I love the thrill of an emergency vacation. The excitement of planning on the fly and deciding one day that you can’t take it anymore and need to run away someplace warm ASAP. This is NOT the story of our trip to St. Martin and Anguilla aboard the catamaran Mojito.
Much thought and even more planning went into this endeavor. The vacation was 2 ½ years in the making. Our previous sailing charter had been way back in the spring of 2011. We were about to develop facial ticks if we didn’t feel the pull of the wind in the sails soon. After two fantastic rounds sailing the British Virgin Islands, we decided we should venture to other sandy shores try someplace new.
Booking a charter boat proved to be a bit more challenging than we had hoped until we found the professional staff at Private Yacht Charters (PYC). Harry matched our crew of seven with experienced Captain Nicolas Ramis “Nico” aboard the 47-foot sailing catamaran Mojito. The boat was beautiful featuring 4 staterooms with ensuite baths. Although not brand new, she was very well maintained with all systems in fine working order. I was impressed to see she was as green as her logo with both solar and wind power as well as a traditional generator.
We dubbed the trip the No Shoes Nation Vacation in deference to one of our favorite singer/sailors, Kenny Chesney. We had t-shirts made prior to departure with a Jolly Roger flag on the chest and a rendering of Mojito and the isles of St. Martin, St. Barth and Anguilla on the back. As I have mentioned, this was a well-planned trip. We had even brought our own No Shoes Nation flag to hoist in the rigging, warning all that crossed our path that this vacation was going to be legendary.
After a long day of travel and whirlwind grocery shopping, we laid eyes on our home for the week. Quickly stowing the provisions, we ambled down the dock at Oyster Pond Marina to the first restaurant we saw, Daniel’s by the Sea. My husband and I, having traveled to St. Martin in the past, weren’t picky about the restaurant selection. I can honestly say I have never had a bad meal on the island. Be it beach bar, airport or 5 star restaurant, St. Martin has the best food of any Caribbean island we have visited. Daniel’s did not disappoint. We ordered soups, salads, steak and fish dishes. It was the beginning of an evening ritual where one person would say, “Oh, you have to try this! It’s the best.” Then bowls and plates would be passed around for all at the table to sample.
We awoke the next day to Nico arriving with fresh-baked baguettes and croissants. Being somewhat weight conscious, we initially refrained as few of us indulge in such a manner at home. But, when in a French country, presented with aromatic, French-baked goods by a handsome, Frenchman, it is hard to hold on to one’s resolve for long. Oh how I had forgotten how good a real French croissant tasted.
We left the marina into the turbulent waters on the eastern side of St. Martin headed for the island of Tintamarre. Immediately, it was evident that Captain Nico was at home at the helm as he exuded a “Master and Commander quality,” as Michael stated. Unfortunately Chris, a salty-dog veteran of two previous charters, was the first to feel green followed by many others. We were listening to her iPod play a mix of Kenny Chesney tunes when it inadvertently settled on his Christmas album. Chris’s stomach yielded to the motion and changed the way we will remember Jingle Bells forever. As soon as we were on the solid sand of Tintamarre, all was right with the world. Now in the more protected lee of the island, we recuperated, lazed and decided to indulge in a few local beers. Captain Nico entertained us by taking any, literally any solid object and using it as a bottle opener. Quite tricky, Captain; I wondered what other tricks we might learn by the end of the week.
Our next stop was the picture perfect Pinel Island where the gracious owner and staff of Karibuni welcomed us with Frozen Mojitos. Since it was our vessel’s namesake, we were all provided one by our gracious Captain Nico. More drinks followed fresh fish and cheeseburgers. A little gift shop run by Thomas provided much entertainment as we played strange musical instruments from Bali and shopped for unique souvenirs at very reasonable prices.
We returned to the catamaran to shower in comfort, as the boat was cooled by the onboard air conditioning. Captain Nico took us ashore and suggested we try an oceanfront restaurant and club called Palm Beach. The music was thumping and although the crowd was a bit sparse, it was early. Unfortunately, the food options weren’t the best for our group, which included a person with gluten intolerance. We ventured down the beach to Orient Village and a pretty waitress with a sweeping braid across her brow welcomed us to Le Piment in French-accented English. This is where the trip report begins to get redundant. The food was fabulous. We devoured steaks, seafood, risotto, wine, etc. Sleep came easy that night at anchor off Pinel Island.
We had been so busy in the months leading up to this trip; we had neglected to get together to celebrate two birthdays. Better late than never, we deemed Monday as Stacie’s Birthday. Our fine Captain joined us ashore at Orient Beach where we insisted on eight front row chairs at Le String for our Birthday girl. A beach vendor helped Chris work out a few kinks with an impromptu back massage and we settled in for a day of people watching. As always, there are many sights on Orient Beach.
We pulled anchor in the late afternoon and made our way to Grand Case for a calm overnight anchorage. Captain Nico had a good friend at LOVE Restaurant and Bar. One drink couldn’t hurt before we got cleaned up for dinner, right? We fell in love with LOVE. Ocean 82 Restaurant did not see our arrival until later that evening. Stacie’s Birthday was a hit and so were our entrees (see above comments on fabulous food).
The sun streamed through the window hatches Tuesday morning and it was time for Dan’s Birthday. We hoisted sail for Anguilla’s Sandy Island after a brief stop in Road Bay. Sandy Island was nearly perfect. It was just a pristine sand bar with a few palm trees surrounded by gently lapping waves on all sides. Like a mirage, the only man-made structure was a drink shack waiting to welcome us. It was the kind of rest and relaxation we had sought for so long. We waded about laughing and looking for shells and odd pieces of coral.
Feeling recharged, we returned to Road Bay an hour before sunset. As we scrubbed off the salt and sunscreen, we noticed quite a bit of boat traffic in the bay. We converged on the aft deck and watched a fleet of bathtub-sized sailboats skippered by local grade school boys race. We then determined that the Mojito had been set as the windward mark. Each boat had to maneuver its way around us before heading for the finish line. We had a blast cheering on the boys ranging from age 6 to 14.
We finished our preening and headed for a yummy beachfront dinner at Johnno’s. Afterwards, we came to our first dilemma. Some of the girls wanted to go dancing, while the rest of the crew was ready to return to the boat. The single street behind the restaurant was dimly lit and was strewn with houses and closed businesses. Rumors of a dance spot down the lane were calling. Not wanting to split up, the flat-footed were lured with the promise of, “We’ll just stay for a couple of songs.” We heard the Pumphouse Bar long before we saw it. A reggae dance mix flowed from the open-air building out onto the street. Dan, still sporting his purple birthday crown, drew a few strange looks from the locals, but we didn’t care. The energy inside was contagious and two hours later, at midnight, we drug our sweat-soaked bodies back to Mojito.
Wednesday should have been a day for recovery. At least that’s what smart people would have done. We have never been accused of being smart. There was one more birthday we needed to celebrate. Captain Nico would be turning 38 the week after our departure, and we could not let this go by without notice. We presented him with his birthday card and his own No Shoes Nation Vacation t-shirt. By this point, there was little separation between he and the crew.
We had planned to go to Gwen’s at Shoal Bay but discovered it had been damaged in a hurricane a couple of years ago. Our cabbie, after a brief tour of town, suggested we go to Uncle Ernie’s where we settled in nicely for lunch and lounging on beautiful Shoal Bay. The aquamarine waters mesmerized our crew as we strolled on the beach and floated in the warm water. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Conch salad. I thought I had experienced good conch in the Turks and Caicos as well as the Bahamas, but the marinade and preparation at Uncle Ernie’s was outstanding.
Still anchored at Road Bay, we showered up and took the dingy to Elvis’ Restaurant. We immediately loved the vibe with a boat-shaped bar, corn hole boards, bimini, music and an outdoor video screen. Nico thought we had been celebrating his birthday earlier in the day. Little did we all know that “every thing gets hotter when the sun goes down.” We drank, we ate, we drank, we played, we drank, we danced and we drank.
I awoke Thursday to a splash. Immediately, I felt the adrenaline at the thought that someone had fallen overboard. Then I realized it was David taking his morning plunge off the stern. Thursday was supposed to be the day to take the grand leap to St. Barth. None of us felt like leaping too quickly that morning. Captain Nico put on a very brave front, but I guessed he felt the effects of his birthday a bit more than he showed. I, for one did. We tested the open waters and felt our green friend returning. We made it as far as Scrub Island to the northeast of Anguilla and decided to cut our losses. The northern swell pounded the beach with a shore break that would not allow for a dingy landing. Although the waves were beautiful, curling peaks, not one surfer took advantage of such epic conditions. We retreated back to St. Martin’s Pinel Island and decided to try the other beach bar called Yellow Beach. The service was outstanding and we couldn’t get enough of the frozen Mojitos. Who would have thought that by blending a traditional on-the-rocks drink, it would create such a uniquely perfect concoction. The possibilities are endless!
The fabulous food continued that night at le Ti Provincial in Grand Case. Captain Nico was a friend of the chef Herve who brought us course after course of wonder. He came from the kitchen and explained that many ingredients are only available fresh at certain times and in limited quantities. We couldn’t imagine what he might be capable of if an American grocery store were at his disposal. Somehow, I like to believe that there is just magic in Grand Case that makes the food so good. More than likely it is the culmination of expertly trained chefs, creativity, and inspiration from the tropical paradise that lend to the extraordinary experience.
About Friday, we begin to push our panic button. Our departure loomed Saturday and despite our best efforts to push it to the back of our minds, it was there. We awoke and were in crisis mode. There were no baguettes or croissants aboard! Captain Nico, straight faced said, “I know a man.” He then turned and jumped into the dingy. Five minutes later he was back with a 3-foot long baguette in hand. “Yea! We have bread! All is right with the world!” Oh how much difference a week makes.
Captain Nico pulled anchor and we cruised along the northern coast of St. Martin taking in the stunning coastline on our way to Happy Bay. We noticed a group of surfers making their way to a local shore break called Wilderness. Captain Nico, an avid surfer himself, positioned the 47-foot Mojito next to a photography boat that was sitting at the edge of the line-up. Stephanie, David, Dan and I stood at the bow to cheer each rider while Captain Nico delicately maneuvered Mojito so Stacie, Chris and Michael could take pictures. I’ve never had that vantage point to watch surfing and it gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
The beach at Happy Bay was a bit off the beaten path requiring those poor land locked individuals to hike from nearby Friar’s beach over a hill. We rolled in, dropped anchor and stood on the bow admiring the perfect little bay before us. Captain Nico had an idea, and one crazy member of our crew, Stephanie, was just crazy enough to try it. In a matter of minutes, she was strapped into a harness and being hoisted up to the top of the mast for a better view. She took a GoPro camera with her to capture what the rest of us were just fine seeing via video screen.
After we debated whether to let her come down, Captain Nico fired up the dingy and gracefully deposited on the beach. That is, all of us but Stacie who decided to swim ashore. She made the swim without incident, but as she stood to signal to us from between two large boulders, she took a direct hit by a rogue wave that scraped her back and legs. Never fear, Captain Nico was back with first aid supplies in a jiffy. We spent our last beach day amongst the partially clothed and soaked up every bit of sun we could, hoping to take it back with us.
I can’t believe I have failed to mention Captain Nico’s other rescues. This was not his first rescue of the week. He rescued a kite boarder at Pinel Island; a couple of Hobie cat sailors off Orient Beach and a fly-a-way pair of board shorts while underway. In addition, he also caught a Bonito off the stern. While unhooking the fish, he was able to toss out a hand line and nearly catch a Mahi simultaneously. In a flurry of activity, he then shouted instructions to Michael at the helm to avoid a set of lobster trap markers, replaced the line in the original reel and prepared the fish for lunch. With a texture and taste similar to tuna, the Bonito was served ceviche-style with lemon juice and pepper and we enjoyed the fresh fish a half-an-hour later at lunch. I’m not sure how one prepares to be a charter captain, but it must be akin to the training for the Hunger Games.
We met up with some of Captain Nico’s friends at Calmos Café in Grand Case for our final French meal. Chris somehow ended up behind the bar and, as usual, made friends with everyone before the rest of us were done shopping. A dog that we had named Mooch was once again at our feet under the table. He was a mutt with probably some retriever, shepherd and beagle lineage. He was just a standard beach dog and he stole our hearts. We thought for sure Stacie was going to bring him home as a souvenir. He wasn’t malnourished and seemed to be happy. Maybe he didn’t need rescuing. He might just have been living the dream.
The inevitable had arrived and it was time to pack up our smelly, soured laundry and let Captain Nico recuperate from our vacation. I think we aged him in advance of his birthday. He took us up the winding, river-like entrance to Anse Marcel Marina and we said our goodbyes with tear-filled eyes. That is the beauty of a trip like this. How many people visit a resort and in 5 years, they will have trouble recalling where they were and what they did without pictures to jar their memories. Chartering is an adventure. Eight people living in close quarters on a 47-foot sailboat allows you to really know each other and experience the places you visit in an entirely different way.
After arriving as instructed at the airport 3 hours prior to departure, we were checked in and had 2:50 left to wait for our flight. Now free of luggage, we caught a cab to the Sunset Beach Bar at the end of the runway. This is the famous spot with the signs warning of injury and death from low-flying planes. The marquee listed incoming and outgoing flights and we saw Michael’s eyes light up. The once a week, Air France 747 would be arriving in 45 minutes. Our precious waitress rushed our food and drinks to us allowing us to be in perfect position for the main event. A speck in the sky grew larger as the shape of the 747 materialized. With flaps down ready to reverse thrust, it roared just 40 feet overhead and slammed on the brakes as the crowd screamed and cheered.
Once in a lifetime events should sometimes be just that. I’m not sure I’d tempt fate again and stand beneath a 747. But I do know that given the chance, I’d repeat every minute of our trip with Captain Nico aboard the Mojito. And speaking on behalf of the No Shoes Nation Vacation Crew, if we’re lucky, we may do just that.