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.
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.