ST. MARTIN – For all the amazing, next-level hotels in the Caribbean — so, so many of them — I have spent years on a quest for one that has it all. For that unicorn, so to speak, that could make even the most finicky traveler happy, that would be a unanimous crowd pleaser for all comers, from restless toddlers to picky octogenarians.
Readers, I found it: La Samanna, A Belmond Hotel, St. Martin. Part of the LVHM-owned Belmond, the resort is located on the French side of St. Martin in Terres Basses (“the lowlands” in French), a neighborhood known for its million-dollar estates built on the rolling hills of the island’s westernmost region.
Before you dismiss St. Martin as just a gateway to popular jetset islands like St. Barths and Anguilla or as a pre-Covid destination for enormous cruise ships, remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, Marigot, the main town on the French side, was home to Cartier and Hermès. While the top-tier luxury stores have moved on to other Caribbean islands in recent decades, the more laid-back, mid-market approach to commerce is part of the island’s appeal. Restaurants serve three-course gourmet gastronomic meals for 59 euros: about the price of a tuna tartare at restaurants on St. Barths.
And while we are talking about conveniences, let’s not forget that La Samanna is a ten-minute drive from the international airport. In other words, no boats or flight transfers necessary. A nonstop flight from most major East Coast cities and the easiest airport transfer imaginable are all that separate you from this tropical garden with an ocean beach, two pools, a tennis center, and a breakfast buffet teeming with homemade French pastries. It means a long weekend in the Caribbean could actually feel like a long weekend without a full day of travel on both ends.
This is at the core of my love affair with La Samanna: It was easy. Not not to be confused with boring. Who couldn’t use a little ease after a year of a global pandemic?
After a long Covid winter with two kids under three in a New York City apartment, I was craving a trip that required, at least once we got there, navigating as few logistics as possible. And for that, I have Anchise to thank. The hotel refers to his position as “butler,” a term I don’t like because it implies a very upstairs/downstairs dynamic and doesn’t really capture our relationship. Anchise was more like the master of ceremonies, the finesser of all situations, and our all-around fixer, literally and figuratively.
He was the person who orchestrated the needs, whims, and desires of seven people in our travel party, ranging in age from 13 months to 83 years. He’s like a concierge with wide-ranging superpowers: one who can whip up a mouth-watering eggplant parmesan in a flash with his eyes closed, whose mission is to ensure that the little things — which often, in totality, turn into big things — are taken care of. For instance, someone in our group usually didn’t want to go to the main hotel for breakfast, so Anchise prepared a special fruit salad every morning with fresh mango and pineapple. It sounds trivial (and maybe even a little spoiled?), until you realize how wonderful it feels to have someone considering and caring for your needs on such a granular level. Anchise made these small gestures with such warmth and authenticity, I almost cried a few times.
A family vacation can go wrong in so many ways — logistically, inter-personally, stupidly. Especially at mealtime. Anchise was the buffer, helping us manage meals and activities for our small army, shopping for food, and offering that distinct brand of Italian hospitality (he's Tuscan) that combines relaxed elegance with a focus on simple, fresh, and straightforward cuisine. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go on vacation again without Anchise. In fact, I’ve already invited him, as our guest, to come away with us this summer.
Moving onto the environs. My idea of a beach vacation is, well, to spend it not just on the beach but in the ocean. (Isn't that really the point of a beach?) I would travel to the moon if I knew I'd find clear, azure waters. Despite what many hotel websites or social media profiles showcase, not all Caribbean beaches live up to their billing. On previous trips to the region, I’ve discovered murky waters and muddy seabeds and shallows that require I walk nearly a mile out to get above my waistline. If I’m going to get on an airplane during a pandemic with two kids under three, I want translucent, calm water and soft white sand waiting for me on the other end. (Come to think of this, I want this outside a pandemic, too.) The beach at La Samanna is indisputably one of the best I’ve seen for a few reasons. The sand is soft and white. That it’s on the Caribbean side of the island generally means fewer waves and waters that were calm and very swimmable, even for my 13-month-old, seven out of the eight days we were there. And it’s a real swimming beach — with a drop-off into deep water very close to the shore.
Then there’s the culture. This is France as practiced by a smattering of Italian staff. Which means they take their food very seriously, but not too seriously. La Samanna does sweet potato fries and raisin brioche pasties as well as their fine dining restaurant L’Oursin does seared yellowfin tuna with mango-crab salad and beetroot tartare.
One of the highest compliments I can pay to La Samanna is that on multiple occasions I had to remind myself that I wasn’t on the Amalfi Coast. (A friend said the landscape reminded her of Sardinia.) The atmosphere and topography — perched high on a rocky outcropping looking out over a vast sea — was reminiscent of a kind of Mediterranean magic that, until I visited La Samanna, I didn’t think was replicable outside Italy. (Why no other luxury hotel group has yet to stake out a claim to St. Martin’s pristine coastline is a mystery, not to mention an opportunity waiting to be seized.)
You know what else I love about the hotel? Its general manager, Eleonore Astier-Petin, is a 40-year-old woman and, consequently, one of the youngest people in that position within Belmond, a hospitality group with more than 40 properties in 22 countries. It also makes her part of an elite, underrepresented group of women in the industry who run hotels. (Only a third of hotel managers globally are women.) The GM sets the tone for a hotel, and around here it’s a reflection of Eleonore and her upbeat personality, kindness, and attention to detail.
Before we arrived, the hotel sent us a questionnaire asking about everyone coming on the trip. I fired off what I thought weren’t very helpful details — my mom likes chocolate, my husband works all the time but likes outdoor activities. What could they have come up with from my vague and scant answers?
As it turns out, a really great itinerary! With its prime location, gorgeous setting, and exquisite facilities, La Samanna could really just rest on its laurels. There is no need to gild the lily, but they do and they do it well. Belmond claims to be all about “the art of travel.”
I didn’t really know what that means (aside from a marketing slogan), but this is what the art of travel looks like in practice: One day, the pastry chef, John, came to teach my daughter how to make cookies and brownies. Their sommelier, Luca, gave a wine-tasting that the aforementioned discerning elder traveler said was the best he’s experienced in 83 years. A hiking trip for my husband up the tallest peak on the island was followed by a conversation with the island’s resident archeologist, Christophe Henocq, who gave us valuable insights and context about the island — such as how the port was deep enough to accommodate large boats for centuries. We learned that St. Martin was one of the oldest and most enduring settlements in the Caribbean, due to its fresh water supply and its position at the convergence point of the region’s northern and eastern island chains. And that the cultures of the Caribs and Arawaks — the original indigenous populations — endures among the contemporary Afro-Caribbean and Euro-Caribbean residents.
There were tennis lessons with Stephane, who runs the premiere tennis club on the island. I loved La Samanna’s clay courts (easier on the knees), and that Stephane found a way to help my three-year-old “play” tennis.
To add an unexpected angle of this love story, my husband Andrew, who generally makes a point of avoiding spas at all costs, went twice during this trip. He had been having recurring headaches for a few weeks before our vacation, and an acupuncturist in New York City recommended craniosacral therapy. It sounded like a great idea in theory, but where would we find this treatment, and when would he have time?
At La Samanna, the spa, almost miraculously, offers craniosacral therapy. Andrew, who is not a massage person, came back gushing and booked another session for later in the week. His headaches disappeared. Encouraged by Andrew’s response, my step-father booked a session with Lucille to see if she could help relieve pain in his right hip. Another success story.
Of course, I had to see what all the fuss was about. (All in the name of journalistic inquiry...) While nothing can exactly fix the wear and tear of hours spent at the computer and hauling more than 50 pounds of children daily, this was as close as anything has ever come.
Were we all healed from the massage therapist’s magic hands? Or was it that we were all finally relaxed after a week in paradise under the care of Anchise? It’s hard to say. What I do know is that our love story with La Samanna will have another chapter.