Turquoise water, pristine white sand beach, the sound of the waves soft to my ears, a mouthwatering plate in front of me, I am in heaven!
So cliché you might say but this is why I came to Grand Case in St. Maarten, the food capital of the Caribbean, where tropical beauty meets Gallic flair. Nowhere else on the Friendly Island or on the neighboring islands will you find such a concentration of the finest restaurants, all on one street overlooking the Caribbean Sea. All the activity of the village takes place on the Boulevard de Grand-Case that runs along the gorgeous beach, lined with charming old Creole houses. We were in for a culinary journey, discovering with each restaurant and lolos, the local name for the traditional little restaurants, the island’s gastronomy marrying gourmet French cuisine with local creole tradition.
From a Small Fishing Village to the Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean
More than 5,000 years ago, the Ciboney Indians, then the Arawaks tribe from Venezuela, settled at Hope Estate, a hill overlooking the plain of Grand Case in Saint Martin. In 1493, Christopher Columbus named the island without even setting foot there. Pirates took over the place before Dutch and French colonists came to settle around 1627. In 1638, the Kingdom of Spain regained sovereignty of the island and evicted the early settlers. After 10 years of occupation, the Spanish garrison, decimated by famine and viruses, abandoned the island back to the hands of the Dutch and French settlers who had been living in hiding on the other side of the island during all this time. In 1648, both nations signed the Treaty of Partition on the Mount of Agreements or Concordia, dividing the island into two territories. Saint Martin or Sint Maarten changed nationality 18 times in the following centuries due to many European wars.
Grand Case began its life as a small fishing village, built on a sandy strip of land separating the bay from a large salt pond, facing the island of Anguilla. The sugar industry developed in the mid-18th century but the abolition of slavery in the English and then French islands put a stop to it. The development of the collection of salt during the second half of the 18th century transformed Grand Case into a town. When the wharf was built by Jacques Deldevert in 1956, Grand Case stepped into the world of commerce with boats coming all the way from Guadeloupe with fresh fruits and vegetables. Cattle and salt were exported to the surrounding islands. From 1970, the economy started moving towards tourism.
Today, the village offers a journey through time as you can spot many beautifully preserved buildings due to the dedication of the restaurant and boutique owners on the Boulevard de Grand Case. These houses are typical examples of the traditional West Indian architecture, with a lower floor constructed of concrete, while the upper floor was built with wood, with windows covered with wooden hurricane shutters. Some feature balconies decorated with friezes and external staircases. Painted in vibrant colors, these quaint houses were named Case or Grande Case for the larger ones.
Every Tuesday night, it’s Mardis de Grand Case – local bands get everyone into a good mood while the shops and artists take on the streets with a giant market. A mini carnaval parade is the perfect final touch to a fun evening!
The Most Delicious Street in the Caribbean
Grand Case Boulevard stretches along the gorgeous sandy beach off Grand Case bay. The colorful wooden huts add a creole charm to this authentic village. If you love good food, it will be hard to choose from among the many ti-lolos and gourmet restaurants that line the street.
I am not sure if this is the Julia Child’s effect or because we are so close to the US and Canada but onion soup and escargots are on every French restaurant menu in Grand Case. Not very local but so Français!
We could not try every restaurant on the street so here are the ones we tested to whet your appetite.
Taking your breakfast on the terrace of the Rainbow Café (176 Boulevard de Grand Case) is something you need to do while staying in Grand Case. You can also have a simple yet delicious lunch or enjoy an evening cocktail right on the beach on one of their red lounge chairs. The beach is right there for a romantic stroll after diner.
Another low-key café, the Calmos Café (C’est La Vie. 40 Boulevard de Grand-Case) is located within a colorful creole house right on the beach. Great food, fantastic cocktails, and fun parties on Thursday and Sunday evenings; they even have a cool clothing shop with their own logo.
For a taste of a true Lolo, try the Talk of the Town (located just before the Calmos Café overlooking the beach). During the day it is laid back and quiet but it comes to life during the Mardis Grand Case and at night. This is BBQ style cuisine with a true creole flair. From ribs, buccaneer chicken, super fresh fish or grilled lobster to accras or Johnny cake, gumbos, corn on the cob, there is something on the menu to please everyone. It’s delicious and so cheap!
The first gourmet restaurant we tried was the restaurant of our lovely boutique hotel, Le Temps des Cerises (158 Boulevard de Grand-Case). Opened in December 2015, located right on the beach, with a fabulous secluded patio, the cuisine is very mediteranean. The home made harrissa, a fiery tunisian red paste, is just fabulous. The menu changes depending on the catch of the day. The decor is a mix of beach house and recup style. The staff is very friendly. A delicious and beautiful addition to the Grand Case food scene.
Le Tastevin (86 Boulevard de Grand-Case) located in one of the oldest houses in the heart of the Gourmet strip has been totally revamped. The view on the beach is spectacular from the open terrace. Chef Michel hails from Toulouse, the Pink city in south-west France and uses only the freshest produce in his elegant creations. The scallops carpaccio with grapefruit and hazelnut oil was so delicate and refreshing: the roasted snapper steak with grilled eggplant, parmesan, and lemon cream just perfect. I finished with a roasted pineapple and rum crunchy pastry with a vanilla ice cream and orange sauce. Fabulous! The complimentary shot of rhum arrangé at the end of the meal is a nice local touch.
We made our way to La Petite Table (139 Boulevard de Grand-Case) quite by chance during Mardi Grand Case. The street was buzzing with live music and tourists searching for a place to eat. The tiny restaurant was a little bit off the beaten track and not full for our soon to discover pleasure. Newly opened (december 2015), a cozy interior, a very professional and friendly waiting staff, a young but very talented and creative French chef, a clever wine cellar make for a fantastic success recipe. The lobster bisque served over a crab ravioli was a pure delight. The lobster medaillons with rice and cabbage sushi were so inventive and delicate. The pistachio floating island so heavenly. This small restaurant in a white old case is a pure gem and definitely one of our favorite picks on the island.
Our last dinner on the island was flamboyant. It is no wonder that Chef Franck Mear was named the best chef of the Caribbean. His restaurant Le Pressoir (30 Boulevard de Grand Case) is one of the most photographed places in Grand Case. Located right across the ancient salt press and named after it, it is one of the oldest houses and probably one of the most colorful ones with a beautiful and intricately restored Creole façade. You come here for fine French cuisine, impeccable service, and a unique atmosphere. The lobster and crayfish raviolis with a tropical flair were outstanding: the grilled wild grouper with a sweet pepper-ginger and basil vinaigrette — just perfection. It is truly a top class restaurant, pricey but the Chef serves food that make you whimper with delight.
Pack your bags
Located in the northeastern Lesser Antilles, the island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is binational, one French side and one Dutch. Although French and Dutch are the official languages on the respective sides, English is spoken everywhere. If you wish you can also try the local creole! The Euro (EUR) is accepted on the French side but US Dollars (USD) are widely accepted. Be careful though as the EUR/USD exchange rate is volatile. Saint Martin has only two seasons due to its tropical maritime climate. From December through May, Carême is the dryer season with lower temperatures. It’s the best time to visit. During hivernage, from June through November, temperatures get higher with frequent tropical showers and little wind but the prices go down. The time difference with mainland France is five hours in winter and six in summer. From the east coast of the USA, Saint Martin is one hour ahead in winter. In summer, there is no time difference.
The friendly island is served by more than twenty US, Canadian, European, South American, and Caribbean-based carriers. International flights arrive at Juliana airport on the Dutch side. Local flights get off at the Espérance airport in Grand Case on the French part. Many boat companies stop in Saint Martin. The ferry is a great way to travel between Sint Maarten and neighboring islands. Once on the island, taxis are easy to book from a hotel or restaurant. You can also go local by taking the bus. Renting a car is also a fun way to go around the island at your own pace.
What to See
History, culture, and nature are all part of the beauty of the island. The history buffs will be satisfied as the island offers many historical vestiges and museums to learn about the many past influences. The old Fort Louis in Marigot, the French side capital or the former courthouse in Philipsburg, the capital city of the Dutch side, are two fine examples. As for nature lovers, cycling, horse back riding, hiking, kayaking, stand-up paddle, jet ski or scuba diving are some fun ways to discover and enjoy the natural beauties of Saint Martin. Or you can just relax on one of the 37 beaches around the Friendly Island.
The St-Martin tourism board web site will help you find accomodations, activities, and many more to make your trip to Saint Martin/Sint Maarten memorable.