The Riu Palace St. Martin officially opened last December as the company's first property on the island and the only all-inclusive resort on the French side of the Dutch-French island. Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers visited the property, tried out her high-school French and sampled the culinary treats. Click to read her first dispatch.
Today, I met new friends, fed an iguana and joined hundreds of crazy tourists gripping a cyclone fence at the end of a runway as a JetBlue plane blew its exhaust in our faces.
Frank Chance was my first new friend, a tour guide extraordinaire with his own company, Caribbean Dream Tours.
"I want to discover St. Martin/Maarten. I want to see what I haven't seen here before," I told him.
"I'm your man," Chance said.
And he was.
He's a born and bred Martiner from the fishing village of Spring Hill. Chance has driven every road, walked the sands on all 37 beaches, can identify every flower and fruit and knows the history of this two-country island as well as the menus in its restaurants and the farmers at the Saturday markets.
We crisscrossed the French-Dutch island, passing over the boundary delineating the Dutch-French sides of the island, marked only with signs.
"No customs, no passport controls, but cameras track every vehicle that crosses the three 'border crossings' on the island," Chance said.
We meandered down Grand Case Boulevard on the French side, lined with restaurants and boutiques.
"I remember Grand Case in the early '80s. There was one restaurant, the first Creole place on the island. A lot of young French chefs began to come here after that and set up shop in the homes that fishermen had abandoned. Now it's our culinary capital," Chance said.
A green monkey scurried across the dirt road leading up to Loterie Farm, a private nature reserve set deep in the island's interior.
"It's good luck to see a monkey. This one is checking to see if the mangos are ready to eat. By June they will be."
We drove across the new Simpson Bay Causeway that opened six months ago on the Dutch side.
"This has really helped the traffic situation. It cuts 20 minutes off the drive to the airport," Chance said.
At Friar's Bay Beach, I met Kali, a Rastafarian who opened his beach bar outpost in 1981 with a cooler full of Carib beer set under a lone umbrella.
I sampled his signature mango colada as he told me, "I just offer simple food and drink and a place to sit on a beautiful beach and spend a peaceful day."
Worked for me, but Chance and I had more places to go.
"After Hurricane Luis in 1995, most of the iguanas scattered. We didn't know what had happened to them. A lady in a house in Orleans noticed a few of them in the mangroves, so she began scattering her vegetable peelings on the ground," Chance said.
Over time, word got out and more and more iguanas showed up to chow down.
Several were waiting when we arrived. Chance had stopped to buy a $2 head of iceberg lettuce.
"Don't buy romaine. They like this better," he said.
He told me to kneel down in the dirt, to stay still and dangle the lettuce from my hand.
"They're skittish, but one of them will come to you."
And one did, eventually, grabbing the lettuce and scuttling off into the mangroves.
We wrapped up the tour at Maho Beach, so I could do the tourist thing and watch for incoming flights right over my head and get blasted by jet exhaust as the planes took off.
It was a great day.