ST MAARTEN

Saint Martin is back in business two years on from Hurricane Irma

Saint Martin is back in business two years on from Hurricane Irma

The bay is as calm as a millpond, and sunshine bouncing off the sea is so bright it makes you squint. A sleek little yacht has drifted into view, and its occupants are diving off the back, or heading out on stand-up paddleboards. The water is so clear you barely need a snorkel. It’s a picture-perfect scene — the epitome of Caribbeantranquillity.

But that wasn’t always the case.

“It’s hard to believe when you’re sitting here now,” Mark Sollinger tells me. “A year ago this place was shut down. There was nothing.” His eyes drift out towards the sea as we tuck into pastries and coffee at the poolside restaurant of Belmond La Samanna. “People don’t realise it’s big, what you’re seeing right here… people sitting there eating breakfast, looking over this beautiful beach, boats here, stuff going on… that’s huge.”

When Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean in September 2017, she devastated Saint Martin. Winds of 182mph battered the island, ripping rooftops from houses, obliterating buildings and tossing boats around like confetti. Eight people were killed on the island and dozens were injured.

St. Barth’s is open for business less than a year after Hurricane Irma

Mark has lived in Saint Martin for 29 years, and for 28 of those he has run the watersports facility at La Samanna, guiding guests out on kayaks, Hobie Cats and paddle boards. In that time, he’s seen many a hurricane hit the island. But this one was particularly brutal.

“Irma was really, really bad. It was catastrophic. We like to say it was everything but the zombies, you know? Overturned cars and buildings blown away, no water, no electricity, the whole thing.” One soul was unperturbed by the ordeal — Mark’s dog Lucy slept throughout the whole hurricane, and now plods around the resort seeking the odd head rub and scratch behind the ears.

Belmond La Samanna is on the French side of the island, a bonus of which is the Gallic influence on the plate — think buttery, thickly-glazed pastries on the breakfast table, glasses of blushing Provence rosé by the pool and crisp frites alongside your freshly-caught snapper. The Dutch side of the island (Sint Maarten) isn’t too far away — fly into the international airport and you’ll experience one of the world’s most famous landings, as you skim the heads of spectators on Maho Beach.

Picture perfect: but Belmond La Samanna hotel was closed for more than a year after the hurricane (Belmond La Samanna)

When we set out to Fort Louis for a boat trip around the island, to snorkel among stingrays and sea turtles, the evidence of the hurricane’s destruction is still there. On the drive over, we see corrugated roofs with sections barely clinging on, buildings still without windows, stretches of tarpaulin rippling in the breeze. The taxi driver bringing me to the port says this is nothing — “There were boats in the middle of the island. It was a disaster.”

Recovery was understandably slow on the island. With the airport out of action, communication practically impossible and resources at a minimum, the people of Saint Martin relied on each other to rebuild their lives. Along with that spirit of resilience grew Saint Martin Strong, a movement that began with a hashtag on the Dutch side, with the aim of bringing the island back to life.

Irma was really, really bad. It was catastrophic. We like to say it was everything but the zombies.

Mark Sollinger, Saint Martin local

The reopening of Belmond La Samanna, following a huge $20 million refurbishment, was a sign that things were back on track.

The hotel was closed for a year and three months, and Eleonore Astier-Petin joined as general manager back in August 2018. “Structurally, the hotel withstood the hurricane like a champion,” says Eleanor. “We’re very lucky that it’s a sturdy, cement structure with flat roofs.”

In a strange twist of fate, there was already a plan to refurbish some rooms in the main building, so the furniture had been removed and was waiting in a container when Irma hit. The container rolled, and everything in it was smashed to smithereens.

While those rooms are still empty, the remainder have all been refurbished, and are now decked out with seaside-chic ombre turquoise curtains, driftwood table legs and nautical striped chairs. But really, the rooms play second fiddle to what lies behind the curtains.

When I arrive late after a long delay in Antigua, I’m a little knackered and disoriented in the dark. I mention something about how to find the beach to the kindly porter who shuttles me to my room, and he explains with a chuckle that it’ll all become clear in the morning. And he’s right — when I open the curtains, the ocean is stretched out in front of me, just steps from my balcony, glimmering in the early morning sun.

Blissful scenes: the hotel has had a $20 million refurbishment. Its rooms are never far from the beach (Belmond La Samanna)

I spot a little wooden staircase in amongst the greenery, and it leads me to the powdery sand in seconds. One speedy, graceless gallump later and I’m up to my shoulders in warm water, the soft waves rolling against me. It’s blissful.

When you’re in the water on a sunny, calm morning, it’s hard to comprehend the sheer destruction that Mother Nature can unleash — that within the space of hours, an island can be all but flattened. But now, a year and a half on, Saint Martin is getting back on its feet.

“La Samanna reopening was a huge stamp of revival, and an example that everything is going to be okay,” says Mark. “It was a real sign that Saint Martin is back, and it is going to keep coming back. It was a big deal.”

Details: Saint Martin

Deluxe ocean view rooms at Belmond La Samanna start from £474 a night, including breakfast (belmond.com/lasamanna). Saint Martin via Antigua with BA from £588 return.

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