and matching necklace from a great store called Les Artisans. They had unusual designs, and the owners were wonderful. It was amazing how quickly the day flew by, and how little time six hours turned out to be. We barely had time to pick up paninis for lunch (the French version of fast food, which took 30 minutes to prepare "to go"), much less tour the island or check out the beaches. 

The flight home was on a slightly larger airplane, so no one got to ride shotgun. The problem was the lack of AC (yet again)... compounded by the idiot who sat in front of us and FARTED. On a 10-seater airplane, in tropical Caribbean heat and humidity, with no AC. SERIOUSLY? Seriously? You couldn't have held it? Cruel. 

Beyond the shopping, St. Barth's is a beautiful island... but it reminded me a little of Disney World in that it was a little too clean. It just wasn't real. Even the souvenir shops were crazy - it took me a minute to realize it was because the souvenir T-shirts were actually cashmere sweaters. With St. Barths printed on them. On the CASHMERE. And the woman who worked in the souvenir shop was wearing a $3k necklace we had just seen next door. The yachts in the harbor were insane. To say St. Barth's is a bit pricey, snooty and full of itself would be a gross understatement. 

All that said, I'm really glad we took the trip over there. We had a great time, and I love to explore new places, but more than anything, it reaffirmed our decision to come to St. Martin's instead. This island has real people, many of whom we've met and absolutely adore.