There can’t be many places in the world where you can sunbathe on a beach, drink a cold beer and watch a giant Air France A340 take off roaring just feet over your head. Sure, there are signs saying “danger of death” on the fence separating the road from the landing strip, but it doesn’t stop people standing there gazing up in awe. It’s not unusual for fully-grown adults to be thrown into the sea by the sheer force of the engines – just look on You Tube.
Half French, half Dutch, the 13-square-mile Caribbean island of Saint Martin (Sint Maarten in Dutch) is not particularly picturesque, there aren’t any cultural sights and the bars are outrageously tacky – at Maho Beach’s Sunset Bar and Grill, topless women drink for free. (Who cares about feminism when you can enjoy endless servings of Runway Rum Punch?)
But for a self-confessed “av geek” like me, the plane-spotting opportunities are all that matters. (Keep an eye out for superyachts, too – I spotted Roman Abramovich’s Eclipse moored offshore.)
Princess Juliana airport (SXM) was named after the princess of the Netherlands, who touched down in 1944, a year after it opened. From the US mainland, you can get here via Miami with American Airlines. Make sure you get a window seat. Onward connections from SXM can also be made to islands such as St. Barths with local carrier Winair, Antigua with Liat, or Curaçao with Insel Air.
While the all-inclusive Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino offers a prime position for observing low approaches, the classiest hotel is the five-star Belmond La Samanna, just over the border on the French side (the island is actually two countries). Set among cliff-top gardens, sand-dusted steps lead down to the pristine curve of Baie Longue. Take a paddleboard out on the water, or retreat to the peace of a lounger farther along the shore.
Swapping city life for sun-kissed downtime, it can be hard to adapt to doing nothing. The temptation to answer e-mails is always there (there is free WiFi everywhere) but it’s a first-world problem that has to be overcome. After turning my phone off, I take a seat in the shade of my veranda and get out my book.
While entry-level Deluxe Ocean View rooms are sumptuous in themselves, some suites have their own plunge pools and roof decks with hot tubs. In the evening, I order up the catch of the day at open-air Trellis restaurant, which offers panoramic sea views.
For a change of scene, take a speedboat from the dock near the airport to Anguilla, 20 minutes away (gbferries.com, $65 but you can haggle). Established as an independent British overseas territory in 1980, this 35-square-mile island is one of the flattest in the Caribbean, at just over 200 feet above sea level at its highest point. The coral atoll was first colonized by the British in the 17th century, and, although US dollars are the go-to currency (along with Eastern Caribbean dollars), many residents still hold UK passports. A steady stream of Anguillans have even emigrated to the UK, setting up in industrial towns such as Slough, of all places.
Much of this tranquil island is covered in scrubby bushes interspersed with colorful churches. Its capital, the Valley, is little more than a sleepy village with chickens and goats running around, while the primary tourist attraction is the quaint Heritage Collection Museum. Curated by local historian Colville Petty OBE, it displays everything from slave shackles to traditional cooking implements.
Anguilla was originally settled by the Arawak, an indigenous South American tribe. The name they gave to the island was Malliouhana.Adopting this moniker for itself, chic boutique hotel the Malliouhana opened at the far end of Meads Bay in 1984. It was later taken over by Auberge Resorts and, in 2014, was given a multimillion-dollar facelift to compete with celebrity favorite the Viceroy at the other end of the mile-long beach. Its Moorish-inspired villas are discreetly placed among palms, tropical foliage and neatly trimmed lawns, while the 44 spacious bedrooms have been freshened by white furniture and shades of pale mint.
Called the culinary capital of the Caribbean (and “the most friendly”island), there’s good eating to be had on Anguilla—at Malliouhana’s, a formal restaurant, I savor a superb white gazpacho and deliciously rich mahi fish pasta with tomato, olives, garlic and capers. One of my favorite joints is Blanchards Beach Shack, a 10-minute walk away, where tables are laid out on the sand and trees are strung with lights at night. Frozen daiquiris and wholesome fast-food are ordered from a hatch – try the “Big Bowl” of rice, beans, corn salsa, cheese, sour cream and jerk chicken.
Next door is Blanchards restaurant (blanchardsrestaurant.com), which specializes in lobster bisque, jerk shrimp and grilled crayfish. Trace a line of footprints along the surf in the moonlight and you will come to the Straw Hat (strawhat.com) – order up some red snapper crudo or shrimp tacos, and listen to the rhythmic crashing of the waves.
In February, Shoal Bay East saw the arrival of the 63-room Zemi Beach House (zemibeach.com). Among its five drinking and dining hotspots is the Rhum Room, with more than 100 small batch, single-estate rums. My days, however, are happily spent at the Malliouhana, where not only are there cabanas and two infinity pools but a secret beach.
It can be a wrench to leave a resort like this, but a trip to Sandy Island (mysandyisland.com) is unforgettable. The tiny sandbar is accessed from Anguilla’s Sandy Ground harbor. After boarding the Happiness motor launch ($10), I’m soon marooned with nothing but a frozen pina colada for company.
Once the sky deepens to deep orange and navy, the boat returns me to shore. Following the sound of music, I head to the Pumphouse, where a reggae band plays Adele covers. The hours go by drinking and dancing until sometime after midnight, I stroll across the empty street to Elvis beach bar. Here I find a few lingering punters swigging bottles of Carib and singing along to John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Take me home? I never want to leave…
By Jenny Southan