August 1989

During almost all of the cold, dark winters I endured growing up in Chicago, I had a continuing fantasy, fueled by magazine ads and “Come Back to Jamaica” commercials on television, of exotic places where the waters were crystalline blue and you could clearly see the color of the nail polish on your toes resting on a white sandy bottom.  Feathery green palm trees were silhouetted against a clear blue sky and swayed in the gentle breezes.  The language spoken by the islanders was a softer, slower, lilting version of English, quite unlike the flat vowels of my hometown.  In a word, it would be warm, soft and VERY DIFFERENT.

Those long winters inspired an urgent desire to get away from the cold, and the first escape I made was to college in New Orleans.  Granted, it was no tropical isle, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.  Palm and banana trees were part of the landscape, and a not-very-long car trip away got me to the white sand beaches of the Gulf coast.  As well, taking exams in December wearing shorts was something I quickly became accustomed to.  Christmas holidays back in the Midwest were a rude re-awakening.

The course of my life eventually led me to Maryland, a step backwards if the ultimate goal was moving down island.  But I met my husband here, and even if we were far from the islands, we could still chase those island dreams together.  Our first opportunity would be our honeymoon, which Rick’s parents generously offered to fund.  They would let us swap one of their time share weeks for a destination anywhere in the world (within reason), and offered Rick the opportunity to earn our airfare by shingling their roof in the weeks between his taking the bar exam and our wedding.

Back then, in 1989, sources of information were limited.  No internet travel boards or cable TV travel channels for us.  A thick glossy guide with tantalizing photos of resorts the world over laid out our choices, but our own unwillingness to waste time getting where we were going and to share this week with tourist hordes led us to choose among Caribbean islands that no one we knew had ever gone to.   Because of the parameters of availability, we got our third choice, The Pelican Resort in St. Maarten.  We figured since no one we knew had ever been to St. Maarten, it had to be pretty obscure.  How little we knew…

We finally made it to our wedding day of August 18, 1989.  By that time, we were so frazzled and stressed that the wedding itself was not the big event; the honeymoon escape was.   Our bags were packed full of inappropriate attire.  From watching The Love Boat and a few too many James Bond flicks, we thought we would need cocktail attire for the casinos, and from the brochures, we thought we would need tennis whites for the courts.  No matter.  On the morning of August 19, we were off to our first tropical island.

Just because we didn’t know anyone who’d ever gone to St. Maarten didn’t mean that lots of people don’t flock there, even in the off-season.  The first clue was the mode of getting there.  That Saturday, we flew from O’Hare to San Juan Airport, a place which is now almost as familiar as our own BWI.  Onward to Princess Juliana Airport (SXM), where the DC-10 we flew on should have tipped us off.   Not many remote airports can accommodate such a huge aircraft...

It was late, dark, when we finally arrived.  The airport seemed small to us, but it was crowded.  After the dizzying whirl of customs and immigration, we found our bags on the carousel and as we left the terminal to look for a cab, a Rasta-man named Carrot asked us, “Hey mon, want to rent a car?”  Sure, why not.  We ended up with an undistinguished Mitsubishi and then made our way in the dark to the Pelican Resort.

Since it was August, the feeling of escape was not the same as it would have been for a winter getaway.  That mattered little, since we were finally on our honeymoon.  Shortly, we were ushered to our 1 bedroom unit in the Bougainvillea complex, done up in tile and rattan in green shades.  It was morning before we could really get a sense of our surroundings, and the feelings they evoked were mixed.  We loved having sea views from our small patio, the tropical foliage, and the sound of tree frogs.  The resort, on the other hand, was a bit large, seemed to be paved over with asphalt, and mid-sized imported cars were parked everywhere.  The resort’s beach was a small and apparently man-made one, but the water had that oh-so-important clear azure hue.

On our first day, we mostly got our bearings.  We spent some time at the beach.  We did a bit of grocery shopping (since we had a kitchen and did not want to eat every meal in a restaurant).  We drove around a bit to look around, finding the roads narrow and hilly and the views from atop the hills lovely; the traffic (even in August) was a bit annoying, and the condition of some of the roads was truly awful.  The island looked much like I imagine the Mediterranean coast to look.

Monday, I did what I had been vowing for weeks to do: I cut off my hair.  I had grown it long for our wedding, but it was making me nuts, so I took the first opportunity at the on-site salon.  The beautician’s English was not very good (she was Dutch), so rather than trying to explain what I wanted, I showed her my law school ID photo and she went to work.  Rick was a little dismayed at the result, but I was happy and went about the rest of our week feeling free and light.

After getting comfortable with our surroundings, we spent most of our days exploring.  We hit both Phillipsburg and Marigot, liking the beachfront location of Phillipsburg, but preferring the cleaner-seeming, more cosmopolitan and foreign feel of Marigot.  Phillipsburg, which caters in many respects to cruise ship traffic and the attendant duty free bargain hunters, had a pretty tacky discount shopping kind of feel, sort of like some of the cheap electronics shops that colonized Canal Street in New Orleans during my college days.

The beaches were more to our liking.  We were still innocents about nudity and toplessness, so we shied away from many of them.  And others just seemed too inaccessible with our rental sedan.  (We now know to just charge ahead; the best beaches are not always the ones which are easiest to reach).  We still managed to find some which we loved, including Baie des Prunes (Plum Bay) and Dawn Beach.  We also spent some quality time in the pool and on the tennis courts.

St. Martin (the French side) is known for its cuisine.  While our limited means kept us from sampling too much of it, we had a memorable dinner on the balcony at La Vie En Rose in Marigot.  It gave us a bit of sticker shock, as the tab was quoted in francs (660 being roughly equivalent to $110 at the time). 

After a week of exploration, we both agreed that St. Maarten is a lovely island, satisfying our expectations of lush green foliage, clear blue waters, and white sand  beaches.  What it lacked, though, was a feeling of foreign-ness and the sense that time has slowed.  Somehow, the hustle and bustle of the shoppers and cruise ship passengers, the disco denizens and casino gamblers, the Japanese cars and middle-aged Americans, made this island feel less like an escape than we hoped for.

And so, the search for Islandtime continued...