A Caribbean water-ski haven lures us for a one-of-a-kind off-season getaway
I was in need of serious medication. I had already counted to 10 as slowly as humanly possible, and even tried to recall some of the happier moments in my previous travel experiences. But I guess the Corsican blood in me boils quickly. Thrifty Rent-a-Car wasn't exactly on their A-game. We were already well into hour three of a water-ski holiday in St. Maarten/St. Martin, but we still hadn't moved an inch off the Juliana International Airport property. I wondered if we'd ever get our wheels. It didn't look good — the service guys at the counter hardly even acknowledged my existence. Before things got ugly, my travel mates calmly alerted me to the simple fact that there wasn't a single thing I could do to remedy our problem … except chill. It took me a while to finally simmer down and relax, but duh, that's what you're supposed to do when you're on island time.
Moments after my near meltdown, our vehicle was ready to hit the highway. The feeling was surreal. It was like being handed the keys to a stunning white stretch limo with dark-tinted windows and shiny chrome wheels. I guess waiting that long for a rental car can play tricks on your mind. Our ride for the week was actually a bitchin' late '90s, 12-seater, white Ford van. Can you say sweet!?
I had finally found island time … and island time felt really good. It was early December '06. The competitive water-ski season was well over, and there wasn't a better way to finish off the year than skiing with a few friends in a tropical paradise. Jamie Beauchesne, Chris Parrish and Chris Rossi had never traveled to any of the islands in the Caribbean either, so skiing in St. Martin would be a unique experience for everyone.
St. Maarten/St. Martin is unique in itself. The 37-square-mile island is the smallest land mass in the world governed by two nations. There's no border check between Dutch Sint Maarten to the south and French Saint Martin to the north, although you'll certainly recognize the differences between the two. The Dutch side of the island captures that crazy, footloose party animal inside you that likes to gamble, booze it up and live the rock-star lifestyle. The French, on the other hand, have mastered the art of the putting-on-the-Ritz tropical lifestyle. If fine wine, world-class dining and boutique shopping sound enticing, the pampered life on the French side awaits you. In my opinion, both sides of the island offer something for everyone. It's a travel destination to which you can bring the entire family and not get called out for being a selfish schmuck booking a vacation that revolves solely around skiing.
The island's active lifestyle is what attracted Ski Nautique Club Caraibes owners Brigitte Lethem and her husband, Laurent Guy. The newlywed couple is living the life they've always dreamed of — sharing their passion for water skiing with guests and friends who visit their ski school. The French couple first met in 2000 in the United States of all places, at the Swiss Ski School, where their mutual love for skiing quickly took a turn toward love for one another. “I was a coach there and Brigitte came to the school for training,” said Laurent. Brigitte, the soft-spoken, world-class tricker and former Masters champion, was always on the lookout for a warmer climate than her home training site in Lyon, France, to ramp up the competitive season. So when the couple heard about how perfect the small arm of the Simpson Bay Lagoon in St. Maarten/St. Martin was for skiing, they had to check it out for themselves. “After the Worlds in 2003,” Brigitte explained to me over dinner at the world-famous Mario's Bistro restaurant, “we decided to come here for holidays to see the island. We ended up staying two weeks. We loved the place, so we decided to open a ski school here.”
The Simpson Bay Lagoon, which dominates the southwest portion of the island, is one of the Caribbean's largest landlocked bodies of water. Our crew had quite the view of the lagoon from the observation point on Cole Bay Hill just west of Phillipsburg, the capital of St. Maarten on one of our island day tours. From this elevated perspective, we enjoyed an amazing gander at the lagoon's perimeter, filled with thousands of palms and rich vegetation. Off in the far distance, we spotted neighboring islands like Anguilla, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and Nevis.
But I think the most visibly appealing scene for the skiers who visit the island occurs when you idle through the mouth of the small arm of the lagoon in one of Brigitte and Laurent's Ski Nautiques. There you'll find six buoys made in heaven, which will delight skiers of all abilities. The course is set up perfectly for the prevailing trade wind, which happened to be fairly strong the week we were there, but the course was always very skiable. The lagoon is salt water, but don't fret; it feels much like any other place I've skied … maybe just a hint faster.
Anytime you trade sets with the best skiers in the world, it's not only going to open your eyes about what can physically be done on a slalom ski, but it's going to be a learning experience. Beauchense's on-the-water talent still mystifies me every time I watch this “live free or die” New Hampshirite carve turns. After only a couple sets in the warm salt water of the lagoon, Jamie already had several blood-packed blisters swelling in each hand, but his relentless effort to regain his world-class form kept him skiing hard. It's nice that the water temp is near 80 degrees year-round, but it can certainly wreak havoc on your paws.
It's always an interesting group dynamic, skiing with the guys. Everyone brings something to the table. Rossi's golden the way he helps skiers who crave knowledge about how to perform better. He has an uncanny ability to relate movements on the water to “feel,” which students can easily grasp, rather than a “have your hips here, shoulders there” approach. After our morning sets and a fulfilling breakfast buffet at the Mercure Simson Beach Hotel, most of us would feel completely beat and retire to our rooms for a short siesta. Rossi, on the other hand, would be the first one to volunteer his coaching expertise and get back in the boat to help a fellow skier with their technique. But even more important, his skiing skills match his coaching skills. Rossi flows on the water like he's skiing to music.
And then there's CP — the “Tower” as his fans calls him, although I think he looks more like an Elvis impersonator when he sports those black, bug-eyed Prada sunglasses. Every time I hang out with Parrish, he brings out the kid in me. He had photographer Bill Doster and I rolling in laughter as he danced and skipped around on the Orlando International Airport monorail singing, “We're goin' to St. Martin — we're goin' to have a good time,” repeatedly. I've skied with Chris on and off since he was 14 years old, and it's been really cool to witness his progression to becoming the world-record holder. As usual, Chris made his 39½ off look ridiculously easy. His laid-back style in the scenic backdrop of the lagoon's arm would make for a beautiful painting.
The last 96 hours of our holiday in St. Maarten/St. Martin completely overshadowed the slow-moving initial three. Brigitte and Laurent are excellent hosts and their ski school in tropical paradise offers the perfect off-season getaway. Their water wonderland awaits you. Isn't it time to discover island time?
5 Things to Bring on Your Next Ski Holiday
1. Hard Case. You already know the baggage guys that work for the airlines like to trash skis for fun, so why don't you buy a hard case, dude? For well under two bills, you'll never have to worry about a damaged ski again … unless of course it falls
35,000 feet from the sky. Goode.com sells 'em cheap.
2. Tech Tools. You never know when you'll have to repair a fin, fix an insert, check your wing angle or measure your fin for the thousandth time. Also, it never hurts to bring an extra binding.
3. Duct Tape. If it bleeds … duct it! Do you have any idea how much gas ski-school operators save each year because of wounded hands … an elephant pile. If you don't know how to tape up, any self-respecting ski-school coach will gladly show you how.
4. Advil. Need I say more? OK, a little massage money is good, too.
5. A Good Attitude. Don't spoil your better half's, your kid's or your friend's ski holiday just because you think you skied like a buffoon. So what if you missed your first pass — a water-ski holiday is all about having fun.
Book Your Island Escape
• Where: Ski Nautique Club Caraibes Ski School in St. Maarten/St. Martin
• Months of operation: November to mid-May; September to mid-October
• Days of operation: Monday through Friday
• Rates: $45 per set; two sets a day for $325 per week; four sets a day for $715 per week
• Accommodations: For special rates at the Mercure Simson Beach Hotel, please book through Ski Nautique Club Caraibes.
• Phone: 011.590.690.333.001
• Web: skicaraibes.net