The art of island living

Visitors arrive at Saint-Martin's Pinel Island, a popular place for locals and tourists to spend a...

Visitors arrive at Saint-Martin's Pinel Island, a popular place for locals and tourists to spend a day on the beach. ROBIN ROBINSON/QMI Agency

ROBIN ROBINSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:43 PM ET

MARIGOT, Saint-Martin -- Lady Ruby Bute is doing what she does best: Teaching art and spinning yarns at her home and studio -- the Silk Cotton Grove Art Gallery -- near Friar's Bay.

In her decades-long career, the artist-poet-storyteller has taught art to school children, troubled teens -- even prisoners -- but today she is holding court for a trio of eager Canadians who are here for the local lore as much as the art instruction.

It's a hot day, but pleasantly cool beneath the twisted branches of the towering silk cotton wood tree that dwarfs Bute's sunny yellow home. We visit a bit on the porch before moving to the gazebo to start our painting lesson.

Bute tells us her ties to this land -- once visited by pirates and populated by slaves -- go back many generations. Leaning forward, she confides in a whisper that the land still has many stories to tell those who listen carefully.

A family legend holds that pirate treasure is buried somewhere nearby, and one of Bute's great-great uncles once had a vision about its hiding spot. Bute said her ancestor was instructed to tell no one and go alone at night to dig up the pirate bounty. But the frightened man took another relative along and they were denied the treasure, which has never been found.

Bute switches seamlessly from storyteller to teacher as she demonstrates some rudimentary brush strokes and how to create the colours of the island by mixing various shades of acrylic paint. Between bites of sweet coconut pie, sips of good French rose, and much encouragement from the artist, our paintings take shape and we each complete a small landscape during the two-hour class.

I am impressed that, under Bute's guidance, our crude "masterpieces" actually resemble the scene before us: Blue sky and densely treed hills in the distance, flowering bushes, iron gate and stone wall in the middle, and a play of light and shadow across the grass in the foreground.

When it's time to leave, I feel as if we have not only learned a new skill but also made a new friend.

It's not hard to make friends in Saint-Martin, which is known for its friendly vibe, its beautiful beaches and its unique status as the world's smallest island shared by two ruling nations -- France and the Netherlands (the French side is called Saint-Martin, the Dutch Sint Maarten). Travelling between the two is hassle-free but we are visiting French territory, which has been accurately described as a little piece of France in the Caribbean.

Strong French and Caribbean cultures -- accented by the 100-plus other nationalities who call the island home -- have created an extremely cosmopolitan yet relaxed lifestyle. As a result, while Saint-Martin is a small island, it has a lot more than sun, sea and sand to offer visitors.

On Tuesday nights from mid-January through April, the main drag of Grand Case plays host to Les Mardis de Grand Case -- also called Grand Case Harmony Nights -- which provide an opportunity for locals and tourists to mingle. Boutiques, galleries and restaurants stay open late, and artists and crafters set up shop at tables along the narrow street, which is closed to vehicular traffic from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The evening wraps with a carnival-style parade with costumed dancers and live bands enthusiastically shaking and shimmying their way up and down the boulevard of the former fishing village.

Grand Case has been called the "culinary capital of the Caribbean" but all around the island visitors will find a vibrant food scene: Everything from French bistros to gourmet establishments, where foie gras, Champagne and decadent desserts are staples, to "lolos" -- informal outdoor eateries with open kitchens and picnic tables -- that serve casual island fare such as Creole shrimp, barbecue ribs, and Johnny cakes (a flat bread traditionally filled with salt cod).

Even at places like the Karibuni beach bar on Pinel Island -- a scenic and popular spot for a day-trip -- it's as easy to order a glass of fine French wine as it is to get a Planters Punch or Guava Colada made with local Guavaberry rum.

And instead of bland buffets, many St. Martin resorts pride themselves on their fine dining restaurants.

We stayed at La Samanna, which -- in addition to having one of the island's best beaches -- also has two excellent restaurants, La Reserve and La Cave. The open-air La Reserve looks out over Long Bay from a covered terrace, and serves French and Caribbean cuisine. La Cave is an intimate private dining room in the resort's wine cellar. Dinners at La Cave are arranged in advance for up to 15 guests, and a tasting menu -- with or without wine pairing -- or an a la carte menu are offered.

Another fun place to spend some time away from the beach is Tijon Parfumerie and Design Studio. Owners John and Cyndi Berglund have hit the right note with visitors who attend their "Invent Your Scent" and other popular perfume-making classes. (The classes are rated as the island's No. 1 non-water activity by TripAdvisor.)

Our group took the 90-minute Mix and Match beginner class. In the perfume laboratory, we don lab coats before John gives us a short introduction to perfume science and history plus the basics of creating a personal scent. Cyndi offers suggestions on harmonious blending to those needing assistance.

We start by selecting base oils, then move to Tijon's "oil organ," which has 300 additional oils to choose from, to create our unique fragrances.

Participants mix three perfumes, then select the one they like best. After recording the "formula" and choosing a name for your signature scent, you mix it in a larger quantity, which is bottled and labelled for you to take home. The formula is kept on file should you wish to order more later.

Along with my landscape painting, my bottle of "Island Spice, created by Robin" is probably one of the most memorable souvenirs I have ever brought back from a trip.

If you go to St. Martin

PLAN

For travel information, visit StMartinIsland.org and franceguide.com.

GO

Air Canada, Air Transat, Sunwing and WestJet have direct flights from Toronto to Princess Juliana International Airport (on the Dutch side), as well as packages for lodging on the French side. Several U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, have regular service from Toronto with flight connections in Miami.

STAY

-- Saint-Martin has accommodations to suit most budgets. One insider says Orient Bay makes a good base for people who don't want to rent a car because, along with resorts, apartments and villas, there are shops and restaurants within walking distance. Once known for its clothing optional beach, nude sunbathing is now restricted to one end of Orient Bay.

-- La Samanna is an Orient Express resort on Long Bay, an exclusive stretch of beach known as the St. Tropez of Saint-Martin. By year's end, renovations will be complete on all of the luxury propertie's 83 rooms and eight villas. Most of the spacious rooms and suites have terraces or balconies, some have outdoor soaking pools. The 22 hectares of landscaped grounds contain two swimming pools, a main pool, a beachside infinity pool, three tennis courts, a fitness studio and a spa. Well known Saint-Martin artist Roland Richardson has a gallery at La Samanna (in addition to his main gallery in Marigot) and offers art lessons at the resort. For details, see lasamanna.com.

PLAY

-- Tijon's 75-minute Mix and Match class is 69 euros (about $88) per person and includes the bottle of perfume you create, a certificate of completion, and a gift bag of Tijon products. A more in depth two-to-three hour Perfume 101 class is also offered for 99 euros (about $130). Contact tijon.com to book.

-- Art classes can be arranged in advance with Lady Ruby Bute. Call 011-599-580-5533. The Silk Cotton Grove Art Gallery is on La Batterie Rue, Friar's Bay, open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.


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