GRAND CASE, St. Martin -- Grand Case has all the somnolent charm of
a colorized 1960s coming-of-age movie. It's a beachside town so
sleepy that it doesn't even roll up its sidewalks at night -- there
are no sidewalks.
This is not the Caribbean-as-Disneyland, and that's one of my
favorite reasons to come to Grand Case.
It's authentic and imperfect and beautiful. Straight lines,
orderly structure and Manhattan-style exactitude are not found
here. Instead, the narrow main road arcs uncertainly through town,
like a child's attempt at drawing a straight line.
Low-slung homes, businesses, restaurants and shops huddle
alongside a slender strand of beach, with moving herds of kids and
dogs creating a soundtrack of giggles and barks.
Comically undersized Smart
Cars park wherever space can be found, and bump along the dusty
street, grandiosely named Boulevard de Grand Case. Everyone walks
in the road, just an arm's length from traffic.
Hotel L'Esplanade provided a bird's-eye view of the
ever-changing scenery. The elegant, 24-key hideaway is tucked into
the side of Stick Hill and overlooks the beach for which the town
It is immaculate, from the small, free-form pool set in a
garden-rimmed patio, to its sweeping staircases decorated by
Italian tile, and its peaked, blue-roofed profile that stands out
from the hillside.
Our fellow guests -- mostly baby boomers from the U.S. East
Coast -- were seldom seen and never heard. L'Esplanade is serene,
secluded and conducive to the loss of all motivation.
My usual type-A behavior was completely thwarted on a daily
basis. My tightly wound traveling companion and I attempted to plot
a course of action from our veranda each morning as we consumed
buttery French pastry and pots of coffee, delivered punctually by
the friendly, efficient staff.
We envisioned hikes, trips to beaches and island tours.
Soothed by the scene of tiny boats and tony yachts bobbing in
the harbor, our planning sessions invariably floundered.
Each day we looked up at Stick Hill. My friend would say,
"Tomorrow, we're going to climb that thing." Each of us would
earnestly squint for a moment, scanning the hillside's flank for a
path to the peak.
Then we'd amble down the garden-fringed footpath on a 10-minute
walk to the beach at Domaine L'Amandier, a beachfront restaurant
and bar where L'Esplanade guests have beach and pool
We popped in for souvenirs at the Perfect Ti Pot, a
dollhouse-sized pottery shop. We admired the neighborhood dogs;
swam in the placid sea, surrounded by a scattering of couples and
families with young children; siesta'd in the sun, and repaired to
the pool at L'Esplanade for a rum punch at the swim-up bar.
The same thing happened every day. We didn't care. We were happy
and didn't want to move.
After three days in the lap of lethargy, we managed to escape
the gravitational pull of Grand Case. Re-entry to the rest of the
world was bumpy indeed, courtesy of a scary jitney ride to Marigot,
the French capital.
Jitneys arrive in the "soon-come" fashion common in the
Caribbean, and the price tag -- $1 per passenger -- seemed like an
incredible bargain. How could we resist? Well, you get what you pay
Our bus' broken back seat lurched backwards, Barc-O-Lounger
style. The driver's seeming lack of familiarity with the stick
shift would have been amusing had it not been for the half-empty
bottle of beer he gripped in one hand and his bright-red eyes,
which sized us up in the rearview mirror.
In short, our driver was inebriated. Imagining that my life
might soon flash before my eyes, I quietly muttered, "First grade,
second grade, third grade" as we chugged along.
Fortunately, we arrived safely in Marigot and found it much as
it was on a previous visit. The waterfront bistro scene still
thrived; jewelry and souvenir shops blew gusts of air conditioning
onto the street through open doors; tourists still drove poorly,
engendering the audible wrath of cabbies and bus drivers. After
three days in Grand Case, Marigot looked a lot like Gotham.
Things were winding down at the open-air market as vendors
packed up their remaining fruits, vegetables, spices, fish and
souvenirs. Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days, and it's a
worthwhile stop for photos and people-watching.
Across from the market at La Vie en Rose, a nighttime waterfront
hot spot and restaurant, signs of life were evident.
Since my last visit, an array of shops and a marble-clad
shopping complex, appropriately titled Le West Indies Mall, had
sprung up. The mall carried high-priced designer clothing, jewelry,
luggage and, surprisingly, few shoppers.
After scoring a Tissot watch at Little Switzerland and a
Haagen-Daz pralines-and-cream cone, our mission was accomplished.
It was time to relax at the pool. We skipped the bus and took a cab
Grand Case's reputation as a gustatory capital of the Caribbean
is well deserved, but I was worried about my persnickety companion
who habitually drags me into restaurant doorways to check Zagat's
As it turned out, there was nothing to dread. We couldn't find a
bad meal in Grand Case.
So relaxed were we, and so impressed by the ready supply of
tables, that we neglected to make reservations. Every restaurant
was within walking distance of our hotel, so we sauntered up and
down the main drag reading menus.
We ate barbecued ribs and rice and peas at Talk of the Town, one
of the open-air restaurants affectionately called lo-los.
We found amazing pastries and omelets at coffee shops.
Langouste, the clawless, Caribbean crustacean, was served at La
Romance, Domaine L'Amandier's fine-dining restaurant, while salads
and Italian-style pizza were at La California.
Our indulgences at La Marine were foie gras and lobster ravioli
with cream sauce.
Our meals, always in open-air, oceanside restaurants, were
romantic, hours-long events, and were, without question, some of
the best I've ever consumed in the Caribbean.
Only upon our return did I discover a Web site, www.grandcase.com,
that provides links to these and other restaurants.
We felt so welcome and at home on the French side that we
declined to cross the border until it was time to fly home again.
The service was uniformly friendly, and everyone from wait staff to
shopkeepers tolerated with kindness my lame attempts at speaking
On our last night, we watched the sunset and sipped cold Coronas
at the aptly named Sunset Cafe at the nearby Grand Case Beach Club.
We didn't see the legendary green flash (an at-dusk phenomenon),
but instead, the atmosphere gave us an unexpected going-away
present -- a perfect rainbow stretched across the top of Stick
Grand Case, with its warm, unstudied grace, remains an
imperfectly beautiful, perfectly romantic redoubt.
To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to
[email protected] .
Room key: HOTEL L'ESPLANADE
Address: B.P. 5007- Grand Case, 97150, Saint Martin,
Phone: (866) 596-8365
Reservations: (866) 596-8365
Location: On Stick Hill, overlooking the city of
Grand Case; a 25-minute taxi ride from Princess Juliana Airport on
the island's Dutch side.
Facilities: Pool, swim-up bar, nearby beach,
limited restaurant service for breakfast.
Rates: $180 to $280 through Dec. 19; two free
nights with five booked for summer season.
Noteworthy: Garden setting is secluded and
peaceful. The 24 guest rooms are spacious, airy and private with
ocean views. Top toiletries, coffeemaker, mini-fridge, TV, phone,
Not worthy: If you're hungry after hours, stock
that in-room fridge or you're out of luck. Hill climbing required
for beach; stairs for pool access and loft bedrooms are a challenge
for elderly or out-of-shape guests. Tile steps are slippery when