St Maarten/St Martin
17 April 2004 Newsletter

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Weather and Beaches: Saturday stayed wonderful. The sea was clam and the snorkeling at Cupecoy was great.  Easter Sunday was more of the same. We went to The Horny Toad for an Easter brunch and some great swimming on a very calm Simpson Bay. On Monday we enjoyed a perfect day at Cupecoy. I have never seen the water this clear and calm. While snorkeling, we saw French angelfish (yellow and black bands), banded butterflyfish (black and white bands), sergeant majors (yellow and black bands), parrot fish, wrasses, tangs, crabs, goatfish, French grunts (yellow and white horizontal stripes), bar jacks, peacock flounder, and more. On Tuesday I bumped into a school of about 25 blue tangs of various sizes. The coral is also coming back. I have seen live brain coral, fan coral, and I believe a baby staghorn. On Friday a passing squall rolled through at about 9:30 in the morning, clearing the air. The rest of the day was fabulous and on Saturday morning we could see all four islands again.
Activities: We went for a snorkel/sail on Random Wind on Friday. They leave from just behind Buccaneer Beach Bar near Pelican M/W/F at 8:45AM and return at about 4:30PM. The sky was black to the north and the trade winds were pushing out of the NW, so we sailed due south in an attempt to stay dry. It didn't work, so the passengers huddled in the salon as Captain Marten turned the boat back toward St Maarten and powered through the squall. A few minutes later it was bright and sunny and we saw some flying fish as we headed back toward St Maarten. We got back, heading up the west coast, passing Cupecoy Beach looking quite good beneath Cliffhanger, a bit thin from there to Ocean Club, and fairly good thereafter. We hugged the coast getting some fantastic views of the island and a few snacks as we headed to Happy Bay, reachable only by foot from Friar's Bay (or by boat). It was a bit choppy and the sea was not very clear so we headed out to Créole Rock in Grand Case. The snorkeling here was very good. If you stay in the lee of the rock, it is calm and loaded with small fish. I swam up in the calm water, along the rock and emerged at the edge where the waves came crashing through. I then used the waves/current to carry me back to the boat. I saw a very large, very colorful queen parrotfish, lots of sergeant majors, blue runners, a clown wrasse, goatfish, and a cute little black number with iridescent red dots, blue tangs, yellowtail snappers, and more. Martha headed to the rock and turned north along the rock, spotting squid, trunkfish, trumpetfish, and a ballyhoo. We got back on the boat and headed to Friar's Bay for a tasty lunch and a short swim/snorkel. I went to the shore and on the way back I was investigated by three blue runners (I think) about 30 inches long . It appears their intentions were honorable as I have all my toes. We got back on the boat and took a long tack out toward Anguilla and tacked back to Pointe Canonier at the eastern edge of St Maarten. As we ran along the western coast we saw a couple dolphins, ducked under some low flying aircraft as we rounded the airport and settled into Simpson Bay. Photos in a future photo spread and I'll add some to the website.
We had a lovely time and even our landlubbing friends did alright given a bit of Dramamine. This is a monohull sailboat about 50 foot long. You will get the feel of the sea, especially as they cut the engines and sail. There were only 13 customers on the boat and a crew of 2. They will go out if they get 10 customers and close out reservations at 14 max. If this sounds good to you, you'll have a great time. There are bigger cats with a much wider stance and powerful motors that take many more people to the out islands of Anguilla. It's unclear that the sailing is much smoother because the bigger, wider boats are tackling bigger seas, so the main difference is that there are more people, the boat motors the entire distance, and Prickly Pear is a bit better for snorkeling. Random Wind will have fewer people, it will sail, and you'll get great closeup views of St Maarten, views you will never get from a car. I've had fun on both and fun on the lagoon cruises which are great for those who are most unseaworthy.
Airport: The new control tower was put in operation recently. It not only controls SXM airspace (including the tiny French Airport, Esperance) but also the sister islands of Statia and Saba, and the neighboring islands of Anguilla and St Barts.
Photo feature: There are some photos of the week's activities at a secret location not posted here. Subscribe to the newsletter to get the location. There are some shots of Cupecoy during the previous two weeks of great weather.
Wines:  The Thursday wine tasting at Vinissimo featured a lovely 98 Macon-Clessé Domaine de la Bongram from Jean Thevenot ($29). Chardonnay from Macon is usually quite crisp, the acidity cuts through fish oils, making it a perfect complement to fish dishes. This one, by virtue of its winemaker and six years of age had a rather large, round, older chardonnay flavor, better suited for chicken dishes or even as a wine to sip without food as it is fairly luscious all by itself. Mr Thevenot gets even weirder as he makes a late harvest wine from these same grapes rivaling Sauternes in its sweetness. Sylvain had a bottle of the 95 for about $50. This, of course, is not in the prescription from the French wine police so all future bottlings of this will lose the appelation and merely be called Vin du Pays.
For the main course (a duck pâté), we then switched to a 99 Chambolle-Musigny that seemed to get better with each sip (also about $50). The pâté and the burgundy were a lovely match. Musigny is a tiny vineyard near the top of the hill in the town of Chambolle, which appended the name of its best vineyard to itself as a marketing tactic many years ago. The real Musigny is one of my favorite burgundies, but I must wait for my rich uncle to pass some my way, as the price is staggering. Chambolle-Musigny, possibly a premier cru, is about as far as my budget goes.
For dessert we had a 1980 Rivesaltes Cuvée Ainé Cazes, a staggeringly complex sweet red wine from France, quite close to the Spanish border. I think this would be lovely with some raspberry or strawberry desserts.
Groceries: For Easter dinner we had a farm raised French chicken, about three pounds, $18, not cheap, but very tasty. We added some haricot verts, also not cheap, but outstanding and some pied bleu mushrooms, even less cheap. All of these were available at the US Import at the French Bridge. We had a bottle of 92 Mazis-Chambertin Hospices de Beaune Grand Cru that we picked up for a mere $65 at Philipsburg Liquor. Altogether, a rather expensive home-cooked meal, but the chicken was great, the reduction sauce with the  mushrooms was outstanding, and the wine was even better, probably the best Burgundy I have ever had. The Hospices is a hospital in Beaune, the ancient capital of Burgundy. Every year on 15 November they auction off the barrels of wine that come from vineyards donated to them over the centuries. This is the first auction of Burgundy every year and is supposed to establish the quality of the vintage. Robert Drouhin of Joseph Drouhin explained to me that his father Maurice, and grandfather, Joseph, the founder of the firm, had left parcels to the Hospice. The labels for the wines from these parcels bears the name Drouhin, in addition to the Hospice name. Consequently, Robert felt obliged to purchase the barrels and make the very best wine he could from it. His friendly, or not so friendly, competitors knew this, so they bid against him at the auction, knowing that they would never be allowed to win. Needless to say, he returned the favor when their legacies came up for auction. Consequently, the prices paid may not accurately reflect the quality of the wine, but I guarantee that the winemakers do their best to put spectacular wines in the bottles that bear the Hospices label. 
Temptation Restaurant is sponsoring the current contest, which will run until 16 May. Just click their name to go to their website, find the link to sign up for the SXM-Info newsletter, click it, sign up, and you are entered. Obviously everybody that is getting this email is already signed up for the newsletter, but you are not automatically signed up for the contest. You do have to go to their website and click the email link to show you visited their site. Just tell me you are already on our mailing list, and I'll leave you signed up for the newsletter and just add your name to the contest list. You could win a $100 toward a great meal at Temptation.
The winner of the Unity Car Rental $100 gift certificate is Jim Everett.
Here is the list of future sponsors. We urge you all to sign up ONCE for each contest. Our clients want you to see what they have to offer. Go to their websites at the appropriate time, click the link, and you could be a winner. Look for future gift certificates from:
Vacation Suites - 17 May to 30 June - prize: 1 free week over the summer!
L'Auberge Gourmande - 1 July to 15 August - $100 off a meal for two
Sunset Café - 16 August to 30 September - $100 off a meal for two
Montmartre Restaurant - 1 October to 15 November - $100 off a meal for two
Sealine Charters - 16 November to 15 December
Chez Pat/Tropical Wave - 16 December to 6 January - $100 off a day at the beach: food, drinks, chairs, windsurf lessons, etc
Marci's Mega Gym - 7 January to 27 January 2005 - a week of gym usage for two
California Restaurant - 28 January to 17 February 2005
Escargot Restaurant - 18 February to 4 March 2005
Hot Tomatoes - 5 March to 26 March 2005
The Horny Toad Guesthouse - 27 March to 24 April 2005 - seven low season days for the price of five
Celine Pub Crawl - 25 April to 5 June 2005 - two tickets on the Lagoon Pub Crawl
Another contest: Hot Tomatoes has a contest on their website to kick off their combination lagoon cruise/dinner package. You can now take sunset lagoon cruise on White Octopus  and follow it up with a dinner at Hot Tomatoes. They are giving away a two pizza dinner with a bottle of red, but you have to go to the website, click the comments link, and send in some comments. Somebody's going to get two pizzas with a bottle of red just for saying something that tickles our fancy. I talked to Brad last night and we're looking for 25 entries. As soon as we get 25, we'll post them, and pick a winner. While you are there, look over Brad's site, check out the coupon, and take a look at the White Octopus
On 10 April the euro was at 1.205 and today it's at 1.932. Not much going on there, but it's still heading in the right direction. French side restaurants with many costs in dollars and many American (or Canadian) clients have been offering more favorable exchange rates. Some restaurants offer a 1 to 1 exchange. This list includes California, Escapade, Balaou, Santal, Enoch's Place, Au Beaujolais, Rainbow, Oizeau Rare, Pirate on Orient (not Repaire du Pirate in Grand Case), Restaurant du Soliel, Pedro's (priced in dollars - no conversion ever), Saint Germain, Petite Auberge des Iles, and Paradise View. Many restaurants will offer you a better rate than you can get on your credit card, so you can allow them to convert and charge in dollars. Note that California only offers 1 to 1 on cash purchases. Some restaurants have lowered their prices. I just did it again for Bistrot Caraibes. As always, know what the euro is worth, what the restaurateur is offering for an exchange, and what the costs are on the menu. Finally, you are here to have fun and fine food, not complex financial calculations, so don't worry about it too much. 
On Saturday night we  went to Old Captain in downtown Pburg for a sushi dinner. We had the $30 combo plate of sushi, sashimi, and some norimake (rice rolls, hold the seaweed wrapper). We added two beers and had a dinner for less than $40 on the waterfront. They even offered us our choice of sixtops on the water as all the deuces were taken. Obviously, things are a bit slow on the last weekend before the hotel and car rental rates drop.
On Monday we went to Domaine de L'Amandier for a dinner by the sea in Grand Case. The sand is back on their beach, so it is a lovely spot for lunch and a loaf on the beach or even a swim. At night, the lights are on the water and Anguilla glows in the distance. The "wall" of the dining room is the seawall, so you are pretty close to the water.
There is a new chef this season, but the menu is much the same. Nonetheless, all the dishes are slightly different. We had the cooked foie gras on a bed of sautéed apples topped with crisp potato slices so thin they qualified as nanotechnology ($23). All of this was swimming is a sauce laced with Calvados. How do I love this dish? Let me count the ways. First is foie gras. If you like it, no finer taste treat is available. The subtle taste and the buttery smoothness are extraordinary. Next is pairing it with apples (pommes in French), an absolutely classic combination of tastes and contrast in textures (given a light sauté). The crisp potato on the top is not only another crisp contrast but a little food pun from the chef (pommes de terre, get it?). Finally, calvados is a brandy made from apples. They also had a great sweet Monbazillac for a mere $5 per glass to accompany the foie gras. OK, I liked it. For the rest of the meal we chose a 2001 Mercurey Premier Cru ($50), obviously a let-down from our Sunday wine, but a good Burgundy. I had a rare ahi tuna with garlic mashed potatoes and two sauces: a soy/sesame blend and a garlic/mayo ($26). This dish used to come on a bed of mashed potatoes, rather uninspiring. The new chef doesn't mash the potatoes as much and forms them into a column that tips up the slice of tuna. Does it taste better? Actually, I rather like the texture of lumpy mashed potatoes better, but even if you don't, this looks much better. Martha had the chef's style shrimp, essentially sautéed shrimp with a saffron sauce, but rather light on the saffron, given the expense ($24). For saffron, check out Saffron.com: $36 per ounce delivered. They also have vanilla beans and extract and dried mushrooms. The total bill came to $134 using a 1.2 to 1 rate.
On Tuesday we went to Casablanca at the Atlantis Casino for a Moroccan dinner on the plush couches. It's a lovely space and the food is quite interesting and not very expensive.We had a bottle of Monredon Cotes du Rhone ($21) and the mixed ap called Kemia that has Khizou - spiced carrots, Btata - lemon and egg potato salad with cumin, Zaalouk - mashed eggplant salad with saffron, Hmmoss - chick peas with lime, cumin, and parsley, Taktouka - cooked tomatoes and red pepper salad with garlic (I love this), and Matecha - marinated fresh tomatoes with onions and coriander. They are all interesting and it comes with pita bread. Our dinners were a long cooked lamb and eggplant tajine and kefta, a tajine of beef meatballs, probably kosher beef, and kosher for Passover. They were not big and juicy, but small and loaded with flavor in a cumin sauce. We also received a large bowl of cous-cous and an even larger bowl of vegetables in broth. The lamb was a shank, but was falling-off-the-bone tender from the long cooking. The best thing was that for more food than we could eat, we paid $83 and the bill made it quite clear that service was included.
On Wednesday we went to Auberge Gourmande for the smoked salmon with a bit of greens and lime juice. The bread on the table and that used for the toast points is made in-house and is quite tasty. We had a bottle of Jaboulet's Crozes-Hermitage, a step up from the Cotes-du-Rhone Parellele 45 (that is quite good) and the Gigondas, but not as elevated as the Chateauneuf-du-Papes (and not as expensive). It's a pretty good wine and doesn't have the richness of the Chateauneuf, not all that bad with smoked fish and our dinners: shrimp with a scallop risotto and chicken with foie gras and oyster mushroom stuffing. Take a look at the photos on the website.
On Thursday some friends arrived for a week and we headed to Le Mambo to sample Chef Eric's cuisine again. They were having a special on Joseph Drouhin's La Foret burgundy ($24) so we started with that and ordered appetizers of snails in puff pastry with a creamy chive sauce and a fan of asparagus, scallops and shrimp in a creamy Monbazillac (sweet white wine from the south of France) sauce, and a Caesar salad. The snails were plump and tasty and the sauce was quite good. The shrimp and scallop dish was an outstanding combination of firm shrimp and scallops in a creamy and very tasty sauce, a very well-conceived dish. The light red wine was fine with the flavorful scallop dish and we moved on to Jaboulet's Crozes-Hermitage ($27) for the heartier entrées: two duck confits, lamb chops with a light herbed reduction sauce and a sweet and regular potato gratin and vegetables, and conch with Caribbean vegetables (carrots, various peppers, zucchini, and lemon peel) and a Reunion sauce. Allow me to explain. Duck confit is a specialty from Gascony, where salted, cooked duck (generally the leg and thigh, sometimes a wing or a few innards) is placed in a jar and layered with duck fat. This will actually keep for several months without refrigeration. Eventually, it is taken from the jar, the fat is removed, and a very flavorful bit of duck becomes part of this classic dish with peas and mashed potatoes. The lamb chops need no explanation, just a comment that they were tender, cooked exactly as ordered, and accompanied by some very tasty potatoes and veg. Conch, of course, comes from the standard large shell with the pinkish interior that is for sale on all Caribbean islands. There really isn't much around the islands any more as they have been fished out everyplace but in the marine parks. The actual conch is a tough little creature and it takes considerable skill to make it tender enough to eat. Eric's skill as a Créole chef is such that this conch was tasty and tender and the vegetable accompaniment was a very tasty and interesting combination. Reunion is an island about the size of Rhode Island off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. This spicy sauce had tomatoes, pepper, and onion in citrus juice, something like sauce chien which deletes the tomatoes and uses oil rather than citrus juice. We stopped at this point as our guests were fading after a long day traveling. Maryline brought some fine flavored rum over and we paid a bill of $171, aided by a 1.1 to 1 rate for the dollar.
On Friday we went California. They have a parking lot a bit down the street on the other side. Parking problems solved, we proceeded to a waterfront table that we had reserved via email. We were met by Patricia and Timothy Young of Esperance Car Rental and Esperance Hotel. The car rental firm is the oldest on the island, started by Patricia's father. The Hotel offers one and two bedroom suites with kitchenettes for $65 and $95 respectively. We started with a Macon-Village 200 Château de Mercey, a good crisp white burgundy for the benefit of the people who ordered crabcakes. I had a sweet Monbazillac with my foie gras and the people with the creamy mushroom soup with a puff pastry topping moved on to the 99 Savigny les Beaune from Antonin Rodet. The crabcakes came on a bed of greens with a curry sauce. The mushroom soup brought raves. I've had the foie gras before and it was just as good, only this time, Alain had added a very tart, rather crisp onion chutney, rather than the sweet mango marmalade that I had previously. It made for an interesting contrast in taste and texture. We had a house salad thrown into the mix and it arrived an a large shell and was enough for a party of six! Check the website.
Our dinners were lamb tenderloin (for me, again) and a conch Créole (for Martha, again),  a salmon lasagna with tarragon flavoring, and scallops and shrimp dish. It appears that Martha and I are on a lamb and lambi (French for conch) diet. Again, the conch were tender and tasty. As Alain and Eric work across the street from one another, they may trade secrets. The lamb tenderloin was another interesting dish, very tender lamb with a crisp pastry shell in a morel mushroom sauce with a potato gratin. The salmon lasagna was very good and the scallops and shrimp were fabulous in a saffron sauce. We finally had some takers for Alain's specialty: Crêpes. This one came with caramelized apples inside and a dollop of ice cream. The complimentary rum punch ended another great evening. The price was a bit over $100 per couple, largely because of the 1 to 1 exchange rate offered for cash.