Grand Case: Romantic retreat with French flavor

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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.

The harbor at Grand Case, St. Martin.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 is named.

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 privileges.

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 for, folks.

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 instead.

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 scores.

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 French.

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 Hill.

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, F.W.I.
Phone: (866) 596-8365
Web:www.lesplanade.com
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.
Commission: 10%.
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, CD player.
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 wet.

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