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.