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As the winter winds blew in the winterlands to the north last week, a small company of venturesome Americans, in search of beaches, bargains and the offbeat, were tucked away in the Netherlands Antilles, a string of six off-trail Caribbean islands, remnants of the Dutch adventure in the New World 300 years ago.
Only now rustling into wakefulness, the tropical Dutchlands have become suddenly aware of their natural charms—their weather and good looks, decorated by such cosmetics as rakish new hotels and free-port shops. Two major inns have risen under the Dutch palms this year, and contracts are afoot for at least two more. Of the 2,200 acres put up for subdivision and sale on one sand-and-sun-swept island two years ago, not one parcel of beach property remains unsold.
The three islands of the Windward group—St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius—have blinked and waked to find themselves lying just an air hour off bubbling Puerto Rico. The other three—Aruba, Bonaire and Cura�ao, are now linked by direct KLM service not only to Miami but nonstop to New York. They will be four hours from Manhattan when the jets come in.
The nearest island, St. Maarten, suffers not at all from a split personality—it is French on one side and Dutch on the other. According to an ancient wheeze with which it regales the tourist, Sint Maarten (which is spelled Saint Martin on the French side) got that way because the original Dutch and French landing parties occupied different sides of the island without each other's knowledge, fn a stroke of early-day Hammarskjoldian genius, it was decided to divvy up the real estate by placing a Dutch and a French representative back to back and bidding them walk around the island in opposite directions. The border was to be drawn across the island from the starting point to the place they met face to face. Some say the Dutch representative downed a Bols or two (Dutch gin served cold, swallowed neat) and fell asleep, because the Frenchman walked around the valuable salt pans which are today on the French side. However, the Dutch side has all the hotels, the airport and, as well, the longest names. The gezaghebber, or lieutenant governor, does business, for example, in the gezaghebberskantoor. And the gingerbread town of Philipsburg, crossed by straten, is crisscrossed by stegen, creating such streets as Terpentijnsteeg, Tamarindesteeg and Hotelsteeg, on which there is no hotel.
The rolling landscape on the French side looks like New Jersey in summer, even though the fat cattle graze under such un-Jerseyish greenery as mango and almond trees. The fact that there is still no electricity in Marigot rather slows the night life, although from time to time the populace erupts in Saturday night dances known rather aptly as bullfights. By day the Tricolor flutters in the soft-blowing trades, dark-skinned faces sometimes sport berets, a gendarme in kepi occasionally appears, and if you don't mind doing business in the general store which also sells fish and nails you can buy Marie Brizard liqueurs at $2 or an ounce of Chanel at $8. Despite these reminders that the territory is administered by the Pr�fecture de La Guadeloupe , the language, as on the Dutch side, remains predominantly English.
Doubtless the Dutchiest landmark on the Dutch side is the Little Bay Hotel, built on a curving beach by the government in 1955. Guest cottages ($32 to $40 a day for two, with meals) sit in a half circle looking down on the sea, each furnished and maintained like the apartment of a circumspect Amsterdamer. The bar, surrounded as it is by stained glass, has a way of reminding me as I sit there, Heineken's in hand, that I ought perhaps to be holding a prayerbook instead. Thankfully, the stained glass panels include the unchurchly face of Peter Stuyvesant, who lost his leg in a battle off the beaches of this very island. Regaled by his historical presence, and inspired by the Dutch beer, anyone ought to be up to a modest Dutch dinner, which on a recent night included cream soup, chicken livers on toast, lobster Newburg, ice cream, cake and coffee.
In the adjoining bay, on its own broad beach shaded with castor trees and sea grape, a few yards from the center of somnolent Philipsburg, is the elegant Bohemia of the Pasanggrahan. Named for the East Indian word for inn, which is used traditionally in the Dutch Caribbean, it is run like a Turtle Bay town house in the tropics by an ex- Manhattan decorator, Peter Byram. Its lessee is Erik Lawaetz, an American resident from St. Croix who steered his yacht into St. Maarten to escape a storm a few years back and stayed to buy 2,200 acres of choice beach-fringed and hilltop property which has since been subdivided into plots that run from two to five acres. They cost from $2,000 to $3,000 a plot, and anybody interested must also plunk another $1,000 into company stock (the company will build a hotel designed by Happy Ward, who did the Mill Reef Club in Antigua). Among the takers: W. H. Fawcett Jr. of the publishing family, Broadcaster John Cameron Swayze and Author Donald Douglass. Building costs can run anywhere from $2,000 to $22,000, but a New Jersey dentist who built a house in St. Croix some years back and later sold it rebuilt the same house on St. Maarten last year for just half the St. Croix price.
As yet, there is neither water nor electricity, but there is a rough road lined with banyan trees and red-brown turpentines. Fiddler crabs skitter sideways, scurrying away from the jeep wheels, and doves and pheasants fly sorties over the fields of pigeon peas and guinea corn growing in the sand soil. The seaside sites overlook strands of blinding white sand, a pulverized limestone and coral so soft, so warm, so sea-soaked that for tired bodies from the north it is like reclining in a soup plate of cooked rice.
Once the government's guest house, the Pasanggrahan was taken over by Lawaetz to house prospects for his real estate project. Redecorated by Byram, it opened in January 1957 and has proved a smashing success. Its 12 rooms, each with bath, cost $20 to $24 a day for two at the top of the season. Most are at the edge of the sand, a step from the sea. Cocktails are served on a terrace hard by a clutch of bougainvillaea, with the strange volcanic hulk of Saba rising on the horizon.
In the house party atmosphere that pervades the Pasanggrahan, Byram organizes day trips to one or another of the 39 beaches on the island, sometimes leaves a lobster order with a fisherman in Grand Case and the next day takes the whole party out to a wild beach for lobster and iced wine. Twenty pounds of lobster, enough for the whole house, costs $10. Indeed, there is so much lobster in the shoals around St. Maarten that Robert Choisit, an adventuring Monegasque who sailed a sloop from Dakar to Martinique two years ago, plans to open a lobster pound with American Author Harold Humes as his partner. In season they will also serve up tiny shrimp which are caught in the dark of the moon in a large pond in back of town where the shrimp come in to spawn. These days they are boiled and spiced and served in the streets by the saucerful.