Trip Report – SXM February 2021
This is going to be my first (ever) trip report – returning the favor for all those who have done so before me. I tend to get a bit verbose – my apologies in advance. All statements within this report are my Own Opinions – legal disclaimer. You may agree or disagree with some of my statements. If you do, let us not debase this report into an argument. The purpose of this is to provide my perspective – as flawed as it may be.
The wife and I elected to travel down to St. Maarten / St. Martin (SXM) for this first time in 3+ years. We had been going to either Desire or Intima Tulum for the last several years, and we were very excited to return to SXM (Orient Beach!)
We flew down on American (returned on United – as we always prefer a direct return.) This was the first time that we went through Charlotte – as we had previously gone through Miami. We elected to travel to Charlotte the night before – as weather this time of year may always become an issue. The flight was, surprisingly, packed. Mask wearing was as you would anticipate – the good, the bad and the ugly. We spent the night at the Airport Sheraton – basically a Courtyard plus.
We had no issue submitting our COVID tests results to the EHAS. Ours were about 90 hours old, and they were accepted. We received the EHAS approval within 4 hours of submitting the web form, documentation and the useless $30 for COVID Insurance.
The check-in agent only asked if we had our approval – we had printed out several copies just in case. Check-in was easy. TSA was a bit backed up (15 minute slog.) We were surprised how busy the Charlotte airport was. We went to the Admiral’s club for a light breakfast and to kill time before boarding. We spent a fair amount of time eating and drinking while in the club. Social distancing was enforced within the club as well as possible.
Our boarding pass needed to be “Stamped” by the gate agent. She reviewed our paperwork – not very closely. I believe she focused primarily on the EHAS Approval and the date/time stamp of the testing. The entire review took less than a minute.
While mask wearing was rigorously encouraged (to the point of being obnoxious,) and enforced as well as possible; social distancing while queued for boarding and while boarding was an imaginary concept. Fortunately, for various reasons, we are neutral about the mask wearing and social distancing. We were flying in what American (and later United) refer to as “Business” class, which allowed us to board at the head of the pack. The plane down was about 20-30% of capacity – Business class was full. All the airlines, as this was our 10th international flight during COVID, seem to be scaling back operations to save money wherever possible. The traditional meal service was replaced with a cold sandwich and the beverage service was replaced with a need to specifically request your beverage of choice. The Flight Attendant (FA) did a very nice job of being as accommodating and apologetic for the diminished service as possible. I do not know what service was like in the back of the plane.
We arrived safely on SXM, deplaned and rode the bus over to Customs/Immigration. Again, social distancing was not enforced during the deplaning or transportation process. As the plane was virtually empty, the entire Customs / Immigration process took all of 20 minutes.
Here is the process – at a high level. Hand sanitizer before entering what must have been the garage of the airport at one time. Queue up to wait for a COVID form review. COVID documentation is presented and reviewed (a very quick look, I may add.) Green stamp is applied. Directed to Immigration where passports and COVID documentation is again reviewed (no comment.) Passport is stamped. You may have noticed on your EHAS approval that there is an identification / approval number. I thought for sure that this was would be referenced / utilized somewhere in the process – nope. Our luggage was waiting for us by the time we made our way to the luggage area. Grabbed our luggage and made our way out of the building. No customs stop or questions. A duty-free store is open in baggage claim.
We utilized Mr. Wilfred Brooks for our Taxi service while on the island – more on this later. He was waiting for us with a sign just outside the baggage claim area. He did pick-us up in his 4-door sedan (rather than his larger van.) This presented itself as a bit of a challenge when it came to luggage and groceries. As requested, Mr. Brooks did take us to the SuperU (we prefer the selection of French items on the French side – one word, pate!) We shopped for the needed supplies, managed to make the groceries fit by utilizing the front passenger seat, small open spaces in the trunk and the back seat between us. It would have been nice to have been picked-up in the van. The cost for the transfer service with shopping wait was $50US.
We arrived at our unit in Orient Village, unpacked the auto, bid Mr. Brooks adieu and exhaled while sitting on the balcony with a rum and cigar – amazing how the sound of the ocean and sea breeze melts stress away!
The following two weeks (which went by amazingly – almost illegally – quickly) followed the following pattern. Up by 8AM, workout (yoga or exercise video or a run in the hills,) purchase fresh baguette and chocolate croissant, breakfast of same with pate, pack up for the beach, walk over to the Club O section of Orient Beach, claim chair and umbrellas, unpack, walk over to the Perch for a breakfast Margarita and watch the clouds and waves. We almost exclusively rented our chairs from the gentlemen with the red umbrellas next to Club O yellow umbrellas – as we found those loungers (without straps) to be more comfortable (and a little table was included with each pair of chairs.) The cost was $15US. The Yellow section was only packed 2 or 3 days out of the 14 that we were there. Most days it was at 60-75% of capacity – you may not have been able to get your chair of choice depending on what time you showed up, but you would for sure be able to get a chair. The Red/Blue section was never more than 40% occupied (always at least 3-4 umbrellas were available in the first row.) The Perch is cash only – FYI.
We both did miss all the “Cruise” passengers strolling up and down the beach gawking at the naked people – it was a bit of entertainment for us (especially as in prior years I would try to great most with a smile and a, “would you like to nude scuba with me?”)
Both Red and Yellow umbrellas started to be gathered around 4PM in the afternoon – which I thought was a bit early. We would return to our rental, unpack, shower and take a 60-90 minute nap before either venturing out to dinner or cooking in. We would end most nights on the balcony, listening to the ocean while enjoying aged rum and a cigar.
It was very windy while we were on the island (at least at Orient Beach.) Most days felt as if we were receiving a free derma abrasion. No complaints though – a bit of sand in your drink is roughage! We were very fortunate with the weather. It either rained while we slept or early in the morning. Only one day had us doing the Perch Shuffle, as I like to call it (taking refuge at the Perch while the rain passed.)
I had occasion to speak with the US Consulate representative on the island a couple of times. He shared with me that the process has begun to establish a US Customs/Immigration check-point at the airport (similar to what you might find in Canada.) This would simplify the travel back to the US.
If memory serves me correctly, we ate in five times and ate out at various restaurants nine times. The first night we ate at Le P’tit Bistro – as we know Sebastian. Always a great meal, and we were not disappointed. It is nice to be able to walk to and from Orient Village Square for dinner and shopping. We dined here twice during our stay. We do try to minimize how many times we visit the same establishment during each trip – even if we very much like the place.
We ate at the following as well – in no particular order. La Villa in Grand Case. This was nice but I probably would not return. While the food was good, it was not memorable or exceptionally a good value.
Oceans 82 in Grand Case. Another good meal but not memorable. We also found the value to be significantly lacking – this was our most expensive meal and not due to any unique extravagance on wine or entrée (as we were fairly consistent with both every time we dined out.)
We had lunch at Tropicana in Marigot harbor one afternoon. We very much enjoy that restaurant and will return again. Before I forget, our plan was to do some shopping in the open air market and have lunch. Sadly – even though it was a Friday – the open air market (as well as the harbor restaurants and stores) are a shadow of themselves. There were only two vendors on the day we visited.
La Volie Blanche for dinner one night in Orient Village was not a disappointment. Staff was very friendly, the meal was great and the value was on par. Sadly, this restaurant seems to have the least amount of business in the square. We will positively return here.
There is a new restaurant almost directly across from La Trattoria which is owned by the same group and was using the kitchen facilities of La Trattoria (we were told they were still waiting for their chef to arrive.) Based upon our experience at this restaurant the one evening we did have dinner there, we will never eat at this new place or La Trattoria (unless it comes under new ownership at some point.) While the hostess / waitress / part owner did start the evening in an attentive and friendly manner, it slowly went in the wrong direction from there. I ordered the Calamari for my starter and the Shrimp Risotto for my entrée. My wife had the Crab Cake starter for her entrée that evening (as she had a late lunch that day.) While she did find the Crab Cake palatable, it did have a slight “fishy” odor (nothing over powering, but it was noticeable.) My Calamari came out over cooked (rubbery) and the Risotto was not edible – severe “fishy” odor and salted enough to give 10 men high blood pressure. I had a small fork full and my wife had a small fork full (her palate is better than mine.) While it was glaringly obvious we did not enjoy the dish (as it looked completely untouched,) we were amazed that our waitress did not ask or make a comment. She picked up the full dish (as I had pushed it aside) and walked away without a second glance. I asked for the bill (once I saw here again.) While she did not make any comments, she must have known something was not right as she did not ask if we wanted dessert nor did she offer us any “finishing rum.” As she did not bother to ask, we did not bother to explain – allowing our review and future spending to be indicative of our displeasure.
We had dinner at Cote Plages as well. We had a very nice time, a good meal and will dine there again in the future.
We also ate twice at Astrolabe – Surf/Turf Night and Lobster Fest. We had a very nice time, a good meal and will dine there again, too. While it was a bit more pricey, we felt the value was positively there. They offer the Surf n’ Turf Monday nights and Lobster Fest Friday night along with some lovely, low-key live one man band music. A couple of folks danced.
This trip we decided to not rent a car. We utilized a taxi for all of our transportation needs. Based upon the replies to my request for a recommendation here, we contacted and employed Mr. Wilfred Brooks. He quoted us the cost as mentioned above for the airport pick-up; $20US to or from Marigot and $15US to or from Grand Case. He did not charge a premium for evening rides. The cost to the airport for departure was $35US. Mr. Brooks is/was a very nice, polite and helpful man.
The day we visited Marigot for shopping and lunch, Mr. Brooks charged us $80US for the round trip. I must take some of the blame for this as this was the only time I did not request a price quote in advance. Foolishly, I thought the quote for Marigot of $20US would apply. In the future, I will positively ensure that I have pricing negotiated before contracting for the service.
We did contact a few other Taxi services while on the island – which were recommend by locals. Mr. Brooks was/is a bit on the high side based upon our sampling of the others. For instance, we did go into Philipsburg for our Covid test and shopping. After the test, friends of ours drove us to the Court House, and we took a taxi back when we were done (when my wife was done) shopping. The Taxi vendor at the Taxi Stand charged us only $20US to return us to Orient Village – I did not attempt to negotiate.
After the testing, we did walk around Philipsburg to do some shopping. Clarification, we tried to park me at a bar while the wife did the shopping. Unfortunately, I estimate less than 40% of the shops were open (or the bars/restaurants.) I tried to park myself on the board walk to watch the waves while the wife did the shopping, but the bars open at 11AM now. I ended up walking around a bit. Fortunately, the shopping only took about an hour – with the reduced options, it goes more quickly. The prices are definitely better on the Dutch side – the store owners were very polite, helpful and not pushy. We did stop in at Juggie’s Place, the “World’s Smallest Bar,” for a drink and to buy some spices before heading back to Orient.
Speaking of COVID testing… That was an adventure. Since we were staying on the French side, we thought we would try to get our return COVID test done at the testing site by the Super U / Grand Case airport. We completed the web form (fortunately, my wife is fluent in French) and waited for an appointment confirmation. As of this posting, we still do not have a confirmation or response from them. We were told some who show up at the testing site (drive-up,) are able to get the testing done (for free.) Others have been turned away and told the testing is only for residents or those travelling to France or a French territory. Rather than risk it, we decided to test with St. Martin Laboratory Services (SLS.)
To request an appointment, one only needs to send an e-mail to - firstname.lastname@example.org – with the requested information. The e-mail address and the information that needs to be provided is clearly explained at the following link: http://www.sls.sx/index.php/covid-19/
. We e-mailed our request for a Thursday test on Wednesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon (somewhere between 12PM and 1PM,) we had a reply with confirmation. The testing site is near the hospital on the Dutch side (Hamster Dr - address is provided in the confirmation e-mail.) They do PCR testing for $75US – cash or credit-card. Testing is scheduled from 7:30AM to 8:30AM. They do insert the swab a fair distance up the right nostril – FYI.
Our friends had an 8:00AM appointment, and we had an 8:30AM appointment. We arrived a bit before 8:00AM – we should have arrived closer to 7:30AM. While an appointment time is set, it is a first come, first served system. When you arrive, you are given a number – I guess they only have so many spots per day. We were number 41, and our friends were number 39. Number 23 was being called when we picked up our numbers. When your number is called, one person from your group enters the facility through the front door with everyone’s passports. The information provided by e-mail is verified against the passports, copies of each passport are made and the $75US per person fee is collected. You then exit the building through the front door, collect your party and proceed to the rear of the building to wait to have your name called for the actual test. You enter through the rear door, have the sample taken and exit through the same door. The test results are e-mailed (it is probably wise for the person paying to know everyone’s e-mail address) when completed. We were done by 10AM (yep, 2 hours,) and had the test results in our inboxes by 3PM that same afternoon.
The airport continues to be a mere shell of itself. Fortunately, there is a bar in the departure waiting area – as well as limited shopping and a small food court. The airport was very quiet as it appeared most of the planes departing were filled to about 30% capacity (from what we observed in the departure area.) This made check-in, security and departure customs a breeze. Even though our COVID test was pre-approved, we did have to complete and sign the CDC Attestation. We did not have to show our COVID results again. I had the CDC form already completed and signed before leaving for SXM. If you do not have one, no worries, the nice check-in agent will provide one for you. We arrived a little more than 2 hours before departure. We could have easily arrived 90 or even 60 minutes before departure.
We walked to our plane rather than taking the bus this time. Boarding was done quickly given the very empty plane. We departed about 20 minutes early as a result. While the Flight Attendants were as friendly as those on AA, we will most likely not be taking United to / from SXM in the near future. I along with the 5 others sitting in Business class managed to drink them out of everything but Vodka and Jack Daniels before we even saw the mainland through the windows (about 2.5 hours in.) Moreover, the “Snack” served in the front of the bus was not a sandwich like it was on AA. We were given the option of one of two “Snack Boxes” – salami and chees or hummus and crackers. Why did I pay so much for these tickets? WTF!? I am looking forward to the e-mail asking me to review my flight.
We are Global Entry which made the return to the US easy. Even if we were not, the lines were very short – very. Amazingly, since we had a very long walk from the plane, our luggage was already circling by the time we made it to the luggage area. Since we are Global Entry, I can not speak to having to show the COVID test on entry to the US ( as we did not interact with any humans during the immigration process.)
We had a great trip and can not wait to return to the island again next year – we would have planned to be back in the summer, but our COVID cancelled European trip from last year is now being planned for later this summer.
As we are not COVID sensitive, the casual attitude toward mask wearing and social distancing on the French side of the island was not an issue for us. We also do not mind all the smoking. Masks were required in all the stores. While all employees had a mask of some form on, there was a spectrum of how successfully the mask was being work. If you are more COVID sensitive than most and have not had the vaccine, you may wish to think twice before visiting the French side. We can not speak to how things are on the Dutch side as we spent less than 6 hours overall on the Dutch side while visiting the island.
We had a great trip overall. Completely enjoyed our time and can not wait to return again next year (hopefully the 2021 hurricane season will again spare the island.) Since two weeks went so quickly, we are planning for at least 3 weeks next year. If you have any specific questions, please ping me directly. I will try to reply to any questions posted here as well.