My family is quietly horrified when I announce my plan to tour the Caribbean island of St. Martin on a sidecar motorcycle. Maybe it's because I've spent a total of seven hours on a bike, and the death statistics don't leave much margin for error. Or maybe they're just sad to see my frilly pink past slipping away for good.
I try to reassure them. The Keystone Kops drove a sidecar motorcycle, I say. So did Colonel Klink in Hogan's Heroes. Sidecar motorcycles have a long association with ineptitude: How dangerous can they be?They shake their heads and sigh. I am so… naïve.
Related: St. Maarten/St. Martin Travel Guide
News that an outfit on St. Martin had begun renting Urals to tourists reached me from a friend, who thought it sounded right up my alley.
"But I don't ride a motorcycle," I protested.
"You could learn," he said.
That was all the encouragement my inner riot-grrrl needed. I bought a ticket for a long weekend on St. Martin, and signed up for motorcycle lessons near my New York home. As my departure date inched closer, I called Ural Caraïbes on St. Martin and asked just how experienced I should be to drive one of these things. Never mind, the manager said; he had an excellent instructor, Delphine, who could coach me through the rough spots.
if you've seen any of those world war ii movies with German soldiers zooming around officiously on three-wheelers, you have an idea of what a Ural looks like. Impressed with the Nazis' BMW sidecar bikes, Stalin had a few models smuggled into Russia; the Soviets then filched the design for the Ural, naming the brand after the mountains near the factory in Siberia that produces them. I've seen pictures of the factory, which is staffed mostly by matronly women in babushkas who look better suited to baking.
By the time I get to St. Martin, I have an active Ural fantasy life going. Within five minutes of arriving in the town of Grand Case, I'm on the phone with Ural Caraïbes. Within 10, a giant army-green motorcycle roars up to my dollhouse of a hotel. The woman riding it looks like Malibu Barbie going through a rebellious phase. She's wearing fatigues and a cropped black tank top. I'm in a candy-pink T-shirt rimmed with lace. Tattoos snake down her deep bronze biceps; my pale arms are sprinkled with freckles.
"Bonjour!" she says, offering me a strong, leathery hand and a high-beam smile. "I'm Delphine."
I climb into the sidecar, which has a big red Soviet star where the hood ornament should be, and I wonder if this will go into my FBI file. The hotel proprietress raises a well-plucked eyebrow as I wave good-bye—a smug teenager on a jag with the town delinquent.
"You speak French, yes?" Delphine shouts over the engine as we speed away. I assure her that I do, that I even majored in French literature. I don't mention that (a) it was more than a decade ago and (b) Balzac wasn't big on words like throttle and kick start.
Taking in the scenery from my sidecar seat, I decide that St. Martin falls somewhere between a southern California suburb and, well, a Caribbean island. Just when you think it's all sparkling condos with orderly lawns, you hit a stretch of savanna littered with goats and ramshackle cottages. The Dutch part of the island—Sint Maarten—is much more developed for tourism, so friends had recommended I stick to the earthier French side.
Delphine pulls into a field for my first practice ride. I realize immediately that it won't be easy transferring my rudimentary skills on a Honda Rebel (250 cc, 325 pounds, handles like a motorized mountain bike) to the Ural Sportsman (650 cc, 800 pounds, handles like a wheelbarrow piled with bricks). The Ural is temperamental—Delphine describes it as "very special." The idle is low, so it dies easily; the stiff hand brake is positioned a foot or two from the handlebar. Steering the bike around the field, I have the distinct sensation that the motorcycle is driving me.
Even the ignition poses a challenge. To start a Honda Rebel, you press a button. To start a Ural, you stand beside the bike, put one foot on the kick starter, then jump up and slam it down with the full force of your body weight. Delphine demonstrates, then steps aside so I can try. "Harder," she urges me, as I lift and slam, lift and slam in vain. I feel like a kitten trying to stomp out a brushfire. After an hour or so, I return to my hotel totally defeated. Delphine promises to be back at nine the next morning for another lesson.
I console myself by going for a walk, something I know I can do with proficiency. Almost immediately I feel better. Grand Case could be the understudy for a town on the French Riviera, with its hyper-organized pharmacy and stone pâtisserie, where I sip café au lait and watch people pull up in Renaults to buy baguettes. I have dinner at a sultry candlelit place called the Rainbow, where I'm seated as close to the ocean as possible without being in it. The waiter brings a grilled snapper brushed with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette and topped with tomato ragoût, along with the best Sancerre I've ever tasted.
I have my morning shot of espresso at a tea salon that doubles as a beauty parlor. An hour later I'm on the Ural again, weaving between jeeps and batik stands in a beach parking lot while Delphine shouts encouragement ("Allez, Kim!"). Next she directs me up a country road to test my gear-changing ability on steep hills. I start tentatively, unsure whether this novelty vehicle will weather the road's deep furrows. But it bumps insouciantly over every pothole and trouble patch, so I kick it into second gear and gun it the next half-mile up the hill.
When I reach the top, the whole world seems to hold its breath: 500 feet below is a gorgeous rocky cove where turquoise waves splash against a pair of massive boulders. Petites Cayes is one of the only places I'll see during my tour of St. Martin where Mother Nature hasn't been trumped by real-estate developers. After hurtling successfully down the hill, I convince Delphine that I'm ready to drive the main roads with the big people.
That's when I learn the drawback of St. Martin's dramatic hills, and of the Ural's unforgiving idle. Creeping up an incline in slow-moving traffic, the bike suddenly stalls. I get off to rev it up again, but each time I jump, it slides backward down the hill. Behind us is a long column of cars. In my mind, their drivers are all making very guttural, very French sounds of disgust.
It takes a few frantic jumps before I get the bike going again. With Delphine in the sidecar, I ride on—a bit shakily—to Marigot, the capital of the French side. Marigot has drawn comparisons to St.-Tropez, and there are traces of French charm in the bayfront streets. But this is a cruise-ship port, and between the breezy sidewalk cafés, Timberland and Tommy Hilfiger outlets are creeping in, as are fuchsia neon signs and Michael Bolton-esque pop. Still, I can definitely feel the Caribbean here—in the luscious coconut ice cream we buy from a luscious woman who makes it herself; and in the Marigot Cemetery, where tiny yellow butterflies dance around tombstones decorated with aqua bathroom tiles and plastic carnations.
On the way out of Marigot, Delphine offers to drive, explaining that we'll be going "on a road very special." Pic Paradis is only 1,400 feet high, but it's 1,400 feet straight up, on a road as cratered as the moon. During our climb, the Ural bucking and moaning beneath us, I write myself a nice little obituary: something about dying on the road to paradise.
We dismount at the summit, and I follow Delphine along a dusty narrow path past cypress trees bent into submission by the wind. A cardboard sign by the trail reads HAPPY 3 ANS EMMA. Clouds drift languidly above us like icebergs. Across the water to the east we can see St. Bart's; it looks wild and natural, with no indication of the glittering smiles and platinum cards that it's famous for.
Back in Grand Case, I stop by a row of West Indian food stands (called lolos) for an early dinner of christophine, a mellow green squash, stuffed with crabmeat and spices, and fried snapper, which I douse in hot sauce. Later I wander the crescent-shaped beach, which is empty except for a graceful woman at the height of her pregnancy, who strolls by wearing only a blissful expression and the bottom of a string bikini. Along with scarf-tying, pregnancy is one of the things Frenchwomen do best.
I experience a very different scene the next morning at Orient Beach—where Australians with tans you could carbon-date meet for 10 a.m. piña coladas at bars with names like Kontiki. But St. Martin has dozens of beautiful beaches, and Delphine knows the best of them. Later that day we ride along another dirt road, then hike along a rocky coastline to David's Hole, a natural swimming pool formed by a hollowed-out volcano. To reach the water you have to lower yourself 50 feet down a tattered rope. "I've never done it," Delphine says. "I'm too scared." After watching her Mad Max ascent of Pic Paradis, I decide that what Delphine is scared of, I'm scared of. We get back on the bike and seek out quieter pleasures.
In the aviary of a butterfly farm, we watch a pair of electric-blue morphos perform what is surely the most graceful mating ritual in the animal kingdom. On one side of the aviary are display cases containing caterpillars in various stages of gestation; our guide, Sylvie, says a case hatches every couple of days. Each morning when she gets to work, she releases a batch of newborn butterflies. Meanwhile, back in New York, I'd be checking my voice mail.
By now, Delphine and I are coated with a layer of dust and in dire need of a swim. We end up wading in the ice-blue water at Oyster Bay, near a trio of sinewy teenagers casting nets. One of them asks whether we want to see a real fish, then leads us to an unassuming cove where two four-foot sharks are circling. The boy tells us they belong to a retired salt miner. "They're his pets." We wonder if it might be a bad idea to swim near here, but the boy shakes his head no. "The old man took their teeth out."
For my last day on St. Martin, I resolve to drive myself to a beach and lie in the sand. So I rent a Vespa, whose simple mechanics and spry movement I've envied since my first day on the Ural. But on my way to the beach I stop by the garage to say good-bye to Delphine. She shows me the hammock where she sleeps, slung between metal shelves of filters and spark plugs. She shows me the desk where she writes children's stories. Then she shows me the fleet of Urals the agency just got in, a dozen bikes in wooden crates waiting for the next nervous tourist to learn their idiosyncracies. And as I glide away on the Vespa, so smooth, so uncomplicated, I find myself longing for the Ural's creaky gear shift, for its stiff steering, for those big sturdy treads that can conquer anything. Even fear.
Kimberley Sevcik, a features editor at Marie Claire, wrote about Honduras in the November 1998 issue ofL T&.
How to Go
Between mid-December and mid-April, Ural Caraïbes (Route de l'Espérance, Grand Case; 590/87-19-53, fax 590/29-53-19) rents sidecar motorcycles for $140 per day. A ride-along instructor is now mandatory; the instructor's fee is included in the price. You must have a motorcycle license to rent from the agency.
WHERE TO STAY
Le Petit Hôtel Blvd. de Grand Case, Grand Case; 590/29-09-65, fax 590/87-09-19; doubles $160-$280.
Ten airy rooms with tile floors, Brazilian hardwood details, French linens, and big terraces.
Hôtel Hévéa 163 Blvd. de Grand Case, Grand Case; 590/87-56-85, fax 590/87-83-88; doubles $53-$103.
The eight rooms are small but sweet, and smack in the middle of town.
Hôtel La Plantation Baie Orientale; 590/29-58-00, fax 590/29-58-08; doubles $145-$190.
Antillean-style cottages, scattered across 12 acres of lush landscaping. The 52 rooms are saturated with gorgeous fruity colors.
WHERE TO EAT
La Marine 158 Blvd. de Grand Case, Grand Case; 590/87-02-31; dinner for two $120.
Good seafood in a nautical beachfront setting.
Rainbow 176 Blvd. de Grand Case, Grand Case; 590/87-55-80; dinner for two $140.
French cuisine lite, perfectly prepared. The oceanside dining room is utterly romantic.
Sol é Luna Mont Vernon; 590/29-08-56; dinner for two $100.
So warm it's hot: marigold and persimmon walls, candles flickering everywhere. Delicious and unfussy Mediterranean cuisine.
Salon de Thé Blvd. de Grand Case.
The place to sip espresso and have your hair done all at once.