Don't you love travel serendipity? By that I mean, don't you love stumbling across a fabulous find? Sure, I read travel guidebooks, fellow travel blogs, magazine articles, and loads of free travel brochures when I'm planning a tropical island getaway, but nothing compares to a spontaneous discovery. So, Zickie, our littlest Island Runaways member, and I are exploring the Caribbean paradise of St. Maarten/St. Martin this week, and trying to see as many of the 30+ beaches this half-French/half-Dutch island offers. On today's schedule? Orient Bay, a.k.a., Baie Orient (since it's in "la partie française").
(Orient Bay, St. Martin. Photo by Island Runaways.)
We've rented a little Kia Picanto hatchback and are gradually learning our way around the roads. (For North Americans, by the way, the driving will feel familiar since they drive on the right here.) I have read that Orient Bay is the largest, prettiest beach on St. Martin, which seems like an extravagant claim since the beaches we've already seen are simply spectacular. At any rate, we're driving along, staring hard for signs; some of the beaches are well signed, some...not so much. But then ta-daaa! We spot a bold placard announcing "Orient Bay" and "Palm Beach SXM Bar." Turn left, Jeeves! (O.K., there's no chauffeur, so Zickie turns left.)
(Palm Beach bar, Baie Orient, St. Martin. Photo by Island Runaways.)
Our one concern? That this may be the entrance just to the beach bar, not the public entrance to the entire Orient Bay itself. As we're learning on St. Maarten/St. Martin, people tend to rent chairs with umbrellas at beach bars/restaurants and hang out. It's just the thing to do, and it's a pretty comfortable thing to do. However, you want to pay attention to which spot you choose, because once you've shelled out your hard-earned euros or dollars or pesos for a set-up, well, there you are. We unload our beach bags and stroll out onto the Palm Beach complex. A nice wooden deck, check. Attractive lounge chairs, check. Mellow -- not crazy blasting -- tunes? Yep, they've got that. So I ask the man in French how much for three chairs. (Everyone at Palm Beach speaks great English, we discover. Everyone.) It's 30 euros for 3 chairs plus umbrella, which appears a bit steep, BUT if you eat lunch there, the price of the chairs is: free.
How can we argue? The view is impeccable. No one asks us for cash; they open a tab. Highly civilized, that's what I'm thinking. Very relaxing, subtle music plays in the background. Incredibly gorgeous turquoise waves roll onshore. I've been to many a beach, but I'm beginning to think there is something to this Orient Bay, something special.
(See the Island Runaways t-shirt? Photo by Island Runaways.)
The three of us loll on our chaises. We order drinks. We swim. We read a chapter or two from our novels. Finally, it's time for lunch. We grab our wallets and cameras, leave our towels and beach toys, and head over to the Palm Beach restaurant. Our server's name is Alizé (translation into the English: the tradewind) and she is a perfect mixture of professionalism and friendliness. Do they have a children's menu? Yes. Do they serve seafood? Yes. Salads? Sure. Burgers? Yes. But this isn't any old beach cooking. The cuisine has some finesse. Since we've been having some heavy meals, Zickie and I order two salads to share (salads with prosciutto, burata cheese, and other yummy ingredients). Two glasses of rosé? No problem, mon. Our take? Delicious. We are beginning to seriously unwind. I think I'm falling in love with Palm Beach bar.
(Salade italienne, St. Martin style. Photo by Island Runaways.)
After lunch, we return to our chairs where we'd left our beach towels and chill out for a while. Then swim some more. At some point, the guilt of not exercising for days AND my curiosity about the rest of Orient Bay get the best of me. I'm off! Hot footing it down the beach in my best race-walk mode. The beach remains beautiful, yes. But as I realize quickly, the other beach bars are a bit different. People are crowded in, their chairs sometimes about one foot away from total strangers. Now, for some of you that's no problem, but for me, a bit of a claustrophobe, it looks a bit like little sardines packed into a tin! (Forgive me, fellow island-lovers, if this is your scene. If so, excellent and more power to you. For the record, folks all looked like they were having a great time.)
At the far end of the beach I find a little rock outcropping, and lots of nude men! Aha! The famous "naturist" beach section we've heard about. I turn around, pronto, glad to leave the gentlemen to "hang loose" by themselves. On the way back to our spot, I pass families and friends making sandcastles, drinking beers, strolling, and swimming. But I still can't get over how closely packed the rental beach chairs are, or how thronged the beach seems.
(Whew! Back at Palm Beach bar, St. Martin. Photo by Island Runaways.)
Back at Palm Beach bar? Serenity reigns. The furnishings, the staff, the bar, the music, the space, all conspire to make you feel...cool. Relaxed. Happy. Even our fellow guests seem to be a delightful mix of visitors: people from cruise ships, French couples, other Americans staying on-island. My thought is that we all feel rather pleased with ourselves for being smart -- or actually just lucky -- enough to be hanging out here. In fact, the three Island Runaways wind up staying far longer than we plan because the setting gives off such good vibes.
(Island getaways should look like this. Photo by Island Runaways.)
So, in our not-so-humble Island Runaways opinion, if you value stunning sea views; relaxation; seamless, warm service; a chic setting; and tasty, above-average island eats? Then the best place to enjoy the gorgeous island beauty of Orient Bay is definitely Palm Beach!