The Gallic Charms of St. Martin.

Author:ROTHENBERG, SHEILA
 
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The French side of this lovely tropical island is a wonderful blend of blissful relaxation and peerless restaurants that make it "the dining room of the Caribbean."

IF AN ISLAND could be accused of having a split personality, St. Martin in the French Caribbean answers to the charge. Half Dutch (Sint Maarten) and half French (St. Martin), the two parts of the island coexist harmoniously, with no immigration or customs officials complicating travel between them. They are clearly fraternal, rather than identical twins, with two distinct personalities: Sint Maarten is a bustling amalgam of luxury hotels, gambling casinos, golfing, and cruise ship commerce. St. Martin, on the other hand, is laid back, refreshingly relaxing, and proudly bears the appellation of "the dining room of the Caribbean." With no disrespect to the Dutch side (perhaps we'll visit Sint Maarten another day), we chose to restrict our vacation to the French side, the promise of tranquility and gourmet dining proving an irresistible lure.

On a glorious day in mid September that belied the annual concerns of hurricane season--a threat we have managed to ignore and avoid in our many years of traveling to the Caribbean, taking advantage of off-season bargains--we deplaned at Princess Juliana International Airport, our sole contact with the Dutch side of the island. Awaiting us was Peter, the van driver for Luxury Villa Rentals, the company we had booked our accommodations through. A font of information for tourists, Peter filled us in on local sights and history during the 20-minute ride.

Leaving the highway for a private road dotted with gated properties, we soon found ourselves before the imposing double doors of Bleu Marine, the villa that was to be our nest for the week to come. (Over the years, we have come to value the privacy and comfort of villa living over the more frenetic hotel experience. Bleu Marine, though, exceeded all our expectations.) Peter pressed a button on the remote control and the doors swung open, allowing us to motor up the driveway, past a helicopter pad--the first indication of exactly how truly special Bleu Marine is--and into a splendid courtyard surrounded by tropical trees and lush, colorful plantings. We were welcomed by Sylvie, the on-site concierge, who dramatically threw open the intricately carved front doors.

The scene before us was absolutely breathtaking. Instead of a single villa, we were confronted by what seemed to be several different houses. To the right, a bubbling fountain musically splashed over painted blue tiles. To our left, an immense open kitchen and a series of huge rooms stretched away from us. Straight ahead, a sweeping stone staircase led to a multilevel vista of a 25-foot horizon pool spilling over a free-fall rocky drop into a 70-foot pool below. Raising our slightly stunned eyes from this awesome display, we could view the magnificent azure curve of the sea and sky forming a picturesque background. It was paradise, and we immediately fell in love with Bleu Marine.

It had been arranged with Luxury Villa Rentals for us to be lodged in a one-bedroom property. Instead, the agents had bumped us up to a super-luxurious, five-bedroom, $3,500,000-plus villa, taking advantage of the less-demanding off-season to unlimber the big guns and show us what the word "luxury" in their name really means. Perusing the villa's guest book later, we found that the first visitors upon its opening a little over two years earlier had been the ultra-privacy conscious Yoko Ono, the rock musician/artist widow of Beatle John Lennon, and her entourage. A subsequent guest had been Academy Award-winning actor Denzell Washington, though most of the exuberantly praise-filled remarks in the book came from extended families or groups of friends or business associates who found the sprawling property as spectacular as we did.

With five distinct suites occupying both sides of the patio, two on the main level and three off the bottom pool deck, we virtually could have moved from one to the other each day, but Sylvie's intuition proved correct. She had set aside the main-level suite just a few steps from the kitchen, den, living room, dining terrace, and billiard room. The balcony overlooked the entire vista of pools and sea, and a short flight of stairs led down to an exercise room with weight-lifting equipment, a stationary bike, steam/shower with benches at various levels, and even a ping-pong table.

The upper pool proved to have Jacuzzi jets, while the larger lower pool was an aquatic playground. Against its rocky back wall, water from the upper pool cascaded down. Ducking under the resultant waterfall proved an ideal way to cool off when the sun became too much. In the center was a free-form jet fountain spewing plumes of water into the air, while to the right was a small island with a trio of palm trees. An underwater ledge for sitting ran around it, ideal for relaxing with cool drinks that could be brought over to the island via a wooden bridge from the patio. The bridge provided still another shelter from the sun, as one could hunker under it in the shade like a troll. A half-dozen adjustable wooden lounges sat on the apron, which was cleverly designed so that, instead of a rim around the pool, the concrete sloped down into the water, allowing you to walk in as if you were on a beach.

Having inspected the outdoor attractions of Bleu Marine, we went back up the stone staircase to our suite, which hardly suffered in comparison. Like every room in the house, we were to discover, the suite was positioned to face the vista of the sea. Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass doors on two sides ushered nature's panorama into our airy chamber. The giant room easily accommodated a soft white sofa, coffee table, pier mirror, and an armoire with TV and VCR, mini-refrigerator, and wine rack. A pair of night tables flanked the room's focal point--a king-sized four-poster bed draped in gauzy white fabric. The adjoining dressing room provided more than ample drawer and closet space for our clothes and luggage.

The bathroom was luxury personified. At least 20 feet in length, it was a symphony of blue, yellow, coral, and white marble and tile, whose colors were echoed throughout the room in the plushly sybaritic towels piled on shelves, counters, and an antique bench. A circular shower garden occupied one end against a 10-foot-wide solid glass wall, with privacy provided by the shrubbery within and without, or, if one was shy, a curtain could be drawn. The opposite end had a separate water closet with a toilet and bidet. Spanning the wall between the two areas were double sinks and a dressing table. Every surface supported bowls with plants, exotic soaps, shampoos, and other amenities. Not neglecting the modern, a built-in hairdryer abutted a well-lit mirror ideal for putting on makeup.

We quickly unpacked, shed our traveling clothes for bathing suits and sandals, and headed for the kitchen and lunch. The refrigerator had been stocked with what Luxury Villa Rentals modestly called "the basics." It turned out to be fairly stuffed with eggs, bread, milk, beer, soda, butter, and bottled water, while various cabinets held condiments and an assortment of sauces obviously left by previous guests. A fresh, crisp baguette in a woven basket was the ideal accompaniment to a hastily prepared repast of scrambled eggs.

Even though we did not plan to do any major cooking in it, the Bleu Marine kitchen is definitely a room that deserves more than passing mention. Large enough for a small restaurant, it boasted every appliance one could possibly want for food preparation. A professional six-burner gas range set into a brick alcove faced a central island with an electric cooktop. The myriad drawers and closets were well-stocked, and we quickly found silver, china, glassware, serving trays, and a wide assortment of linens that evoked memories of Provence. The kitchen was obviously designed to handle entertaining for large crowds of people, and the two of us felt dwarfed by its magnificence as we pondered whether to eat at the counter, a small table on the patio, the large table in the den, or the even larger one in the formal dining room. Ah, decisions, decisions.

With perfect timing, the intercom announced...

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