Loterie Farm: Rustic Paradise

The view from Chewbaca Point on Loterie Farm, St. Martin.

Continuing my posts about the isle of St. Martin, I offer this one about Loterie Farm, a private nature reserve on the French side of the island. This was my second time at the farm, but a first for my traveling companions.

The Jungle Room

The other time I was there, I was initiated into ziplining. The farm has a course that takes you through the surrounding trees and hillsides. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the resident monkeys as you glide along. But since I’d already been there, done that, I and two others from our group decided to explore the farm’s hiking trails.

I admit to not doing much research on the trails beforehand. But I should have clued into the strenuousness of the hike from the switchbacks on the map, which we paid $10 for. (I advise just accessing the map on your phone from the farm’s website if you have coverage). The receptionist’s questions about whether we were wearing adequate footwear also should have been a big hint.

We each grabbed a cane stalk hiking stick from a box near the trailhead, which we were thankful for later. We took the short (60-minute) hike to a spring and then up to Chewbaca View Point.

The hike to the spring was easy, although the spring was not flowing when we were there in November. Then the trail headed up a mountain. There were parts where we Elders were scrambling over boulders, clinging to handholds as best we could. This is where we were very thankful for the hiking sticks.

But, the view from Chewbaca Point was worth it. We could see all the way to the ocean and many of the towns in between. We rested there and rehydrated. (Bring water!) The temps were about 85 degrees (F) and my tank top was totally soaked in sweat from the climb.

From the point, the trail descends back to the farm whence we came. Erosion caused gullies and tricky footing, but we went slow, and everyone made it back to the trailhead without mishap. Along the way, numerous green moths fluttered around us, making us feel like we were in a Disney movie or something.

The best mojito ever!

I should also mention that before our hike, we ate lunch at the farm’s Jungle Room Restaurant. It’s up among the treetops and features cozy couches for large groups and an area for sit-down dinners. The food was exquisite the first time I was there, and we certainly had a repeat performance. I had one of their poke bowls and Russ had the cajun Mahi Mahi salad (see image). Both were delectable, plus my mojito with fresh mint was the best I’ve ever had.

After our hike, we contemplated a plunge in the farm’s Jungle Pool, but we would have only had an hour to enjoy it, and the price tag didn’t seem worth it. So, we hung out at the bar while waiting for the rest of our crew to return from their activities. I ended up having one of their nonalcoholic mixed drinks – I think it had mango in it. So refreshing!

I find it ironic that I was able to complete our hike intact because when I returned home, I ended up breaking my ankle doing a simple side-shuffle exercise during a kickboxing workout. So, I sit here in my ankle boot, envious of my past flexibility and prowess on this adventure. Oh well. Go figure!

The cajun Mahi Mahi salad.

Rhum = Yum!

I sit with snow lightly falling outside and a cold wind blowing. I sip my rhum infused with a tang of tea and lemon, and my mind meanders back to the balmy beaches and warm salty breezes of the island of St. Martin in the Lesser Antilles.

You may wonder why I’m using the spelling of rum with an h. I admit to being a bit confused on this point. Our Toppers Distillery tour guide, Cristina, on St. Martin, said that “rhum” was how it used to be spelled back in the early days. An internet search tells me that rum is made from molasses, while rhum is made directly from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice. However, Cristina tells me that Topper’s rhum is made from molasses.

In any event, this rhum is exquisite – sinfully smooth and way too easy to drink. It needs no other ingredients to cushion the tongue.

Cristina introduces us to the many varieties of Topper’s rhum.

We toured the Toppers Distillery on St. Martin a few weeks ago. After plying us with a rhum punch, Cristina described the history of rum to us and how the distillery makes its beverages. She invited us to taste many samples of the handcrafted rhums that are mixed on-site. These include white chocolate-raspberry, mocha, banana-vanilla-cinnamon, coconut, a white rhum, and a spiced rhum. All were delicious, even to one member of our tour who had a past bad experience with a rum and coke drink.

The first rhum we tasted was my favorite, and it’s what I am drinking now. It has the unappetizing name of Nelson’s Blood. It also has an unappetizing story behind it, but it tastes so good! Cristina told us that it’s named after British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in history. He was killed at age 47 by a French sharpshooter during the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. Too important to be buried at sea, his body was transported back to England for a state funeral.

To preserve Nelson’s body for the trip, it was put into one of the casks of rum (I’ve also heard that it could have been brandy) that the crew habitually drank as part of their daily rations. Cristina told us that once Nelson’s body reached England and the cask was opened, those doing the opening were surprised to find that the rum had disappeared. Apparently, the sailors had drunk the rum. Ewwwww!

Rest assured, Topper’s Nelson’s Blood rhum does not taste like a dead body. I assume the tea and lemon flavors were added to it as a nod to the Admiral’s British heritage. We only brought one bottle of rhum home with us, and this one was it. That’s how good it is.

As we listened to this fascinating tale, blue-eyed, dark-skinned “Topper” himself poked his head inside the room and Cristina introduced him. Meeting one of the owners was cool. He and his wife moved to St. Martin from Boston. They made mixed rum drinks for guests at their restaurant. Their guests liked the drinks so much that the couple decided to produce a supply for local restaurants and stores. In 2008, they commercialized the brand and won many awards. They moved to their current facility in 2012.

Mandarin chicken with a banana vanilla cinnamon rhum sauce.

Back on our tour, Cristina explained how the inside of the rum storage barrels are charred and treated in various ways to elicit different flavors. Then we moved onto the distillery’s small lab, where they create the tasty fruit and spice mixes that are added to the rhum. These natural flavors are hand-mixed in five-gallon buckets. It was also in this room where Russ got drafted into cooking us a mandarin chicken dish with a rhum sauce. With Cristina’s coaching, he created a delicious tropical dish that we all got to taste. By this time, we were all a bit tipsy, so it was good to have a few bites of solid food in our stomachs.

After that, we meandered over to the bottling room, which was surprisingly small for such a large operation. Russ’s daughter had the honor of pushing the “start” button on the assembly line. It can fill six bottles at a time. The colorful bottle sizes vary a bit, so Cristina showed us how they use syringes of rhum to equalize the liquid levels in the bottles.

Then it was my turn to participate in the tour. After the swing top closures are in place atop the bottles, a clear plastic safety seal is applied. This is done with a small heat-sensitive shrink-wrap piece of plastic using high-tech equipment like your hands and hair blow dryer. I volunteered to seal a bottle and it was a piece of cake. (Or, a bottle of rhum, if you prefer.)

Our tour over, we perused their gift shop and ate lunch in the attached restaurant and bar, which features a wonderful view of Simpson Bay. We topped it off with a dessert of gelato from the distillery’s gelateria.

If you’re ever in St. Martin, Topper’s Rhum Distillery tour is a must! It’s a way of bringing a bit of the island home with you.

Topper’s Rhum Distillery bottling assembly line.

St. Martin Island – Where Nothing is Better

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A Carnival parade in Marigot, on the island of St. Martin.

The weather in my town is so foggy and cold lately, it’s got me wishing I was back on St. Martin, an island where I meandered four years ago. This blog entry is a good excuse to revisit that trip and share it with you.

I travelled to St. Martin with a friend. We chose it that February because: A) It was warm. B) English is spoken. C) No visa is required, just a passport, and D) U.S. dollars can easily be used. It was foreign, but not too foreign, if you know what I mean.

The island is also extremely easy to find your way around, literally. One main road encircles the coast, so it’s hard to get lost. Also, round-abouts abound, making it easy for confused tourists to have more than one chance to choose the proper exit.

Pineapple Hill SimpsonBay

Pineapple Hill at Simpson Bay.

We stayed at a beach resort, and did plenty of frolicking in the waves and snorkeling. The first off-resort beach we went to was the one famous for having an airport runway approach right overhead (Maho Beach). It’s not often you get to take a tan and watch a plane fly only 50 feet above your prone body. I kind of wonder how long it will be before a disaster happens and either the beach or the airport gets moved. (But I hope no disasters happen.)

ButterflyFarther inland, visitors can zipline through the jungle at a nature preserve, visit a butterfly garden and open air markets, and hike to the highest point on the island (Pic Paradise).

Half of the island is under jurisdiction of the Netherlands, the other half, France. The day we explored the French side, we chanced upon a Carnival parade in the French capitol city of Marigot. We also scored a fabulous French meal in a harborside bistro, Le Chanteclair, where their most-appropriate motto is: Gastronomy is the foundation of true happiness.

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A meal at Le Chanteclair in Marigot: prawns with an egg roll and lobster sauce. To die for!

In the Netherlands capitol city of Philipsburg, we discovered an art gallery and movie museum run by the “Yoda Guy.” He was one of the original make-up artists who worked on Yoda in the Star Wars movies.

The residents of St. Martin are friendly, and unlike some Caribbean islands I’ve visited, there doesn’t seem to be a huge income disparity between the islanders and the visitors. I never felt unsafe walking around at night or driving through towns. And the bartenders are friendly, too. My middle-aged friend and I had one hit on us (he gave us his phone number with hearts drawn around it), which makes me even fonder of the island. 🙂

One note of good-natured warning. Be sure to consult your beach guide so you know what type of beach you’re going to. We stumbled upon a nude gay beach by accident, but figured things out pretty darn fast (and ran away!) The island also sports several nude resorts, Club Orient, is the most popular. Their motto is: Where “Nothing is Better.”

St. Martins 1 038Although we ran away from the nude gay beach, we did find a nude beach suitable for the adventurous introvert. Sorry, I can’t recall the name of it now (Happy Bay?), but it lies within a gated community. A couple who were leaving through the gate were good enough to give us the entry code, and we enjoyed freeing ourselves of our swimsuits on a relatively private beach.

Another note of warning: don’t step on any sea urchins. Those things hurt. My friend found out the hard way. The good news is that if you do step on one, pharmacies on St. Martin carry sea urchin spine removal ointment. I can’t say that it worked very well on my girlfriend, but maybe you’ll have better luck.

Ah, St. Martin. I would go back in a heartbeat. Thanks for the warm memories on this dismal day.


I’m an Isle-ophile. Are You?

St. Martin Island, West Indies.

St. Martin Island, West Indies.

An island doesn’t have to be very far away from shore or very big to accomplish its true work: to surround you with imminent water, and to unhitch you from the grappling hooks of your own life for a while. – Minnesota Author Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands

I love islands. I’ve known of this affliction for quite a while, even before I heard the term for it: isle-ophile. Some of my most intense experiences have happened on islands. I like how islands make me feel and how they make other people behave (unless they are deserted islands, then it’s not so pretty.)

I first got a feel for islands when my parents took us camping. I have hazy young memories of Mackinac Island in Lake Huron; Prince Edward Island in Canada; the U.K.; and Madeline Island, Stockton Island, and Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

My exposure to Isle Royale led me to work there during college for two summers at the rustic resort. Then there was Grand Manan Island off New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Gero Island in Maine, Cumberland Island Georgia, Key Largo Florida (and eventually all the keys), Puerto Rico, Catalina Island in California, Ludlow’s Island in Minnesota, Orcas Island of the San Juan chain in Washington, St. Martin in the West Indies, and Brigantine in New Jersey.

Each place has provided intense experiences — unlike those a person can have on the mainland. Islands have offered: opportunities to form and intensify friendships, crazy experiences with animals, cold refuge from storms, hot refuge from heartbreak, family vacations, work conferences, romantic vacations, and immersions in local culture.

Islands force people to depend on one another more than they do when on the mainland. Usually, you’re more at the whims of nature because you’re in the middle of a body of water. Communication with the outside world is sporadic and takes more effort (although it’s a lot easier now, with computers). You’re living on the edge, but that edge is defined and it’s hard to get lost.

I’m irresistibly drawn to islands. Are you?

Here’s another reason to ponder about why islands draw people, offered by Mr. Holm:

In one way, all islands are female, surrounded by female water. John Fowles, in his book, “Islands,” says, “The domain of the siren had been where sea and land meet; and it is even less for nothing that the siren is female, not male.” Islands are secret places where the unconscious grows conscious, where possibilities mushroom, where imagination never rests. “All isolation . . . is erotic.”